Articles Film Square Eyes Television

Dumbing down to move up – TV stars doing movies

Thursday, June 28, 2001

In a ‘Friends’ episode not so long ago, Bruce Willis dances around in his underwear; this may or may not be an image to set your pulse racing, but it showed one thing very clearly – you can be a film actor or a TV actor, but you can’t be both.

Bruce looked constrained and uncomfortable throughout his appearance as Ross’s girlfriend’s Dad, and during this comedy pay-off he just looked ridiculous. And not in a funny way

Bruce decided to take the role of after working with Matthew Perry on the pretty good movie ‘The Whole Nine Yards’, and here the situation was reversed. Perry looked too small and familiar to fit the big screen, so he overcompensated with mugging expressions and wearing a slight air of desperation. Peddling your tricycle really fast doesn’t make you look at home in the Tour de France.

TV stars need to be more approachable and human than their big screen cousins. While Hollywood stars can be portentous and glamorous, sitcom and drama actors have to be sharper, better ensemble players and in some ways more convincing. There’s an extent to which we pay to see Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts be themselves, but when we’re watching Frasier, you’re giving your time to Niles and Frasier, not David Hyde Pierce and Kelsey Grammer.

Bruce Willis is an interesting example, of course, because he first made his name on TV. But the difference between his off-beat, fast-talking slightly manic performance as David Addison in ‘Moonlighting’ and his lumbering, dirty vest figure in the ‘Die Hard’ films is incredible. He realized that a different sort of performance was required if he was to become a movie star. And now he can’t go back.

This divide between film and TV performances is particularly appropriate when you look at the career of David Duchovny. In some ways he’s a natural for a move from TV to films – ‘The X-Files’ is hugely cinematic and has very high production values, and Duchovny himself has the chiselled good looks you’d think would go down well at the cineplex.

But his movie career has been a stuttering affair. Playing the conflicted doctor in the forgettable thriller ‘Playing God’, or the weirdly feeble romantic lead in the ill-judged ‘Return to Me’ have hardly set the screen alight. 

So in his current film ‘Evolution’ he seems to relax and have some fun with his former TV role. With strong support from the excellent Orlando Jones (and slightly more suspect assistance from Julianne Moore) Duchovny freewheels through this nonsense ‘Men in Black’ meets ‘Ghostbusters’ romp.

If you check your brain at the door, there are enough good lines to keep you amused (Duchovny: ‘If I was a giant nasty bird in a department store, where would I be?’ Jones: ‘Lingerie’), and it’s passable summer fare.

Perhaps our David heeded the warning from David Caruso’s move from being a big star on ‘NYPD Blue’ to complete anonymity in dodgy films. Caruso tried to bring his TV intensity and earnestness to movies, but couldn’t carry it off. On the evidence of ‘Evolution’, Duchovny’s not even trying. It’s just survival of the witless.

Posted by David in • Square EyesTelevisionFilm

Articles Square Eyes Television

Giving up TV

Tuesday, June 26, 2001

I recently spent a week away from television, which might not seem the ideal preparation for writing a column of this nature, but it gave me time to consider how worthwhile it is to become embroiled in the latest soap storylines, or to be able to argue the toss over the another reality show. To ponder, in fact, whether TV is worth it. 

First I must distinguish between watching TV programmes, and ‘watching TV’. There are two televisions in the house I was staying in, but my host chooses not to watch them, except for the honourable exceptions of ‘Frasier’ and ‘Father Ted’. So she watches some programmes, she just doesn’t watch TV in that way most of us do – the ‘I’ll just sit down for half and hour while I have a cup of tea’ approach.

This means she keeps out of the way of stumbling across random shows – only with the start of the second series of ‘Big Brother’ did she know anything about the programme (and this from a woman who has a PhD in media and communications).

So what’s her beef? Essentially (and I hope I represent her fairly here, ‘cos if I don’t she’ll whack me, being my big sister and all), she believes that watching television is actively bad for you, and we’d be better off not doing it. It isolates you, and distances you from your own life, and those of the people around you as you invest yourself more fully in the superficial antics of celebrities and soap dramas.

Your experience of the world comes mediated through television, and by extension through the decisions of television stations that are much more concerned with ratings, advertising revenue and market share than grace, wisdom and compassion. As passive receivers of pre-packaged entertainment you lose the ability to decide what you would yourself like to do, simply choosing the opt out of ‘Oh, I’ll watch the TV instead.’

Even when there’s nothing on, you’ll choose the least worst option.  The irony of ‘Why Don’t You?’, that 1980s summer holidays show was that kids would much rather watch shite like ‘Why Don’t You?’ than actually go out and do anything at all.

The argument continues that the combination of the programmes and adverts present you with a shallow but seductive picture of the world which rarely tells you anything about yourself and your own life. Rather than concluding that the TV world is wrong, it’s somehow easier to conclude that it’s yoru own life that’s wrong. So at the same time as it makes your unhappy with your own real life, it sucks away the time should be spending improving your own life, making you doubly unhappy. You’re miserable, but you can’t do anything about it

A quick analysis of what people are shown doing on television is enough to prove this. From ‘Questions and Answers’ to ‘Corrie’, from ‘Grandstand’ to ‘The Sopranos’, you never see anyone watching television, or even talking about it. This should be enough to tell you two things – firstly that TV doesn’t represent the world in which you live (because there’s a shedload of TV watching going on in your life), and secondly that nothing at all dramatic, exciting or life-altering will ever happen to you while you’re watching TV (with the possible exception of a drive-by shooting).

I’m indebted to my housemate for reminding me of a further proof of this. Put a mirror on top of the television. When something really dramatic is happening to the folks on TV, look closely at them – witness their passion and emotion. Then look at yourself in the mirror. Who’s really living, then?

So as I write, this all sounds pretty plausible. How many hours have I wasted watching mediocre television? All to have gained a brain stuffed with ‘Dempsey and Makepeace’ and ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’. In idle moments I find myself wondering where Selena Scott is now, and concluding that I was too young to be that devoted to ‘thirtysomething’. 

Right now, I’m off to do something much less boring instead, but I fear it may be too late.
(Next week, I’ll put the case for the defence of TV, and of course in the interim let me know how wrong I am.)

Articles Square Eyes Television

TV – Too Good to Lose

Thursday, June 14, 2001

There are bad books and really bad books, but this doesn’t mean that reading books is a waste of time; and so it is with television: just because you’re watching ‘Family Fortunes’ doesn’t mean that others should be denied the pleasure and reward of watching ‘Channel 4 News’.

This might seem an obvious point, but when it comes to discussing the merits of this medium reasoned debate can sometimes go out the window. TV brings us art and community, and should be valued for it.

First the art. The one-hour TV drama format is a genuinely important platform for creativity. Things like plays work better on a stage, things like movies need a big screen and demise of the novel seems to have been exaggerated, but none of them could have brought us ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘The Singing Detective’.

These shows only make sense in the TV format. There’s a rhythm and intimacy that television allows that nothing else can match.

Gore Vidal, who wrote scripts for live TV drama recently remarked that he did film work just for money (including writing the script for ‘Ben Hur’), but he would have done television for nothing, because he enjoyed the challenge, and really enjoyed the huge audience he reached.

Which brings us to the second great strength of TV – it creates and reinforces communities. When you’re watching ‘Big Brother’, you are part of a community of millions that is engaging in a shared experience. You might be on your own on the sofa, but as soon as you get to work the next morning, you’ll be knee deep in ‘Did you see your man Brian last night?’. 

Membership of this community shapes who we are a little, and gives us something to belong to. The first big televisual event in the UK was the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1952 – people wanted to be there to see it, even if they couldn’t be.

Until I was out of range of BBC television for three years I never appreciated the extent to which the base level of my childhood experience had been informed by watching television. I’d meet people who had no idea about ‘The Wombles’ and ‘Blue Peter’ and ‘Cheggers Plays Pop’ (the lucky sods), and while of course it didn’t really matter, actually it did.

The community building side of television is seen at its clearest with sport. Some sporting events, like Grand Prix and The Tour de France hardly work as spectator sports without television. Unless you’re Martin Brundle, you’re not going to be watching every Grand Prix around the world from beside the finish line, but from the comfort of your living room (or that of a friend’s), you can share in the event. And when David O’Leary scored that penalty, how many of us would have seen it were it not for TV?

Telelvision is a good servant but a poor master. It can encourage passivity and a separation from your own life, or it can expand your horizons, inform, entertain and include. So I’m not giving up, but I could, if I wanted to. No problem. It’s not like I’m addicted or anything. Seriously.