Archive for the sopranos

Memory Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV Criticism, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2014 by Tom Steward

It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs. Shows are incessantly reminding us of what happened minutes before, when we’re not being previewed we’re being recapped, and flashback has become the bane of television storytelling. Reality shows are the worst culprits, since their heavy-handed narration and editing permits them to insert extraneous references to past events at will. But dramas and comedies can be just as bad. Think about how many devices there are built into the fabric of fictional TV series to remind us about what just happened; ‘Previously On’ segments, duplicated action, flashbacks. Such repetition is almost certain to annoy viewers and make them feel patronised, so why does TV always think it’s addressing Guy Pearce?

Torture and racism, probably.

Torture and racism, probably.

When it comes to reality shows, it’s safe to speculate that there’s an element of killing time here. Visual call-backs are a good way of conserving footage through re-use and along with voiceover re-caps they can easily pad out a show to its allotted time. I often wonder how long reality shows would last if there were no repetitions or duplications. Chopped would probably end before it began! But there are also less cynical motives at play. It’s long been assumed by producers that people watch TV in fits and bursts and they don’t necessarily watch a programme from start to finish. It’s something we critics with our programme-based reviews still don’t really get. But it’s the impulse behind filling viewers in every few minutes.

Much as we would like to think for the sake of art that TV has fulfilled its potential as a serial medium, it’s still pretty much a halfway house between closed and ongoing storytelling. There must still be part-time and sporadic viewers out there or we’d have switched over to continuous storytelling a long time ago, given that it’s a feature common to all the great TV out there. We wouldn’t need to have these concessions to people who’ve missed a few episodes or were out of the room if we were all faithful and attentive viewers. As far as flashback is concerned, somewhere along the line it got mistaken for complex storytelling – even though the truth is the opposite – and the rest is history.

TV memory aids are where good television and quality television clash. It’s good practice to make TV that responds to the fragmented way a lot of us watch it. But all the shows we associate with quality television are about breaking away from that kind of audience spoon-feeding for something that challenges viewers, even their memories. And it goes to show that the type of television we’re always wanting more of and more like in television (The Wire, The Sopranos) is difficult to produce in most contexts. People are paying specifically for HBO so they’re going to watch everything and stick with a series for value alone. You couldn’t do a HBO show in a place with audiences that are constantly drifting in and out.

Of course, there are limits. It often feels like we’re being cheated of new content. Last week The Bachelorette ran a highlights package of its first three weeks in place of a new episode. It will do this again in a special prior to the finale, and then during the Judd Apatow-comedy length finale itself. Most reality show finales are season re-caps. There is a point beyond which you’re pandering to people who have missed some crucial moments and simply taking the piss out of the remaining audience. In this way, such shows are their own worst enemies, offering no reward to long-term viewing except seeing it all over again multiple times. You can’t count on TV viewers wanting nostalgia like an instant coffee powder.

Late-night talk show Conan has a regular bit called ‘Memba This?’ in which sidekick Andy Richter repeatedly asks the question in front of a slideshow of recent viral news images. As with many Conan skits, they’ve distilled how TV works in a matter of minutes. What TV pretends is a ‘trip down memory lane’ is actually a re-cap of things they haven’t had time to forget. Set up as a ‘new comedy bit’, regurgitation is posing as creativity. And when Conan keeps getting heinous news images, it reminds us that these memory aids are actually TV’s way of manipulating the past, not just repeating it. Damn, I’m twenty words short. It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs.

Viewer Discretion Televised

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reality TV, TV advertising, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 5, 2014 by Tom Steward

There can be little doubt that the internet has become the established medium for pornography or that TV with its subscription-based, restricted-run porn provision wouldn’t rival its online competitor which boasts free use and plentiful content. But as we’ve seen with TV’s co-opting of Twitter as an advertising platform, television is not above appropriating an online success story to secure its place in the ever-growing media marketplace, and there’s no success as runaway as internet porn. Because of the moral, political and religious imperatives of broadcasting regulations, putting pornography on television has always been problematic. It might slip through the net as the accidental by-product of experimental art or adult drama or a moment of bravado in a piece of titillating entertainment, but would rarely go unchecked or unchallenged. The more serious pursuit of pornography can be found in the pay TV channels available on the much less regulated satellite, cable and digital services as well as some of the content on graveyard networks at an appropriately late time of day, although this is porn in a modified form suitable for TV that’s much lighter on the graphic side that the equivalent in other media. In short, pornography is always fighting a losing battle with TV. Of course this doesn’t preclude TV from taking lessons in how the porn industry puts bare bums in seats.

This is about as pornographic as it gets on Showtime Preview!

Why am I talking so much about porn? It’s because I’ve started to notice how much American TV takes from pornography. For all the reasons listed above, most TV is not explicitly pornographic but neither is it free from the influence of porn in how it advertises, entertains and lures its audience. I have an internet TV hub and recently noticed there was an application called ‘Showtime Preview’ which ran free season premieres from the subscription network. I wanted to watch the first episode of Season 3 of the industry sitcom Episodes. Since this was a promotional device designed to draw me in to starting a series and getting a network subscription to keep watching, I was surprised when the episode was edited to remove all violence, sex, nudity and swearing, which you might say are Showtime’s unique selling points. But I was taken aback when a sex scene with blurred images of nudity and intercourse bore a caption at the bottom of the screen saying ‘Want to see what you’re missing?’ followed by a subscription link. The very point was to withhold all the explicit content of Showtime’s programmes that couldn’t be aired on network or basic cable TV and then wield it as capital for subscribing. This is exactly how the porn industry incites users to upgrade from softcore teasers to hardcore features.

It’s not TV it’s HB-ho!

The more I thought about, the less right I had to be surprised. Hadn’t HBO – the city on the hill of quality TV – pulled exactly the same trick when wooing subscribers? The difference between HBO and other TV wasn’t just quality and sophistication of programming but explicit representations of sex, violence, nudity and swearing. Often there isn’t even the cultural cache to justify such excess. For every self-legitimating spectacle of obscenity like the artful, challenging The Sopranos there’s pure exploitation like sex industry documentary G-String Divas. HBO is hardly ashamed. The title sequence to prison drama Oz packed as much blood, gore, sex acts and intimate body parts as it could into a minute and a half montage. There’s even an in-joke in Oz making it clear the network are aware of their pornographic reputation, as inmates start receiving HBO and cheer in unison as G-String Divas airs.

ABC launches new Bachelor sex cam.

Networks like HBO and Showtime operate in a very similar way to subscription porn channels so we shouldn’t be too surprised when their marketing techniques overlap. But what about network TV, which claims to disavow any resemblance to pornography with its excessive and self-righteous censorship of content? The Bachelor: Sean and Catherine’s Wedding in which two former contestants were married live on air did all it could within broadcasting regulations to make viewers at home visualise the couple’s wedding night in graphic detail. A live camera feed reminiscent of a sex webcam was set on the bed in Sean and Catherine’s honeymoon suite throughout the ceremony. The pre-recorded wedding build-up centred on the wedding night, including Sean shopping for titillating lingerie and Catherine posing for a wedding gift of boudoir photographs. The strong feeling was that if ABC could have kept the cameras rolling into the night, they definitely would.

Orange is the New Flashback

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , on January 7, 2014 by Tom Steward

In retrospect Lost ruined American television storytelling. Despite the unbeatable meat locker premise of plane crash survivors trapped on a desert island, the series was an exercise in turning story back to front. Each episode was padded with extensive flashbacks detailing the lives and backgrounds of each character which would routinely distract the series from its primary location and central conceit. In periodic flashback, the writers had discovered a structural ploy that could get them out of having to do character development and exposition in the screenplay. US TV writers have been using these throwbacks ever since the success and acclaim of Lost made it acceptable to do so and they are now synonymous with quality. Today you’d be hard pushed to find an American TV drama (and non-studio comedy, for that matter) that doesn’t have flashback hard-wired into its format. Lurching into the past occurs so regularly in the course of coveted TV series such as Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead that it begins to look like a sophisticated way to tell stories.

Lost in the past?

Flashback-in-the-pan storytelling has reached new extremes in the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. Like Lost, the series has a genre setting-the prison-which can create a self-enclosed world for the drama to play out in. And Jenji Kohan’s series seems equally determined to throw away this potential with lengthy origin stories for each prisoner propping up the episodes. But Orange is the New Black puts the cart before the horse like never before. We’re barely allowed to glimpse inside the walls of the prison before we’re in the televisual time tunnel witnessing protagonist Piper’s road to incarceration. To add insult to injury the life events we’re seeing are not so idiosyncratic as to be completely unimaginable by the (presumably free-thinking) audience. I can figure out in my head what Piper coming on to the idea to make and sell artisanal bath products with her sister looks and sounds like as a dramatic scene. All I need is the knowledge of it. Most subsequent episodes begin with prisoner origin stories instead of the prison.

You’ll see more of the prison here than in the pilot!

This is undoubtedly the culmination of nearly a decade of bumping backstory upfront but it’s also a by-product of Netflix viewing practices. With Netflix series, all of a season’s episodes are released to subscribers at once. Producers and writers have to assume that there are significant numbers of viewers who will consume the episodes in one go. With this in mind, it might be deemed more important to give the audience something to go on to rather than something to go on. With a week (or more) separating each episode of a network-aired series, single instalments must deliver a gain or development of substance to keep viewers going in the meantime. Not so much for Netflix which puts no delays in front of ongoing viewing and hence never has to get anywhere by the ends of episodes. Orange is the New Black can then afford to indulge in flashback as the prison story may be told piecemeal without incurring the same frustration it would in a series where viewers have to wait for new episodes.

Cards on the table. I’m prejudiced against TV using flashbacks to tell stories. It’s so normalised in American TV now that most viewers probably don’t notice, or don’t find it that disagreeable. But I don’t like it because I think it’s a cheat. To put something back in that’s been forgotten about or not properly realised at a later date is fine, as long as it’s a heartfelt apology. To do it with the pretence of complex storytelling, as if it is somehow a better alternative to writing a screenplay properly in the first place, is just dishonest. Used sparingly and as a last resort for conveying information, I think flashback can be massively effective. The governor of all prison dramas Oz had flashbacks to the crimes of all the inmates as they were introduced, but in uninterruptive 10-second blips with startling power and minimum story drag. The Sopranos saved flashbacks for life events that had just been recovered in memory or for moments too painful for characters (or viewers) to endure at the time.

Oz: a prison drama…in prison.

Now that flashbacks are inextricably bound up in what we think of as good television and are favoured in the ascendant Netflix model of TV viewing, American television storytelling is only going to get worse. My only hope is the linear becomes fashionable again when TV flashbacks finally become passé.

Serial Killers

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2013 by Tom Steward

It’s tempting to think that we live in an age of serial television, since virtually every programme we see features some kind of story development designed to keep viewers coming back week after week. Nowhere is this more evident than US TV drama. Critics have been telling us for years now that what distinguishes dramatic American TV from its British equivalents and cinematic competitors is the ability to tell stories over time. Yet very few US TV drama series have sustainable premises and even fewer have enough story arcs to outlast a shelf life of one season on the air.

This struck me while watching the early episodes of Season Three of Showtime’s Homeland, patiently waiting for the show to justify its continued existence. The series had the requisite twists and turns for a season of thrills and jolts and spent its second treading water by flipping the premise like a trick coin so that viewers basically watched the first season again in reverse. The third season has already drowned in its own uncertainty over the future trajectory of the show. I’m not at all averse to long-running programmes changing what they are, as long as they change into something!

Damian Lewis tries to hide from disgruntled Homeland viewers…

Homeland is a glorified mini-series but so are many of the contemporary dramas we treasure as serial television. Damages and 24 never deserved to get beyond a single season. The plausibility and novelty of both series is dependent on the events in the fictional world of the show never being repeated. Even TV dramas celebrated for their narrative complexity such as The Sopranos and The Wire barely made it past their first seasons. Both shows came to a story impasse at the end of their pilot runs and had to work hard at finding new characters and concerns to explore.

Let’s get some historical perspective here. The trend towards serial storytelling in US TV drama over the last thirty years didn’t arise from a need to tell stories more complexly and truthfully. As soap operas went primetime in the late ‘70s with Dallas and Dynasty, network executives and advertisers alike recognised that cliffhangers and continuing stories could be a valuable commodity in finding and keeping viewers. I’m not saying this didn’t lead to more complex television storytelling (and often the viewers who liked this most were those targeted by sponsors) but serial television had to be sellable to stay prevalent.

Serial storytelling in US primetime!

Serial storytelling is a neat way to illustrate television’s differences from books and movies (at least those that aren’t series). But the truth is for much of its history, dramatic storytelling in US TV was delivered in self-contained episodic form along a more generous, less competitive principle of not alienating viewers who might miss a week occasionally. The legacy of episodic storytelling is still discernible in American TV today. The successful CSI and Law & Order franchises paid only lip service to serial form and the best show currently on the air, FX’s Justified, is based principally around episode-specific stories.

Most contemporary US TV dramas are better described as walking a tightrope between episodic and serial storytelling. In order to attract casual viewers and get syndicated, TV series must have a loose enough storyline to be broken up and watched out of sequence without too much loss. But as the options for TV viewing multiply exponentially and the landscape of dramatic entertainment become ever more fragmented, stories that run across episodes and seasons remain a tried and trusted technique for encouraging repeated viewing and customer loyalty. A step too far each way takes you into daytime or days gone by.

Justified, the last outpost of episodic TV!

AMC currently holds a reputation for producing television that showcases the best of American serial drama, something alluded to in their last two slogans ‘story matters here’ and ‘something more’. But let’s look at the facts. The recently-completed Breaking Bad is a fallacy of serial storytelling, compacting six years of television into two years of onscreen time. Mad Men produces an occasional episodic masterpiece but watching the series continuously quickly gets tiresome, making it preferable to cherry-pick instalments from digitised series archives. The Walking Dead escaped Stephen King mini-series status by the skin of its teeth (pun very much intended!).

A television drama that is genuinely serialised runs counter to so many of the qualities of US TV we hold dear, like individually crafted episodes and storyline resolution. There’s also a lot of lame ducks out there with nowhere to go and no story to advance dodging cancellation each year. 

The End of TV?

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’ve just finished watching The Fall, BBC2’s new police drama miniseries. Or have I? The open-ended nature of the last episode watched had me rushing to IMDB to see if Netflix had failed to purchase the series’ remaining instalments. This being a fairly common occurrence with an online content provider which faces rights restrictions preventing them from making the latest episodes of TV series available to users. My online search concluded this was in fact the final episode and that this ending was considered ‘controversial’. The word used to describe an adverse response to something offensive or provocative having been done or said but now simply means that a lot of people with Twitter accounts don’t much like it. While searching, I found vigorous defences of the ending by creator Allan Cubitt on grounds of authenticity, arguing that the ambiguous ending gestured plausibly towards the ongoing difficulty of police work and the lengthy timeframes of major investigations. This made sense. The series regularly disturbed and played with the conventions of its genre. It puts The Fall in league with TV crime series like The Wire and The Shield which were equally determined to show policing as a messy, unresolved business.

‘This is DSI Gibson. Do we have an ending in custody?’

Case closed. But wait a minute. I’ve just read that the BBC has commissioned another series of The Fall to be broadcast in Autumn 2014. I’m assuming this will continue the story of the first series and not be a totally different crime drama under the banner of The Fall nor merely a new case for DSI Gibson. There is certainly precedent for these latter options in British crime miniseries. BBC1 multi-arm legal strip Criminal Justice created a completely new set of characters and storylines for its second run and there’s a tradition of detective dramas like Prime Suspect and Cracker holding on to their lead detective whilst continually updating the cases they investigate. It is, however, unheard of to not wrap up the previous case before moving on to the new one and if the next season of The Fall were to do this the show would be genuinely breaking new ground. So if it is to be a continuation, then the ending of the (first) series should be thought of as more of an end-of-season cliffhanger, a suspense-mongering technique designed to keep viewers hooked until its return-an echo of serial TV melodramas like Dallas-and only realistic by default.

Who Shot J.R.? Much difference?

I’m put in mind of another couple of TV finales which blur the boundaries between cliffhanger and open ending. The first of these is the final episode of Twin Peaks, which lies at the close of its second season on the air. The series ends on a note of uncertainty about the fate of its protagonist, Agent Cooper. Given that the show’s co-creator was avant-garde filmmaker David Lynch and that the programme was challenging and innovative in its storytelling, critics and audiences alike were quick to assume that the ending was a deliberate subversion of closure and resolution and an artistic statement on the nature of TV endings. This belies the fact that the ending was written in full expectation of a third season which an abrupt cancellation, following a drop-off in ratings and acclaim, put pay to. This suggests the season ending was meant to work as a cliffhanger in the manner of the previous season, which left the lives of most of the main characters dangling in the balance. This is not to say that the cliffhanger wouldn’t have been met with something surprising and original, as with the last one, but it still reeks of conventional storytelling.

Was the ending of Twin Peaks really breakthrough?

The second of these is the ending of The Sopranos, following six seasons and eight years on the air. A suspension of narrative closure in the form of a literal blackout, it too bore the label ‘controversial’ although ‘uniformly hated’ would be closer to the truth. I initially thought the ending a technical error on the digital station E4 where The Sopranos was first broadcast in the UK, having become accustomed to its legacy of transmission problems which routinely turned my screen ratios into accordions. Alas, the mistake was on the behalf of creator David Chase who had sacrificed all that was good about the show (music, character arcs, engrossing storytelling) for an arch and pretentious modernist gesture, which put art before content. Or so I first thought. The cynic in me now thinks that the ending was merely an arty smokescreen for the kind of cop-out ending that refuses to make any big decisions about the characters in order that the franchise may live on. Think David Chase is above this? Lest we forget Chase presided over the mid-90s spin-off TV movie series of The Rockford Files. It is only James Gandolfini’s death that renders a revival an impossibility.

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