Archive for @tvinaword

No Sets Please, We’re British

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, TV Acting, TV advertising with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2013 by Tom Steward

There are endless reasons why I’m happy to be with G but I’ve always been especially grateful that she’s not an Anglophile or fangirl of British pop culture. I find G’s nonplussed reaction to most things British, including accents and the sights of London, oddly comforting.  I suppose it’s just reassuring to know that it’s me she interested in not my country of origin. I say this because you Americans are obsessed with us Brits. Actually, it’s truer to say you’re obsessed with what you think we are. American television is fanning the fires of this fascination like a Pudding Lane bake-off…and you can’t get more British than that!

There’s not a show I’ve seen on American TV that doesn’t either have in it a British performer or someone pretending to be British, often both given the lax standards of background research for writing British characters. It doesn’t even have to be a show. Various American companies have British spokespeople and mascots in their TV advertising. Why am I not flattered? Because the fascination somehow never extends to actually finding out what the diverse and varied life and culture of Britain is like. Instead it’s an incredibly narrow, dated and ignorant version of our national culture (royalty, the swinging sixties, Victorian cockneys) that is continually reproduced across American television.

A Cockney lizard is the Geico mascot…for some season!

I’m sure all non-Americans (even ethnic-Americans) and American minorities have much the same beef and I’m not saying the British have any special claim to reductive racial stereotyping on TV. It’s the inverse relationship between the interest taken and the research done that makes American TV’s obsession with the British so bemusing to me. Why go to the trouble of inorganically adding a British person to the cast of an American-set show or concept and then not do the requisite due diligence to give them a chance of convincing at what they’re supposed to be?

A cynical answer would be that Americans know so little about Britain that TV viewers wouldn’t know the difference. But why then are Brits so prominently placed in American television as leads or major supporting characters, presenters and stars, and commercial representatives? Why are we not marginalised like so many other nationalities that American TV knows next to nothing about?

‘You make one more crack about pocket-rocket and I’ll paddle you!’

There are doubtless innumerable political and historical reasons for this (the need to keep us arcane and aristocratic seems pretty closely related to an age-old American view of the British as colonisers from the old world) but in the superficial now I think it has a lot to do with Britain being a major producer and exporter of TV to an extent not seen before. The US, traditionally a powerhouse of global TV distribution, has to find methods of coping with this new threat and slotting British actors and characters into TV shows (often for no good story reason) seems as good a way of joining the competition as any.

There’s also something about always having to laugh at or undermine British people appearing on TV that means however high up in the pecking order they are, their one-dimensionality will always be more important than their function. Think about how many American shows sacrifice character development for a couple of cheap shots at cross-cultural misidentification or excuses for vicarious swearing (the British obscenity ‘wanker’ frequently passes Broadcasting Standards unnoticed). On Dancing with the Stars, Len Goodman has been hired to impart his technical opinion on dancing, drum up the crowd and occasionally play the pantomime villain. Increasingly, however, he’s been there to provide British slang for the other presenters to mock.

The British wing of the CIA.

There’s a quieter British invasion going on (we don’t like to make a fuss) in TV casting. Most of your favourite American TV shows will boast British cast members, many or all passing as natives. I’ve never quite got over Mancunian Egg from This Life as an Atlantan sheriff’s deputy in The Walking Dead or Homeland’s marine double-agent Brody being as British as the head of the CIA. Often producers are calling on past prejudices about British actors to inject a note of taste but it’s also about an Anglicisation of the American acting workforce taking root over recent years.

All the way from Ian Fleming to yours truly, Brits have recognised that keeping your accent quiet is how to be taken seriously in America. British actors playing Americans may have blended in to TV without a trace but those who chose to wear Britishness on their sleeves will remain the rodeo clowns of television.

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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. 

TV in a Word

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV in a Word with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2013 by Tom Steward

If this were in print I’d feel obliged to emblazon the word ‘Advertisement’ over it but as all online writing is faintly promotional anyway I’m content to leave it at this bashful disclaimer.

A month ago I started the Twitter account @TVinaword which creates new words to describe TV shows by compounding three words that are synonymous with each individual programme. For example: ‘The Shield. Vic, Visceral, Vicious. In a word: Viscous’. The account had a long evolution. I originally wanted it to consist of reviews of films that were 1 sentence or 140 characters long (those of you who regularly read this blog know it could go either way) such as ‘Downfall: When you’ve seen one Nazi officer shoot himself in the head, you’ve seen them all’ or ‘Prometheus: 124 minutes of film to explain one dodgy special effect’. I quickly reconsidered upon realising that there were several accounts like this already, not surprising given that it’s only a slight adaptation of what Twitter does anyway. I also felt it was slightly peevish to create an account simply to allow me to take my revenge on a medium that hasn’t given me much to enjoy in the past few years. Cinema deserves better from its critics than simple mockery-even if currently worthy of it-and anything written about it should always stress how great it can be and look past momentary phases of decline.

The Viscous Vic Mackey!

Whatever the account was going to become I knew at that point it would be about TV. I’d be sending up the medium from a position of affectionate mockery and in light of my unadulterated admiration for it. I also wouldn’t mind being reductive about TV given that I devote hundreds of words a week to exploring it in excruciating detail. I still hadn’t figured out what form this Twitticism would take when after finishing BBC2’s detective serial The Fall I took to Twitter to try to describe what was unique about the programme. It wasn’t just that it was chilling; it wasn’t just that it was brilliant, but it was both these things and Gillian Anderson. It seemed to me that any word that tried to account for The Fall needed to have these three elements in play. That’s how the word ‘Chillian’ came about. After tweeting this new word, I realised this was exactly the problem with TV criticism. The same old words are trotted out each time we write about a programme (if I see the words ‘complex’ and ‘HBO’ in the same sentence again I may scream) and yet the programme itself is entirely unique.

The Fall…Chillian.

After coming up with a name and tweeting a few more words, I began to see that it was particularly effective when the word, despite being completely new, seemed to describe the TV show perfectly. Like Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, the words make sense because of the imagery they evoke not because they have shared meanings. The breakthrough in this respect was Star Trek: The Next Generation. The word was ‘Connferscience’ which incorporated ‘Conn’ (the Enterprise’s command which is forever being transferred like a verbal Frisbee), ‘Conference’ and ‘Conscience’. If you were to ask what happens in Star Trek: The Next Generation Connferscience, despite its Newspeak qualities, would be as good an answer as any. Sometimes words arrange themselves in ways that sums up the show more directly that the three words they amalgamate. The Walking Dead was represented through the words ‘Humanity, Humidity, Stupidity’ which becomes ‘Humanstupidity’, a word that could conceivably work as the show’s subtitle. It’s always gratifying when the word resembles one we know, especially if that word is the opposite of what the show is. Three words that sprang to mind when watching Revolution were ‘Swords, Gourds, Bored’, creating ‘Sworgourdsbored’, which it most definitely is not.

Swords? Bored! Revolution.

Every TV show-good and bad-is different and they each deserve a different word. There’s always something that can’t be accounted for in existing language, like a character or an actor. What makes a TV programme is a cocktail of different energies and when one or two of those are removed from the mix, it’s not the show anymore. I’ve tried to make this problem disappear by writing a lot and hoping that enough combinations of words will eventually do justice to one programme. Now I’m doing the exact opposite, whittling these descriptions down to a few words and creating a brand new one distinctive to a programme. TV is a variety of individuals, each with a name.

 

Back to Reality

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2013 by Tom Steward

Despite the name, reality TV is unflinching in its adherence to the conventions of their rigid formats. It’s tantalising when a reality TV show throws out those conventions but then doubly deflating when they still manage to collapse under the crushing weight of formula after deviating from format. Breaking with convention has also become a branding strategy for many reality shows (especially the long-running ones) so it becomes difficult to separate an experimentation with format from marketing bullshit. I’ve encountered a couple of instances of this recently. Celebrity Wife Swap is the US version of a European reality format in which the long-term partners of male celebrities exchange lives for a week. The latest season began with an episode that changed the rules of the game significantly and almost to the point of abstraction. Instead of men swapping partners it was the women that exchanged their significant other, who were also women. The partners were not romantic peers but live-in blood relatives, and different relations on each side. Comedienne and broadcaster Joan Rivers took in Bristol Palin, reality-star celebrity daughter of Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, while Rivers’ daughter, TV producer Melissa Rivers, went to live with Willow Palin, Bristol’s sister.

You’re my wife/daughter/sister now!

This loose interpretation of the format may have been motivated simply by the draw of the personalities involved and the prospect of an entertaining confrontation between Joan Rivers and Bristol Palin after Rivers’ frequent jokes about the Dancing with the Stars contestant’s weight in the press. But the sister and daughter swap had the potential to undercut the patriarchy of the format and suggest alternative living arrangements or definitions of family (alas none of them gay or friendship-based). It also promised that something different would happen, since the roles of daughter and sister are so incongruous and the impact of exchanging family members unknown territory. Somehow the formula of reality TV resisted these challenges from the reality of family life to reproduce the same outcomes. The couples struggled to understand each other, they seem like they will never overcome their differences, then they do, quickly, saving recriminations for their own spouse and ending with the promise of the couple having a better relationship in the future because of the experience. The peculiar dynamics of the relationships seem to make no difference-be it sibling parents or inter-generational mothers-and are entirely secondary to ticking these boxes every week, more Bruckheimer than Broomfield.

Families are all the same…or they will be by the time we’re done.

This year’s season of The Bachelorette was billed by host Chris Harrison as having the ‘most dramatic finale ever’. Even the studio audience balked at that. By the host’s own admission, all season finales are preceded by puffed-up rhetoric promising shocking and surprising twists and turns in the normal course of the show, with a gap between promise and outcome big enough to make it a standing joke with viewers. Last year the final episode of The Bachelorette was cut in half by the contestant choosing her partner early. This was a departure from format that seemed to suggest that contestants were able to mould the conventions of the programme to their desires rather than being cogs in a media machine. But the disruption also annoyed viewers by eliminating the suspense built into the final stages of the competition. It seems that if reality TV was more like reality, with all its loose ends and uneven surfaces, fans of the genre wouldn’t necessarily want to watch it. This year’s season finale had nothing to live up to and everything to prove. It had to stick to the format to the bitter end while looking like it was a breakthrough moment.

‘Keep crying…we’ve got an hour to fill’

Like last year’s finale, the competitive element was jettisoned when eponymous bachelorette Desiree was dumped by her first choice and forwarded the rejection to her most ardent admirer, leaving only one suitor in the running. The finale was split into two parts making a cliffhanger out of the dumping, which only intensified the feeling that Desiree was going home with nothing (excuse the language of commodity exchange but this is basically a game show with prizes). The suspense of the finale strategically shifted to speculation that Desiree’s first choice would return to make a two-horse race and doubts over whether she would accept a proposal from her Plan B. The proposal happened, she accepted, and the other man in her life didn’t come back to complicate things. It almost seems like the opposite of drama to me, and as conventional an outcome as could be mustered. The viewer was not as cheated by the rhetoric as before but only because the reveal was better paced not because it broke free of the restraints of format. It feels like reality TV shows have become propaganda films for their own formats, defending their orthodoxy against any challenges the outside world might bring.

For an account of TV in 799 less words, follow @TVinaword on Twitter…

Selling TV to Americans

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2013 by Tom Steward

My unofficial job title for the last couple of months has been PR Officer for American TV. Recently I’ve been introducing G to a number of my favourite US TV shows using the vast-if routinely inaccessible-archive of programming on Netflix and HuluPlus as well as my DVD collection, which lies within a handful of colossal CD carry cases in an object-fetishist’s version of efficient storage. Some programmes sold themselves. It didn’t take long for G to figure out that Northern Exposure was an engaging, endearing and intelligently written piece of television and not the geriatric-baiting fodder she suspected. Despite its nausea-inducing camerawork, the viscerality, complexity and wit of The Shield also won G over instantly. But there was always a fly in the ointment, and in every application. G took issue with the titles of both shows, Northern Exposure for its meandering moose and The Shield for its kid-friendly jingle. I tried to explain that these were some of the most iconic and beloved aspects of these shows but it fell on deaf ears and blind eyes. Much as I love them, I can see why G thinks these gimmick-driven, one-dimensional titles might be doing a disservice to the shows.

‘Stupid moose’-G

But sometimes G’s sales resistance is difficult to break down. Her response to the Pilot of Breaking Bad was ‘That’s it?’. I wanted to argue with her but it did seem slight in comparison to later episodes and I didn’t think my observation that it was a ‘postmodern version of MacGyver would make it seem any more profound. Twin Peaks was apparently ‘all dialogue’, which is a new one for Lynch critiques, and only became visually stimulating when the donuts came out.  In these instances, I did what every good salesperson should and tried to associate the product with something the customer knows and likes. ‘It’s like Northern Exposure…but with murders’ I said of Twin Peaks. ‘It’s Malcolm in the Middle on meth’, I said of Breaking Bad. ‘You watch Malcolm in the Middle? What are you, 10?’ G responded. I guess my cold reading skills aren’t as good as I thought. Or maybe the prospect of Bryan Cranston in underpants isn’t as alluring to the rest of the world as it is to me.

Just me, then…

On other occasions I became a victim of my own salesmanship. I’ve managed to hook G on a hoard of arresting novelty shows that I’m fast losing interest in. This means I’m watching their tiresomely protracted runs again as exactly the point when I’ve given up on them. 24 and Damages are the chief culprits here, both of them wildly overlong elaborations on an initially brilliant premise. I didn’t think I could lose much more respect for 24 than had already gone but sitting through those final few seasons again with their automated scenarios and tedious twistiness I think it went subterranean. Worse, as the gruesome compulsion to clear all the episodes in as little time as possible accelerated, the show became like wallpaper in our house, an ever-present wall-adornment barely noticeable to our jaded eyes. G is still at the point in Damages where the promise of finding out what will happen in the ongoing story arc is yet to be beaten down by the knowledge of what does happen. But I can see this fading fast. G’s already worked out that they’re only keeping a serial story strand so as not to lose Ted Danson from the series.

A reason for sticking with Damages.

Although G came to Mad Men much later than me, thus allowing me to cherry-pick the most tolerable episodes from the dreary first few seasons, we’ve both turned sour on the series at about the same time. Actually, G got there first before I was willing to admit that the party was over. Midway through the most recent season, the sixth overall, I remember her asking ‘Where’s the advertising gone?’, which should have been enough of an alarm bell given that it’s the equivalent to Cheers forgetting to feature beer. For me, though, it was the sexual reunion of one of the series’ estranged couples that signalled the end of quality. Breaking a rule of good television established in Northern Exposure, it haphazardly thrust (in every sense of the word!) two characters together whose entire function was to carry the suggestion of romantic involvement without ever reaching that point. G turned to me the other day and said ‘I miss British TV’. I think it might be time to start offering a new product line.

 

If you like these blog posts why not follow my new twitter account @tvinaword where I create new words to describe TV shows. Send your own and if I like them I’ll retweet them!

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