Archive for top gear

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!

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The Signal of Foreign

Posted in American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV channels with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2014 by Tom Steward

With so little British television watched in America, at least knowingly, it often seems more important to be an ambassador than a critic. However, some British programmes make that act of intercultural liaison a difficult proposition and it doesn’t help that in particular cases the American equivalents are far better. Now in its third season on CBS, Elementary is an updatation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories transferred from London to New York and in keeping with the conventions of the police procedural. Given the timing of its arrival and modern-day take on the Holmes mythos, Elementary could be thought of as an American remake of the BBC’s Sherlock. To my mind, though, the latter has simply served to make the former completely irrelevant.

Now that's progressive!

Now that’s progressive!

Really, you don’t expect the American version of a British TV series to be more progressive and edgier and yet Elementary is the series in which Watson is an ethnic woman and Holmes is a recovering drug addict. While Sherlock is groping around in the annals of fan fiction desperately searching for storylines, Elementary offers concrete mysteries week-after-week. Elementary stands confidently in the generic traditions and weekly nature of television but Sherlock seems to be constantly pushing against the logic of TV flow. The supporting characters in Sherlock are severely underdeveloped and generally passed off as morons that reaffirm Holmes’ superior intelligence. Elementary’s ensemble cast is full of fleshed out, complex and relevant characters providing a different perspective on Holmes’ investigations that frequently proves crucial.

Sherlock is surrounded by an incredible fandom than feeds off itself as the series incorporates and invites cult audience activities in its name. As such, the writing is often problematic or inept from a story viewpoint, since it must always gesture to this extra layer of self-gratification. Conversely, Elementary makes the mechanics of plot its priority rather than the relationship between Holmes and Watson, which seems to pique the interest of Sherlock fans. Characters and their dynamics emerge as the storylines advance, and the series never takes the re-gendering of Watson as a cue to slash fiction romance. In doing so, the scripts achieve the rare balance of Conan Doyle’s storytelling where character and plot are equally stimulating, yet neither yields power over the other.

In light of Elementary, I no longer have anything good to say about Sherlock. I can certainly see the attraction to American viewers, as the former homogeneously blends into network primetime programming while the latter seems to defy those very conventions. I daresay this is probably why Top Gear is so popular here, because the American equivalent would be so bland and corporate in comparison. Yet a more informed and less ignorant version of Top Gear is no bad thing, and does more justice to the matter in hand than a faux-sitcom peppered with cultural insensitivity. I suspect the curiosity of Sherlock is what blinds viewers here (British viewers you have no excuse!) to the fact that there’s a more interesting adaptation in their backyard.

It’s also a matter of salesmanship. Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat like to write in a way that aims to convince you of the quality of what you’re witnessing in the hope you will ignore the lack of basic competence in the craft. Success is measured in the same way it would be for an ad campaign rather than an individual artwork. It’s hard not to be impressed or enticed by television that is so convinced of its own transcendence. Elementary is rather more discreet in self-estimation and should be judged over time. Regardless of calibre, most imported British dramas make it on to American screens through the PBS Masterpiece strand, which automatically bestows worthiness upon them in ways that Thursday night on CBS does not.

I'm a fan!

I’m a fan!

There’s so much British television that beats America hands-down, especially the regular kind, but the case of Sherlock and Elementary suggests we cannot make broad assumptions about the inherent superiority of British television. Whatever promise of distinction Sherlock offers to American viewers does not conceal its dysfunction as drama and Elementary is not to be confused with the swathes of mediocre procedural television that surrounds it. I want American audiences to buy into the alternative appeal of British TV, but as someone who cares about quality I’m wary of advocating programmes that offer nothing but a sideways look, especially when there’s stronger material in even their most elemental of programming. I can’t help think that only British TV will suffer if America fetishizes our worst.

U.S. Auto Know Better (Volume 2)

Posted in British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2011 by Tom Steward

Top Gear in the USA

While you’re enjoying the not-at-all tiresome spectacle of Dick Van Dyke dicking (or dyking) around on roller-skates as part of a major police murder investigation which he has no right to be involved in anyway, I thought I’d do a follow-up to my last blog about Top Gear. This one contains hard evidence of how this ‘Series of Unfortunate Bellends’ catches up with you when you’re an Englishman in the New World, in places you would never possibly expect. It also shows that Top Gear can be prime cultural capital to have in certain situations befacing a border-crossing Briton in and around the US, but only if used judiciously. To the best of my recollection, this is a transcript of a conversation between me and an agent at the border between the Mexico and the USA, having just come back from Tijuana:

(Tom walks up to checkpoint, passport in hand. Agent checks passport)

Agent: So, Top Gear or Fifth Gear?

Tom: Errr, hum, pum, well. Top Gear, I suppose.

Agent: Ah, you like the comedy, huh?

Tom: It’s certainly got that.

Despite my surprise, which evidently turned me into some sort of bumbling British huffer-puffer character in a 40s film played by Nigel Bruce, I couldn’t believe my luck. Instead of tricksy questions about where I’d been, what I’d done, and why the hell I was bothering them, I was being asked about television, something which I have professional expertise in. But this was a double-edged sword. I was about to get ahead of myself.

(Agent winds up ‘interview’. Tom begins to shuffle away)

Tom: They’re changing Top Gear, you know.

Agent: Visibly Alarmed What?!

Tom: They think it’s gotten too comic, so they’ll be less sitcom stuff in it.

Agent: Oh no.

At this point, I’m cursing my own stupidity. Here I had a border agent in the palm of my hand for merely being from the same country as ‘When Bigots Stage Accidents’ and I blow it! Couldn’t just leave it at a few innocuous exchanges, could I? No, I had to provide a production tidbit to bow out on, and then risk an angry border agent who’s just lost his favourite TV show shooting the messenger with extreme prejudice by detaining me forever. He didn’t, and I was on my way. But I’m sure the blow was lightened for him somewhat when this happened mere weeks later:

U.S. Auto Know Better

Posted in British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2011 by Tom Steward

There’s a British show you can’t avoid when watching TV with Americans, and it’s not for want of trying. Not only is it mis-representing what British telly is all about, it’s also drastically underselling us as a people. The American’s televisual window into the British psyche used to be Benny Hill, where Britons were shown to be highly sexist though only moderately successful at defiling women but prepared to go that extra mile to make it happen. Now we’re seen the world over for a whole host of bigotries, thanks to this programme, and for an array of approaches to bigotry. Yes, I’m talking about Top Gear (or ‘I’ve got a car, have you got a car?’ which I have renamed it in honour of the two lines that can substitute for any dialogue in the show). This car review programme has been around on British TV since the late 1970s, but has in the last decade splintered injudiciously into a barn-based talk show, a sub-Terry and June sitcom of endless campsite misunderstandings, and a version of The Cannonball Run without the debonair wit. Whereas host Jeremy Clarkson once saved his idioctavely (somewhere between idiotic and provocative) opinions on politics and news for column inches, he now puts them more and more in the show, and has even recruited a couple of crapprentices, James May and Richard Hammond, to one day be as hateful to the world as he is.

Disgracefully, Top Gear is consistently the most popular and beloved programme on British screens, and has proved to be the BBC’s most profitable export around the globe, particularly in the US market. What is even more baffling about the show’s international popularity is that Clarkson, May and Hammond (the Kirk, Spock and Bones of prejudice) are majorly responsible for its success. American audiences prefer to see the UK hosts rather than having a native re-make, which would normally be how to translate it overseas. The British establishment of TV academics seem resolved to resist explaining the global popularity of Top Gear. At a conference two years ago, a member of the editorial board for the ‘BFI TV Classics’ book range said outright that they would not commission a monograph on the show because ‘we didn’t want another book about Jeremy Clarkson’. Now I wouldn’t want to feed into Clarkson’s publishing empire either, but finding out what makes Top Gear so coveted might tell us something about what viewers are like across different nationalities, if only to force us to recognise our bad habits and change them immediately.

The Twataman Empire

People wanted more than one volume...look at yourselves!

But there’s a few things I’ve learnt from talking to Americans about Top Gear that helped me to understand its appeal in the US a little more. While watching the show with a friend in San Francisco, I asked why Americans were still so taken with the BBC version and remained lukewarm towards Top Gear USA, the US re-make. My friend told me she liked how the programme lambasted some of the major car companies in the US, and thought that this would be impossible to do on a US network show, where the same companies would most likely provide the advertising consideration. So maybe the cult of Clarkson, May and Hammond is not solely responsible for its success in the US. Maybe it’s also the vicarious and anarchic thrill of a programme breaking free of the dependence of advertising and loyalty to sponsors which has characterised American television since the 1950s. My friend openly admitted to finding the slapdick (my term) comedy of the three hosts hilarious, commenting that ‘we don’t have people like Clarkson on American TV’. ‘Fox News’ I thought, but didn’t say.

Nevertheless, the hosts’ freedom from corporate affiliations goes against an industry where hosts, especially on daytime TV, will suddenly starting doing a promotional spot in the middle of the show. Because it so freely flouts the commercial conventions of American television, and the presenters challenge the notion of an US TV host as a corporate spokesman, I can see how the programme would appeal to Americans on the left of the political spectrum, especially those who believe in and thirst for a non-commercial alternative to heavily sponsored and company-loyal TV. For UK viewers, the hosts are outwardly known as right-wing bigots, the competition to get products featured (positively or negatively) on the show is fierce between car companies, and the commercial-free, independent BBC  is accused of promoting consumer capitalism. Something has clearly been lost in the translation.

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