Archive for the twilight zone

No Olds Barred

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV History, TV News, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on February 6, 2016 by Tom Steward

In a week when voters decided they didn’t have a problem with a man in his late seventies running the country, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that there’s still a place in television for the old. While host of The Late Show Stephen Colbert managed a ten-minute skit based around The Twilight Zone – a show that first aired in 1959 – nineties science-fiction procedural The X-Files continued its revival on Fox. An anthology series about the murder trial of O.J. Simpson began and the miniseries Shades of Blue showcasing the anachronistic acting talents of Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta plodded along (and that is exactly the right word!). British television seems no less geriatric these days. Friends’ Matt Le Blanc was this week announced as the new co-host of motoring journal Top Gear, alongside – I might add – star of nineties light entertainment Chris Evans, who in turn has recently relaunched the pub-based variety talk show TFI Friday which had ceased broadcasting in 2000. How is it possible that so many programs and people from television’s past are now to be found dominating the airwaves? Well, there’s really not that much effort required to revive something that has never been away.

old

In Rod we trust.

Syndication and the proliferation of TV channels and services mean that TV of decades past is never far from our screens. It’s a short road from endlessly recycling a show to providing some extra material to pad it out. That might explain the programs but what about the people? Well, in each case, we’re talking about personalities who have managed to stick around long enough to become institutions, or have just come off their own revival. While the idea of J-Lo as an actor is now strange enough to make her performance in Shades of Blue seem jarring, her judging for American Idol and appearances on just about every music awards show on the air makes it a much smoother transition for regular viewers. Matt Le Blanc had endeared himself to the transatlantic public once again with Episodes and Top Gear is merely the crowning of that – although I suspect the BBC will be happy with anyone who falls short of creating an international incident! As to Chris Evans, Channel 4 had yet to replace TFI Friday with anything as exciting in that slot – and believe me it wasn’t very exciting – so broadcasters’ lack of ambition is also a factor.

 

What’s harder to explain is why we’re suddenly so interested in material from the past. No-one who talks about Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story fails to mention that it has been twenty years since the events surrounding the arrest and trial of O.J. Simpson took place. TV may be a medium that prides itself on currency, but looking back over the decades has become another badge of honour. That’s what made Colbert’s Twilight Zone parody so bizarre. Weeknight talk shows are compelled to restrict their discussion to what’s been happening in that day’s news, and yet this trip down memory was motivated by nothing but fandom and ridicule-ripeness. I don’t know what to think about an X-Files revival (has anyone ever?!) but it’s an interesting case of throwing good money after bad in the wake of Fox’s breakout original programming like Empire. The youngest major network – if we’re still thinking in those terms – Fox has a particular problem letting go of the past. The Simpsons and Family Guy are now decades old, the network is home to a number of movie reboots, and this year primetime Fox vehicles provided a platform for the comebacks of Rob Lowe and John Stamos.

old 2

Surely it’s a Z-File by now!

The number of revivals, period television, and veteran stars on primetime television is staggering. For example, ABC airs two sitcoms set in the eighties and nineties respectively, a drama set in the forties, an anthology series set in the eighties, a revival of a seventies TV franchise, a movie about Bernie Madoff, while featuring among its big names Don Johnson, Ed O’Neill, Tim Allen and Geena Davis. With the increasing competition and likelihood of cancellation, it may seem that TV ruthlessly cuts away that which is ageing, but in fact it seems more accurate to say that a job on TV is a job for life. One thing is certain; there is absolutely no property out there in TV land that is exempt from returning to our screens. I did mean the landscape of television not the recurring nightmare-oriented nostalgia network back there but actually both work just as well!

Man and Nimoy

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2015 by Tom Steward

The tragedy of the TV actor is that they are haunted by one character for their entire life. For Leonard Nimoy, who died of end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease last Friday at 83, the character of Mr. Spock overshadowed fine performances in many of the defining TV series of the 1960s and 1970s. But popular culture would never allow his empirically-minded alien starship science officer from Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek to die, and if the onscreen death of the character and demise of the movie franchise didn’t finish him off, then it’s unlikely that Nimoy’s passing will do it either.

Finding Nimoy.

Finding Nimoy.

Spock will continue as a character in J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek movies and will continue to be played by Leonard Nimoy, albeit as an impersonation by Zachary Quinto. TV characters are so much their actors that for a replacement to offer an original interpretation would be as detrimental as casting them in the wrong age or gender. Rather than passing the gauntlet, the movie prequel to the original Star Trek series (and I suppose sequel to Enterprise if you put it that way) concocted a scenario in which Quinto’s Spock was a younger version of the character as played by Nimoy – who also appeared in the movie because time travel heals all continuity wounds – and thus had to customise his mannerisms and delivery according to his predecessor. This freely admitted in plot terms that no-one but Nimoy could play Spock. Technically, re-setting the clock allowed Quinto to go his own way with the character but if anything his performance became more like Nimoy’s in the sequel Star Trek into Darkness, attested to by another appearance by Nimoy as Spock’s future self. Without Nimoy to play off in future films, I fully expect Quinto to compensate further with thorough mimicry.

Looking back from the Spock-themed obituaries, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when Nimoy would have played Spock for only three years. Of course, three years is another ten in re-runs, and the re-circulation of Star Trek (as much in off-air audio recordings shared between fans as repeats) is what brought Nimoy back to play Spock, first in the astonishingly comparable animated series spin-off that ran in the mid-70s and then in a series of continuation movies that ran from 1979 to 1991, or between Shatner’s third and seventh girdle, whichever way you care to think about it. After that, Spock made his way back onto TV featuring in two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, before he became the missing link between Gene Roddenberry and J.J. Abrams. Spock was the Jack Bauer of his day, unkillable by man or logic. Neither death, nor time, not even the series not being about him anymore, would stop him appearing in it. And this doesn’t even begin to include the times Nimoy performed Spock outside of Star Trek, perhaps most poignantly as a disembodied head reviving the Vulcan for the entertainment of an omniscient teenage alien in Futurama.

Nimoy was already a face in American television by the time he took the role of Spock, and good television at that. He already had a Twilight Zone and an Outer Limits under his belt, which gave the actor anthology pedigree to add to his generic bow of westerns and detective shows. Nimoy had a knack for finding his way into the most accomplished shows of the 1960s, including The Man from UNCLE (which has no reboot forthcoming, regardless of what ANYONE says) and Mission: Impossible, his first TV role after Star Trek was cancelled. Even into the 70s, he was on Rod Serling’s horrific(ally underrated) Night Gallery and Columbo, because no American actor is allowed in SAG without it. His was a face for television, betraying nothing and letting whatever fine piece of screenwriting he was bestowed do the work. It was a time on American TV when emotions were optional, but class was not. Sci-fi TV is his, and it owes him a living. He returned to The Outer Limits when it re-appeared in the 90s, in a re-make of the same episode he had starred in during the 60s. A role was waiting for him on Fringe.

Nimoy also did pro-bono legal work for robots

Nimoy also did pro-bono legal work for robots

There’s more to Leonard Nimoy than Spock (and there’s at least two of his careers I haven’t mentioned) but the character presented him with limitless possibilities for remaining in the zeitgeist long after he ceased playing him on TV. He lived longer and more prosperously than even Spock could predict.

Robin’s Best

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, TV Acting, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2014 by Tom Steward

Since the untimely death of comic and actor Robin Williams last week, I’ve been looking back at his performances on television. I’ve been continually surprised and impressed at how as a sitcom actor, guest star and chat show guest he was able to take command of the medium, especially as Williams’ talents were always thought best suited to the dynamic scope of cinema and unbridled spontaneity of the live stage. I was struck by how he accommodated his manic act and style to the contours of the small screen, used television to test his mettle as a character actor, and realised TV’s capacity for intimacy to bring his audience closer to Williams the man. The passing of James Garner, Lauren Bacall and Robin Williams in the past weeks is worsened by the knowledge that all were unusually good at doing television and have been lost to more than art form.

Mork Who?

Mork Who?

The significance of science-fiction sitcom Mork & Mindy to Williams’ career seems to have been regarded by most obituaries I’ve encountered as simply his stepping stone to popular exposure. This assumption drastically underestimates how important the role of Mork was to Williams’ development as an actor. In it, he learned to temper his aggressive bombardment of the audience with pathos thanks to the show’s romantic core and fable quality, a balance that would come to define his movie persona (and one that when tipped would sink him artistically). The sitcom wasn’t always the lightweight fantasy people perhaps remember, more Twilight Zone than Bewitched (if Williams’ catchphrase humming of the anthology’s theme tune wasn’t enough to sway you). There was hard science-fiction in there, unsettling biological imagery, and hard-hitting issues like mental illness and addiction. Seen now, Mork & Mindy prepared Williams for darker material he later turned his hand to.

Williams’ portrayal of Mork had an enduring impact on science-fiction television. Watching episodes of the series now, particularly when Mork is in his formal bow-tie and suspenders, I couldn’t help but think of Matt Smith’s incarnation of time-travelling extra-terrestrial The Doctor in Doctor Who. Common to both performances is the essential idea of a character who is not alien in appearance but in his social naivety, fashion missteps and absurd physicality. The success Williams achieved in depicting an otherworldly strangeness and difference without the aid of make-up, prosthetics or effects must have been a boon to anyone wanting to make science-fiction within a budget-dependent TV format. It took a concept as extreme as alien visitation to contain a freestyling comedian like Williams within a studio sitcom, but at its heart Mork & Mindy nailed that mix of the fantastical and the mundane that distinguishes all good and great science-fiction TV.

Williams was deep into his acting career before he started to take on purely dramatic parts, even though the ability to play emotion straight in his early movies was crucial to their appeal. However, years before his acclaimed deadpan turns in Good Will Hunting, Insomnia and One Hour Photo, Williams played a tourist whose wife is shot on the streets of Baltimore in an episode of complex cop show Homicide: Life on the Street. Williams’ demonstrated ability to completely disappear into a character without a trace of his conspicuous comic persona left really opened the industry’s eyes to his value as a serious actor. The gut-wrenching emotions experienced by his character were performed credibly, and without fuss, which undoubtedly marketed his ability to do strong emotion well. Thought something he and his directors did not always taken advantage of, it nonetheless signalled that he was a rounded actor of range.

Robin, Robin, Robin, Robiiiiiin!

Robin, Robin, Robin, Robiiiiiin!

I’m grateful to OWN for repeating full versions of interviews with Williams from the ‘80s and ‘90s on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Not only is it apparent that Williams’ could transcend limitations of television space and time, no matter how cardboard the set and videographic the production values, it is also notable that when disarmed with Oprah’s frank questions about his personal life (she was a different proposition as interviewer in those days!), he can exploit the potential for television to be a confessional medium to admit to a darker side to the always-joking persona he presented in public. Clearer than in any other medium, TV was privy to the qualities of Williams’ personality that would eventually consume him. One of William’s last TV appearances on Louis C.K.’s signature sitcom Louie cemented his legacy as a character actor, playing a fictional creation in a show full of comics playing themselves.

TV is Balls

Posted in American TV (General), Americans watching British TV, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV, TV channels with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’m absent-mindedly glancing at the TV screens in the gym to periodically distract me from the pain and boredom of working out. The screens are usually set on sports and news channels in their rolling news phases, which don’t offer much in the way of entertainment. It’s a shame as I once did an hour on the treadmill when back-to-back Seinfeld was on. The news shown is of a fairly reactionary kind, typically Fox and CNN’s televisual garbage. The Rachel Maddow Show was on once but I think that was a mistake as the screen was turned off almost instantly.

Seinfeld: TV about working out

The point is I’m not really paying attention, nor am I listening on my headphones. I don’t want any Fox News editorials subliminally seeping into my brain like a hypnosis tape and I simply wouldn’t know what any of the laboriously paced sports discussion shows were unnecessarily shouting about. It’s safe to say I was caught off-guard when one of the screens starting showing highlights from an Oldham Athletic game, the football team from my home town who play in the 3rd tier of English soccer (‘soccer’ and ‘football’ are both English names for the sport, so suck it purists!).

Oldham Athletic: Not the team you expect to see in a San Diego gym.

It turned out not to be a hallucination brought on by loss of bodily fluids or even a bizarre coincidence like Oldham striker Matt Smith dating a Kardashian. No, apparently Fox Soccer, the football wing of the Fox Sports enterprise, shows the Saturday results feed of Sky Sports News every weekend. Apart from the shock of seeing Oldham on a TV in the USA (where Manchester is only known because of its global soccer brands), I don’t know why I’m surprised. Sky and Fox are both owned by NewsCorp, Rupert Murdoch’s international media conglomerate, so it makes good corporate sense.

Sky Sports News: Just another Murdoch enterprise in the world.

If you’re an American soccer fan, or British ex-pat, it makes sense to go directly to the source, as weirdly removed from local reality as it is watching a Northwest England League 1 team in Downtown San Diego. To those who know football from the European or Latin American leagues, watching a US soccer team play feels like the moment in Futurama where Fry finds that in the 30th Century baseball has become ‘Blernsball’, a barely recognisable Twilight Zone twist on the sport where spectators try to catch players instead of balls and giant spiders roam free through the diamond.

http://www.comedycentral.com/video-clips/4uymvs/futurama-intro-to-blernsball

For a British football fan, watching English soccer on TV gets weirder. It’s been common over the last couple of decades for veteran footballers in the English leagues to start their retirement early by going stateside to play for a US team. Beckham’s time with LA Galaxy when still in his prime is an exception attributable to his avarice. Some of them even end up commentating on TV soccer coverage. This is why I’m listening to ex-Blackburn Rovers and West Ham player-coach Tony Gale speaking over a Fulham FC game, multiplying the feeling of being at home when I’m not.

All your favourite players…from the 80s!

The locality of my new American residence helps the transition from a country where football eclipses all other sports to one where it doesn’t make the top 3. Being in a city with a large Latino community close to the Mexican border means that there’s more call for football from Latin American and European leagues on TV. And the commentators’ passion for the sport is evident from the Three Amigos vocal harmony following every goal.

It must be pretty baffling for US viewers stumbling upon the Sky Sports News feed on Fox Soccer. I don’t know what Americans would make of an interview with Crystal Palace manager Ian Holloway-hell it took us a few years to get used to his bizarre accent and analogies! It’s basically hours of places and teams they’ve never heard of, endless jokes about League 2 players from 1978 and recurring images of grim-looking fans with woolly hats and no necks walking to stadiums that look like backyards. And Kris Kamara, a Lionel Ritchie impersonator with Jerry Lewis levels of incompetence.

Anyway, back to the gym. I’ve never been so absorbed in the table positions of English lower league teams (though I’m a Blackburn fan so they may become increasingly important soon). I never thought of football clichés as my language but in a place where people struggle to understand and you them, players saying something as banal as ‘we nicked it early doors’ (translation: we scored early enough to kill the game) is oddly reassuring.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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