Articles Santa Fe Reporter Television USA

Fall TV preview – ‘Attack of the Clones’

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

This season, cloning comes to television. The networks’ nerve has failed and instead of blazing new trails they give us copies of existing programs that weren’t great in the first place, or try two versions of the same suspect reality TV idea.

Several of the retreads build on the success of the tightly plotted but heartless ‘CSI’ franchise. CBS launches a new spin-off, ‘CSI New York’ (Wednesdays), with Gary Sinise lending some gravitas to the show. Proving that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, NBC also tries to cash in on our ghoulish tendencies with ‘Medical Investigation’ (Fridays).

These shows are competent but leave little room for character development, nuance or quirkiness, which is why they’re so easy to clone (the ‘Law and Order’ family follow a similar approach). The characters and settings are completely interchangeable: you just need one slightly aloof leader with a black sense of humour, one loyal female lieutenant, a couple of younger earnest helpers, two unrelated investigations each episode, one poorly-lit laboratory (where the requisite ‘science bit’ happens) and you’re done – in New York, Vegas or Miami. (article continues)

(first published in the Santa Fe Reporter, Sept 15th, 2004 – for the full text of the article, please contact me)

Articles Square Eyes Television

Going to the Life Laundry

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

DIY and interior design shows purport to improve your life by improving your environment – but do any of them actually work?

You can get the Homefront team to do your kitchen for you, or call for DIY SOS when you’ve made a hames of things yourself. The Changing Rooms posse will let your neighbours loose in your living room, and The Property Ladder shows you how to turn a profit from getting your hands dirty.

Interior desecrating is everywhere, but when the film crew has left, are you really better off?

You’re going to pile all the same old shite you had before back onto the shelves and carry on regardless – like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. If you’re miserable before, you’ll be miserable afterwards.

Unless you’ve been to The Life Laundry, which takes an innovative look at how people relate to their stuff.

The premise of the programme is simple – arrive at a frighteningly cluttered house, dump all the contents into the back garden, and force the homeowners to shred, sell, or give away almost all of it. Shift the remainder back inside, where the decorators have been busy, and voila, a brighter and less cluttered environment.

Some of the houses visited are so shocking even Carol Smillie would lose her grin. Junk strewn everywhere, baked bean tins from two decades ago in the kitchen cupboards, several years’ worth of unopened mail in a plastic bag halfway up the stairs.

You’d think that making an improvement in cases like this would be straightforward, but it can be very hard to persuade the homeowners they’re better off without this crap.

These houses are clogged with baggage in more ways than one. People seem to surround themselves with stuff as a result of important personal issues – bereavement, loneliness, childhood trauma.

Most episodes have a defining moment in which the chief hoarder in the household is driven to tears by host Dawna Walter’s insistence that a particular item has to go. The detritus is a physical manifestation of some emotional obstacle that they’re often unwilling to face.

It might be just a green scarf to you, but to the hoarder it’s something much more, and through sensitive handling of the situation, the show allows its subjects to do a mental spring cleaning that’s as valuable as the physical one. A new kind of interior decoration.

Most of us aren’t in the extreme positions of the people on the show, but in a small way, The Life Laundry shows how important it is to get our stuff together. And it’s not about rag rolling your walls or putting in a dado rail.

Articles Square Eyes Television

The Rules of Comedy

Monday, October 21, 2002

So you want to write a radical situation comedy? It’s got to be ground-breaking and edgy with new settings and scenarios, unlike anything seen before. Father Ted, Seinfeld and Will and Grace all rolled into one.

In that case, you just have to follow the rules. You might think comedy is rebellious, but literary critics will tell you that it’s inherently conservative – it seems like normal customs will be overturned, but at the end of the piece, everything is resolved and things go back to the way they were before.

TV sitcoms show this in their episodic structure – compare them to drama series and see how little actually happens in the long-term plots on the comedies. It’s taken seven seasons for two of the Friends characters to get married.

But they also show their conservatism in the relationships of the main characters. Despite all superficial differences, there’s a basic template that most sitcoms follow, and it’s all about family. Follow this template, and you’ll not go too far wrong.

All you need are a husband and wife, a child and a mad relation. Different sitcoms dress these conventions up in different ways, but that doesn’t change the basic relationships between the characters.

The husband is often the centre of the piece – a reasonably stable character, who reacts to the weirdnesses around him. The audience identifies most with him, and his desire to live a normal life.

The wife is more animated, with set opinions and a more expansive attitude to life. The child is stupid but well-meaning, and the mad relative tends to upset the regular life of the family.

Will and Grace follows this convention perfectly. Will is (if you’ll excuse the phrase) the straight man, Grace his slightly wayward wife. Jack is the stupid child who is good-natured but dumb, while Karen is the mad relative who drinks like a fish and has a foul mouth.

Father Ted also slots right into this. No prizes for identifying Ted and Mrs Doyle as the husband and wife, with Dougal as the child and Father Jack as the mad one.

Seinfeld follows the pattern perfectly as well – Jerry as the straight man, around whom the drama revolves, Elaine his spunky wife. George is the dolt, and Kramer the mad one.

Attentive readers will point out that in none of these examples are the husband and wife actually married, or the child even a child. That’s true, but it doesn?t affect the shape of the drama. Older sitcoms have the characters as really married – Keeping Up Appearances for example – but this tends to limit the flexibility possible.

Not that every show rigorously follows this pattern. Perhaps the longevity of Friends can be put down to the flexibility of the roles among the six characters. By turns Joey and Phoebe can be the children or the mad ones, while at times Ross and Rachel, then Chandler and Monica have been the marrieds.

This set of relationship acts as the framework over which you can build the comedy. You still need to add that infernally hard combination of intertwining plots, character, one-liners and catch-phrases. All in a breezy 18 minutes. So when you’re working on the pilot for your kick-ass new comedy, start by keeping it in the family.

Articles Square Eyes Television UK

Papa’s got a brand new blag – Britain’s Favourite Hoaxer reviewed

Wednesday, October 09, 2002

‘Do you think there’s something wrong with us, doing this, like?’ asks Tommy, just before he and his mates blag their way onto the podium at the British Grand Prix, for a spot of Riverdancing.

Nothing wrong at all.  They’re just living a low-budget heartwarming British movie – The Full Monty for the new century.

Channel 4’s documentary, Britain’s Favourite Hoaxer, showed the effort behind Tommy and his mate Karl ‘Fat Neck’ Power’s sporting stunts, from crashing the team photo at Manchester United’s Champions’ League quarter-final last year, to playing tennis on Centre Court at Wimbledon.

In this quaintly British story, Tommy and Karl are unemployed dreamers from a dodgy part of Manchester, who reckon that high-profile blags are their ticket to fame and fortune.

Karl could have been a contender. He was a successful amateur boxer until his career and almost his life were cut short when he was viciously beaten up in a case of mistaken identity (or mistaken hoodies).

Tommy’s the brains behind the operation while Karl does most of the stunts. Tommy’s girlfriend thinks her forty-year-old should get a real job to support his family, but that’s not for him.

He’s a consummate blagger, and we see him casing the joints the day before. In a smart jacket, with a mobile stuck to his ear, he breezes through security checks and always ends up pitchside having scored an ‘access all areas’ laminate. And one for Fat Neck.

The programme followed their five blags, from the Manchester United photo through going out to bat at a Test Match to performing a Maori haka on the pitch at the Italy vs England Six Nations clash.

And there’s a perfect dramatic shape to the adventures. The early success (United), and the one that nearly goes wrong – at the Test Match, Karl was miscued from his hiding place in the toilets when a friend called to see how the blag was going.

On the ferry to Italy, Tommy and Karl imagine themselves living large. They’re the little guys who might just make something of themselves.

But then come the setbacks – Karl bottles it in Rome, and no-one sees the haka. Tommy’s girlfriend leaves him, and we wonder if it’s all over for the lads. But they keep on going and the Wimbledon stunt works perfectly – they only leave the court when they run out of tennis balls, and the security guards politely escort them off the premises without a mention of criminal charges.

Finally, there’s one last job – the biggest challenge yet. Surely there’s no way they could blag their way onto a Formula One podium just minutes before the real trophy presentation? Kommandant Ecclestone will have them shot, or sent to race CART.

It doesn’t look good. The point man’s phone runs out of credit (BMW lent the blaggers a Mini Cooper for their Italian Job, but they could really do with sponsorship from Vodafone), and there are squads of security everywhere. With just seconds to go they find themselves on the wrong side of one last locked gate.

And a helpful guard opens it for them. Triumph. They jig in their racing overalls, and make the papers again. And Tommy gets back with her indoors.

Our heroes aren’t as smart as they think they are, and it’s less than clear how these stunts will really make their fortunes, but there’s no denying that they’ve pulled them off, one way or another. And presumably got Channel 4 to give them money for the documentary. Now if they could just sell the film rights to their unlikely tale. Nice one. Sorted.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUKTelevision

Articles Sport Square Eyes Television UK

Losing the Ryder Cup

Monday, September 30, 2002

Spare a thought for Steve Ryder, the journeyman sports broadcaster for the BBC.

He’s just spent the last three days covering the Ryder Cup (no relation), without being able to bring us any live coverage, because the Sky Sports schemers had the rights.

Poor Steve, normally enthroned on high above the 18th green, was left standing beside an outside broadcast truck in a car park, anchoring a meagre late night highlights show.

And his audience fared little better. While Philip Price (voted Pontypridd Man of the Year in 1997) was delivering a big blow of the whoop-stick to Phil Mickelson (ranked no. 2 in the world, more than a hundred places above him), golf fans across the UK and Ireland were pacing the room listening to it all on BBC Radio 5 Live.

Radio golf commentary beats radio tennis but is less rewarding than watching snooker on a black and white TV. Whispering summarisers stalk the players up the fairways, but you never feel you’re part of the action.

The crowd tells you the fate of a putt before the commentators can, and majestic drives or masterful chip shots are reduced to a list of distances and club selections.

When things get tense, you want be shown not told – let me see David Duval hiding behind his Oakleys and Sergio Garcia leaping like a loon. Instead we get Alan Green trying to sound knowledgeable and sundry ex-pros joshing with each other.

And the players aren’t even getting paid for this. They normally work on Sundays for a million dollars a time, but just this once they’re playing for pride. So Sky are the only people making any money.

And going to the pub to watch it was not really an option. If a football match is a poem, this competition is a sprawling Victorian novel requiring a three-day commitment to get a sense of all the characters before the drama reaches its unlikely conclusion. Arriving in time to see Paul McGinley go in the lake would be like only reading the last chapter.

So while the unfancied Euros were beating the odds, we were left to imagine it all in less than glorious MentalVision. Our golfers won, but as viewers we’d already lost the Ryder Cup.

Posted by David in • Square EyesTelevisionSportUK

Articles Square Eyes Television

Real Drama – reality vs. fiction

Monday, September 02, 2002

Channels here and in the US are fighting to outdo themselves with variants of the reality TV idea. At first unknown people were made famous just by showing them on TV doing their jobs – Hotel, Airport, that one about the cruise ship.

Then it became much more entertaining to get the unknowns to earn their celebrity a little – Survivor, Big Brother, that one on the Scottish island.

We’ve also had the historical variant – The Trench, The 1940s House, and now The Ship, which purports to be about James Cook’s voyages, but is really Survivor at Sea meets Simon Schama.

Celebrity Big Brother upped the ante by revealing the nocturnal habits of people who were already (kind of) famous. Now, ITV is customarily a day late and a dollar short with its celebrity Outback adventure.

These shows have some basis in reality (albeit an alternative one at times), but instead of replacing real documentaries, they’ve moved into the territory of TV drama. (Although The Osbornes nicely bills itself as the world’s first reality sit-com.)

Many of the must-see shows in previous decades were fictional series or adaptations – Morse, Prime Suspect, Brideshead Revisited, Our Friends in the North, Pride and Prejudice.

Now instead of opera-loving curmudgeons we get C-list celebs in shorts or porcine girls with a shocking grasp of geography.

Unlike the reality shows, good drama is expensive and risky. It depends on a commitment to excellent writing, and to challenging the audience. And there’s precious little of it being produced in these islands.

Bachelors Walk was encouraging if over praised, Any Time Now (aka Bachelorettes’ Walk ) flat and derivative, and the current crop of police procedurals are just going through the motions.

Before you reach for the lazy complaint that American TV is no better, get down on your knees and thank God for the US cable network HBO.

Sex and the City, Oz, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under are all produced by this subscription-based channel that only reaches a small minority of US homes.

Recently its shows have bossed the Emmy awards, and with ER on its last legs, only The West Wing has challenged HBO’s dominance. The broadcast networks there, as here, have run out of bravery and ideas.

Compelling drama is creative, wise and true in a way that reality shows ironically can never be. Unfortunately the conveyor belt of crap shows no signs of stopping – anyone for Temptation Island or Fear Factor? Didn’t think so.

The programme makers need to get real and start making stuff up.

Articles Square Eyes Television UK

Ray Mears – Practical visionary

Monday, July 22, 2002

Ray Mears is that rare and perfect combination – a practical visionary. When he’s talking you through the challenges of surviving in the world’s wildernesses, you trust his judgement and expertise, but you also warm to his more philosophical side.

I’ve always been disappointed they make astronauts out of fighter pilots and not writers. Sure, you need someone who’s good under pressure and will do as they’re told, but if you’re sending a spaceship off the planet, shouldn’t you have someone on the trip who can explain what it’s like to be doing such an amazing thing? ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ might get the job done, but it’s not exactly deathless prose. It’s like asking footballers how they scored a breathtaking goal – ‘Well, Smodger knocked it over and I just hit it – it either goes into the stands or it goes in.’ Being good at some jobs means being bad at talking about them.

And Ray Mears is definitely good at his job. Send him to the Arizona desert and he’s finding water in no time, send to Siberia and he’ll knock you up a waterproof shelter and have the kettle on while you’re still trying to unfreeze your toes. He can spot a poisonous fungus at thirty paces and watching him make fire is a constantly amazing sight.

His ruddy bulk and boyish face help him in this. He was definitely the kid who built camps and swings in the woods and knew what all the things on his penknife were for.

The hero of the Just William stories meets John Rambo. When he tells you not to leave your vehicle if it breaks down in the desert, you believe him. But there’s a more reflective element to even his most gung-ho TV expeditions. He has huge respect for indigenous people living simple lives in difficult places, and he relies much more on old wisdom than new technology.

There are lessons to be learned from living a life closer to nature, and while Ray’s never going to be a tree-hugger, it’s clear he appreciates the perspective his adventures give him. And in his gruff no-nonsense way, he shares this with us armchair travellers.

The chances are we’ll never need to know how to find food in a tropical swamp or make sure we can light matches when our fingers have got frostbite. But we can still get a lot out of watching Ray show us how.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUKTelevision

Articles Square Eyes Television USA

24-hour plot people – 24 reviewed

Sunday, April 28, 2002

It?s 8am in 24, and we?re a third of the way through the day. How?s it working out for you?

On the plus side, the plot?s gripping and has more twists and turns than Robert Pires on the dodgems. And there?s some good use of technology to drive the story along – closed circuilt cameras, mobile phones and a large number of beautifully lit Macintosh computers.

Some of the set pieces have been good too – we?ve had lesbian assasins escaping from exploding aircraft, spook pseudo-dads murdering their offspring and surprised slackers getting shot in the head.

Of course the biggest draw is the basic premise – 24 hours of drama each taking place over an hour (allowing for US ad breaks). Back to at least one of the Aristotelian unities.

But the writers have failed to take advantage of this framework, confusing action for intensity, and forgetting about characterisation.

Everything takes place at the same helter skelter pace – when nothing?s happening with one storyline, we just concentrate on another. Or rather, they make sure that there?s never nothing happening. So when Jack?s driving along, he?s also on the phone, or scanning fingerprints, or talking to Gaines.

This means that we get no real sense of the passing of time because all the characters are in their own little world. For example, there?s never any connection made between the events of the drama and real activites that take a set amount of time. We never see a kettle boiling, or have the action measured in the time it takes to play a song on the soundtrack.

And where?s the classic thriller device of the countdown to disaster? A simple ?if you don?t get here in five minutes, I?m killing your daughter,? would work wonders, as we?d see exactly five minutes played out on the screen. The plot is clever, but there?s no playing with the form, which is a real waste.

Senator Palmer?s breakfast was supposed to be the big hit that Jack and the boys were trying to stop, but because we?re not halfway through the series, Palmer couldn?t die, and there was so much other stuff happening that there was little enough tension anyway.

And with no pauses for breath, there?s little room for characterisation.  Kiefer Sutherland keeps looking unkempt and slightly desperate, young Kim is trying to avoid popping out of her red top, and the Senator is too good to be true. But we don?t really care enough about any of them.  Why is the CTU trying to kill Palmer in the first place? Why did Jamie turn bad, and why is soul patch Tony suddenly cuddling with Nina?

With another sixteen hours to go, I?m not sure I?ve got the necessary commitment to last the course. I propose the main figures all head off for a long breakfast (has anyone eaten anything yet?) so we can get to know them better. Otherwise it?ll be a race to see whether the characters or the audience run out of energy first.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUSATelevision

Articles Film Square Eyes Television

Walking Tall – The secret of small actors

The movie’s reaching its climax — a man is being led through a filthy jail to see his friend who’s been incarcerated for two years; our hero is about to volunteer to serve his own sentence to save his friend’s life — and the only question in my mind is how tall is Vince Vaughn?

This clearly wasn’t the sentiment the makers of Return to Paradise wanted to evoke in the audience, but soon I was away on a height jag. If Vaughn’s about 6’2”, then Anne Heche must be pocket sized, because she’s clearly a foot shorter than he is. And that means Joaquin Phoenix is tiny as well.

So what about Tom Cruise, who we all know is famously short? When David Letterman asked the recently-divorced Nicole Kidman (5’10″) what changes she was going to make in her new life, she shot back, ‘Well, I’ll start wearing high heels again.’

Tom, at 5’7”, is perhaps better suited to his new squeeze Penelope Cruz, who as well as looking like him, and having almost the same name as him, is about the same height as him.

In real life, you know how tall people are because you automatically measure them against yourself and nearby objects.

But after seeing the great effects employed in The Lord of the Rings to make the hobbits suitably squat, how can you trust any actor’s height when they’re on screen?

The rule of thumb seems to be that leading ladies are taller than average (Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts . . . ), except for the ones that aren’t (Meg Ryan, Sarah Michelle Gellar). Leading men on the other hand, are shorter than average (Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino).

So why the diddy men? One argument I’ve heard (admittedly in the snug of The Stag’s Head) is that it’s all down to relative size of head to body. Short men have proportionally larger heads, and since they tend to do most of their acting using their heads, there’s less body to clutter up the screen, giving a more powerful performance.

More specifically, what’s crucial in the head department is the surface area of face that’s made up by the space between the eyebrows and the bottom lip — the facial golden rectangle (or FGR). A big slaphead’s not going to help you any, since you can’t emote with it (unless you’re Vinnie Jones).

So if you calculate the ratio of the FGR to the surface area of the rest of their bodies, these petit players score big, because they’re not filling up the onscreen real-estate with rippling muscles or unnecessarily long legs. At the other end of the scale there’s Dolph Lundgren and Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose FGR to body ratios are tiny. And who would you rather have in your movie?

Jean-Claude Van Damme proves the accuracy of this calculation — he?s got the bulging muscles, but he’s only 5′ 8″, so you would expect him to have more onscreen presence than Dolph and Arnie. This is borne out by his excellent work in the neglected masterpieces Nowhere to Run and Universal Soldier: The Return, so that’s QED for the FGR theory.

All of which puts Vince Vaughn at a huge disadvantage — not only is he missing an ‘a’ from his last name, he’s also a giant amongst men at 6’5″, and all that extra body just gets in the way of his acting. Facing a similar problem is Tim Robbins, who’s also 6’5″.

Maybe next year the Oscars will be handicapped, like horse racing, or better still, governed by weight division like boxing. ‘And now, we come to the award for those with an FGR to body ratio of 17.5% or less’. There’d be weigh-ins before films started shooting, and De Niro would bulk up for the first time since Raging Bull to go up a division and show them how good he was. I can’t wait.

Originally published on the Square Eyes TV blog

Articles Square Eyes Television UK

Snow Business – How good is Channel 4 News?

Monday, February 18, 2002

The world is going to hell in a handcart, and you’re just sitting there watching. But at least if it’s Channel 4 News you’re watching, you know there’s some hope for us.

Captain Jon Snow and his able lieutenants, Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Kirsty Lang, sail the seas of the early evening schedules in the UK in their nippy destroyer, giving us attitude and accuracy in equal measure.

The programme achieves the difficult task of giving us a round-up of the news of the day at the same time as offering deeper analysis and debate on a range of issues. It’s the best Kirsty Wark grilling from Newsnight combined with Peter Sissons’ straight-ahead Ten O’Clock News style, and it shows Sky News that continous coverage is completely worthless without some joined-up thinking.

With his sharp ties and even sharper mind Jon Snow appears to be less combative than Paxman, but he elegantly fillets sophistic spinners, and asks all the necessary questions. The man who shrugged off a fatwa against him during the Satanic Verses episode is not going to be fazed by a junior minister trying to be economical with the actualit?.

The program’s correspondents are equally trustworthy. Elinor Goodman’s no-nonsense knowledge of the political world is matched only by her quietly stylish clothes.

David Smith, their correspondent in the US, seems daily more disillusioned by life in the capital of the one remaining superpower. As he reports on yet another example of US knavery and small-mindedness, his hangdog expression shows you he’s enduring a long night of the soul to bring you the story.

Providing good basic news and excellent analysis of the big stories would make Channel 4 News reliable viewing on its own, but what really impresses is the way they cover stories that no-one else is reporting.

They have the courage and vision to launch investigations into issues that aren’t currently high on the agenda of the chattering classes. For example, a recent expose showed how US companies were implicated in widespread human rights abuses in China. Prisoners were being forced to work as slave labour in factories, producing goods for the export market. The US importers denied any knowledge of this, but some good honest sleuthing threw up customs documents signed by executives of the US companies, which clearly identified the source of the goods. Gotcha.

This type of story takes a lot of time and money to produce, and it’s a lot easier just to cover the obvious stories that everyone else is running with. Not to labour a point, it’s the sort of thing Sky News should be doing, but their claim to be ‘First with the news’, just means they’re first to report the carefully-controlled press conferences and staged interviews that everyone else has. Deciding to cover a story that no-one else was doing would seem like madness to their editors – there’s a banal safety in numbers.

With the profound changes happening at ITN – the company that produces Channel 4 News, as well as ITV’s woeful news coverage – there’s some doubt over the future of Snow’s good ship. Let’s hope they’re left alone to keep up the great work – may God bless her and all who sail in her.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUKTelevision