Archive for the x-files

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!

Peak Viewing Time

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV Dreams, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2015 by Tom Steward

There are TV shows we talk about too much. But Twin Peaks isn’t one of them. I’d say the endless chatter about David Lynch and Mark Frost’s early 90s ABC drama by those besotted of the show (whom I suspect have cherry-pie-picked episodes and not endured the interminably drawn-out final quarter) was better spent on less-discussed yet equally worthy TV from this era…if it weren’t for how crucial Twin Peaks is in the history of television. Unusually for a show that ran for only two years and thirty episodes, no-one has ever shut up about it. The supreme production values and self-conscious artistry have ensured that there is never a reason not to re-air and re-box set the programme. Even compared to other 90s TV shows, which generally stand up well visually (especially compared to the previous decade), the colour, focus and cinematography are configured in such a way that HD could not possibly improve upon it. There’s been more talk recently because it’s the 25th anniversary of the series (although there always seems to be an excuse for a retrospective!) and plans are afoot for a revival of Twin Peaks on Showtime. However, if the public statements of Lynch and most of the cast are anything to go by, the revival might have as much to do with Twin Peaks as 10 Things I hate about you does with The Taming of the Shrew.

A title colour only used in 90s television!

A title colour only used in 90s television!

Twin Peaks set in motion models of television storytelling that have been influential ever since it was on the air. Small-town quirk and paranormal procedural would dominate American TV throughout the 90s, through the ‘twin peaks’ of Northern Exposure and The X-Files. The legacy endures to this day with series like Parks and Recreation, Wayward Pines, Fringe and Grimm. The long-form murder mystery has been a staple of quality television internationally in recent years, with Denmark’s Forbrydelsen, Britain’s Broadchurch and America’s True Detective. Indeed, if HBO opened the floodgates of American quality television with The Sopranos, then Twin Peaks’ dream states and cine-literacy were an important precedent for the show. More broadly, Twin Peaks cemented many ideas that we now take for granted. It showed us that fantasy and realism can live alongside one another in TV without contradiction and that every character in an ensemble (no matter how ridiculous) deserved an inner life and a separate storyline to boot. Twin Peaks remains the benchmark for what constitutes good television. When Louis C.K. tried to generate an art movie feel for his sitcom Louie, he went to none other than David Lynch as guest star (and director in spirit) for a 3-part season finale. In 2010, mystery drama Psych aired an episode called ‘Dual Spires’ featuring cast members and storylines from Twin Peaks, acknowledging the longevity of the show’s mythology as TV to aspire to.

If we dwell too much on the originality of Twin Peaks (as a recent Radio 4 documentary did), we are in danger of forgetting how much the show took from television. References abound to classic American series from Dragnet to The Fugitive (complimenting the mid-century Hollywood intertextuality). As the meta-show Invitation to Love indicates, the characters and storylines in Twin Peaks could have easily come out of a daytime soap. But Twin Peaks was also acknowledging how soaps had graduated to primetime in the previous decade, with shows like Dallas and Knots Landing. In fact, the season one cliffhanger bears an uncanny resemblance to the ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ storyline in Dallas that captivated TV audiences exactly a decade before. For all that is made of David Lynch’s ‘cinematic’ influence on the show, Twin Peaks was co-created by Mark Frost, whose formative experience had been writing for television, notably on Steve Bochco and Michael Kozoll’s soap copera Hill Street Blues. Twin Peaks is as remarkable for its adept handling of serial narrative arcs and gradual character development as for its experimental audio-visual style, and there is a clear lineage from Frost’s work on the continuing ensemble drama Hill Street Blues to his teleplays for Twin Peaks. But Lynch and his signature composer Angelo Badalamenti clearly understood the importance of sound to television, creating a soundscape that both compliments perfectly and stands terrifyingly alone from the image.

...or sooner!

…or sooner!

For better or worse, Twin Peaks stands for something bigger than it is. It is the nucleus of a fine art television and a prism through which to see the medium. Laura Palmer said she’d see us in 25 years. She was 25 years over.

Party Like It’s 1990 Time

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV channels, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2015 by Tom Steward

90s TV is back in vogue, appropriately enough. Twin Peaks is soon to be revived in such exacting detail that Showtime even sought to bring back David Lynch’s fights with the network. Cali has been fornicated enough by David Duchovny – and his series Californication has been cancelled – while Gillian Anderson appeared to be getting her life together but is going back to her abusive ex; thus The X-Files is returning to Fox, it now seems as a replacement for the network’s all-too-rare new-thing-that-people-like Empire. Even The CW’s version of The Flash recently featured Mark Hamill reprising his role as The Trickster from the original early 90s live-action TV adaptation, now father to the heir to his title, allowing the Star Wars actor to cathartically wail the words that every kid in a Darth Vader mask has been saying to him since 1980.

That the decade that time did not give us time to forget is coming back to TV doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The 90s was when the cup of quality American television first runneth over, never to be empty again. Contemporary Hollywood is increasingly dependent on rebooting classic pop iconography. In fact, Hamill was filming his scenes as The Trickster at virtually the same time he was reviving Luke Skywalker for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But the choice of series has so far been disappointing. The 25-year gap in Twin Peaks was always part of the story, but in truth much of the second final season was completely unwatchable, with the Lynch-helmed finale the only saving grace (and he may not even be directing this time round). If the cast continue to protest Lynch’s absence, we may be looking at a spin-off about The Log Lady’s Log.

Everyone has signed back on for The X-Files but the series was to TV sci-fi what Judd Apatow is to movie comedy. The original series was a good few years too long, and that’s even before Billy Connolly came into the picture! Yes, TV needs more X-Files about as much as literature needs more books about killing heads of state written by Bill O’Reilly. Maybe it’s my comic apathy or that The CW’s demographic version of the flashing lifeclock from Logan’s Run has already gone off in the palm of my hand, but I found nothing to enjoy in The Flash to enjoy apart from Hamill’s scenery-chewing performance (forever to be known as ‘Hamillery’). So if there are any TV executives out there reading (either this blog or just in general) here are some 90s TV shows that are far more worthy candidates for revival:

Murder Three

'My blinds...LaPaglia!'

‘My blinds…LaPaglia!’

The first season of Steven Bochco’s Murder One was a compelling, narratively experimental, impeccably cast piece of TV drama. The second, which I will call Murder Two – not because the crimes prosecuted were lesser but because the quality was – proved altogether more formulaic, B-casted and conventional. Murder Three could right these wrongs. I foresee a pre-credits teaser in which respective season one and two leads Daniel Benzali and Anthony LaPaglia fight Sunshine Boys-like over the configuration of the furniture in the firm’s office, culminating in Benzali’s Teddy Hoffman throwing LaPaglia’s not-Teddy Hoffman out of the window, before lowering the blinds…and then peering through them ominously. We would revive the first season’s 23-episode serial arc, with a case that begins as Murder Three…and ends up as Murder One!

The Critic (Or It’s Not That Tough Being a Film Cricket)

Together at last!

Together at last!

At the time we might have thought that the 90s were the summit of all that was ridiculous about Hollywood movies. But given how extra inflated and predictable blockbusters have become since, surely Al Jean and Mike Reiss’ animated comedy about a TV film critic would now have plenty of kindling for the movie parody fire. Cancelled after one season, there’s still plenty to do with the format and reviving the character of the Ebert-like Jay Sherman would be a greater tribute to the late film critic than any statue.

Murder She Wrote

History's greatest serial killer!

History’s greatest serial killer!

Still alive and acting…all I’m saying.

Cop Rock: Laboured Musical Premise Unit

A spin-off of the quickly-cancelled musical police drama about a special team of cops who investigate off-colour musical episodes in other TV series.

Paulie Loves Pussy

A buddy comedy featuring Paulie Walnuts and Pussy Bonpensero from The Sopranos based on this HBO commercial:

We’d figure out the timeline stuff later!

The Cosby Show

I drank from the wrong glass...

I drank from the wrong glass…

Worth pitching just to see the look on the executives’ faces. ‘Drink this, Mr. Greenblatt’.

King Of The Chill

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV channels, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2014 by Tom Steward

‘Horror has not fared particularly well on TV, if you except something like the 6 o’clock news, where footage of black GIs with their legs blown of, villages and kids on fire, bodies in trenches, and whole swathes of jungle being coated with good old Agent Orange.’

That was writer Stephen King in 1981, talking about putting horror on television (thanks to my mentor and go-to for gothic television Helen Wheatley for the quote!). Despite King’s reservations, his horror stories have found a natural home in TV as series, miniseries, and made-for-TV movies in the last four decades. Ironically, it is precisely because television is so ‘full of real horrors’ that King’s work fits so well there. Perhaps it’s not vivid images of war on the news anymore, but there are still certainly plenty of reports of murderous violence, human cruelty and sexual abuse on an array of primetime infotainment programmes. King is particularly valid in this context since he is perhaps the writer most famous for bringing horror into touch with the contemporary world.

Anyone lose their childhood down here?

Anyone lose their childhood down here?

King has been adapted for the cinema significantly, but none of those movies quite captures the lingering terror of his writing as the miniseries versions. Something about having to stop and resume watching episodes of It and Salem’s Lot offers a prolonged, almost masochistic quality of fear unavailable in all but the books themselves, which, as Joey Tribiani has shown, are best stored in the freezer when not being read. Television has such affective qualities as a medium – many of which are connected to horror – that merely the act of televising can induce dread. What Pennywise the Clown can do to you in the cinema is no match for the monkeyshines he gets up to in and around your living rooms each and every night.

Genre aside, TV adaptations of King’s books give us pause to consider which visual medium is best suited to accommodate the novel. For best-selling authors like King, the natural route is feature films, not necessary because they are the best platform for his work but due to their popularity and potential (at one time!) for box-office success. But the bulkier novels suffer inside the constraints of a two to three-hour movie, and the best film adaptations of King’s writing have generally been those extrapolated from his short stories. TV series that want to appear classy and cultured often compare themselves to novels with episodes the equivalent of chapters. But when applied to King’s shlockier fare, we can see it’s about what fits not what elevates.

The symbiotic relationship between Stephen King and television was on my mind as I watched the Lifetime movie Big Driver based on his novella. The network that once bore the slogan ‘television for women’ doesn’t necessarily seem like the place for Stephen King adaptations but the subject matter complimented Lifetime’s penchant for celebrities, scandals and sex crimes in its programming perfectly. The target audience, which still more or less holds today, ensured that none of the rape scenes ever approached the voyeurism or perverse pleasure they achieve in many horror movies. Though fiction, it was fluent with the showbusiness biography strand of original movies on Lifetime. In fact, it’s quite striking how King’s work seems malleable to a wide range of TV genres and formats.

The Biggest driver of a Lifetime!

The Biggest driver of a Lifetime!

King’s novel Under the Dome has been adapted and expanded into a primetime CBS TV series, which blended into the current fashion for fantasy and science-fiction television in the network schedules. A decade ago, King developed a re-make of Lars Von Trier’s surreal medical drama Riget called Kingdom Hospital which heralded a trend for American versions of European (mainly Scandinavian) TV series that has yet to see an end. King’s short stories were regularly fodder for half-hour dramas in the revived series of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits during the fantasy anthology renaissance in the ‘80s and ‘90s. His contribution to the modern gothic even came full circle as King penned an original screenplay for Fox’s paranormal detective series The X-Files in 1998. The tribute is fitting as we can see the influence of Stephen King miniseries in contemporary TV horror such as the self-contained first season of The Walking Dead or the season-long anthology dramas that comprise American Horror Story. It might not be an affinity King is particularly proud to boast – although now would be the time to jump on the pioneer bandwagon – but it’s one that, like the repressed, will always return to haunt him.

TV in Short

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2014 by Tom Steward

The significance and impact of American TV shows are usually measured by longevity since it takes an inordinate amount of public will, critical favour and cultural reputation to dodge cancellation year after year. But every so often a programme with a relatively short life on the air ends up being hugely influential in TV, art and culture. Premature cancellation often becomes part of the show’s cult – see Josh Whedon’s Firefly – or masks a rapid decline in quality that makes another season seem deeply undesirable. Either way, these programmes tend not to be cancelled before their time but are just way ahead of their time. It’s hard to see how many of these shows could go on but harder to imagine what future denizens of popular culture would have done without them as inspiration. Here are some TV shows with small runs that ended up being a big deal:

Freaks and Geeks (NBC, 1999-2000)

The future of American popular culture

A Wonder Years for the remaining 99.99999% of the American population that didn’t draw a life lesson from every single incident of their education, this stripped-back yet heart-warming look at high school from the perspectives of its most marginalised students lasted only one season on the air. But the show has sent ripples through American popular culture ever since. Producer Judd Apatow and stars Seth Rogen, James (Di optional) Franco and Jason Segal have completely sewn up US movie and TV comedy in the 15 years since the show aired and they now rank as some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Moreover, Freaks and Geeks incorporation of the socially outcast and physically different into mainstream teen television made a cultural phenomenon like Glee possible and the show’s unglamorous depiction of young Americans is the essence of Apatow and Lena Dunham’s hit HBO series Girls.

Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991)

Like Laura Palmer Twin Peaks dies young.

Widely credited as the show that brought American TV into touch with fine art, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s sci-fi procedural super-soap also heralded a revolution in television storytelling. Melodramas such as Dallas and Dynasty had already shown that ongoing stories and cliffhanger endings weren’t an anathema to primetime popularity but Twin Peaks demonstrated that a single storyline could captivate audiences over a year of television. The question of ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ would have normally been answered in as little as 60 minutes of television but took over a year and half to be settled. Now detective programs all over the world from Denmark’s Forbrydelsen to Britain’s Broadchurch wear the season-long mystery as a badge of quality. In fact, it was only when Twin Peaks tied up the Laura Palmer case and pursued half-baked replacement storylines that the program was cancelled following its second season.

Cop Rock (ABC, 1990)

Cops Rock!

By 1990, producer Steven Bochco was already established as someone who mixed television genres but this medley of musical and police procedural was a step too far for most people when it aired. How times have changed. One of the biggest TV hits of recent years has been Glee, a high school dramedy liberally peppered with musical numbers and – as witnessed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and How I Met Your Mother – it’s long been considered de rigueur for TV shows to have a musical episode. Of course, it’s one thing to have a show whose premise falls naturally into song and another to try to crowbar music into a decidedly spoken-word genre. It’s also worth remembering that what viewers enjoy about one-off musical episodes is their novelty and Cop Rock was relentlessly musical. It’s maybe why the show never lasted beyond 11 episodes.

Doctor Who: The Movie (Fox, 1996)

Before Dr. Phil there was…

The long-running cult UK science-fiction series had been off the air for 7 years when Fox decided to revive it as a show that could live in America and alongside stylish adult science-fiction like The X-Files. The feature-length pilot tried to keep one foot in both camps, playing as a continuation of the series rather than an American re-make while changing some of the key aspects of the programme’s mythology. Consequently, the revival alienated both the fan base and new audiences and the pilot was never picked up. The people behind the re-launched UK version of the program were obviously not as turned off as viewers at the time. New Doctor Who has taken on many of the US re-vamps, including its romantic predilections, focus on special effects and elaborate set design, and these have helped make it the international hit it is today.

 

 

 

 

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