Monday, September 01, 2008

Unhitching my funny bone, shutting the Wrong Door

I'm worried. I'm worried that I am so far removed from popular tastes that I can no longer identify good TV from bad TV. Let me elucidate ...

I don't watch a great deal of television. Well, no ... that's not quite true. I do watch a fair bit of television but I am very selective. I can't bear having the TV on as 'background'. I approach watching TV in the same way as I approach reading a book - If I don't like the look of it, I simply won't bother. But I will give pretty much anything the benefit of the doubt. So when people told me to watch The Wire I did and I'm glad I took their advice. It's fantastic television. Others asked me to watch Lost. I did, but after two seasons I gave up. The Wire has managed to sustain my interest with gripping story lines and superb acting. Lost has become repetitive and dull with enough 'filler' episodes to stuff the Grand Canyon. It's lost the plot and I've lost all interest. No puns intended.

For much the same reasons, I can no longer watch soap operas or so-called reality TV shows. I've never enjoyed television that is, in my view, inane, pointless, ridiculous or that celebrates mediocrity and fatuous celebrity. When Lord Reith founded the BBC back in the 1920s, he stated that its role was to 'educate, inform and entertain'. Call me old-fashioned but I honestly believe that the purpose of television hasn't changed. Sadly, many TV programme-makers seem to disagree. I did once watch soap operas and enjoy them. I was an avid Coronation Street watcher. I even enjoyed Eastenders for a year or so. They were both excellent drama series; well-written, beautifully scripted and competently acted. But now they've degenerated into something quite different. I don't need to watch them any more. I can hear them from my office across the hallway. Gone are the fine actors and witty scripts. Instead we have faded comedians, straight out of drama school virgins and shouting. Lots of shouting. And story lines so utterly ridiculous that they are painful to watch. It says a lot when an advertisement for a UK washing powder spoofs the whole modern genre and ends with the tagline: Daz - the soap you can believe in.

It's the same with reality shows. The very first Big Brother was fascinating TV. It was like being a scientist watching lab rats perform. The voyeurism was genuinely thrilling as we saw how a group of utterly normal people reacted when cut off from civilisation. They formed relationships, made friends and enemies and did things that were completely out of character. They soon forgot they were on camera and, as time went on, they lost all sense of connection with the outside world. It was terrific TV. But even with Big Brother 2, things started to change. The people going into the house this time knew what to expect and acted accordingly. They were no longer 'normal' people. By Big Brother 3, the 'stars' of BB1 and BB2 had become celebrities (how I hate that most debased of words) so now the contestants were applying because the show was a shortcut to fame and fortune. And every successive season has produced contestants that are further and further divorced from normality. Big Brother is now just a freakshow by any other name. And, to further despoil the original concept of the series, these weirdos are egged on by ever-sillier and more extreme tasks and situations created by the programme makers. Why even bother spending the money on a house any more? They'll do anything to be famous. So why not just abuse them in a warehouse. As long as it's on camera and broadcast 24 hours a day, they'll still fight to get in there.

Writer and comedian Ben Elton saw this coming. His 2001 book Dead Famous lampoons the Big Brother phenomenon and takes it to the extreme, ultimately culminating in an on-screen death. He made some extraordinary predictions about how these types of show would evolve and, scarily, about 50% of what he made up has come true. Who'd have thought, 10 years ago, that we'd have live broadcasts of people sleeping? It defies all reason. And how long until The Truman Show becomes a horrid reality?

But it's the ghastly competition shows like X Factor and American Idol that disturb me the most. Shows like Last Choir Standing, Strictly Come Dancing (Dancing with the Stars in the US) and I'll Do Anything are harmless enough I guess - they're just oven-pizza for the eyes. They don't challenge us or inform us but they do entertain a certain kind of audience in a non-threatening soporific way. But X Factor and American Idol are in a different league. In these shows, we are actively encouraged to laugh at the deluded and the obviously mentally-challenged. Watch Simon utterly destroy someone's dreams in a rude and unnecessarily brutish way! Ha ha! Look! Look at that freak who sings like a pig being burned with a blowtorch but who thinks they're good! Ha ha! See that lady with the weird haircut and dodgy eyes - she obviously has learning difficulties. Let's point at her and laugh as she sings! Ha ha ha! Is this truly entertainment? If it is then I worry for the future, I really do. This is what we did 100 years ago at freak shows and carnivals. It's cheap, shameful television and it's turning us into jeering, sneering nasty people. I don't know that it actually encourages rudeness and cruelty but if people see enough of something ...

Of course, the ultimate cruelty is that, with very few exceptions, the only people to benefit from these shows are the people who make them.

Right. Rant over. Nearly. I'm worried, remember? I've just bared my soul about what I see as awful TV ... but the viewing figures don't agree with me. So maybe I'm the problem? Perhaps these shows are all fine and it's me who simply has no taste? My worry has been further fuelled by two comedies I watched this week. I really liked one and thought the other was rubbish. But my opinion of them appears to be entirely at odds with the rest of the viewing public. Firstly there's Unhitched, currently showing on FX.

The Farrelly Brothers scored pretty high with their early films like Dumb and Dumber and There's something about Mary but then hatched a string of turkeys best left untalked about. Remember Kingpin? Or Stuck on you? Ouch. But they seem to have got their mojo together at long last and have produced a sitcom. A sophisticated sitcom. And it's really funny! Unhitched has a kind of Friends set up with four close friends - Gator, Freddy, Tommy and Kate - three guys and one gal who share one thing in common: they're all 30-somethings who have recently come out of long-term relationships and are now coping with being back in the dating game again. There are moments of genuine sadness but always there's that cutting-edge trademark Farrelly black humour.

In the pilot episode, Gator meets a girl who gets turned on by the sounds of the rain forest and has transformed her apartment into a jungle ... as Gator finds out when her pet orang-utan unexpectedly decides to join in with the naughty fun. And in another episode Gator finds the perfect woman ... except for the scampi-sized skin tag hanging off her back. Crude, witty, well-directed and perfectly cast - I really like this show. It reminds me a lot of Coupling and would appeal to the same audience. I would have said that it was destined for great things but, amazingly, I've learned that it's been cancelled by Fox after just six episodes.

Then there's The Wrong Door (BBC3). I can't understand how this got green-lighted. I've only watched one episode and maybe that's not enough to make a valid judgement. But it was the pilot episode; the episode that is supposed to entice me in to watch the other five. And it didn't. It was awful. The idea is good, great even: A series of fast-paced sketches in which CGI is used to make the sketches look unusual and different from anything else you've ever seen. The sketches are played out deadpan and don't have traditional punchlines. It's rather like Big Train in that the humour came from the incongruity of the situations. So we'd get a wildlife documentary that looked and sounded just like an episode of Wildlife on One except that instead of antelope being stalked by lions we had jockeys being stalked by The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. Or we'd see a 'day in the life' type docusoap ... but instead of following a street cleaner, we'd follow Ming the Merciless. It was a terrific series with strong ideas and a great ensemble cast including Simon Pegg and Mark Heap. The Wrong Door tries to do the same but uses CGI to up the ante of the incongruity. So we get a typical 'taking boyfriend home to meet the parents' sketch ... but the boyfriend is a T Rex.
Or we see a giant robot rampaging through London because he can't find his keys. It sounds like a great idea and it should be ... but the underlying gags just don't work. They're not funny enough and the CGI can't fill the void. Mark Heap was brilliant as Ming the Merciless. His performance was full of subtle little comic nuances. Computer-generated dinosaurs and robots can't act and, what's more, they can't do comedy. Hell, most humans can't do comedy. That's why we have comedians. Here's a typical sketch from The Wrong Door: A young man staggers drunkenly into a bedroom and collapses on the bed. He drops an empty bottle out of which appears a gang of Tinkerbell-style fairies. They get a beer from the minibar and pour it down the chap's throat, they send a text on his behalf dumping his girlfriend, they turn the TV to a porn channel, pull down his trousers and then use a lighter to set off the fire sprinkler system. They then dive back inside the bottle as the landlady walks in, takes in the scene and says something like 'Oh you dirty little sod'. And the sketch is over. That's it. The CGI was passable and cleverly done ... but what was the sketch about? I just don't get it. And I'm not alone. Barring a couple of exceptions, the reviews were pretty damned awful. And yet the series got the highest viewing figures of any new comedy on BBC3.

So what do I know?

I'll end this rather downbeat post by mentioning three shows that have been must-sees for me these past few weeks:

Concrete Canvas - (Sky Arts) - A great little series following British pavement artist Julian Beever around the globe as he creates stunning anamorphic 3D chalk drawings on the streets and pavements of cities like LA, New York, Amsterdam and Paris. The series also documents the long and often controversial tradition of street art as he meets many of the artists working in the cities he visits. Great stuff. Check out some of his amazing work here.

The Sculpture Diaries - (Channel 4) - Waldemar Januszczak's excellent series about the impact of sculpture as an artform on society. There are three main areas of discussion - the landscape, heroes (including leaders and gods), and the female form. His exploration of how women have been represented in 3D art from the Willendorf Venus to Alison Lapper Pregnant was both celebratory and illuminating. And it was also a stark warning about body dysmorphia and similar conditions - many of which have been caused by a small but powerful group of fashionistas - mostly men - who have fostered a ridiculous 'perfect' image of women as stick insects. If the history of art tells us anything at all, it's that ordinary men love curves and women look better, and feel better, having them.

Rory and Paddy's Great British Adventure - (Channel 5) - I'm not a particular fan of either Rory McGrath or Paddy McGuinness if I'm honest but, for some reason, putting them together for this series really works. The idea is simple; our heroes travel the length and breadth of the UK taking part in strange, regional sports. Some are ancient like woolsack races and caber tossing. Others are newer like river football and nettle eating. And some are just plain bonkers like bog snorkeling or toe wrestling. It's been a fascinating glimpse of wonderful British eccentricity with an extra layer of enjoyment as we watch these two comedians suffer the indignities and injuries that come with playing the game. There are plenty of these sports still to be experienced so I hope that there will be another series.

But there probably won't be because I like it.


Debby said...

When our kids were growing up, Saturday morning cartoons were a big thing. I remember one Saturday morning when I realized that they were not watching them...and shockingly, couldn't remember the last time that they had. They just outgrew cartoons. The same thing with TV now. I suddenly realized, reading this post, I couldn't even tell you what was on our TV, because we simply haven't been watching it.

chris hale said...

Thank goodness! Someone else who is bored to death with all the "reality" shows. Like yourself, I watched BB1, but now actively avoid the show. I've always said that anyone who expresses an interest in becoming a politician should never be allowed to be one. In my opinion, Big Brother contestants should be dealt with in the same way. Perhaps a stint on BB should be one of the options open to magistrates considering a Community Punishment Order.

However, I'd be reasonably happy to watch celebrity morris dancing; I can think of quite a few so-called celebs that I'd like to see walloped with a pig's bladder.

I do agree with your comments on The Sculpture Diaries; a fascinating programme. Looking at Januszczak's miniature reconstruction of the Venus de Milo with arms, I can't help feeling it looks far better without. But I suppose that's all about familiarity.

Speaking of body dysmorphia, have you watched Trinny and Susanna? Now there's car crash TV for you...

Anonymous said...

I feel sure you and Chris must watch Grumpy Old Men BBC. In fact you should audition, the part is guaranteed yours!!!!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Debby - If things are the same over there, you are missing very little.

Chris - I have seen Skinny and Tranny. Their shows do nothing but reinforce the ridiculous idea that your life can only be complete if you look glamorous (and, preferably, thin). What a load of old cobblers.

Anon - Just who are you anyway? Harumph. Humbug. Grumble.

Debby said...

Ooooh. A mystery. Just like television. Who is anonymous anyways? Stay tuned...

Janet said...

I do agree with most of what you wrote - especially about reality shows. I must admit, though, that I start watching so-called talent competitions once the audition phase has ended. I no longer feel like voyeur at that point.

But your post brings to mind something that John and I groan about all the time - and that's "My Family". It SHOULD be ok, as it has an interesting cast. But it's absolutely horrid. I don't think I've ever cracked a smile during an episode. And I laugh easily. That particular sit-com isn't even bad enough to be funny for its badness. It's just banal. And I expected more from the BBC.

OK. That's MY rant for the day!



Stevyn Colgan said...

Janet - It's a rant I share as I cannot fathom the appeal of this comfy, anodyne, dribbling senility of a sitcom either.

Oh, and if you'd like to hear a truly brilliant rant follow this link.

The podgram is question is 'Compliance defiance' and you can get it through i-tunes or as an MP3 by clicking on the RSS link.

Mr Fry is on fine, furious, evangelical form as he discourses upon the subject of 'complince' - that odd area of TV production that changes reality to keep the health and safety fascists at bay. Enjoy!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Apologies for the typos. Using my fat fingers to leave comments via my i-pod touch!

Janet said...

I'll get it ASAP, Stevyn. are the second person to mention Fry's podcasts to me today. My officemate is a big fan as well.