Archive for the walking dead

Coen Artists

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV Acting, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV News with tags , , , , , , , on November 30, 2015 by Tom Steward

As someone who once publicly stated that hiring Steven Moffat as showrunner of Doctor Who was a good move by the BBC, I’m not used to my predictions about television coming to anything. So I was even more surprised to be vindicated about two separate predictions I’ve made on this blog in recent weeks. However, the ways in which they both came to fruition was enough was enough to make me think I should be more careful in what I wish for. As with the posts where these predictions were first made, this one comes with a lot of spoilers:

No guts, no glory

No guts, no glory

After weeks of waiting, on Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead we finally found out what had happened to Glenn. Which was nothing. Despite it looking as if his guts were being eaten by a herd of walkers the last time we saw him, it was in fact Nicholas whose insides were being devoured, giving Glenn time and space to hide under a dumpster until the coast was clear. Like all those who appreciate Steven Yeun’s performance in the show, I’m relieved that he’s still around and believed he would be. But, unlike many, I’m not convinced this was the masterstroke of storytelling it’s currently being spun as, largely by people involved in the series. In fact, I think it’s cheap. Teasing the death of a beloved character for a month exploited the goodwill of fans towards the show for the sake of publicity and added nothing dramatically to it.

Post-show discussion program Talking Dead (boy, Chris Hardwick must really think I have it in for him!) did its usual whitewashing of the drama’s shortcomings, re-imagining Glenn’s death hoax as some kind of statement about the mindset of characters in the world and aligning the audience with it. Frankly, it smelled worse than Daryl surely does. I know the entire remit of Talking Dead is to make every artistic decision taken in The Walking Dead seem purely creative and exponentially meaningful – and feel the collective silence if like Kevin Smith you dare to critique some of the choices made – but this isn’t an artistic decision. At least it’s no more artistic than publicity stunts like ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ or whatever they do on Scandal each week to keep people coming back to that steaming pile of crap. It amounts to fixing something you purposefully broke just for the inevitable attention.

Last week’s episode of Fargo could’ve been dubbed a musical tribute to The Coen Brothers. While the FX series is always prone to the borrowing of visual imagery from its cinematic forbearer, more recently it has been honoring its muses through the aural. In the first season, there was an effort to connect Fargo to the timeline of the original movie, but in the second what seems more important is a – specifically musical – link to the Coen universe. Versions of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ and ‘O Death’ from O Brother Where Art Thou and ‘I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’ from The Big Lebowski litter the soundtrack. At points, characters paraphrase or precis lines from Coen Brothers movies, as if quotations belong to the lexicon. It’s about half as satisfying as it sounds, and yet another distraction in a show full of them.

I was writing about Fargo in reference to playing with our understanding of what is TV and what is cinema. I seem to have given the series far too much credit since it is evidently more interested in propagating the cult of the auteur, something not even The Coen Brothers are that concerned about doing with their movies. It recalls the worst excesses of Quentin Tarantino, when the director decides to reference his own movies rather than other people’s. Or how Steven Moffat (because there’s only a few people I can ever write about) would remind audiences that all his garbage comes from the same bin. It’s a more style-conscious season, as anthology demands change, and I suppose intertextuality has got more on-the-nose as a result. But there’s a sense that the story doesn’t really stretch to ten episodes this time, and this – like shootouts – may be a way of prevaricating.

A style-conscious season of 'Fargo'.

A style-conscious season of ‘Fargo’.

I saw it coming and now I feel responsible. Whether it’s the survival of Glenn or the cinematic engagement of Fargo, it happened more or less as I expected it to. But perhaps that’s the problem. I think I saw through what these programs were doing, rather than seeing them.

 

 

Acts of Television

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2015 by Tom Steward

In the week following terrorist attacks on Paris, Beirut and Lebanon, the response of American television to these events is of little importance. But this is a blog about American television and so that’s what I’m going to talk about. To make this blog about the attacks – as if that had been its dormant purpose all along – would do a severe injustice to what is a complex geo-political situation. Sometimes I wish American television knew its limitations as well as I do. News and current affairs programs obviously must deal with what has happened – unfortunately for those of us who don’t think that refugees are responsible for the crimes of their persecutors – but TV entertainment doesn’t necessarily have to engage unless the latter’s remit crosses over into the former’s. Nonetheless, all entertainment programming, at least that which has been made since the attacks, seems to have an unwritten obligation to comment on the human tragedy. This sounds like an altogether good thing, suggesting that the genre isn’t as trivial as we suspected, but what it actually discovers is that entertainment formats are simply not equipped to handle this level of political discourse. Many of the results have been frankly insulting.

paris

Jean Oliver!

Take, for instance, Chris Hardwick’s gabbled epilogue of pseudo-Churchillian platitudes no doubt compiled from a graphic novel about Dunkirk in the closing moments of AMC’s Talking Dead, a post-show discussion of The Walking Dead. This resembled one of those rushed disclaimers at the end of pharmaceutical commercials. For events of this magnitude, you either have time to talk about them or you don’t. I’m all in favour – as my younger self would not have been – of cancelling scheduled shows in favour of extended news coverage, though this is one of the few times that a 24-hour news cycle is justified in my view. TNT made the decision to postpone the broadcast of an episode of Sean Bean vehicle Legends set in Paris, which though it may appear overly-sensitive also takes into account the fact that a terrorist act is represented. CBS’ Supergirl and NCIS: Los Angeles also shelved episodes that involved bombings and terrorists. Networks tend to err on the side of caution in these instances, reducing TV to a set of trending keywords and then disseminating entire programs that use them incidentally. It’s one of the few occasions that networks admit outright that their programming is not socially responsible.

Some responses were more judicious. As you might expect from our ironic culture of news, parodies of broadcast journalism did far better than the real thing in their treatment of the attacks. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver kept the talk of war cultural, badgering ISIS into taking on the global leaders of art, food and music with their apocalyptic asceticism. While this is one of the few shows on TV that had the time and scope to offer a full account of the attacks and their significance, the suddenness of the events and their proximity to airtime meant that the program was safer – and more effective – to be as schoolboy as possible in its response, exploiting the other boutique quality of HBO: Obscenity. While broader as befits its appeal, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert adopted a similar tact, leaving it to New Orleans-based house jazz band Jean Baptiste and Stay Human to pay tribute to the French origins of their musical culture. Colbert has always played both sides of the American political sphere and, whether scheduled or not, the pairing of Bill Maher and Medal of Honor recipient Flobert Groberg kept the extremists on both sides at bay.

Vive la Rat!

Vive la Rat!

But what made Colbert’s response particularly powerful was its self-reflexive commentary on how to respond to events such as these. There was an affectionate poke at the tweeters who had the combination of compassion and ignorance that makes watching Ratatouille an act of solidarity with the French and a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the dilemma over whether to keep the booking of feline circus act The Acro-Cats on the first show since the attacks. Since taking over from Letterman at CBS, Colbert has made himself a defender of both American high culture and light entertainment, and so the ISIS attacks were a real (surely unwanted) test of his mettle in his dual function as cultural commentator and ringmaster, which he passed with high-flying colours. Colbert is unusually thoughtful for a talk show host, Oliver a journalistic powerhouse. It’s the ones who think they’re being thoughtful through acknowledgment that are the problem.

The Balking Dead

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Sports with tags , , , , , on October 26, 2015 by Tom Steward

I didn’t blog yesterday as usual because I was at my first (American) football (not soccer/football) game, which coincidentally took up the whole day due to stoppages for television. I’m glad though because now I get to talk about something that happened on TV last night. WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS BLOG POST IF YOU ARE NOT UP TO DATE WITH THE WALKING DEAD OR ARE PLANNING ON BINGEING THE SERIES IN THE FUTURE (UNLESS YOU TEND TO FORGET TV DRAMA CHARACTERS AS IF THEY WERE CONTESTANTS ON THE BACHELOR).

As spoiler-free a picture as I could find...

As spoiler-free a picture as I could find…

On Sunday’s The Walking Dead, everyone’s favorite post-apocalyptic pizza delivery boy – with the possible exception of Fry from Futurama – Glen Rhee apparently died. I say ‘apparently’ because while visually we seem to have seen his demise (and intestines), the storytelling, which continues intertextually in post-show discussion program Talking Dead, left Glen’s fate ambiguous, despite the unlikelihood of his escape from a throng of hungry, handsy walkers. In a series where every character is already to some degree dead, the writers and directors are obliged to be specific about what character is in which state of death. Moreover, the emotion surrounding certain leading characters, including Glen who has been there from the start, means there is an unwritten rule that they be killed visibly and memorably, so as to not play with or minimise those feelings.

Last night, when it came to ‘killing’ Glen, The Walking Dead did neither. Add this to the absence of the character death rituals on Talking Dead of having the actor appear as a guest and a slow-motion replay of their death on the mock-mournful ‘In Memoriam’ section of the show, and it appears that either the producers are playing a dangerous game with Walking Dead fans or floating the possibility that we didn’t see what we think we did. A note read out on Talking Dead by producer Scott M. Gimple hedged their bets even further, saying that ‘a version…or part’ of Glen would return to ‘complete the story’. Lost creator Damon Lindelof was a guest on the show – which is perhaps another clue that in a show where everyone is already dead anything is possible (OH YEAH DON’T READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN LOST) – and found it hard to believe that The Walking Dead would pull a Dallas and have Glen return from the dead against all conceivable odds.

Not that it will surprise anyone who suffered through all six seasons of Lost but Lindelof may be overstating the case here. The Walking Dead is rather fond of melodramatic cliffhangers, as the final ‘how do we get out of this’ moment of Season Four nicely illustrates. The show is not above waiting off on spoiling the death of a character if it helps heighten the drama. In Season Five, we didn’t know Bob had been bitten for nearly a whole episode until he finally revealed it to the cannibals who had just eaten his leg for dinner. The quality seal of the Mad Men network (which is also a guarantee of having to watch crappy action and horror movies back-to-back) sometimes makes us forget that what we’re watching here is popular genre television – quite literally a televised comic strip – in which such matinee-style twists and turns are not only possible, but rather their stock-in-trade.

Don't take it out on me, it's this guy's fault!

Don’t take it out on me, it’s this guy’s fault!

No-one doubts the class of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories yet the author had the Great Detective return from the dead in implausible circumstances. More to the point, I can see about three or four different ways Glen could have escaped from the pile of walkers he was crowd-surfing on. A couple of those have already been tried and tested in the series, so while the Talking Dead panel saw the callbacks to Glen’s earlier episodes as signs of his impending death, they may also spell the solution to his survival. All of this rhetoric might be my way of deflecting deep-seated sadness about seeing Glen depart The Walking Dead, and of course I’d rather all this conspiracy theorising be true rather than false (as anyone who purports a conspiracy theory does). But don’t underestimate the extra-textual games that TV producers in the digital age are willing to play to maintain interest in their program. One day we might be talking about the ‘Glen hoax’ in the same way we talk about affinity-based publicity stunts like ‘new Coke’. On a story level, if Glen does survive the unsurvivable, it’s a sure sign he’ll be the last man walking.

The Tommys 2015

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, Reviews, TV Acting, TV Criticism, TV Culture with tags , , , , on September 27, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s that time of year again when those we trust with the responsibility of deciding what makes good television publicly demonstrate they have no idea what makes good television. Yes, The Emmys. As with every year, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences make two glaring errors. Firstly, they overlook the best TV of our time in favour of academy pets like Modern Family (Just a side note: Unlike most television critics, I rather like Modern Family. I just don’t happen to think it’s the only sitcom of the last six years worthy of celebration). Secondly, they create convoluted, counter-intuitive categories of awards that prevent the finest shows from being recognised because they don’t tick a bunch of weirdly shaped boxes. To rectify this, I’m starting my own annual television awards ceremony (yes, it’s going to be one of those articles!) called The Tommys with the sole purpose of demonstrating that you can still recognise the best TV around even when you have bullshit categories.

Best Shaving of Iconic Facial Hair in an FX Series, Zombie-Based Comic Book Adaptation, or Timely Political Commentary

Winner: Sam Elliott for Justified

tommys

Nominated: W. Earl Brown for American Crime/Andrew Lincoln for The Walking Dead/Kathy Bates for American Horror Story: Freakshow (disqualified for chin curtain)

Least Mentally Prepared Husband in a Housewives Franchise, Vanity Project or Marriage Experiment

Winner: Vincent ‘Garage Face’ Van Patten for The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills

tommys 2

Nominated: Hank ‘The tranny’s hand walked into my penis’ Baskett for Kendra on Top/David ‘Golem’ Beador for The Real Housewives of Orange County/Mohammed ‘It’s against my religion to express genuine affection for my wife’ Jbali for 90-Day Fiance

Most Impatient Response to a Format Change in an Anthology Series, Prequel Spin-Off, or Homeland

Winner: True Detective (aka Noir is Supposed to be Urban, Idiots!)

Nominated: Fear The Walking Dead (aka Before They Were Zombies)/Homeland (aka Awayplace)/Better Call Saul (aka How The Lawyer got his Spotty Morality)

Most Overrated Drama, Sitcom or Tonally Confused Variation upon The Two Previous Sub-Categories featuring Martin Freeman, Kevin Spacey or Andy Samberg

Note: In this category, the award will be collected by an actor better at playing the role than the actor who actually did*

*Even if Kevin Spacey is in the audience doing his ‘I’m the first ever person to talk to a camera in a TV show’ schtick

Winner: Sherlock (award collected by Lucy Liu)

Nominated: House of Cards (award to be collected by the ghost of Ian Richardson)/Fargo (award to be collected by William H. Macy)/Brooklyn Nine Nine (award to be collected by whoever is near)

Biggest Load of Horseshit Onscreen Explanation of Something That is Clearly an Offscreen Issue in a Trumped-Up Soap Opera, Underrated Popular Literature Adaptation or Reality Show on a Bottom-Feeding Network

Winner: Scandal for the end-of-season held-at-gunpoint cliffhanger and season premiere cold open funeral of Harrison Wright during the domestic abuse court case of Columbus Short.

Nominated: Elementary for the complete absence of LGBT housekeeper Ms. Hudson in the third season while actress Candis Cayne became a visible activist for transgender rights/Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars for Hank Baskett’s ‘magic penis’ theory of how he could be caught red-handed in a transsexual three-way and yet not have participated

Worse Kept Secret in a Deathcount-Oriented Drama, Television Awards Show or Publicity-Loving Satire of Advertising

Winner: The Tommys 2015 for revealing multiple spoilers in TV shows not yet caught up on by most viewers by simply listing the nominees

Nominated: The Walking Dead for posting news of Beth’s death on social media the day that the episode aired/The Emmys 2015 for spoiling the series finale deaths of Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire, Zeek Braverman in Parenthood, Jax Teller in Sons of Anarchy, Bill Compton in True Blood and Raylan Givens’ hat in Justified/Mad Men for having a series ending that was tiresomely ambiguous

Most Unconvincing Justification of a Blatant Freakshow in a Bafflingly Popular Horror Anthology Series, Footage-Shy Reality Show or Modern-Day Version of Public Hanging Entertainment

Winner: Botched for claiming to be a fly-on-the-wall documentary about plastic surgeons

Nominated: American Horror Story: Freakshow because if it’s about an actual freakshow, we can’t get upset at the title/America’s Got Talent for exploiting the lack of a substantive mental health care system in the US

Reality Contestant who Looks Most Like a Popeye Character

Winner: Josh Altman (Wimpy) for Million Dollar Listing: Los Angeles

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Nominated: The Situation (Popeye) for Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars/Josh Altman (Alice The Goon) for Million Dollar Listing: Los Angeles

Beard To Death

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Acting, TV in a Word with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s been a season of hashtag-friendly character deaths on The Walking Dead; #Bobecue, #BethDeath, #TyreecesPieces and #NoahFuture. But no loss is more tragic than #RickShave. Rick Grimes’ beard is one of the longest-surviving characters on the show and – even more than Karl who went through puberty – we have watched him grow on TV. He was the only character keeping Rick sane. After losing his beard, Rick seems incapable of ending a sentence without threatening someone’s life. So in lieu of a blog about the season finale, which for an episode set in one street with no major character deaths can be summed up by Nelson Muntz’s review of Naked Lunch (‘I can think of at least two things wrong with that title’), here’s a rundown of the best bearded moments in TV, starting with Rick:

Rick shaves his beard – The Walking Dead – Season 5

As a bearded man myself, I know well the eerie feeling of shaving and not recognizing the man underneath. Here The Walking Dead takes this to proportions of body horror. Afforded the luxuries of running water and private bathrooms, Rick can now part with the beard that has faithfully accompanied him through the zombie apocalypse. Unfortunately, he’s been hiding his moral decay behind that cake-catcher and is no longer the same person beneath. Rather than removing a mask, he’s revealing one. Without looking like Charles Manson, Rick starts to get really insecure about expressing his murderous insanity and massively overcompensates with blood-soaked demonstrations in public and recreating scenes from Romeo & Juliet with passing zombies.

Jack is back with a beard – 24 – Seasons 2 and 6

Where's the shaving balm?!

Where’s the balm?!

When Jack cracks, he grows a beard. It’s our only visual clue that a man who tortures and fakes his death for a living has finally gone off the deep end. But it also acts as a protective seal – grouting if you will – for Jack’s madness. After Jack shaved his widow-grief beard at the beginning of Season 2, he immediately went about severing a paedophile’s head with a hacksaw. An hour after removing his Chinese-torture beard in Season 6, a nuclear bomb went off. Jack remaining clean-shaven after he faked his death was how we knew he wasn’t really serious about giving up work. Well, that and going into hiding mere miles from L.A.

It’s Harrison Ford in there – The Fugitive – Movie

Ok, it’s a movie but it’s based on a TV series but that should be justification enough for what remains one of the most incredible uses of facial hair in screen history. For a third of the movie, Harrison Ford and the star promise of action therein have been hiding behind what looks like mouldy Weetabix on the actor’s face. As convicted murderer Dr. Richard Kimble goes on the run, he stops off at a hospital to engage in a morning routine beloved of all medical practitioners; stealing water and breakfast from a dying old man. He adds milk to his Weetabix and it quickly dissolves, leaving Ford free to jump off viaducts and fight disabled people.

Strike beards – Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien – 2007/8

Before...and way before!

Before…and way before!

During the writers’ strike of 2007-8, late-night chat show hosts David Letterman and Conan O’Brien came out in sympathy with their colleagues by growing ‘strike beards’ throughout the picket. Of course, this assumes that being on strike makes any difference to writers’ shaving routines, which is nonsense, and the sizeable increase in meta-comedy was already enough to demonstrate to viewers that there was a writers’ strike going on. While Conan mutated into a Seinfeld-era Bryan Cranston, Letterman slipped back through time posing first as a Civil War general and then Piltdown man along the way. Otherwise, it gave us a rare glimpse into what late-night television would look like following the apocalypse.

Hiatus beards – Everyone on a show where they have to be clean-shaven – Off-season

Bearded Hamm!

Bearded Hamm!

When you can’t scratch, that’s when you want to scratch. Well, apparently, if you’re an actor on a seasonal TV show, when your face is scratch-free all you’re thinking about is having something scratchy on your face. In those few months between filming seasons, TV actors choose to celebrate their temporary freedom from the yoke of shooting schedules by doing fuck-all with their faces. But it doesn’t make as much sense as it first seems. I’m sure the actors still go out during the day even though they’re not shooting, and wear clothes even though they don’t have to be in costume.

Attack The Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV advertising, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2014 by Tom Steward

This week is the midterm elections, which means that currently TV is awash with attack ads where political candidates exploit their opponent’s capacity to look sinister as a slow-moving black-and-white still. But attack ads aren’t restricted to the world of politics. AMC is running a campaign targeted at DirecTV in which subscribers are encouraged to petition their satellite provider to renew their partnership with the cable network. DirecTV have countered with a Walking Dead-themed rebuttal aimed at AMC’s ‘scare tactics’. On AMC’s post-show discussion programme Talking Dead, Walking Dead showrunner Scott M. Gimple and host Chris Hardwicke couldn’t help but think of Carol’s bid for leadership of the group in the zombie drama without reference to the libellous voiceovers and gravelly sneer of election advertising. As it seems entirely appropriate to think about TV shows in terms of attack ads (and perhaps better since, you know, no-one real’s being unduly slandered!) I’ve come up with some voiceovers for campaign spots attacking characters from TV shows:

Breaking Bad

Skyler White: Bad for Albuquerque

Skyler White: Bad for Albuquerque

‘Skyler White says she had nothing to do with her husband’s crimes, so where’s the money for her son’s education coming from? And if she’s so sympathetic, why do men with fake names on the internet hate her so much? @Misogynist63 on Twitter said ‘I hate Skyler White so much’ and Guy Withwomenissues on Facebook called her ‘unthankful scum’…because Skyler White made him too angry to use the correct antonym for ‘grateful’. The IRS refused to prosecute Skyler White because as an accountant she was too clueless to understand she was breaking the law. Her performance review said that she waited until the firm nearly went under before she put on a low-cut top to save her boss from jail. Skyler White: Bad for Albuquerque.’

Downton Abbey

Branson's Fickle!

Branson’s Fickle!

‘Tom Branson wants you to think he’s part of an aristocratic family, but not only was he once a socialist and a terrorist, he was really really bad at being both. Tom Branson claims he’s changed but all it took was a schoolteacher with too much lipstick to bring his pro-Russian outbursts back to the Downton dinner table. At a Town Hall debate, Tom Branson said ‘I don’t know what I am anymore’…and hasn’t stopped saying it for over two years now. Tom Branson voted against Lord Grantham’s terrible financial decisions 90% of the time. And what’s keeping Tom Branson from emigrating to America, the land of freedom? We think we know. Branson’s fickle. Paid for by The Committee for The Preservation of Cora’s Entail.’

Homeland

Carrie Matheson: Cries at the drop of a hat

Carrie Matheson: Cries at the drop of a hat

‘Carrie Matheson denies all knowledge of putting a pro-American regime in Iran. Why would a secret agent do that? What is she trying to hide? Carrie Matheson sometimes sleeps with terrorists for fun…and not just work. And why does her baby look exactly like a shrunken doll of America’s enemy #1 (and honoured marine and US senator) Nicholas Brody? According to her family, Carrie Matheson prefers living in Islamabad to being in America. Just like someone who might not like America that much would. And why was she seen desecrating a heroes’ memorial with a magic marker? Doctors expressed concern that Carrie Matheson couldn’t do her job because of her mental illness…a love of atonal jazz. Carrie Matheson: Cries at the drop of a hat.’

Mad Men

Don Draper: You don't have to be mad to vote for him...but it helps!

Don Draper: You don’t have to be mad to vote for him…but it helps!

‘Don Draper won’t make his war record public. That’s because it reveals things he doesn’t want you to know. Like his compassionate support of war widows and embodiment of the American dream. He’s just pretending to be privileged and uncaring to get your vote. Don Draper has worked at three different(ly named) firms in the last five years, and is so incompetent he now works under his former secretary. Don Draper would rather drink and take drugs at home than in a workplace where it is company policy. He’s flip-flopped on the issue of smoking and airline preference, and campaigned for Nixon who he’s yet to find out is a criminal. Don Draper: You don’t have to be mad to vote for him…but it helps!’

The O’Reilly Factor

Bill O'Reilly: Bullshit O Really

Bill O’Reilly: Bullshit O Really

Bill O’Reilly talks about things as if they really happened. But did you know that everything he says is bullshit? The first thing he said on his show today was bullshit. The second thing was described as ‘bullshit’. Even the third thing he said was bullshit, according to a poll. He’s voted with people who are wrong about everything 100% of the time. Bill O’Reilly: Bullshit O Really.

There’s no law against smearing a smearer…

Away Sky

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2014 by Tom Steward

It’s no shock that here in the States TV shows go on far too long or that they change drastically over time. Most series signpost their anti-ageing facelifts to viewers with the help of subtitles, which act as disclaimers for authenticity and longevity, as in the later years of Saved by the Bell or on the opposite end of the scale (it thinks!) American Horror Story. Others more confident of their status as season-long anthology plays such as True Detective and Fargo will re-cast completely each year to demonstrate that it is the concept not the characters that are the stars. Despite this amnesty on self-adaptation, some shows still seem wary of admitting to viewers that they have renewed themselves in the process of maintenance.

Remember them? No, neither do I!

Remember them? No, neither do I!

Chief among them is Homeland. Showtime’s CIA thriller has killed off the character around which the show revolved, re-located to another country, and butchered its beautiful title sequence, which was always as good as (and increasingly better than) anything that followed. Yet it still goes under the name Homeland and goes around acting as if nothing has happened. Frankly, it’s a bit of a cheat. Having revealed itself as a concept that barely had enough material for a mini-series, perhaps it would have wiser to position the post-Brody Homeland as a spin-off or linked franchise entry. With the emigration of the series, it could be Homeland: Kabul or as Damien Lewis re-appears shrunken in all but hair as Brody’s baby son, Homeland: The Next Generation.

I’m not serious about these title tweaks, but the point is that TV has ways and means to suggest that a show has changed dramatically without any detriment to the brand or canon. It’s a win-win situation. The viewer base for the series will return in loyalty to their show and if hideous it can be written or quietly killed off in complete deniability of any resemblance to the original. There is precedent for this in the Columbo spouse-off featuring the elusive Columbo Indoors. Mrs. Columbo starring captain-turned-convict Kate Mulgrew was intended to be a mystery following the amateur sleuthing of Columbo’s wife. It was so unpopular and implausible that producers decided Kate Columbo just happened to be married to another detective with the surname.

In the last four years, Key & Peele has been one of the smartest and most culturally relevant comedy programmes on American TV, and surely a historical high point in TV sketch comedy. This season they have forgone what for many viewers was the highlight of the show, their semi-improvised skits in front of a studio audience introducing the main sketches. There are also noticeably fewer sketches per show, and a shift in the framing of the series towards the cerebral with a sombre western motif in the re-recorded theme tune and filmed introductions. With the amount of time they’ve been on the air, and my suspicion that the changes were forced by a busy production schedule, I don’t begrudge it. But I don’t approve.

The ‘live’ segments of Key & Peele may have been too much of a nod backwards to traditional vaudeville for those obsessed with innovation, but they were the show’s unique selling point. They were bouncy, energetic, and personable, with many of the loosely improvised moments standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the pre-written material in terms of quality. The pre-recorded banter this has been replaced with just seems flat and inert by comparison (with the exception of the discussion about ventriloquist dummy ‘Willy Talk?’). Equally, I feel that what set the sketches apart from the Saturday Night Live School was how tightly-scripted and effectively concluded they were. With sketches stretched to a commercial beat and post-punchline by close-of-play, they’re dragging like Lorne Michaels’ feet about hiring black women.

Did they write that?

Did they write that?

I am, of course, a hypocrite. An aspect of AMC’s The Walking Dead I greatly enjoy is how the concept of the series can periodically change in the space of a few episodes. At the beginning of last year, it was a show about farming. This time round it’s about shooting cannibals with sub-machine guns. Yes, the idea of movement is ingrained in the title, and change has been a part of the formula from the beginning, but it’s still got away with en-masse recasting and retooling without any acknowledgement to the viewer. I suppose the difference is that between growing and living. The Walking Dead evolved into something greater than it was while Homeland and Key & Peele maimed their greatness to carry on.

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