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Time for TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on March 7, 2016 by Tom Steward

As Fuller House demonstrates, TV is always eager to flex its nostalgia muscles but recent programs have shown that it’s still the timeliness of the medium that puts it above others. While Donald Trump scapegoats Mexican immigration for America’s problems and builds his “policies” (and I use that word as broadly as it will stretch) around a wall dividing America and Mexico, Fox is airing an animated sitcom about a racist border agent living in a town called ‘Mexifornia’ who remains oblivious to the generous spirit of his Latino neighbor. Meanwhile in the post-Snowden age, a basic cable drama explores the anti-heroism of the hacker terrorist. But television can never shed anachronism completely and while these shows might be current they are far from new.

border

Deport thy neighbor!

Bordertown is a blatant callback to the ‘bad neighbor’ sitcom that has been one of the most common formats for the genre and usually the vehicle for discussing vast social, racial and political differences between characters. The British sitcom Love Thy Neighbour in which a working-class racist white man lives next door to a middle-class African-Briton is perhaps the best (if that word can ever be used in conjunction with the show) example of this, though Hitler-Jewish couple neighbour sitcom Heil! Honey I’m Home is certainly the most extreme. Previous animated Fox comedies have used this device, forging dynamics between church-hating slob Homer Simpson and God-loving puritan Ned Flanders in The Simpsons or button-downed Texan Hank and extravagant Laotian Kahn in King of the Hill.

The ethics of hacking may not have been addressed as cogently as they have in USA’s Mr. Robot but the act itself has traditionally been a means to an end in TV drama. State-sanctioned hackers like Chloe in 24 helped to move the plot along in real-time, even when the character was faced with the drudgery of coffee shop Wi-Fi. On CBS, there’s a CSI about hacking (the only one left, believe it or not) and something called Scorpion which puts hacking at the centre of story development, even though the show seems designed to make tech people seethe with rage at the inaccuracies. Plus whoever made this has a raging Fight Club fetish, with a delusional loner embroiled in terrorist activities as social protest.

To fight the hate-fuelled bile of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, we need an alternative that doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to condemning the Caucasian culture that engendered his political triumphs. In that sense, the bigotry and ignorance (#bignorance) of white characters in Bordertown is more of an antidote than the polite questioning of Trump on news programming, which ensures their ratings cow remains sacred. While partisan liberal news networks like MSNBC can be counter-attacked for projecting ideology, Mark Hentemann and Seth MacFarlane’s politically incorrect comedy cannot, since it extends its satire to the left and Latino culture, rather than cowering from it. The lack of controversy may be because it is little-watched, but it also could be a sign the public accept its truth.

Like its pre-9/11 cinematic predecessor, Mr. Robot may not have a political perspective as much as simply throwing around politically charged words and ideas. That’s fine, as drama shouldn’t be propaganda, but there’s no doubt it captures our ambivalence as a culture about digital whistleblowers. I’m pushing through the first season slowly so excuse me if I’ve already been debunked but hacker Elliot has neither been confirmed as a hero or villain, nor has his direct action yet been given moral deniability for us as an audience. I’m not sure it’s because the writers can’t make their minds up, but rather that we can’t. They may not have predicted the Apple terrorist phone unlocking crisis but they can count on its like in the news.

roboto

Domo arigot!

Not that I want to draw a false equivalence between the two shows. Mr. Robot is a huge departure for USA, who have typically relied on a bunch of slick ricks to fill their original programming vacuum. Bordertown is familiar territory for Fox, who are the leaders in mainstream adult animation (though Adult Swim is snapping at their heels) and will only enhance a pre-existing reputation. But they are united in their contemporaneity, and the ability to deliver that in a style that seems like it’s always been with us. Because it nearly always has. Both programs test the limits of modern-day American culture, straddling its violent past and technological future. But crucially they also know how to appeal to our overriding sense of nostalgia.

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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.

Flipping Channels

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 28, 2013 by Tom Steward

When adjusting to TV in another country foreign viewers need all the help they can get. Even something as basic as the name of the channel can provide indispensable clues to the kind of programmes likely to appear. Unfortunately after flipping through the channels on American TV I’m none the wiser. The naming of networks here seems to be ironic. All I found on The Travel Channel were programmes about the excessive intake of high-calorie foods which make Americans less able to move. When I turned over to The Learning Channel I saw wall-to-wall programming about people without formal educations. By the time I got to The History Channel I wasn’t at all surprised to find a show about the latest cars on the market. Given that the networks score hit-after-hit by commissioning against type, I’ve come up with a list of channels that might benefit from a bizarro re-brand:

 

Current Network Name: HBO (Home Box Office)

‘It’s still TV’

New Network Name: OGSD (Outdoor Gas Station DVD)

 

New Slogan: ‘It’s still TV’

 

Changes to Network: The channel ident will have to be changed. Instead of celestial white letters burning transcendently out of the white noise of a TV screen against the sound of a heavenly choir, there will be a pixelating logo of a limp hot dog on a pirated DVD menu (with only a ‘Play Movie’ option) for a 90s thriller starring Ice Cube and the sound of a trucker dumping audible in the background.

 

Marketing Strategy: Subscription free with any Slurpie.

 

Current Network Name: USA

‘Characters arrested on sight’

New Network Name: The Islamic Republic of Iran

 

New Slogan: ‘Characters Arrested on Sight’

 

Changes to Network: The network will commission a new Law & Order spin-off called ‘State Torture Victims Unit’. They will also develop a home-cooking themed reality show called ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Ahmaddinejad?’ in which the Iranian President drops by to share the evening meals of families across America.

 

Marketing Strategy: Sell original programmes to a rival network until they become hit shows on the other channel and that network starts to make its own original programming. At this time the network president will appear in public denouncing the rival network’s original programmes and demand that they cancel them. If this strategy fails the network will threaten their rival with a ratings war by putting on all-day back-to-back re-runs of Two and a Half Men.

 

 

Current Network Name: PBS (Public Broadcasting Service)

‘Funded by Hostile Takeovers’

New Network Name: The Romney Channel

 

New Slogan: ‘Funded by Hostile Takeovers’

 

Changes to Network: Bert and Ernie will need to be evicted from Sesame Street in accordance with network president Romney’s views on gay marriage. Downton Abbey will be pulled and replaced by Downtown Antimony, a historical drama about the Utah metal mining industry.

 

Marketing Strategy: Instead of telethons, funding for the network will come from Super Pacs and rather than a free tote bag, viewers will receive a visit from a Mormon minister, whether they contribute money to the network or not.

 

 

Current Network Name: The Weather Channel

‘Weather has never been less important’

New Network Name: The Air Conditioning Channel

 

New Slogan: ‘The Weather Has Never Been Less Important’

 

Changes to Network: Reporters will now do their segments to camera indoors standing in front of the draft from a dehumidifier for dramatic effect. Al Roker’s ‘look at the weather where you are’ will become a close-up of a thermostat.

 

Marketing Strategy: Are you kidding me? How the hell do you market weather anyway?

 

 

Current Network Name: Fox News

‘Distorted and Unhealthy’

New Network Name: Fox Unsubstantiated Rumours

 

New Slogan: ‘Distorted and Unhealthy’

 

Changes to Network: None.

 

Marketing Strategy: Anchors will no longer have to pretend that they don’t agree with everything Karl Rove says or concede to statistical facts like election victories. Otherwise, on message.

 

 

Current Network Name: Lifetime

‘Your death. Your purgatory’

New Network Name: All Eternity

 

New Slogan: ‘Your Death. Your Purgatory’

 

Changes to Network: To compliment the feeling of burning in hell forever original movies will run continuously on a loop without episodes of Frasier to break up the torture. Dance Moms will have a themed episode in which the students re-create the Thriller video and Abby Miller, hopefully, decomposes.

 

Marketing Strategy: Re-tool all original reality shows to include death. One Born Every Minute gains a sister programme called Make Way for Babies in which new parents have to decide on an old person to kill in order to balance the population. The Week the Women Went takes on a darker aspect as it becomes clear they’re not coming back.

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