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.
Summer has traditionally always been the downtime for US TV, but after a disastrous year for the main season the summer schedule is turning everything around. While the major networks aren’t playing a huge part, cable is alight with great shows. Here are some of them.
Franklin & Bash – TNT
Yet another hour-long legal show isn’t too appealing, but seeing that it starred Mark-Paul Gosselaar was enough to have me want to check it out. Saved By The Bell’s Zack will be an obligatory mention until the day he dies, despite a multiple-year stint on NYPD Blue, but it was his impressively good turn in the much underrated Raising The Bar that’s made me interested to see what he does next. And this is perfect, teaming him up with Robot Chicken’s Breckin Meyer, in what turns out to be a buddy team with automatic chemistry. The pair bounce off each other so effortlessly that you wonder if they’re being given space to improvise their constantly funny dialogue.
The premise is pleasingly dumb. Two maverick lawyers working for a small, unsuccessful company, get hired by a giant firm under the leadership of a gloriously scene-chewing Malcolm McDowell. So yes, they bring their wayward ways to a firm that usually plays by the rules, etc, etc. But it’s really not about the cases, which over the first six episodes they’ve inevitably won – rather it’s about the spaces in between, the silliness, and most of all, the banter. So of course judges look sternly at them and warn that any more of their antics and they’ll find them in contempt, but for once it doesn’t matter. In fact, the writers have the good sense to often let the judges enjoy the spectacle.
Reed Diamond plays an excellent straight man as the pair’s main foil, along with an ensemble cast without any weak points. A few critics are making the stupid mistake of approaching the show as if it’s trying to be serious legal drama, confused when the cases are cartoonish or outright unrealistic. But that’s the point – this is a comedy, and an incredibly funny one. Few recent shows have had me skip back to watch a moment five or six times in a row, just to enjoy someone’s perfect (not quite literal) spit-take or superbly delivered off-the-cuff remark. The highlight of these so far came after Meyer delivered some faux-old man grumbling about loud rock and roll music, when Gosselaar mumbled in kind, almost to himself, simply, “YouTube.”
A sad truth is that as RPS has scaled up, my time for watching television has gone way down. The backlog of shows I love is hurting me just to look at. But fortunately the convenient 20 minute length of sitcoms means they can still sneak in. Which has allowed me to see what I think may be the best pay-off in sitcom history.
This year the two best in the format are unquestionably Community and Cougar Town. The former has embraced such a depth of unreality that it’s been free to feature claymation, while the latter has found a groove none could have expected from the name and opening few episodes. I can imagine many would bounce off Cougar Town at the concept, but it’s allowed itself such a charming collection of characters, and so refreshingly, no turmoil. It’s decent people having a good time, without constantly lying to each other or falling in and out of love. The representation of a working, real married couple is pretty much unique. (There’s no forgiving anyone who complains about the title, since the show itself features a complaint about it every episode.)
But I’ve brought you here to bring up one particular moment in each.
It’s good to be right.
Matt Smith is absolutely fantastic. Stephen Moffat was born to be in charge.
“Box falls out the sky, man falls out a box, man eats fish custard.”
Moffat remembered that Doctor Who is a programme for children to watch, and designed to scare them. The opening ten minutes, a series of slapstick and extremely silly lines, were like a rebirthing for the series. A reminder of what it was about – not grimacing, innuendo and snogging, but alternating between laughs and being frightened.
So yes, I’m doing H again, but that’s because I just discovered How To Make It In America. So there it is. There’s the notable exception of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia below. It’s a brilliant show and I’m seasons behind. I’ll eventually catch up, because it’s always worth watching. But I haven’t, and don’t have anything relevant to say about it.
If you read nothing else in this post, please watch the video under Leverage. It’s four minutes that won’t be wasted.
To describe it this sounds like every first-year student TV writing project. Two guys who live on the edge of a criminal lifestyle, yet somehow hanging out on the elite New York partying scene, swearing at each other and attracting all who pass by. Yet the delivery changes a lot. The cast is strong (Luis Guzmán being reliably menacing alongside the younger, prettier crowd), and it’s occasionally aesthetically inspired. The direction is smart, and with a fantastic soundtrack (helpfully documented on the show’s site), its presentation helps cover gaps the perhaps not stunningly original themes may leave. The second scene of the first episode, pulling back to reveal Victor Rasuk standing on the back of a bicycle ridden by a Hasidic Jewish boy, outlines the smart wit. “Stay strong, He-brew.”
It’ll be interesting to see if the guys-struggling-to-keep-up-with-the-scene story is strong enough to sustain. In terms of story theme it feels like it falls halfway between the astonishing Bored To Death and the atrocious Entourage. There’s a tendency for the characters to speak in speeches, which feels a shame in a show that would benefit from a more naturalistic delivery. The heavy script of Bored To Death works so well because it’s so spectacularly refined, but here it seems to be holding things back somewhat. People don’t say, “He who hesitates masturbates!” and then twinkle their eyes. And perhaps they didn’t need the drunk guy shouting to his ex-girlfriend from the street scene immediately. Or someone complaining about being woken up and pulling the pillow over their head… But wow, the soundtrack helps me forgive a lot.
I’m reposting this piece about Psych written about a year and a half ago as it’s no longer online elsewhere. Giant Realm briefly had me writing about TV (one day, somewhere, I’ll get a regular gig writing about TV for a magazine or website that won’t immediately close down) before they pulled their entire blog. This is the unedited version, because the edited was so comprehensively translated into American that it often didn’t read like me.
And I should add in the interests of balance, this week’s episode of Psych was awful. Fortunately, last week’s was one of the best ever.
At the mention of its name, the reaction people give to Psych tends to be, “That show? Really? I saw maybe one episode – it seemed alright.” I want to put that right. I want to convince you that Psych is the most entertaining show on TV this summer. I will use a collection of silly names, and a pineapple.
The show’s conceit, to put it mildly, is contrived. Shawn Spencer (James Roday, Miss Match) is the son of a retired cop, who spent his childhood having observational skills drummed into him by his forbidding father. As an adult he’s kept his hyper-observant talents, but no job for longer than three months. That’s until his habit for solving crimes by watching the local evening news caused the police to become suspicious. Needing a way out to prevent his being arrested, he invented the story that he was a psychic, convincing the officers and detectives by throwing out a few ‘hot reads’ based on all the stuff his eagle eyes had spotted. Well, convincing all of them but one, the surly Detective Lassiter (Timothy Omundson) remaining heavily sceptical.
I missed out so many the last time I did this, and with The Amazing Race having started, I feel like I should start from A again. But really this is F-H, with a few extras beforehand. I’ve decided to implement a code. If there’s spoilers in the piece I’ll have * at the start of stuff you shouldn’t read. Assume that it will spoil anything that’s happened in that show up to the current (US) episode. There are also some bad swears in there, delicate-eared readers. Oh, and let me know if I’ve missed anything. I know there’s still stuff from A-E that I’ve forgotten a second time.
Well, what’s to say. Eleven teams of two in a race around the world. It’s such a huge idea, and it’s still working sixteen seasons in. Perhaps what I like best about the global scale racing nonsense is that the best teams tend to win. Stupid people go out first, unpleasant people then follow, and generally it’s the nice lot left to win at the end. And if you don’t love Phil, there’s something wrong with your DNA.
Season one of this programme was confused. After a horrible pilot it quickly ditched a few ideas, found a groove, but didn’t really know whether to take itself seriously. By season three it really knows what it wants to be. Light-hearted, while dealing with life or death situations. The gimmick – that burned spy Michael Weston narrates giving advice to the audience for how to be a spy in various situations – still works. And it seems to trust Bruce Campbell to be Bruce Campbell a lot more. The most recent episode featured Campbell doing the most fantastic spoof of CSI, openly playing for laughs, as is more frequently the case. The theme now is for Weston to have a long-running nemesis whom he must work for/against in the hope it will get him closer to learning who burned him, while taking on weekly cases for the seemingly infinite number of friends of friends in trouble. This means we get to see him trying juggle both situations, and inevitably his chain smoking mother, while teaching us how to bug a car or break into a guarded office. It’s so silly, and thankfully it now knows it.
Family Guy enjoys being offensive. It does it with glee. As creator Seth McFarlane likes to say, they’re an “equal opportunity offender”. I’m struggling to think of a subject they haven’t made wildly inappropriate jokes about. Racial stereotypes, paedophilia, infanticide, rape, degenerative disorders, disabilities, the Holocaust… A large part of the point of watching the programme is gasping in shock with your hands clasped to your mouth, unsure if you’re stifling a cry of horror or a laugh.
There have been other programmes that have taken this “no taboos” rule to more effective and more shocking places, such as the astonishing Wonder Showzen, and Drawn Together. But these were on cable. Family Guy is on at primetime on Sunday nights on Fox. Having been cancelled twice by the network, it’s proven itself fairly invincible, and with McFarlane’s new contract breaking all records they know they’re not going anywhere. And to embrace this the most recent episodes having been pushing things further and further, including as many digs at Fox as they can cram in. Last Sunday’s was particularly shocking. At least, I thought so at first.
I wrote this piece about Yo Gabba Gabba a few months ago as a spec for something else that didn’t happen. So if you are a super-high-powered editor/publisher who wants writing about TV like the below, do get in touch. That would be nice.
The cruellest thing that can happen to any children’s television programme is its ironic adoption by the student classes. Teens and twenty-somethings oh-so-knowingly put up posters of popular pre-school characters, but, wait for it, here they’re smoking a spliff, or taking a dump! How astonishingly clever and, let’s just say it, satirical. The system, the Man, is truly smashed to bits like someone took a bulldozer to a Sylvanian Families collection.
These wretched people misunderstand any magical programme they touch, ruining the gentle, repetitive loveliness of everything from The Magic Roundabout to the Teletubbies, Bagpuss to Bob The Builder. But this isn’t to say that adults shouldn’t be able to sit and enjoy the output of channels like CBeebies or Nick Jr. If capable of watching them without becoming enraged by the numbers of arms a presenter may possess, there’s much to be appreciated on exactly the level the creators intended. But sadly any programme that doesn’t treat its child audience as plankton, bothering to work hard at being thoughtful and involved, seems to be subsumed by the weed-addled idiots.
There is, however, one programme that knows exactly what the ironic pissants will do to it before they let loose their first nasally snort. One that has them beat from the start. Yo Gabba Gabba is the creation of indie hipsters Christian Jacobs and Scott Schultz, and is quite possibly the most perfect under-five’s television programme if you don’t count Sesame Street.
Because TV so strangely doesn’t understand our Earth years, the US lot beginning in September and ending in May, and the UK and AU lot starting and finishing whenever it feels like it, I couldn’t find a way to do a “Best of 2009″ style thing for it. Because TV from this time last year feels like it’s from the most ancient of pasts. That’s – what – almost three seasons of Survivor ago! Imagine it. So here’s what TV is up to. Alphabetically. Oh good grief, I only got to E. So no, I don’t watch all these shows every day. Lots of them finished their runs already. I watch two or three programmes a day (which I’d say would be about average), banking up lots of shows for a day off maybe, or a way to fill a long train journey. It’s okay. It’s not as weird as it looks. The weird part is how I’ve spent so long writing about them.
After an enormous post-pilot hiatus, Archer finally starts its series proper. It’s the latest from Adam Reed (Sealab 2021, Space Ghost Coast To Coast), and follows the formula: fast-paced adult cartoon with little interest in coherence or human decency. On FX rather than Cartoon Network, it frees things up to be a little ruder, swearier, and more callous. And it works well. The brilliantly droll Jon Benjamin (Dr. Katz’s Ben) plays Archer, a secret agent of sorts, who isn’t quite incompetent but more simply hateful. His mother is voiced by Jessica Walter (Arrested Development’s Lucille), along with Aisha Tyler (CSI, I guess), the compellingly lovely Judy Greer (I loved her in the very short-lived Miss Guided), and SNL’s Chris Parnell. Two episodes in it’s unsurprisingly great, as you’d expect from Reed, and really quite fantastically wrong too.