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All the Single Maybes

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2012 by Tom Steward

Most American TV is so chaste it makes me feels like I hail from a nation of sexual deviants. If Jersey Shore recalls the buffoonish innocence of an end-of-run episode of Saved by the Bell, the UK version Geordie Shore is more like the grim disillusion of Screech’s sex tape. A lot of this is down to repressive censorship practices in US network television, not to mention the deeply conservative corporate owners of some stations. But TV tends not to reflect the openness towards sex in American popular culture. Comparatively there is far more sexual repression in British attitudes, and this comes out in my vehemently prudish reaction to ABC’s The Bachelorette. Like most of the over-50 relatives that feature in the later stages of the programme, I’m uneasy with the way the show’s design promotes promiscuity whilst pushing the dogma of monogamy-as if one leads naturally to the other.

Does he have brown hair?

As The Bachelor/ette is one of the few hit US reality series that doesn’t have a British doppelganger, some introduction is required. Basically, it’s a dating version of Guess Who? Each year, one man or woman (increasingly a contestant from previous years) goes through a seemingly endless 10-week process in which they have multiple dates in various spots across the country and globe with several members of the opposite sex who run the gamut from bland to unhinged. As the series goes on, the eponymous singleton eliminates one or a couple of contestants per week by denying them a rose like some demented flower Nazi. After weeks of simultaneous and group dating-in which the show begins to eerily resemble the scene list from a porn movie-the pool is whittled down to two, until a winner emerges and becomes a fiancé. It’s a perfectly normal road to marriage…if you’re James Bond.

No Rose For You!!!

It’s now a cliché of the white noise surrounding the programme that romantic relationships between the contestants are doomed to failure. The marriages are reality TV versions of shotgun weddings, with a digital video camera with high colour contrast aimed at the grooms’ heads instead of a firearm. No-one involved with the show ever seems to attribute this to the fact that the participant is compelled to split their affections equally across partners or that the series gives the contestant a chance to try out each of the four finalists sexually in turn in the sleazily-named ‘fantasy suite’-another nod to the conventions of the sex industry. The situation flatters the producers immensely, with post-publicity in the tabloid scrutiny of the couple’s troubles and splits keeping the brand visible out-of-season. It also makes a hoard of familiar show faces single again, putting them back in the rotation for future series.

Back for a second time!

The bravado and the carefree playfulness of the contestants in the first few weeks are all well and good. But it’s when the contestants start to declare their love for each other and meet their respective families that the façade of true romance starts to look as false as the Vegas-Roman pillars that replace load-bearing walls in reality shows. As if anyone with an ounce of self-respect would continue to go through the motions of a game show with someone they cared for that deeply. It’s hard to accept that the contestants’ families would be comfortable consenting to their loved one being exposed to so much hurt. The show gets a lot of dramatic mileage out of suggesting in the editing that the parents will object to their child’s pluralistic attitude towards love. With some judicious, Bravo-style shot displacement, however, this all seems to come up dung-smelling roses in the end.

Daughter Ricki-the most talked-about child on TV

This past season of The Bachelorette threw a human-shaped spanner in the works. Competitor Emily, a former show winner whose relationship had ended, was now in the driving seat with her pick of suitors. Those in contention for the fantasy suite decided it was too tawdry, not least because Emily has a young daughter at home. Once Emily recognised compatibility and fatherly qualities in Jeff-albeit not before the final show-she ended the competition and sent other potential fiancé, Ari, home. So has the programme finally gained self-awareness about its detrimental effect on long-term relationships? Not exactly. The finale was roundly ridiculed-even by other network shows such as Jimmy Kimmel Live!-for killing the tension of a closing rose ceremony and effectively ending a half-hour early. ABC’s salvage operation centred on promoting Bachelor Pad, a spin-off set seemingly entirely in the fantasy suite with partners for everyone! It’s the Bachelor/ette without piety.

Top TV Picks

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2011 by Tom Steward

I’m just over half way through my stay in the US so here are my Top 5 TV moments from the last two weeks:

  1. Kris Kardashian on morning food show Rachael Ray getting a round of applause for adding parmesan cheese to Pasta Primavera. I still don’t know why.

Ladies and Gentlemen...parmesan cheese!

  1. John Travolta’s cameo as ‘The Dance Doctor’ during Kirstie Alley’s filmed rehearsals for Dancing with the Stars in a classy skit apparently written by the man himself. Travolta playfully pastiched his own performance as Chili Palmer and Elmore Leonard’s cutting dialogue in Get Shorty in his finest and most controlled piece of acting in some years. Almost as good was Kirstie Alley’s disbelief at host Brooke Burke not realizing that this was a pre-written sketch. ‘Really?’, Alley growled, detaching her head from her neck in disapproval, as Burke asked humorlessly what advice Travolta gave to her.
  1. In Anthony’s Bourdain’s No Reservations the self-proclaimed tough guy of fu-cusine and Leonard Cohen lookalike tours the grassroots local food places of Boston with his apparently ker-azy yet to all appearances entirely cogniscent rock star buddy deliberately avoiding the gourmet end of the market ‘and if you don’t like it, fuck you!’. One suspects this mission is not exactly foodie-free once the two mock-fucks start to rhapsodize over the ‘essence of mayonnaise’ in the lobster roll at a Boston seafood joint. Their alcoholic machismo is also somewhat parlayed by the revelation that all hard-boiled toughies can be identified by their fondness for cream soda.
  1. After Grey’s Anatomy star and recording artist Sara Ramirez sings an impromptu rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ to host Sherri Shepherd on The View, scary schoolmistress Barbara Walters bluntly informs her that ‘we have to pay any time anybody sings that’.

'We have to pay for that'

  1. On daytime View-clone The Talk Sharon Osbourne begins the show by attempting to explain her way out of a tabloid-reported tax snafu about an undisclosed property lease on filing day. Characteristically candid, self-deprecating and silly, Sharon is unimpeachable no matter what her financial wranglings. What hope does she have with real estate and taxes anyway when she can’t even control a house full of small, shitting dogs. However, by order of the IRS the show has been re-named The Tax.

Lovable rogue Sharon Osbourne

A Word from our Sponsors

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2011 by Tom Steward

‘Why are we sitting here watching commercials?’ asks C, G housemate, and it’s a fair old point. In the UK it’s pretty obvious when adverts are about to come up, and programmers gently ease viewers in to the transition. On UStelevision, commercials abruptly cut into programmes, taking out lines and ends of scenes like a poltergeist script editor. Commercials even interrupt themselves, making it impossible to concentrate on the most fleeting of promotional programming, and the commercials don’t stop when the programme proper begins either. Fictions feature promotional considerations where brand products are used somewhere in the narrative, often very wittily, as in 30 Rock which continually satirizes NBC’s prostitution by consumer goods conglomerates.

Non-fiction does a lot of straight-to-camera advertising, as shows suddenly stop mid-item and become an infomercial for weight-loss pills, again making it impossible to separate programme and commercial. US TV commercials are more like web pop-ups or computer viruses, something that intrudes on and pervades your media experience when you least want it to. Consequently, whole media industries and online communities have emerged to allow viewers to speed through commercials (video on demand, cheat sites for skipping commercials on TiVos).

TiVo Ad Skips

Websites teach you how to skip ads on TiVo

Though eminently frustrating, commercials have historically been a huge part of the development of American television and shouldn’t be lambasted outright. In the 1950s US TV producers and writers had to fit content around roughly three interludes per hour for sponsor messages and it was this that helped TV develop as a unique art form different from theatre or cinema. For instance, the dramatic arc of TV anthology plays had to accommodate breaks in the flow and therefore TV drama became characterized by sharp cliffhanger rises in suspense or action every 10 or so minutes. They are also an unignorable part of the ritual of watching TV. I remember an episode of teen girl comedy Blossom where  father Ted goes to pee saying ‘and now a word from our sponsors’. This excerpt shows us in the pithiest (or pissiest) way possible that commercials are ways of TV serving people’s biological needs for food, drink and bodily functions. And we love them as much as we do our own gluttonies, addictions and excretions. I have a couple of favourites at the moment. The first is a cycle of commercials for Chantix, a give-up smoking pharmaceutical.

It used to be the case that US drug commercials would deliver the small-print about side-effects and defects in an indecipherably fast voiceover in the last second or so of the commercial, which has been brilliantly parodied (like virtually all TV absurdities) by The Simpsons’ distressingly accurate mock-ups of network advertising. It felt like a corporate conspiracy to cover-up the serious health risks associated with particular products and this is probably why such information is now given in a more leisurely manner, taking up the majority of the commercial and repeated almost verbatim at the end. Unfortunately, this only makes the drugs sound more life-threatening as an exhaustive list of possible ailments like kidney failure, heart attacks, respiratory problems, skin blemishes (and my personal favourite ‘unusual dreams’) is rolled out over soft piano on-hold music, a sickeningly inappropriate and seemingly endless concoction of words and sounds which suggests the pain will never end after taking Chantix. Plus the commercials are usually predicated on an irresolvable tautology that sounds like a Zen saying designed to separate mind from body such as: ‘Do you want to give up smoking without giving up smoking?’. Yes, Chantix is apparently not just a wonder-drug but a porthole into an alternative universe of Marxist dialectic or, if that’s too posh a reference for you, the Bizarro World. The second is a set of commercials for Poise, a pad designed to counter bladder control problems in women featuring Whoopi Goldberg.

Commercials are so often about hiding embarrassing problems or anxieties with advertisers and companies preying on insecurities to sell products vaunted as paper-over-the-crack solutions (no pun intended). But this commercial tries to comfort people who suffer from these ailments, reassuring them that it’s completely normal (1 in 3 women have had it at some time) and, importantly, that it can be funny, with Whoopi’s pleasingly infantile ‘spritzer’ noises. There’s something cathartic about the ‘fart is funny’ silliness of this commercial that I imagine would be a tremendous release for those suffering from this ailment. Its bluntness also says something about the aggressive cajoling of US TV commercials and how it can be used in a more positive way.

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