Archive for the wire

I Dream of TV?

Posted in American TV (General), TV advertising, TV Dreams, TV Sports with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2016 by Tom Steward

After a week in which the SuperBowl ads debuted and I had a stinking cold, there’s only one game you can play and remain sane: Superbowl Ad or Fever Dream?

 

super bowl

Three awesome things in one terrifying vessel!

 

Nick, Frank and Ziggy Sobotka from The Wire stage a bank robbery.

 

Answer: SuperBowl Ad.

 

Details: It can’t just have been a casting coincidence that the three actors who played relatives in the same storyline of the same season of the same TV series are the main cast of this Toyota Prius commercial. Nor is it entirely impossible that they are still playing the Sobotkas. It’s a short road from smuggling to grand larceny. Maybe they formed a union for bank robbers. Hopefully Pablo Schreiber, Chris Bauer and James Ransone were watching the ad together over their Superbowl brunch of beer and raw eggs.

 

Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen campaign cross-country for the right to drink piss.

 

Answer: SuperBowl Ad.

 

Details: Even the dockworker’s breakfast of beer tartare sounds better than Bud Light, which Schumer and Rogen – who retain the demographic integrity of the current Democratic race – are fighting for your right to drink. And pass. And re-bottle and drink again. Both comedians have played a part in politics in recent years, with Rogen’s The Interview censored for fear of South Korean retaliation and Schumer campaigning for gun control after her movie Trainwreck was used as the backdrop for a shooting. This is the year of cultural association in SuperBowl ads.

 

An inter-species cross-breeding experiment creates a new household slave.

 

Answer: SuperBowl Ad.

 

Details: This is what happens if you try to write a synopsis of the puppy-monkey-baby spot for Mountain Dew, a suitably horrific premise for what is no doubt an equally horrific drink. Kickstart is a mix of Dew (because of course that’s a substance now!), caffeine and juice. Three awesome things in one, like a puppy-monkey-baby. By the time the tagline that prompted the creation of a grotesque Golom to illustrate the product is revealed, everyone watching is too disturbed and unsettled to care about how it came about in the first place.

 

Glen Campbell returns to touring with his wife helping him to remember lyrics.

 

Answer: Fever Dream

 

Details: Yes, the one celebrity appearance on the list that might actually bring you some joy is in fact a dream I had. Country legend and Alzheimers sufferer Glen Campbell is back on the road, with gaps in performance for memory exercises – which the audience get to see as if it is part of the show – and the singer leaving the stage periodically to get a memory reboot from his devoted wife. While seeing this would make me very happy, I’m glad that no corporation is able to profit from it.

 

Christopher Walken is hiding in your closet [HINT: This was a movie idea I once had].

 

Answer: SuperBowl Ad.

 

Details: Double bluff, I’m afraid. I did have an idea for a movie – ripping quite terribly from Blue Velvet – where a gangster (who in mind was Christopher Walken) hid in his boss’s closet and accidentally killed the boss when he was startled. But this was a play on the phrase walk-in closet (Walken Closet, geddit?!) that somehow segued into a car commercial for Kia. Clearly part of the fun of making commercials is throwing in cultural references, and it’s hard to ignore the visual nods to the Fatboy Slim video Weapon of Choice, which also starred Walken.

 

Genetic tendencies towards obesity result in a premature birth.

 

Answer: SuperBowl Ad.

 

Details: Sounds like a classic anxiety dream for someone like me who wants to be a parent and is worried about passing on their portliness but this was a Doritos commercial that – like Mountain Dew’s Frankenpug – drew on horror comedy to advertise the brand. Apparently, babies want Doritos so much they’re willing to rip themselves prematurely from the womb to get them. Having an inconsiderate, sexist slob of a father seems to be a factor too. Gender caricature is big here, but the man gets off easy as usual.

 

super bowl 2

 

Ted Cruz is talking badly about the needs of the disabled.

 

Answer: Fever Dream.

 

Details: An addendum to the Glen Campbell dream. Ted Cruz is there watching Glen and tells me that his wife shouldn’t bother helping him to remember and just leave him be. I protest and he tries to talk his way out of it. Needless to say, this dream tells you more about Cruz than a campaign ad ever could.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Tremendous

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Criticism with tags , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2014 by Tom Steward

It’s not often that I pay attention to what critics say about TV. It’s hard to keep faith in an institution that lauds white woman’s burden Orange is the New Black and by-the-numbers re-make House of Cards as the leading television of our time. On the rare occasions I do listen to TV critics, I always regret it bitterly. It was underwhelming reviews that prevented me from watching David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s superb series about music and recovery in a post-Katrina New Orleans Treme until now. Of course, I should have found out for myself, but with the unanimous adoration of Simon’s The Wire I thought I could trust critics to evaluate his work for me. But I forgot that – much like the interplay of public institutions in The Wire – TV criticism is a game, and the rules demand that anything which follows a universally acknowledged masterpiece must be panned, regardless of whether it’s actually any good. If it was simply their loss, I wouldn’t care at all. But critics still have the cultural power to determine what we should watch, perhaps more now that there is more to choose from. And, believe me, it’s our loss.

Just another day in New Orleans.

Just another day in New Orleans.

Read the reviews of Treme and they’ll tell you time and again that it’s full of unsympathetic characters and slow and meandering storylines without a lick of the complexity or profundity of The Wire. First of all, I thought we all agreed having ambiguous characters on TV was a good thing. We spent the last five years fawning over teacher-turned-druglord Walter White on Breaking Bad and the previous eight over family man mob kingpin Tony Soprano. The characters in Treme might acts like dicks, self-destruct and show themselves up, but they’re not sociopaths or venal criminals. The writers aren’t even using Katrina as an excuse for their bad behaviour. Like their city, they’re doing as much harm to themselves as has been done to them. We’re supposed to have sympathy for the people of New Orleans because of the atrocities they suffered, not because they’re flawless human beings. Besides if you can’t see their redeeming characteristics, you haven’t watched enough. Treme is musical television and the storylines naturally go slower because they’re continually (and gloriously!) interrupted by song breaks. Plus, I don’t think the story proceeds much slower than The Wire with its depiction of the drudgery of police work.

Treme is driven by character not story and hence take its sweet time observing and developing characters without being carried away by the momentum of plot. It’s just as regional as the Baltimore-set The Wire and that was never an obstacle to significant drama. As the series is always saying, New Orleans is much more important to America than America thinks. It’s overflowing with local history and culture – not least centuries of jazz and blues that pour from the lips of every musical number – which tempers the idea that Treme is a knee-jerk reaction to contemporary events. I can only imagine that people are put-off by their ignorance of New Orleans and maybe even jazz in general. I am woefully ignorant about New Orleans, and if I ever thought I wasn’t Treme showed me otherwise, but the series is happy to induct us philistines. Scenes featuring tourists and armchair critics of New Orleans offer an outsider’s eye while rectifying some of the lazy, abusive myths about the city’s cultural redundancy. I know a little more about jazz, but Treme is way more critical of jazz snobs than those who use the genre to have a funky good time.

See that John Goodman, that's me that is.

See that John Goodman, that’s me that is.

Treme frequently airs the view that New Orleans lacks moral fibre, and from the looks of the local diet perhaps actual fibre too. Television too has shouldered the brunt of these kinds of self-righteous attacks, often being portrayed as bad for your health and your humanity. With Treme bringing these two villains together, I wonder if viewers think that, unlike other quality TV, the series might be bad for them. It’s certainly been bad for me. As well as carrying the guilt of watching the series through Amazon, a corporate hotbed of employee abuse, I’ve been craving breakfasts covered in mountains of sugar, lunches that elevate sandwiches to art forms, and dinners dunked in batter. And I’ve wanted to drink like I’ve never wanted to drink. ‘Blown Deadline’, the company that produces Treme, is presumably a reference to Simon’s days as a journalist and writer, but it pretty much sums up what’s happened to me since I started watching the series. All the projects I’m involved with are either overdue or delayed, thanks to days spent bingeing on a season at a time. But I’m a better person, because Treme reminds me what life, and good drama, is like.

 

 

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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