Friday, July 10, 2015

Culture Dump #3 - On Tee Vee

There is now so much choice of new material on television you could, if so inclined, spend your life in front of some pay-per-view stations and never resurface for the pub again.

My biggest criticism of satellite and cable is you have all this fuck all to choose from - 200 channels of the history of every TV station ever. At the point I gave my Virgin box back back, there were 150 channels and we watched seven of them. The BBCs mainly - hey, we pay for it, we'll get the most out of it.

Now that everyone else and their brother is producing TV shows because of the growing number of ways to have them broadcast, we're entering a period where quality might just win out. The initial success of Netflix, Amazon and the HBOs, Starz and AMCs has meant that network stations in the US have had to up their games and have got to do it while not upsetting the sponsors, because in the USA network shows are dependent on their sponsors and if you upset them you pretty much cut your own throat.

The sudden trend for box-sets means that the over riding human trait of 2015 - instant gratification - has arrived on television's doorstep.

The problem for this household is that we're turning into the demographic. They claim (whoever 'they' are) that you give most new TV shows a maximum of four episodes and then you decide to either twist or flop. The first time this happened with me was with the show The Vampire Diaries. I'm not even sure why we started watching it; probably a desire for some new 'supernatural' television and we were pretty much going to give it all up by the penultimate scene in episode three and then something happened and we got hooked - for three more series - before it went so far up its own arse that I was left wondering why we'd bothered. The point is, you only need a spark to ignite the imagination of the viewer. Sometimes that spark will survive the entire run, other times it will burn brightly then die, leaving you with a sense of waste.

I'm also of the opinion that a lot of people carry on watching things because they want to see if they've second guessed the writer.

Now, there are so many new series, mini-series, adaptations and TV events that I'm not even going to bother to try and list them. Leading the pack is Game of Thrones, which has now gone so far off the plot of the books it's like watching an alternative reality. This isn't really a problem for most people because they haven't invested half a lifetime in reading and waiting for the books and some people can separate the reality of the story and the hyper-reality of the TV show.

Oddly, I find GoT to be actually something quite simple dressed up as something labyrinthine and complicated. The story is there; we pretty much have worked out its about three families - Lannisters, Starks and the Targaryens and who will end up in charge and how probably one person from each House will join together to join them all. If you break an hour-long episode down into its constituent parts, it's violence, sex, travel with flowery dialogue in between. Because of the restrictions, the story has moved along much faster than the books, but there is emptiness about the series and huge gaps in the story that can't be filmed, presumably because of the cost or because they just wouldn't make good TV, so they allow the viewer to bother with the narrative and fill the important bits with tits and bums. Don't get me wrong; I like it, but maybe not the way some people do.

Marvel - a company I should hold close to my heart - have finally arrived on the small screen in the last couple of years. SHIELD, Peggy Carter and now Daredevil (on PPV) with a whole host of potentially dodgy series being lined up. There was a time when you could almost bet the farm on Marvel producing an X-Men spin-off featuring Xavier's Tea Lady; now you can see why they doggedly held onto the copyrights of every shit character they ever 'created'; because there will be a TV market for it somewhere, eventually.

In many ways I'm surprised someone at HBO hasn't looked at GoT and thought there's at least three spin-off series in it. Take The Walking Dead as possibly the best example of success on the small screen. Zombies were a cult thing. George Romero was never going to become a Steven Spielberg with his zombie oeuvre, but transferring the idea to the TV, with a high concept, has been a phenomenal success; so much so we have Fear The Walking Dead coming in the summer. Set in LA, it focuses on the days before and after the initial 'epidemic' and while I'm viewing it as a bookmarked series, I can't help wonder just how much mileage there is in the idea to be able to split it into two.

Oh and there isn't an infinite number of ways to 'kill' dead people, which is why most 'walkers' are now despatched with a long blade through the head in TWD.

The Walking Dead has become successful because of the rotating cast of gradually-becoming feral humans, doing everything they can to survive. It taps into all kinds of ideas from Alien to Predator to, I kid you not, the Wizard of Oz. It also sends the message that 'our' group of survivors are not as bad as the others; they're searching for hope while the majority of the humans left are searching for their next day alive and will do whatever to ensure survival. TWD could have lost the zombies and just called itself The Living Dead (but that was called Revolution* and it failed miserably). It has, however, had two of the most utterly brilliant and thoroughly shocking episodes in the last couple of years - two of the best examples of TV you could wish for but you'll not forgive it for the images left in your head.

* Falling Skies - the largely forgettable SF series about alien invasions - was also using the now tried and tested TWD format, except now instead of 'zombies' they had aliens and zombified humans. The fact it's made it to 5 series underlines the general common sense running through mainstream US TV viewers.

For every new series that interests me there are probably half a dozen that don't even register on my radar. It isn't just fantasy and SF that gets the attention. Orange is the New Black did for women's prisons what Walter White did for crystal meth sales, and speaking of Walt, we had Better Call Saul, the companion series to Breaking Bad that has kind of sidestepped TV network AMC and gone straight to ... um... another distribution vehicle. It isn't what you'd expect given what BB was like; the only problem I see is you need to know about BB to fully understand BCS.

I'd be interested to hear what the Yanks think of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell because in my mind it has been one of the better TV adaptations of novels in recent years and quite remarkably the BBC didn't need to change much to make it work. Unlike every other book adaptation that has reached our screens, JS&MN is pretty much as it is in the book. No new characters, no killing off people for the sake of it, no deciding this bit and that bit is too dull or unworthy thus deflecting the narrative into some other direction the original writer never intended; just a brilliant adaptation with enough oomph to keep the viewer coming back for more. A mate of mine suggested if it had been done in the USA it would have been 22 episodes long and therefore three times as enjoyable.

In fact...

Fox TV presents: Johnny Strange and Mrs Norrell; starring Joe Generic as sorcerer supremo Johnny Strange and some California pseudo-jailbait as Mrs Norrell, a witch of high regard and a bodacious bod. Together they fight crime on the streets of Salem, kicking witch ass and telling those evil faeries - led by the Man with the McFlurry Hair - to get the hell out of our evil free world!

You read it here first.

There is a TV series that has just started in the States; something that is still very early in its life, that is about as weird as weird can be - and I'm not talking about Wayward Pines - which is just weird for the sake of it.

There's this guy called Sam Esmail - he's pretty much the luckiest bastard on the planet as he's currently Emmy Rossum's beau - and he's new to the scene; very new. His credits read like Harper Lee's bibliography and his only feature film to date - Comet - was universally panned by critics (I've yet to watch it, having deleted my downloaded version when I found that almost no one liked it). He's also the guy behind something I call Scorpion with Balls. Scorpion is a US network show about a team of computer geeks - it's basically The Avengers played by the cast of the Big Bang Theory and while it had its moments, it was just a retooling of the A-Team. It has been massively successful and by all accounts the more successful it has become the less time is spent on the fact the lead character was originally portrayed as being autistic.

Now, Esmail's new TV show is called Mr Robot and it might be one of the weirdest and most difficult to understand things that has EVER come out of the USA.

If anyone remembers the brilliant Alex Cox film Repo Man, they might remember that whenever Emilio Estevez was at home he ate and drank things out of generic cans - food, drink, etc and the film had this kind of anti-commercialism feel as it eschewed corporate subliminal advertising in favour of an actual, extremely fucked-up, story. Mr Robot is like how a TV show would be if it was made by someone with a borderline personality disorder and that would be weird enough but three episodes in and I'm not totally sure I have a clue what is going on...

Elliot Alderson is definitely on the spectrum of autism; he doesn't interact with people very well; doesn't like to be touched and feels alienated from the world - he's also a computer genius and can hack into just about anything. In the first episode we meet Elliot and the viewer is given the impression that he's a crime fighter, who exposes people who do bad things by hacking into their lives and uncovering all the shit and then giving it, anonymously, to the cops. Elliot also thinks that the 'people who run the world' have cottoned onto him and he believes he's being followed. He also sees a psychiatrist and most everyone thinks he's one of those idiot savants except with a morphine addiction and a history of self-harm. Elliot is a mess.

And after this build up you can kind of see how it would have worked, except it's a red herring. Yes Elliot does good things, exposes paedophiles or embezzlers, but he's also being recruited by a mysterious group called the F Society, who want him to bring the 'order' down from the inside and that's exactly what Elliot does. He plants a bug in the system - he works for a data protection company - that exposes the head of the vast multi-national corporation. The thing is, Mr Robot played by Christian Slater has promised Elliot that this will bring the end of society, a concept Eliot has bought into hook, line and sinker and when it doesn't... and because Elliot is autistic...

And seriously by episode three there is sodomy; false allegations, a pregnant woman willingly trussed up like the Christmas turkey and (possibly) someone else using F Society's template to extort whatever they can from whoever they can - it's as murky as a puddle invaded by a million hot dogs.

Just to make matters a wee bit more confusing, the vast multi-national is depicted as the ONLY company in the world and it is called Evilcorp - there are even billboards throughout the city advertising Evilcorp. The company Elliot works for are the only data protection firm and they are called Allsafe. There is no subliminal corporate advertising or name-dropping. No iphones, now they are Evilcorp phones. Evilcorp represents everything that is bad about capitalism; Allsafe acts like a moral compass - they do things they don't agree with because Evilcorp pays their bills and Mr Robot represents the rest of humanity... That is to say 'Mr Robot' the concept is about destroying 'the man' from within and returning the world to the people; Mr Robot the character is probably a very dangerous sociopath (as you discover at the end of ep #2 and throughout ep #3).

It is utterly unnerving in many ways; everything about it feels slightly skewiff and it's extremely good at completely wrong footing you. Yes, it's just three episodes so far, but at the moment where we are is not what I expected when I saw the first part. Oh and Elliot is being watched by the people who run the world and they are very interested in using him in exactly the same way Mr Robot wants to use him. That all seems straightforward, but only because I'm extrapolating on very limited information; you might watch it and immediately dislike Rami Malek (because he is possibly the least likeable lead actor I've seen in many years) or think it's pseudo-political bullshit. I expect America will eventually hate it because it challenges everything the country is built on.

If you see it about, watch it. It is deep and difficult television. It is also extremely funny at times (the end of ep #2) but because of the subject matter it could just be extremely boring for some people. Find out more here:

Of course, any sane person would be sitting outside in the summer sunshine rather than watching television.

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