John Walker's Electronic House


Olbermann: The Next Level

by on May.15, 2008, under Television

Olbermann’s position is interesting. Maddeningly, as soon as he gained any popularity (about two years ago) absolutely everyone stopped capping the programme for the rest of the world to see, and MSNBC’s site chops it into fractured, confusing lumps. So the only way we get to see what he’s doing are through his occasional Special Comments when they appear on YouTube.

I’ve posted a bunch of these, along with 900 million other bloggers, and they’re all wonderful. But it’s interesting to see how much further he’s pushing them, and I wonder, while rejoicing in his words, if he’s gone too far now to justify the “Good night and good luck” at the end. His rants are wondrous, and I agree with his position, his rhetoric, his passion. But there’s not even a hint of “news” about them now. Now he’s taking advantage of his position on a news channel to let off personal steam.

Again, I adore that he does. But I wonder if anyone other than those like me are listening. Is his fury, his barely controlled rage, going to be respected by anyone in opposition? This is no longer someone speaking out within a tight news format to make remarkable statements against the ill-actions of the government. This is now Keith Olbermann doing the Olbermann bit at the end of the show, where he gets to lose his rag and call the president a shit.

None of this stops me from wanting to weep with pride for him in the final two minutes of his latest Special Comment. I just can’t quite see the Bush supporters being convinced when he’s yelling that Bush should “Shut the HELL UP”.

Thanks to Tim for the link.

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In Defense Of Survivor

by on May.09, 2008, under Television

Oh, this has been the best season of Survivor ever.

I know, you don’t care, you think it sucks despite never having watched it, you saw the abortive version ITV made about six years ago and think it’s that, but you never really watched it but read on a website that it was shit. Well, screw you, because you’re wrong. There – I came right out and said it.

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Eli Stone & New Amsterdam

by on Apr.21, 2008, under Television

As both these shows reach the end of their limited runs this week, and both are currently on the bubble for renewal, it seems only appropriate to reflect on them both and work out why one worked so extraordinarily well, and the other disappointingly didn’t.

Simon asked me why TV was so good at the moment, and the only answer that sprang to mind was a realisation that the idiocy of “the pitch” might be helping shows at this point. Having to present your idea for a new programme to a broadcaster is often horribly hindered by being required to distill a complex and carefully plotted plan down into a soundbite that will catch someone’s attention. However, recently it seems that saying, “X but with Y” is providing enough new twists on safe formulas that imagination is surviving the pitch meeting. So while high-concept programmes like Lost and Heroes might be supposed as opening doors to broader fantasy ideas, instead they seem to be inspiring more subtle manipulations of trusted formats. So there’s these two examples. Eli Stone: X = a courtroom drama where a dedicated, high-powered lawyer defends the little guy, Y = but he’s a prophet, seeing visions that direct his work. New Amsterdam: X = a homicide detective who doesn’t follow orders and always catches the killer, Y = but he’s 450 years old and immortal until he finds his one true love.

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Hell’s Back!

by on Apr.02, 2008, under Television

There’s often discussion over which is the better show out of Bravo’s Top Chef, and Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen.

The former takes respectable chefs and puts them through some peculiarly low, er, fashion (to compare with Project Runway) tasks in a friendly environment. Then there’s Hell’s Kitchen’s collection of novelty humans, taking part in enormously complex challenges in the most hostile environment imaginable.

But there’s a simple way to separate the two, and that’s to describe how the fourth season of Hell’s Kitchen began last night:

We get a resume of the previous three seasons, the regular voice-over guy narrating the events as if in a horror movie. This finishes with Ramsey standing in the kitchen, lit in purples and reds, a skull flickering on and off his face, and the voiceover booms,


Right, that’s all you need really. But it gets better. The contestents gather and get onto a bus. Joining them, in prosthetic make up, is Ramsey pretending to be a contestant. Why? Because it will frighten them more when they find out.

Top Chef is obviously a nicer show, but you couldn’t trust the winner with a significant restaurant. They learn very little, and there’s rarely a sense of progress. The ones who are good at the start are good at the end. So it’s not surprising that the prizes don’t take any risks – some money, a stall at a show, etc. For the new Hell’s Kitchen the winner will be executive chef at Ramsey’s new “London” in LA. That’s a giant risk, especially with Ramsey’s restaurants having so many problems at the moment. So this will be a process of breaking them down, cracking those that will crack, and building up any who prove strong enough. The difference by the end is remarkable.

Anyway, I only brought you here today to say: He wore prosthetic make up, and they said, “AND THE DARK LORD REIGNS AGAIN”.

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Eli Stone

by on Mar.14, 2008, under Television

I LOVE Eli Stone. I’m sure there’s a ton of stuff wrong with it, but it doesn’t make any impact of 42 minutes of just lovely television.

Concept: A lawyer develops an aneurysm and starts seeing visions – visions that turn out to be prophetic. He had been a very successful young attorney, working for a large law firm that deals with big money cases. Stone won on behalf of the corporations, and won well. But the visions directly challenged this position.

Part of the joy of the programme is the nature of the visions. It begins with George Michael performing live in his living room. Then other people start singing Michael songs, with accompanying dances. Then he’s in World War 2, hiding in bunkers. Or at the beach. Or being chased by a dragon. As each vision finishes we see Stone in a compromising position, whether it’s hiding under the table in a board meeting, or dancing in the middle of the firm’s foyer. Unlike nearly every show ever, he doesn’t get away with this. Sam Beckett talked to an invisible Al for nearly a decade without being sectioned. Eli gets more than weird looks – he instead has to fight to keep his job after he’s nearly disbarred.

He has one believing confident – despite openly telling his now-ex-fiance and his brother – which is unfortunately his acupuncturist. In a rather lame plot device, he need only have a needle tapped into his forehead and he travels back into his childhood to recall moments of his father having similar visions (but in his case, accompanied by alcoholism). Pleasingly, the acupuncturist all but admits he’s a fraud, with a fake accent for his other clients, and a seeming surprise that the needles help. He’s also the person who suggests to Eli that he’s likely a prophet, and draws the connections with God’s involvement.

It really isn’t a stand-out show. It doesn’t have a brilliant script, and while the cast are all excellent, it isn’t mindblowing acting. Visually it’s the pastel colours of a daytime hospital drama. But it’s just lovely. Early on Eli is warned that he’s not going to win every case, and he doesn’t. He wins a lot because he’s incredibly good, and rather because he’s being guided by the Almighty, which is something of an advantage. But often when he loses it’s because he realises he’s fighting for the wrong side. It’s cheesy, sure, but dammit, it’s a show about fighting for what’s good and right, and that’s a great thing to watch between episodes of The Wire and Dexter.

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Lewis Black’s The Root Of All Evil

by on Mar.13, 2008, under Television

Lewis Black is a funny guy… the first time you see him do the material. The second time, on a different show/CD/DVD, it’s ok. The third time, you begin to realise he’s a man who shouts a lot without much to say. The weather’s messed up you say Lewis? Yes – you were shouting that a decade ago, with the exact same words. (Kim is so going to kill me for Black hating). So, he’s got a new show, which is, and you can just hear the meeting at Comedy Central, Lewis Black complaining about things. “You know my stand up act I’ve done on your station for the last decade? I want to do it again, but stretched out to half an hour, with guests.”

The concept is awkward, but not inherently bad. Black is the judge of a nonsensical battle to find out which of two subjects are the “root of all evil”. Guest comics present the argument for why their subject is said root in the form of stand up/pre-recorded VT. It’s a neat way to get topical comedy into a half-hour format. Except, on your launch show, maybe the subjects Oprah vs. the Catholic church are a tiny little bit miserably tired and obvious.

Oprah? OPRAH? Is it 1992? And not some new insightful commentary on recent actions, but that she’s fat, and gives away cars. The Catholic church? What could it be?!! Shockingly, “boy fucking” and having tortured people hundreds of years ago. Yes – medieval topical comedy!

Except of course this is Comedy Central – a channel that so desperately wants to be free, but is rammed so far up Viacom’s backside that it bleeps out the word “ass”. So it’s not jokes about “boy fucking”, but about “boy BLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP”, screeching far more offensively than any curse word ever could. If you have an FCC-based system where you’re not allowed to swear, then for crying out loud, don’t swear. Add The Root Of All Evil to The Daily Show for programmes that make you think you’ve got tinnitus.

So once Black’s shouted, joke-free opening monologue is over, the two comics perform their routines. Which is fine. The subjects are pathetic, but the material is reasonable. The highlight would be visiting a high school to ask the students whether they’d prefer a new iPod or a $46m school, after Oprah announced she would be building a school in South Africa because she believed the kids of America would rather the toys. Her stupidity was pleasingly highlighted as the inner-city high school kids all picked the school.

But then, halfway through, the format takes over. Black goes back and forth between the two comics asking them to defend their positions, in a horribly over-rehearsed and under-written sequence, that descends desperately to crappy puns. From there on there’s no reason left to watch, as the prescribed banter reads itself out loud until the credits roll. Of course Oprah is the greater evil over the Catholic church, because, er, she’s fat?

It’s a Comedy Central love-in, and reeks of long-term contracts that needed a show to justify them. Perhaps if they can find some topics to cover that aren’t between 2000 and 20 years out of date, it may fare better.

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In Treatment Revisited

by on Feb.14, 2008, under Television

My early impressions were correct. As In Treatment nears the end of its third week, it continues to escalate. It really is one of the most stunning pieces of television I’ve seen.

I can’t stress enough how much this show is worth watching. If you’re in the US, subscribe to HBO just for this (as if you needed another reason), or watch it on their website. If you’re outside the US, fake your IP so you can watch it on HBO’s site, or find it by whatever means the moronic system forces you to. You’ll want to find out what I discuss below for yourself.

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In Treatment

by on Feb.08, 2008, under Television

There are very few programmes that are compellingly brilliant from the very beginning. Most need time to develop, and many, while great, never astonish. In fact, I’m struggling to name any other than Slings & Arrows. Perhaps to a slightly lesser degree, Homicide: Life on the Streets. Unless something dramatically changes after the first eight episodes, I believe In Treatment will be in that brief list.

The concept is simple and unique. Gabriel Byrne plays Paul, a 50 year old therapist, seeing a number of patients. The half hour programme is shown every weeknight on HBO, with Monday to Thursday featuring four different cases. On Friday, Paul sees a therapist. Each episode consists of almost nothing but the conversation between therapist and patient. Perhaps two minutes might see Paul talking to his son, or making a telephone call, but the rest is spent in the dialogue, in a single room.

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The Power of Drew

by on Feb.08, 2008, under Television

I’m a little late on this one.

Last year CBS showed a new quiz show called The Power Of 10. This show was unique in one very specific way: It’s really good. But more than that, it’s also not cruel in any way. It picks up on the themes of popular modern quizzes, but strips away the nonsensical meanness, and the agonising pressure, and just lets contestants have fun, with fun questions.

Compare this with Fox’s latest quiz output, The Moment Of Truth, and it’s a fresh breeze in a murky, unpleasant schedule. The Moment of Truth takes a contestant, asks them about 50 questions before taping while they’re wired to a polygraph, and then asks them a selection of these questions on air, in front of their close friends and family. With every question they answer honestly, they win a larger amount of money, but as they progress they risk revealing increasingly awful secrets in front of those they don’t want to know. It’s every bit as vile as it sounds. Attempting to get people to admit to affairs, secret addictions, and other unpleasant facts about themselves, in order to hurt those around them, for cash. Of course, its ratings are very high.

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Derren Brown: System

by on Feb.05, 2008, under Rants, Television

Ooh, three of my favourite things combined: bemoaning Derren Brown, tricksy mathematics, and slagging off homeopathy!

I hadn’t even heard that Derren Brown had a new show, until Tim IMd me to let me know it was great. I read the summary – Derren Brown reveals he has a system for winning horse races, and proves it – and sighed. Same old trick from him – do a crappy magic trick and dress it up as paranormal powers, while saying how he doesn’t believe in paranormal powers. I bemoaned to Tim that it would just be a trick, wah wah. Tim clearly smiles to himself, and lets me know that might be the point of the programme.

(You can get hold of it via Channel 4’s abysmal 4oD service. Assume I’m going to ruin any surprises below.)

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