Sunday, April 22, 2012

The TV Dump (vi)

Normal Service Will Never Be Resumed


Northampton based Goth rock band Bauhaus scored a huge hit in 1982 with their version of Ziggy Stardust. The way in which the song was described suggested they were covering an ancient classic, yet Bowie's definitive version came out just 10 years earlier.


People seem to forget that the Stone Roses were changing the face of British music in the late 1980s and realistically speaking their time was closer to the classic rock bands of the 1970s than anything currently vying for record sales.


You could argue that the Roses were pretty unique, but if you did that I would have to conclude you were a buffoon and a scally; all Squire and brown did was borrow from most of the musical genres of the late 60s and 70s and got someone off their tits on the latest designer drug to engineer it.


People often suggest Twin Peaks or Wild Palms were the TV programmes that changed the way US television drama was made, but the former was just David Lynch taking the piss and the latter was just shit. In many respects, there hadn't been anything on US TV that really was different until the late 1990s and probably with The Sopranos. Yes, there had been flashes of brilliance, but 'formula' has always been the key word in US drama and even now, all of the groundbreaking and envelope pushing TV shows, that have been successful, still have a formula, even if it is so subtle you don't notice it.


I used to watch MacMillan and Wife back in the 70s; it was BIG TV because it starred Rock 'Film Star' Hudson and was a cornerstone of the US TV that trickled over to us. Yet at 10, I realised that essentially the same scenario would be played out every week, just with different characters playing the bad guys and the victims. As a comic book reader, I pretty quickly understood the 'illusion of change'.


There have been some pretty non-formulaic TV series and I'm sure my geekier friends could rattle off a list of them; but I'd argue that even the most left field TV series follow a basic pattern - no TV show is like a Kerouac novel. A lot of things can happen that were unexpected, but essentially most major changes in a TV show, whether straightforward or as surreal as an entire season of Dallas being a dream, are what we have discussed many times before, they are jumping the shark moments.


I've described Fringe as a TV series that has made an art form out of jumping the shark and I'd argue that while JJ Abrams Lost confounded most people, if Fringe had been as popular as that, we'd have people doing degrees on the show. It has made so many dramatic twists and turns and brave story changes throughout its four years, that you can understand why its future is at risk; Americans struggle with programmes as complex as this (even now).


There was a moment in The Vampire Diaries when you got the impression that the writers and producers realised that they had a duff show on their hands unless they did something drastic. The first 2 shows and opening 40 minutes of the 3rd was like Twilight lite mixed with 90125 and an assortment of 'teen' dramas and it wasn't very good. Then they jumped the shark (I'm sure they didn't and it was always planned, but...) and it's almost as popular now as it was at its peak and that's because it gets pretty crazy in between all the uninteresting stuff. Fringe has done that several times, and probably not just because the ratings were dipping or the show needed fresh impetus. 


Take the first couple of episodes of Fringe out of the equation and the route the show was going in episodes 3-7 looked uninteresting and ultimately a show killer. Feedback suggested viewers didn't like the main plot, found Anna Torv really cold and no one really had any idea where the show was designed to go; so they concluded it all in episode 8 and went off in a completely different direction in 9 and set about re-creating Olivia Dunham by playing to the fact that the viewers found her cold and dislikeable. 


The show started to play with motifs from its inspiration - The X Files - and eagle-eyed observers would notice there were 'regulars' such as using a torch every episode and people popping up in the background who would have influence or involvement in the future. It started to become the 21st century equivalent of Chris Carter's FBI drama. Ratings were okay, but I think the writers got a taste for change and over the next two seasons, we saw all manner of odd things happen, which changed our perception of the TV show. It was totally formulaic, yet you got the impression that the formula had been written by a drug-crazed madman.


In many ways, it's very similar to Marvel Comics' X-Men, especially during the 80s and 90s when it was juggling more subplots than Stan Lee has had hot dinners. Like Twin Peaks many of these subplots turned out to be red herrings or dead ends; some of them even appeared to do that but didn't. When season 3 ended with Peter Bishop blinking out of existence, because he no longer existed, you were treated to a flash forward of 2036 with the planet at war with something hostile but unseen. It was reminiscent of Dollhouse, a creation of Joss Whedon's, in its willingness to allude to the end of the ongoing story. Imaginative viewers might have pondered what relevance this flash forward had on the grand scheme of things, especially when season 4 started in such an odd way.


At times Fringe feels like it was an idea hatched up by a committee of writers, who were each given a brief and sent away to develop a series, using all the same characters and then the producers made each concept into a different series, with someone else making sure there is a running thread that ties them all together.


After a slow start, this current series finally got into full swing with lots of things explained, revealed and made more complicated and then, very recently, news leaked that the finale had two different endings - one to end the series and another to allow it to have a fifth season. The future of the show was on the brink. There were very few episodes left to explain all the things that have yet to be explained, but equally, episodes 14 thru 17 seemed to tie up some stories, or at least give them a good leaving point. Then we had episode 18 - The Consultant - which, if this series isn't renewed, will be remembered as the last real Fringe story.


At the end of that episode, we discovered that Big Bad Dr Jones was fiddling around with frequency modulation, which the team believed was an attempt to destroy both universes (if you have no idea what I'm talking about, don't worry), just as peace appeared to have broken out between the two mirror sides of the same coin. It seemed like it was being set up nicely for a final 4 parts which would a) close the story up for good and b) possibly leave things open for another series. Knowing Fringe I expected some shocks, maybe a couple of unexpected deaths, possibly even Leonard Nimoy coming out of retirement to reprise his role as William Bell. I can honestly say I didn't expect what we got.


In the fine tradition of Fringe not just jumping the shark, but slaughtering it and fucking its lifeless corpse, the beginning of the (possible) end must have confounded everyone. It was like watching a different TV show with a guest star from another, unrelated, show. Or maybe the same show but ten years down the line - a bit like when Scotty appeared in the episode of Next Generation. The show had jumped to the future.


I have no intention of giving any spoilers away, except to say that the ultimate Big Bad isn't the one you'd think it is and while it is feasible, it's really, really, unexpected. Nothing in Fringe is now the same and even for this show's weirdness, I really can't see a way back, unless they intend to make a fifth season so radically different it makes previous radical changes insignificant.


Grimy Thongs


Isn't an anagram of Game of Thrones but it should be. Observant ones amongst you will have noticed that I'm not blown away by this series as others appear to be. It's okay, but frankly not enough happens in it; the nudity seems spurious - like the producers are using it to cover up the huge holes in the narrative - and we're being introduced to even more characters without the first batch becoming rounded or familiar. Only Peter Dinklage's Tyrian Lannister has been developed to the point where you can start to care about him (or not, as the case may be).


What we get every week is portents of evils to come, which is starting to sound as familiar as that old tramp who used to patrol Speaker's Corner in London during the 60s and 70s with his The End is Nigh billboard. It is also far more of a talking heads fantasy than an action packed Prince of Persia styled thing; most of the battles take place off screen; the 'monsters' are only hinted at and one expects most of the budget has been spent on paying the growing cast of British thesps who will have obviously landed on their financial feet if this series runs and runs and runs.


Of course, a big problem with this series is that some people know what is going to happen (or is likely to if they stick rigidly to the books) and the spoilers are there for all to read, if they choose. As a non-believer, I have no intention of reading the books, therefore I expect I will be as disappointed about things as I discover them as I would be if I cheated and read the books (or the Wiki entry). It is a series that is heaving with unpleasant and anonymous characters, which seems to thrive on its lack of genuinely decent people - all of whom seem to get packed off to the North - a bit like a Conservative Britain. 


What I can't understand is why so little time has been spent on character development; a network US show would waste half a season making sure the viewer can identify with the leads; I'm finding I have to keep a score card just to remember who is who and that can't auger well for the future. This second season has seen the introduction of a host of new 'kings' and their minions and while we appear to be getting a quick history lesson; their appearance has been so sudden as to unsettle and all of these inhabitants of Westeros seem to look similar - especially all the kings, bar Joffrey - which means that you spend much of an episode racking your brains to remember who a character is or where you last saw him. Some gay king turned up in season 2 episode 3 and while we had been introduced to him before, I was like, who? The thing is all over the place and not in a good way.


The wife likes it. I can live with it at the moment, especially when Denarys gets her kit off.


Being Rubbish


The last UK series of Being Human was ultimately a bit of a disappointment; the second season of the US Boston-based version promised so much and ultimately delivered nothing. It was a vacuous imitation of a good idea that lacked every element the British version strove to achieve.


That said, as a stand alone, at times, it wasn't bad, but flipped and flopped about for 12 episodes, teasing us with various strands that ultimately were pretty pointless. It also ended on a cliffhanger which has to go down as one of the least inspiring I've ever seen. SyFy has a reputation for being a bit Troma, but I blame the people who watch these shows legitimately for allowing this network to inflict the world with some of the worst TV shows in living memory. They are singlehandedly ruining the genre. 


Being Human US is full of proper dodgy stuff. The special effects are ho-hum; the acting is a bit am-dram and the scripts and ultimate endings are predictable, yet designed to make you think they're cliché busting. Whereas my old favourite Haven was so bad it was good (until it realised this and stopped being even remotely good), Being Human US just got progressively worse to the point where I actually hoped it would be cancelled to put the actors out of their misery. The fact it will be back for a third season does nothing for me; my flirtation with the series is over. I'm starting to realise that I watch some things because I think I should not because I want to.


So Bad it's Good


Just to contradict myself; returning soon are new series of Eureka and Warehouse 13, both rubbish SyFy series that tick a lot of the right boxes. One of them is being cancelled, the other has a lot to live up to. No surprises there then.


Why do I never talk about much British TV? Cos.

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