Archive for the sopranos

The Place to TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2013 by Tom Steward

In an interview with the BBC some years ago, Sopranos creator David Chase, speaking of his first writing gig on The Rockford Files, remarked that what set the private eye series apart from most TV at the time was that it was recognisably set in Southern California and not some ersatz non-place. This innate sense of place trickled down into Chase’s later TV work. One look at Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of New Jersey and it’s obvious that the landscapes and body shapes that feature in The Sopranos could only be from the Garden State. It’s also something that distinguished Rockford creator Roy Huggins’ TV shows. His previous creation The Fugitive (one of the other only TV programmes Chase admits to enjoying) was always specific in its geography, be it small town or vast metropolis, no mean feat for a series which had to change location every week.

Jim Rockford, a resident of Malibu

Place is increasingly becoming the backbone of American TV. The unique appeal of shows like AMC’s Breaking Bad is inseparable from their choice of setting. The meth-drenched desert hazes and border town hinterlands of Albuquerque provide not just a backdrop to the action but the pathetic fallacy of the characters’ moral decay and corruption. Other programmes like Portlandia build their very concepts around a place rather than a set of characters or situations. It may be that the IFC sketch show starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein relates to something bigger than just the Oregon city-like the hipsterfication of everyday life-but such observations are always squarely aimed at Portland’s grunge-throwback ways. The Wire (and the lesser known but not lesser in any other way Homicide: Life on the Streets) may speak to people as a microcosm of American social problems but in the end it’s a programme about a place, Baltimore, Maryland, and impossible to truly appreciate without a working knowledge of that city’s local political scene. So is this a new development in American TV and, if so, what changed?

The dream of the 90s is alive in Portland!

It’s tempting to put the recent emphasis on place in American TV down to historical shifts in the way that programmes are produced. For much of its existence, TV was filmed predominantly in studios making it difficult to manufacture an authentic impression of place. When location shooting was added into the mix, the ability to suggest events were taking place in a distinct locale improved drastically, even when programmes were still studio-bound. Cop drama NYPD Blue seemed firmly planted in the many and varied neighbourhoods of the Big Apple despite being the majority of it being filmed on the Fox backlot in L.A. simply because of the documentary-styled location footage of the ongoing life on New York streets that pre-empted each scene. Now that the technology of production has advanced sufficiently to shed the studio, putting place at the centre of a TV show should be everywhere by now, right?

NYPD Blue or LAPD Blue?

Possibly not. Location shooting is used more readily to invite a sense of reality without necessarily specifying the geography. It was used in Hill Street Blues to project a (radical) urban grittiness but stopped short of saying what city events took place in (we can assume Chicago but are never told for sure), even going as far to create a fake district of this unknown metropolis. The ability to film on location doesn’t always mean you can film anywhere you like. Think about how many American TV shows are needlessly set in the vicinity of L.A. Often this isn’t an artistic choice but a local one. It’s plainly easier and more economical to find somewhere to shoot near the production base, in this case Hollywood, and use that to justify the setting. It’s the only way to understand why a show like 24 about federal counter-terrorism agents is set in the City of Angels and not Washington or some more suitable hub of government activity.

24 in L.A…for some reason

It’s clearly still a choice at the discretion of programme makers whether or not to push place and yet it’s happening more and more. I’m not sure what the explanation is. Perhaps it’s a product of multichannel television narrowcasting to niche audiences, allowing programmes about specific parts of the US to become popular regardless of broad national appeal. Maybe basing a show around a place is another way to create a programme’s distinctive brand in an ever-more competitive market. Most commentators agree with Chase that a sense of place is a sign of television quality. It’s certainly more important than it used to be.

Your Pilot Speaking

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2013 by Tom Steward

In the meta-textual disappearing act that is the season 4 finale of Seinfeld, real comedian Jerry Seinfeld introduces his fake eponymous sitcom in the world of his real one to a studio audience (who may or may not be real), asking ‘Does anyone know what a pilot is?’. A self-satisfied heckler responds ‘Yeah, he flies the plane’, receiving a half-laugh for a gag which is clearly meant to be funnier than anything in the butler and insurance themed meta-sitcom that follows. This self-referential scene makes a good point. Pilot episodes are generally made for the television industry not its audiences.

A show about butlering

Many pilot episodes are not even broadcast to the public but instead shown to executives to help them decide whether or not to commission a series. Those of you who are selling a house imminently or coming into an inheritance will be able to purchase the exorbitantly priced Twilight Zone box set where you can watch the non-broadcast pilot in which producer, writer and host Rod Serling does his best Don Draper in a filmed introduction that addresses network sponsors directly. He assures them the programme will hold audiences just long enough to decide which of their products to buy.

For those of you without a dowry, here’s the episode:

Making up that shop window for prospective buyers often detracts from what viewers will grow to love about a programme. It is why there’s too much Rob Lowe in the pilot of The West Wing at the expense of characters who will become the heart of the show, and crucially the President himself, here envisioned as an occasional speechifying Martin Sheen cameo. Going back to a pilot can also be a jarring and disconcerting experience for long-time viewers. The characters are uncooked, the details are all wrong, the tone is as yet uncertain. Sometimes the actors aren’t even physically identifiable.

‘Hold him there Toby while I deprive him of screen time’

Take the pilot of The Sopranos, for example. There’s no doubt it’s one of the best out there, for reasons I’ll go over later, but it’s still an incredibly alienating watch for fans. The lapse in time between filming the pilot and the series means that the actors look considerably younger than in even the first season. Star James Gandolfini still has a majority hairline and Nancy Marchand as his mother has yet to develop her decrepit ferocity. Jamie-Lynn Sigler as Tony’s daughter Meadow had a nose job before resuming season 1 filming and looks like her own sister here. Irksome differences from the series abound. The meat market Tony uses as a cover operation has a different name, Father Phil is played by another (more anonymous) actor and Silvio’s backstory is different from future episodes. The pilot needs resolution so the signature pleasures of serial narration are unavailable.

Of course it’s entirely possible to make a great pilot though a very different discipline from penning the perfect episode. Classic episodes thrive on their distinctiveness, their ability to transcend the humdrum of series fare, and fulfilment of the show’s potential. Pilots have the rather more onerous task of encapsulating the premises, ideas and tensions that will run through the entire series while hinting at the direction the show may take. Pilots have the additional burdens of doing all this work without guarantee that any of it will actually come to fruition and within a severely restricted episodic time frame.

The Sopranos pilot was originally a nature documentary

This last limitation is probably why so many pilots are in the form of feature-length episodes or prologue mini-series. Both are something of a cheat though I have sympathy in certain instances. How does Quantum Leap demonstrate the formula of Dr. Sam Beckett jumping into the bodies of different historical personages each episode in one instalment? The decision to stretch the pilot to two episodes with a short leap at the end of the second part was probably a good compromise. But why LA Law needed a 90-minute film (complete with Hitchcockian cameo from producer Steven Bochco) is beyond me.

Similarly I’ve got mixed feelings about starting a programme with an expository mini-series. Yes, in Battlestar Galactica a lot has to happen to get us to square one and being science-fiction more care is needed to introduce us to the laws of the fictional world, not to mention casting off the legacy of the campy 70s original. But a 3 hour serialised pilot? It’s like the feeling you get ordering a starter of garlic bread with tomato and cheese in a pizza restaurant. It’s enjoyable and you wanted a starter but it’s also what you’re getting for the main course.

It’ll be the future by the time the pilot’s over.

The Sopranos had an hour to establish the series (generous by network standards but still bound by the clock) and created one of finest pilots ever seen on TV screens. Every emotion, thought and theme expressed in the next 7 seasons of the programme is present in that first hour. It signals all the forthcoming character clashes and antagonisms first time round and invests the show with the tonal complexity that carries it to greatness. A mere 50 minutes is available to introduce Justified, a modern-day western law series based on the writing of Elmore Leonard. Frankly, it nails the tone of the piece before the opening credits have rolled. All good pilots have that ‘trigger’ moment, an event that brings the show into being and catalyses everything that follows. Here it is a ‘justified’ shooting that sends a federal marshal back to his hometown, racked with tension and inevitability.

 

 

 

TV Titles: The Long and the Short of It

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2013 by Tom Steward

Recently I’ve been very much enjoying Homeland. Don’t worry; you haven’t defaulted to the 2011 archive. There simply aren’t enough hours in the year to watch all the US TV I’d like to at the time of transmission. For some shows, then, I’m forced to take the quasi-paedophilic Sound of Music route of waiting a couple years for them to mature (by which time I’ll be a Nazi!). Anyway, back to Homeland. What struck me about the series, apart from the regularity with which characters say ‘Abu fucken’ Nazir’, was chiefly the title sequence. Thankfully, this isn’t a news blog!

http://videos.nymag.com/video/Opening-Credits-Homeland#c=GPW04R137JDPW6CY&t=Opening%20Credits:%20’Homeland’

Homeland takes on the conventions of the title sequence, offering viewers a succession of images, sounds, clips and quotations instead of the usual illustrated theme tune. It’s partly there to provide a synopsis of the Pilot episode, presumably so the early-adopter viewer you’re watching it with doesn’t have to, and partly to tell the biographical backstory of  main character Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes), which the rest of the programme-to its credit-doesn’t want to waste its time with. The imagery is a cocktail of jazz and anti-terrorism, which are Carrie’s favourite hobbies, and extracts from America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Bloopers showreel.

Jazzing up Terrorism.

In the past decade, US TV title sequences have been pushed to extremes of utter gratuity and blink-length banality. Cable networks like HBO and AMC made title sequences seem like an art form on the back of triumphs like the tripodless New Jersey tourist board film that opens The Sopranos or the credits to Mad Men which features an advertising executive falling through Roy Lichtenstein’s mind. But the fashion for elaborate, extended titles was a curse too, compelling producers to artificially inflate sequences without enough content to back it up. Hence Boardwalk Empires beachcombing set to fret-wanking session musician travesty.

The flipside of that coin was network shows which opted out of doing title sequences altogether. Perhaps intimidated by the 3-minute masterpieces coming out of cable TV, or maybe just testing how low they could set the bar on introducing the programme, there were a spate of series in which the title sequence was the title. Better examples of this included the pushed-down-too-hard-on-the-screen digital watch effect in 24 which drew suspense and chaos out of a minimalist graphic. But then there was Lost which merely moved the title around like a mid-90s PC screensaver or Acorn Antiques without the irony.

Image grab longer than actual title sequence.

Amazingly, Homeland’s title sequence manages to be both. Like other cable greats, it stands as a piece in its own right while introducing and summarising the programme effectively. It’s terribly self-indulgent (especially as there’s another couple of minutes re-cap directly afterwards introduced by what sounds like the ghost of Bill O’Reilly) but it complements the jazz motif and prevailing sense that the war on terror is endless. However, each season premiere and finale eschews the sequence for a lone title screen. Fortunately, it’s one of the good ones, with the words of the title scrambled and redacted like military intelligence.

Not only is the title sequence of Homeland reaching into parts of the show’s fictional world untouched by the episodes themselves, it is rich with a history and a life before and beyond the show. Footage of national TV addresses about terrorism made by US Presidents from Reagan onwards-excluding, critically, George W. Bush-drifts in and out of view and sight. Boldly, moving images of the Twin Towers attacks are interwoven into the fictional fabric of the sequence, a seed of truth from which a ludicrous plant will grow. The American legacy of big band jazz offsets the background of fear.

Jazz in a 9/11 beat, daddy-o!

Homeland wasn’t the first US TV title sequence that asked us to think about images and sounds outside the musical diegesis of the theme tune. The opening credits of Elizabethan theatre-meets-Dragnet police procedural NYPD Blue features an ongoing percussive sound that drives the sequence along like the speeding L-train which visually bookends the titles. The penultimate image is of a traditional Chinese drummer in the middle of a New-Year ceremony pounding on his instrument with rolling-pin sized sticks. It takes us out of the world created by the score and into the reality of New York life; kinetic, diverse and relentless.

I always think of verbal exposition in US TV title sequences as something found more in comedy than drama. There is, of course, the A-Team but that might be a case of the exception being the rule in disguise. This could be because comedies don’t mind being seen as on-the-nose as much as dramas or simply because having that burden of exposition in the episodes might be detrimental to the comedy. In fairness, Homeland doesn’t have a contextualising song or voiceover but instead plucks lines of dialogue from the Pilot episode and these are more character tensions than Facebook profiles.

Do not adjust your set!

Do not adjust your set!

Title sequences are promises that whether fulfilled or neglected by the rest of the programme remain pleasurable on their own terms. Homeland may well already be a shadow of its former self at close of Season 2 play but somehow it’s impossible to entirely dismiss a programme which begins so beautifully. There’s enough to dig around in during those first few minutes to keep worries about underdeveloped sub-plots and writers’ knowledge of their dramatic endgame at bay. The producers might want you to wonder what Carrie and Brody will do next. I’m still questioning why Obama is upside down.

Tarantino on TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2012 by Tom Steward

Like a racist American businessman announcing self-deportation after Obama’s re-election or an old-school British entertainer forewarning a one-man emigration movement in wake of a 1990s Labour landslide, Quentin Tarantino has threatened to quit cinema. In a roundtable interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the director discussed his desire to retire because of the industry conversion to digital cameras and projection. But what debased metaphor could possibly capture the dire straits that the film industry now finds itself in? ‘I mean, it’s television in public’, said QT, as if there was nothing less dignified. To add insult to injury, Tarantino may have to lower himself to actually working in television. ‘If I’m gonna do television in public, I’d rather just write one of my big scripts as a miniseries for HBO’, he said, declaring his intention to slum it with such mediocre fare as The Wire, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.

I quit says QT!

I’ll admit I expected more than bald TV-bashing from Tarantino, a director who has never been embarrassed to borrow influences from TV-see his adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode ‘Man from the South’ for the portmanteau film Four Rooms or his use of a refrain from the Ironside theme tune as a leitmotif in Kill Bill. Besides, he always seemed entirely comfortable with the prospect of directing for television. Let’s not forget that Tarantino directed a formative episode of lauded medical series ER called ‘Motherhood’ which not only saw his signature style and imagery seamlessly interweave with the fabric of 90s TV drama but also pioneered many of the show’s representational strategies, not least its handling of gore and casual violence. Tarantino also managed to direct an episode of CSI in which you actually cared about the characters and somehow managed to artfully deploy the series’ egregious audio-visual excesses.

A QT word in your ear!

Using TV to flagellate cinema runs contrary to what I think of as Tarantino’s egalitarian approach to popular culture. The usual snobbery you find from film directors about the aesthetically inferior nature and lack of artistic worth of television always seemed alien to QT, who appeared to recognise that it was at the heart of the popular, commercial Western imagery he was so fond of reappropriating, like a modern-day Lichtenstein. This makes his belligerent reluctance to making ‘a miniseries for HBO’ harder to swallow, especially as an announcement such as this deserves to be accompanied with enthusiasm and pride. Tarantino even admitted that this change of medium could solve a number of problems with producing his work as cinema. Speaking of the extended running and production time of HBO’s series, he said ‘I don’t have the time pressure I’m usually under, and I get to actually use all the script’.

Tarantino hangovers some nurses!

I’m sympathetic to Tarantino’s rage against the digital takeover of cinema and, as someone who finds that the signal beamed on to his television works far better than the digital projector at his local picturehouse, empathise with his feeling that television provides a better platform for a director than a medium that is now ‘film’ in name only. But he should take comfort in knowing that veteran film directors can use TV networks like HBO to reach artistic heights that their later-period movies continually fail to achieve. Mike Nichols hasn’t been able to make an above-average romantic comedy in decades and yet his HBO miniseries Angels in America was a transcendent delight. Scorsese hasn’t done a gangster movie in the last 20 years that could compete with Boardwalk Empire. Even an indie-hack like Gus van Sant looks like Ken Loach when surrounded by the hard-hitting political drama of Starz’s Boss.

CSI’s in Grave Danger of giving a damn!

Not to sound too much like a tele-fundamentalist but quite frankly Tarantino’s work has gotten too big for cinema. Since the two-part Kill Bill franchise, QT’s films have tended towards the epic and become distinguishable by their languor. This has protracted his cinematic vision and also compacted it at times, as in cases of cut-downs such as Death Proof. Like his beloved generational family martial arts TV sagas that spawned Kill Bill, television’s massive and never-ending texts and perma-fashion for serial storytelling can accommodate Tarantino’s expansive scale and indulgent timekeeping without a hint of bloat. A smaller screen it might be but it’s also a lot more elastic than the 3-hour radius of the silver one. At a purely PR level, Tarantino’s announcement might not have invoked the desired shock and dismay. For a director not exactly at his creative peak, the prospect of a TV afterlife looks positively heavenly.

 

 

Dreaming of View

Posted in American TV Shows, BiogTV, TV Dreams with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2011 by Tom Steward

What follows is a deposition of last’s night dream. Any resemblance to any persons living or dead is entirely mental.

The ladies from The View

My employers

Hosts of The View Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, Barbara Walters and Elizabeth Hasselbeck want to leave the live broadcast of their morning talk show ten minutes early and ask me, who evidently works at the show and is somehow familiar to viewers, to fill in for the last segment. I have decided for some reason to go on air with a blue Ikea holdall full of broken, antiquated agricultural work tools taken from underneath my grandparents’ front garden and then lecture millions of American viewers on their archaeological significances. The audience and hosts abandon the studio leaving only myself and a floor manager. The manager signals that we have gone to commercial and to set up my bag of tools. At this point, the bag goes missing and I scramble to find it before we come out of the break. The tools have somehow re-submerged themselves into the soil in my grandparents’ garden, which is now adjacent to the studio, and I enlist their help to retrieve them as we dig into the earth with our hands and pull out hoes, rakes and steel-wood gardening appliances. I re-fill the bag and heave it over to the set, hoping to catch my cue. I miss it by mere seconds by which time an emergency broadcast of a late 1990s version of the show has automatically clicked in and is now playing on all the monitors. I feel dejected, especially because I am unable to show my girlfriend G that I have been on television in her country. The following day, The View resumes with its normal hosts and Whoopi and Barbara spend the opening ‘Hot Topics’ section of the programme castigating me for blowing this opportunity in front of a national TV audience and cursing themselves for giving me such a break.

Tony and Dr. Melfi

Paging Dr. Melfis...

Anyone who thinks they may be able to shed some light on what this dream may mean or reveal about my psychological or emotional condition, please leave a comment.

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