I think the most depressing thing on American television – and more so than the predictably and necessarily awful horror of stations like Fox News – are late night talk shows. While I’m too young to have anything to say about Carson, the last two stultifying decades of Leno and Letterman at 11.35pm were a miserable, stagnant waste. Leno was widely hated by his contemporaries from the start (getting Carson’s slot when everyone had assumed it was going to Letterman) and even more so by the end (screwing over Conan O’Brien in a way that deserves its own movie), though he was immensely popular with an audience of America’s 370 year olds. Letterman, for reasons I have never truly understood (but suspect may mostly be a inversion of the disgust focused on Leno), has always been heralded as the master of his craft, and championed by so many American comics. Both were equally vapid, cowardly, and tedious. Neither moved the format a millimetre further forward in their twenty years hosting a nightly programme.
Both shows followed precisely the same format. An opening monologue of over-written-to-death topical gags from a writers room of comics who would never utter such banality in their own acts, delivered as only jokes written by someone else for you can be. Then some ‘wacky’ sketches or bits, accompanied by interminable gurning to camera. Then two or three interviews with celebrity guests, each rehearsed, agreed upon, signed off on by agents and managers, and then delivered in staccato question: monologue; question: monologue; request for plug: plug. No surprises, no movement, no inspiration.
Accompanying this would be a house band led by a sycophantic yes-man, whose role was to laugh into a microphone at the host’s pre-scripted ad-libs, while punchlines were accompanied by brass band stings, presumably to help audiences locate them. Said studio audience’s role was to excessively clap and whoop (because laughter is a sound created by pleasant surprise at humour, while whooping and clapping can be queued) to fill perhaps a third of any show’s running time.
I write all this in the past tense rather inaccurately. While Leno may have mercifully finally gone this year, Letterman is dragging his kooky looks to camera, unfathomably poorly written Top 10 Lists, and familiarity with female staff, out until May 2015. And although Jimmy Fallon may be a far more likeable person than Leno (but then again, so would a slab of concrete), and although the writing is enormously better, it’s still the same stale format being dragged further on. Meanwhile Conan’s TBS show sinks ever deeper into its own smug satisfaction, and despite its actually getting better ratings than Letterman, no one has ever met anyone who watches ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live Exclamation Mark.
The real magic happened at 12.35.
Derren Brown’s The Events comes to an end, and without the much-predicted redaction of his stupid and ignorance-promoting claims in previous episodes. There’s thoughts on the series over all below.
But first Friday’s idiocyfest. Derren Brown was going to beat a roulette wheel. Well, let’s just point out a few things before we get started:
- Any casino in the world would be delighted to be identified and filmed because the publicity and advertising would be superb.
- You can’t make a man give you money and then make him forget he did.
- You can’t guess the speed for a roulette ball and predict where it will fall more accurately than a computer.
- You can’t predict where a ball will land after bouncing off many walls in the first seconds of its being thrown.
- You can’t use triangulation of three fixed objects to calculate the speed of a car.
- You can’t guarantee that a man will not notice that he’s £5,000 short in the bank, and therefore you couldn’t set the trick up the way he claimed to.
So Derren claims that he stole £5,000 from an unwitting stranger, on a programme that begins saying there’s no actors or stooges used. (Which rather raises the question: what is a stooge? As Brown said when he met dear Ben last week on film, he volunteered to be on the show. Are volunteers stooges?) He did this by somehow hypnotising him in about three seconds and then instructing him to visit his bank, withdraw the money, then hand it over. Then erases this from the man’s brain. Because apparently Derren Brown is an evil wizard from space, and we’re supposed to just accept this – surely the most extraordinary feat in the whole episode – as something that just happens every day. He’ll now gamble that money “live” (for some reason he can’t talk directly to Ben when he’s in the casino – which seems strange since it would go some way to proving it wasn’t pre-recorded footage and somewhat undermining the purpose of a live event), and potentially win Ben £180,000.
Once again the episode was a mixture of various nice-enough tricks that had nothing whatsoever to do with the final effect, and Brown bullshitting his face off. Oh, apart from one trick – the ball in the squash court. Where he achieved something equally as impressive as the roulette trick – somehow predicting the path of a spherical object being thrown by someone else by making impossible calculations in split seconds and knowing where on the floor it will come to rest – and threw this away midway through the show as a minor step on the way to his final plan. Which was an odd choice.
But of course he doesn’t manage the final trick! What a way to end the series, eh? The man doesn’t win £180,000, and Brown ends his series on a fail. Except of course nothing of the sort happens.
Okay, it’s time. Enough new shows for a rundown. First up, sitcoms:
Community – NBC
I didn’t know what to expect from this. I love Joel McHale on The Soup, but he does seem to struggle with the autocue. It didn’t bode well for proper acting. The pilot was the funniest sitcom I’ve seen in years.
The premise: McHale is a lawyer who has been caught practising without a license. (“I thought you had a degree from Columbia?” “I do, and now I need one from America. And not as an email attachment.”) He’s forced to go to community college. Er, just go with it. Once there he employs his skills at lying and bullshitting people to attempt to breeze through the course, along the way accidentally creating a study group of mismatched students.
It works by a combination of a superb mix of people (including Chevy Chase, oddly), a potential romance, lots of fast-talking cleverness, and an awesome relationship with one of the members of staff played by John Oliver. This last part provides the very best jokes in the pilot episode, which makes it something of a shame he’s then gone from the show by episode two, and absent from the titles. The following episodes have still been funnier than anything else on TV at the moment – it’s testament to quite how stunning the pilot was that it can drop in quality and still be so damned strong. But the pilot – the moment it finished I started it again and laughed as hard the second time. Oh, and it gets even more kudos for having scored its first two episodes with Matt & Kim songs.
A number of people suggested to me after the disgraceful embarrassment of Derren Brown’s lottery Event that this may be part of his building up to something. That he may have gone in this direction for a reason, with the intention of a big reveal at the end of the series.
I wasn’t convinced. His act has always consisted of performing regular magic tricks with the current vogue of mentalism patter over the top. His act has always been about the grand misdirection of stating his effects are achieved through suggestion, hypnotism, and other baloney, while quietly palming the card. He has always implied that there’s something scientifically verifiable about all manner of woo-woo bullshit, while proclaiming his wishes to denounce woo-woo bullshit. This hypocrisy just seemed to reach a new, grotesque depth with the lottery episode, promoting utter rubbish like automatic writing, and talking complete and utter nonsense about statistics.
But then this week’s episode, so stark-ravingly stupefying, has gone some way toward convincing me that these optimistic people might be right. Because at one point this evening Brown uttered the words, “the energy”.
I know, I know, I witter on about Derren Brown far too much. And I’m going to repeat myself here. But I feel as though I’m circling around the plughole into which I’ll finally plop down with exactly what I want to say about the man.
I’ve gone on before (but a long time ago) about the difference between a magician tricking you, and lying to you. But to quickly reiterate: Magicians aren’t telling the truth, clearly. If I tell you I’ve written a prediction in an envelope, or that I’m producing a ball from your ear, I’m tricking you. It’s not true. But you know that. You know that I’m not psychic, hopefully you don’t believe that anyone is psychic. In fact, the very worst outcome imaginable would be for my trick to legitimise the conmen and charlatans who will steal your money. So instead we enter into this contract. You know I’m not going to tell you the truth, and you’re going to be okay with that. However, this opens an interesting door. How big a lie can I tell?
Say my trick is to know the word someone in the audience is thinking of. If I tell you that I’m not using a stooge in the audience, and I’m using a stooge in the audience, is that okay? The effect is very impressive if I can appear to somehow know the word an unwitting audience member is thinking of. It’s rather extraordinarily less impressive if I can know the word my friend and I agreed on before the show. So we seem to have a rule in this contract that says that while I’ll deceive you, trick you, I won’t openly lie to you about the conditions of the trick.
Now, clearly magicians do. Lazy, tedious magicians do this all the time. But I think most people agree that if they learn this is how a magician achieves his effects – says he doesn’t use camera tricks but does use camera tricks – they lose all interest in them. So we have this muddled set of rules. They’re impossible to pin down, but crudely it’s, 1) the audience agrees to be deceived, and 2) the magician agrees to not tell specific sorts of lies.
Derren Brown has made his career out of exploiting the ambiguity of this. He spins these patters about influencing people’s minds, conditioning, and suggestion. It’s all patter to disguise doing what I think is a perfectly ordinary magic trick. Which is fine, whatever, who cares? It’s a neat way of achieving a great effect.
I’ve recently seen a few episodes of a BBC quiz show called Eggheads. Not being a watcher of daytime TV, it’s a programme that’s passed me by for the six years it’s been on air. But via the magic of iPlayer I discovered it as one of the suggested alternative programmes after my weekly watching of University Challenge and Only Connect.
Obviously there’s not much to say about University Challenge that hasn’t been said ten thousand times before. Perhaps the most interesting aspect for me has been the change from a programme where I stare in amazement at how much the contestants know, to worrying for the future of our planet by how little they know. I should stress I still know far less than they do, but my expectations for what a university’s four chosen representative students should know has gone up. I also have some quite strict rules I would bring in to prevent 60 year old contestants currently studying for their ninth PhD from appearing. It’s flat-out cheating. Having forty extra years, 200% more life, than most contenders is completely imbalanced. Logic would suggest you just have a team of aged professors currently studying for extra qualifications. So to prevent this, when I’m in charge I’ll either institute an age cap of 30 (thus discriminating against myself as much as anyone else), or a maximum combined age for a team that would force them to have children on the team if they picked an old fogey.
Channel 4′s Inside Nature’s Giants has been almost brilliant, constantly held back by presenter Mark Evans’ determination to present it to confused children.
The programme, in which some of the world’s biggest creatures (elephant, giraffe, whale, etc) are dissected, is absolutely fascinating. But watching it feels like a fight to ignore Evans and his about-to-cry face saying things like, “Once upon a time…” when trying to explain evolutionary theory. But this is as nothing when compared to his constant apologising for the programme’s existence.
This is never worse than in the elephant’s episode, where he implores with the audience to forgive the existence of every moment of it. Phrases like, “Of course it’s a complete tragedy that the elephant has died…” NO IT ISN’T! It is in no way a “tragedy” that this animal has died. It would be very sad if it were your pet elephant, or if it were the last elephant in the world, but it was not. It was a zoo elephant that was too ill to stay alive, and so was put down. And now, brilliantly, it’s here on this programme for the public to witness something that’s usually carried on in private, a dissection of such an incredible animal.
Evans demonstrates how out of place he is in this programme when he’s asked by a couple of kids, around 10, about something hanging off the side of the whale they’re dissecting in N. Ireland. Is it skin or plastic they want to know. And suddenly he comes alive! Enthusiastically he runs over, grabs a piece of it, and explains why the whale’s skin is flaking off, illustrating it for them with examples of how their own skin can flake off. He’s spirited and clear, and involves the children. He’s a children’s presenter, and he’s great at it. Really great. But this is on late at night on Channel 4, for adults.
Sorry, sorry! Sorry it died! Sorry we’re dissecting it! Sorry I’m here! Sorry! Sorry!
I wish this programme, so brazenly called “Inside Nature’s Giants”, was proud of itself. Rather than appalled.
Thank goodness it also features Richard Dawkins explaining the biology, as he seems to have the confidence in his viewer that he or she might not be a moron. He’s used all too briefly, but makes a big difference when he appears. And it’s ultimately a great show. There’s a tinge of that frustrating Channel 4 tendancy to imply this is about grossing people out, rather than educating – something they did horrendously during the human autopsy programmes a few years ago. As intestines spill out, there are the shots of audience members looking horrified. But despite these weird flaws, ignoring the nonsense, it’s still well worth watching.
There’s a splendid new comedy on ABC at the moment that a grand total of no one is talking about. It’s called Better Off Ted, which is possibly the worst sitcom name of all time, but it’s the name on the smartest comedy on TV. And until this week, they seem to have gone out of their way to make sure no one finds out.
Networks and studios’ frantic actions to keep clips of their TV shows from appearing on sites like YouTube and DailyMotion are well documented, most famously with Viacom suing Google for the astonishing amounts of free advertising YouTube was offering The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, helping both programmes to become international phenomenons. Understandable Viacom were furious at millions of people worldwide seeing short clips of their programmes and developing an enthusiasm to see more. It was a disaster for them, with other countries around the world recognising the online popularity and purchasing broadcast rights. Surely no amount of money from Google could ever make up for such abhorrent results of piracy. But that’s an aside.
Picking apart what went so horribly wrong with the recent attempt to revive Red Dwarf is probably something that should begin twelve years ago with the start of series seven. When Rob Grant left the former Grant-Naylor writing team, it became clear that Doug Naylor was not the man who had brought the gags to the show. They were an effective team, but obviously each brought different elements and the programme needed both. Having split over creative differences about where the show was heading, you can see Grant’s point. Series seven and eight (I admit I didn’t see all of eight, for the same reasons I look away when I see the remains of a pigeon that’s been hit by a car) did not take the show anywhere it needed to be.
I’m not arguing that Red Dwarf was ever amazing. It was always cheesy and aiming for primitive laughs. However, it was invariably charming. Performing science fiction in three-camera sets in front of a studio audience was a mammoth task, and the restrictions this imposed forced both creativity within a tight budget and confined space, and a focus on the relationships between the main cast. While there were duffers, there were also episodes like Polymorph, Backwards, Quarantine, and the touching Back To Reality that managed to cram in huge amounts of plot into 28 minutes. The four year gap between series six and seven saw much change, Naylor not able to capture the tone that had made the late 80s/early 90s’ episodes so fun. So the ten year chasm between series eight and this brief reprise, Back To Earth, didn’t bode well.
You really should watch Kings.
Here’s the simple reason: the recently reborn Ian McShane as a conflicted King, ruling over a modern nation, Gilboa, a place bearing many similarities with modern North America. Gilboa is in a long and bloody war with the neighbouring Gath. A soldier, formerly a farm worker, called David rescues the king’s son who has been taken hostage by Hath troops, and is welcomed into the king’s courts – in the capital city of Shiloh. Here he becomes involved in the politics of a new city under a new king. There’s war, there’s brilliant dialogue, there’s battling family members, and there’s a backstab every commercial break. It’s beautifully made, McShane is magnificent – bemusing you as to whether he’s Machiavellian, naive, selfish, selfless, murderous or peaceful – and most of all, it’s really damned smart. It’s a remarkable programme, and it should be watched.
That’s the short version. Long version: