Archive for under the dome

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.

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Marathon Man

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2013 by Tom Steward

It was while looking for something to do with my first Labor Day in the United States-except working, ironically-that I learned about the tradition of spending the holiday watching back-to-back episodes of a TV show in what is termed (I’m assuming for reasons of endurance rather than fitness) a TV marathon. Given that this is how I spend most of my days anyway, it seemed perverse to be treating a TV marathon as the novelty it was supposed to be for the majority of the population. But I’m also not going to miss a golden opportunity to sit in my pants morning, noon and night continuously watching TV on one of the rare occasions it’s been deemed socially permissible.

If I’d have known running a marathon was this easy…

G and I had a season’s worth of The Walking Dead to catch up on so this seemed the obvious candidate for our route on this marathon. Hell, the roads are already empty! But it may have been the least appropriate choice. Something doesn’t sit right about a marathon based around slow, lumbering bodies and if the series was ever going be used in an armchair simulation of a sporting event, it should be a zombie walk. What’s more, a couple of episodes are enough to convince you that everyone you see outside the next day over forty is a Walker (the show’s overly literal nickname for zombies). A day of it could have you stabbing the nearest stranger with an overbite in the eye.

‘This Life’ fan cancels operation for photo opp!

Watching an entire season of a TV programme in one day also made it clear to me that what you make of a show depends entirely on the time it takes you to watch it. Staggered over several months of the year or even spaced out over a few weeks, a single season of a TV series can seem exhaustive in content and myriad in meaning, even if the show itself takes place in a short timeframe. Season Three of The Walking Dead may seem this way if seen over time, but compacted into twenty-four hours it seems like a fable, an elaborately told yet simple story where everything goes towards illustrating a singular moral revealed at its end.

Who’s the Governor?

The Labor Day TV marathon doesn’t depend on DVD ownership nor does it require streaming from an online content provider. You can sign up for the race with a cable subscription. You can’t always choose what you eat but you’ll never go hungry. It’s common practice for US TV networks to have multiple episodes of the same show playing continuously throughout Labor Day. But this is only a slight adaptation of what many networks do already. USA and TV Land regularly air a day of episodes of Law & Order and The Golden Girls at a time, allowing them to get their money’s worth from what they laid out for the syndication rights. The ‘marathon’ banner merely themes and brands economic processes that are ingrained in network scheduling.

‘Really? We’re still on?’

TV marathons are often used tactically as part of a last-ditch effort to get straggling viewers to defect from a piece of event television, like the annual Super Bowl. So what happens on Labor Day when networks program marathons against other marathons? Well, in the spirit of a nuclear détente (the heyday of the network era was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, after all) nobody gets a marathon and instead you end up with a stalemate in which viewers cross back-and-forth through the networks to cram a range of their favourite shows into a day of viewing. And, again, these concurrent marathons make it seem like every other day on network TV. Whichever network has the best show on tap will prevail. But the competition for timeslots suddenly becomes redundant.

So many choices…but no chance of a marathon!

Marathons don’t just change our perspective on the shows that are aired but on how we watch television. We’re not tuning in at a certain time for the beginning of a programme that lasts a set number of minutes; we’re arbitrarily jumping into the middle of something and then jumping out when hours later we’ve had enough. Despite turning individual episodes into one amorphous strip of television, marathons re-focus our attention on the programme rather than the time it plays or how long it’s on for, weirdly enough. It’s easy to forget while we’re in mid-marathon whether we’re watching a Tuesday or a Friday night show, whether it plays weekly at 8 or 9. Rather we’re made to look at the show we’re watching as content for content’s sake.

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