Posts Tagged ‘TV’

In praise of The Affair

In Culture on May 18, 2015 at 4:40 PM

Waves move, flickering, on a black backdrop as Fiona Apple sings: “I was screaming, into the canyon, at the moment, of my death”. It’s a suitably dark, brooding title sequence to The Affair, Sky Atlantic’s recent import from Showtime, starring English actors Dominic West (best known as Jimmy McNulty in The Wire) and Ruth Wilson.

It follows the rocky romances between Noah Solloway (West), his paramour Alison Lockhart (Wilson) and their spouses, and a possibly connected murder, as Noah, his wife and four kids spend the summer with Noah’s little-loved in-laws in Montauk, the remote eastern-most point of Long Island. So far, so ‘rom-com’ terrain. But it rises above Jennifer Aniston-movie fare for various reasons.

Firstly, the intelligence of the script. The story is told by the two protagonists as they are interrogated by a policeman for a murder in Montauk – the details of which are teasingly dripfed to the audience. First in each episode (most episodes anyway) you are told ‘Noah’s story’, then ‘Alison’s story’, which makes for a fascinating character study of the nuances of seduction; how the same event can be remembered so differently by both parties. Instead of bashing you over the head with the message, it gives enough space for the viewer to ruminate on the motives and morality of the characters’ actions – and how that might affect the crime being investigated (which is still unresolved, with a second season coming). Among the many, many arguments, I can’t remember one where there was an obvious winner. This is life and love not in black and white, but in all its shades of grey (emotionally speaking, not sexually a la Christian Grey – though the sex scenes are fairly steamy).

Alison and her husband Cole still, a few years on, have the lingering loss of their only child Gabriel hanging over their marriage like a dark cloud, particularly because Alison is grappling with the guilt of not taking him to the doctors before he died of secondary drowning aged four. And Noah is looking for the life he thinks he missed out on by marrying early; the idealistic, freewheeling vision he has of the life of a writer; the chance to be who wants to be instead of who he is or feels he’s supposed to be. In other hands, Noah’s action could smack of ‘mid-life crisis, sleazy fling’, but Dominic West performs the role with so much skill you have some sympathy for Noah, despite months of living a lie. (That said, Noah’s pursual of the affair could have been made more believable and sympathetic – maybe just make all his kids kind of brats rather than just Whitney (arguably), or make his wife a bit of a bitch).

Just as important to the show is Montauk, its small, close-knit, everyone-knows-everyone feel integral to the plot, and the Atlantic sea of course offering much scope for attractive visual metaphor for all manner of plot issues. It is portrayed as a place wrestling with the twin identities of down-to-earth, everyone-knows-everyone fishing community and wealthy playground for the “summer people” (the heart of the infamous ‘Hamptons’ area, where rich New Yorkers escape the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple, is around 20 miles down the road).

So get in on The Affair. That is, unless you’re in an unstable marriage – in which case, it’s so compelling and comprehensive in its examination of marriage breakdown, you could start questioning and doubting things a bit too much…

In Defence of the BBC

In Opinion on April 12, 2015 at 4:15 PM

I sometimes cast my mind forward to a not-too-distant future in which the BBC is no more, or at least drastically cut, following criticisms of the cost, ‘bias’ and it ‘not being a suitable broadcaster for our multimedia age’. I reckon there would be national mourning; paroxysms of nostalgia similar to the reactions of Ceefax ending and HMV closing (though the music retailer, to my pleasant surprise, continues to stay open). Call it misty-eyed sentimentalism if you will, but I think there’s something in this.

The reaction itself proves there’s still an affection for such things, even if there are more straightforwardly rational alternatives – the internet to Ceefax, Amazon and iTunes to HMV and arguably Neflix and Youtube et al to the BBC. But humans are not robots. In an age with so many different things competing for our attention on screens, there’s a good case for television that brings people together. People still remember where they were and who they were with for landmark televisual events like when England won the World Cup, Live Aid and Who Shot Jr/Phil Mitchell.

Of course, this would not be totally destroyed if the BBC went. But I think there’s a risk, in creating better choice for people, of losing that shared cultural conversation, even creating a more ‘atomised’ society, which many – on the left and right – complain about. Ask yourself, does your nan share your love of Breaking Bad? Probably not. But would you be able to bond over your love for it if it was on BBC? Maybe. (Game of Thrones is probably a bit unlikely, but who knows…) And I bet there’d be a lot more arguments between couples if there wasn’t the default option of ‘whatever shit’s on TV’. If you choose to watch some obscure documentary on Netflix or a documentary on quantum physics on BBC4, you stick your neck out that your partner/friends/flatmates watching will enjoy it. Put on BBC and it’s a no lose – if it’s good, you’ve got good taste; if not, it’s just that it was on anyway and you can talk over it or change channel. Anyway, as Barry Schwartz has shown, too much choice can actually lead to less happiness over the choice, as people fixate over the other possibilities and consider if the grass would be greener – like how you can forever browse Netflix looking for something better. I’m not arguing for a cultural North Korea, but surely there’s a happy medium between this and each member of the family in the living room watching different screens.

…All of which is why I get annoyed at the constant barrage at criticism constantly directed at the BBC. The most recent example was the reaction to Culture, Media and Sport select committee findings, which found the broadcaster should be “braver”, stop trying to do something for everyone and that the licence fee should be scrapped and replaced with a ‘broadcasting levy’ on all homes. This produced a frothing reaction from the right wing press, claiming any mandatory fees should be scrapped. It’s a strangely paradoxical reaction from papers that take such pride in instilling the shared customs of a ‘traditional British’ way of life. I suppose they would counter that the BBC no longer promotes ‘British’ values, but then surely it would make sense to call for specific reforms, not a complete overhaul, and make criticism more measured and constructive than this, from the Mail: “Chaotic… buck-passing… empire-building… monstrously bureaucratic… anti-competitive… recklessly wasteful of public money… refusing to admit mistakes as it lurches from crisis to crisis…” (Because, of course, The Mail is not ’empire-building’…)

But it’s not just attacked from the right. ‘BBC too right wing’ gets 2.68 million Google hits. ‘BBC too left wing’ gets 2.05 million. It’s far from an exact science – for starters, maybe this acid test is inherently skewed towards the young because it’s on the internet, and this might mean the study is skewed towards left denouncing right. Regardless, I merely wish to prove how much controversy it causes on both sides (in addition to people who obviously have nothing better to do in their lives than complain to Ofcom because someone said ‘bastard’ once before the watershed or showed a bit too much cleavage).

But ‘neutrality’ is such a hard, if not impossible, thing to achieve, as the debate itself over the BBC’s bias proves. People often complain about papers’ bias even though, as private entities not paid for by the taxpayer, there’s no particular need for papers to be impartial. (That’s even if they are determined by mere political considerations, rather than more sinister commercial ones, as Peter Oborne revealed about his former employer The Daily Telegraph in his resignation letter, in regard to the paper’s limited coverage of the tax scandal at HSBC, one of its biggest advertising clients.)

If the main criticism of the BBC were the whole principle of it – that it’s not (really) chosen, not ‘free media’ – then I’d understand, if not agree. No one wants to live in a cultural North Korea and, ridiculous as the comparison is in extent, the BBC is a state broadcaster. And I concede that the BBC does run at a distinct commercial advantage to other media outlets because of its funding means it has a far better knowledge of its short and long-term budget than many of its rivals, in turn meaning it can plan better than rivals.

However, I think this has its advantages. It’s a common criticism of journalism, and one made brilliantly by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News, that cost-cutting and naked profit-chasing, which is the BBC is somewhat protected against, is corrupting the once reputable practice. And it allows the BBC to make ambitious, groundbreaking, but very expensive work like Planet Earth and Life; having cameramen, for example, wait in the middle of fucking Arctic nowhere for four weeks waiting for a mother polar bear and its cubs.

And it’s not just that by any means. Us Brits have probably become inured to the BBC, but it’s worth pointing out how much the world fucking loves it (or conversely, how shit TV can be abroad). As revealed by The Guardian in February, the international sales arm of the BBC now claims the corporation is the largest producer of television outside Hollywood, and this year it has 2,800 hours of shows to sell. Also, it’s estimated that British TV exports for 2013-14 were valued at £1.28bn.

Thing is, the structure of the BBC doesn’t seem to be the common complaint – based on the special pleading and bleating from all corners, it seems a lot people want a universal service, but one tailored just for them and their common sense views. People of all political persuasions naturally locate the elusive ‘centre-ground’ closer to them than it probably is, hence the shitstorm of the ‘BBC is too [insert chosen bete noire here – right/left/imperial/multicultural/’warmist’/climate denier etc etc].

The reason this annoys me so much is that this atmosphere can serve as a straitjacket to good journalism and broadcasting. Naturally some news and topics are more likely to lead to a particular political stance, but news, or more pretentiously truth, should be sought wherever it is, not on what people happen to think. As such I’m not claiming the Beeb is perfectly impartial (though pretty good), but how could it be?! It’s surprising to me as it is how the Beeb still produces hard-hitting news, like the HSBC tax avoidance exposé.

And it seems it was ever thus. I recently stumbled across an archive piece in the New Statesman from E.L.Forster defending the BBC in 1931 against similar complaints of bias on various sides. He wrote: “Perhaps we grumbled too often. If we did, Nemesis has descended, bringing all the powers of darkness in her train. For the easy days are over, brightness falls from the air, and the conflict has begun. The BBC, because of its success and growing importance, is being constantly attacked, in the pulpit, in Parliament, in the Press, and the attack is on new and dangerous lines. The aim is suppression. When suppression has been achieved, control may be attempted, but suppression is the immediate objective. The cry is not for fuller programmes but for feebler.”

It’s always hard to argue for the status quo in the face of various angry complaints, and easier to think the grass is greener. But I think those enjoy the BBC need to stick up for it amid the loud noises from all sides, attempting to strangle this great British institution, with politicking and death by a thousand cuts, into boring, timid submission.

TV watchers now enlightened gurus

In Satire on October 2, 2013 at 1:34 AM

People once considered ‘fat slobs’ are now thought of as cultural gurus thanks to the ‘golden age of television’, according to new research.

The Institute of TV Studies has found the esteem in which serial TV watchers are held has jumped by an impressive 35%, due to the proliferation of big budget American imports such as Breaking Bad, Dexter, Game of Thrones and Mad Men.

A spokesman for the institute said: “Our research shows the type of people who were once seen as lazy, unambitious, degenerates even, are now enjoying their role as cultural tastemakers, as television is increasingly seen as high art, as opposed to something to obviate the need for families to actual talking at dinner or as a Marxist tool for controlling the proletariat.”

We spoke to some of the newly enlightened fellows (the research shows they are nearly always male) about their new role at the top of the culture tree.

Mike Jones, a seasoned TV watcher, said: “It’s great. Where once I was just this guy who lay prone, eating Doritos perched on his rather considerable belly and neglecting his children, I am now treated like Brian fucking Sewell. Even though I haven’t really changed my behaviour.”

“It’s pretty easy really. All you have to do is watch a show, say how great the cinematography is, how complex the characters are, and chuck in a line about how it’s ‘like modern-day Shakespeare’, and you’re golden.”

“Old William wrote 53 fucking plays – of course a half-decent show is going to be like something he did. It’s a meaningless enough phrase that no-one will really query – I just made that figure up for example. But it makes you look clever.

“So basically I do the same thing I’ve always done, but now it’s as if I’ve read the complete works of Dostoyevsky and I’m thought of as this enlightened dispenser of wit and wisdom.

“And, as I’m nearly always watching TV anyway, I’m even seen as ahead of the crowd, instead of a bandwagon-jumper. Like with Breaking Bad, I just stumbled across it way back when the first season was shown on Channel 5 ‘cos I just left the TV on after watching World’s Deadliest Sharks or summin.”

“Then I told people about it and that it was about family, finding one’s passion, I think I even said mortality…I was treated as if I’d actually given them this fucking life-changing drug.”

“So cheers, Vince Gilligan!”

Tom Phillips, another well-watched person, said: “It’s all about the minorities. TV shows love minorities, through some combination of offering escapism and filling ethnic quotas, and they give half-arsed critics like myself a great chance to sound intelligent and right-on.”

“Just say ‘such and such a show really deconstructs the stereotype of such and such a minority as such and such a thing’, and explain it a bit or maybe develop it a little bit further with some counter-arguments…trust me, they’ll be eating out of your newly-sophisticate hands.”

“All you’re doing really is pointing out the obvious – that groups and even individual people are complex and varied things. And who, apart from UKIP voters, seriously doesn’t believe that?! But the important thing for the wannabe critic is to remember that the stereotypes do exist and TV shows offer people a way to challenge them in a seemingly intelligent way.

“Little tip here: ‘zeitgeist’ – look it up – is a good word to use here because it’s foreign and begins with a z so it makes you makes you sound smart.

“Orange Is the New Black is great for this – black people, hispanic people, immigrants, lesbians, drug addicts, and all of them women, locked up in a prison run by mostly lecherous and corrupt male guards (the ‘patriarchy’). It’s like minority central.

“It’s pretty good too.”

In Praise of ‘Apprenticisms’

In Culture, Satire on June 15, 2011 at 2:53 PM

So, another impending summer..and with it, as sure as death and taxes, a new series of The Apprentice. The 7th in fact, of what is, for better or for worse, becoming a British institution, as weekly, millions react with an intoxicating maelstrom of despair, desire, dislike, lust, laughs, even occasional respect, to the latest incumbents fawning, fighting and fabricating their way into the affections of the self-righteous “Lord”, Alan.

The first episode had the two teams of supposed recession-rescuers essentially shoving into the faces of unwitting Londoners extortionately-priced food they had produced with the £250 given to them by “Lord” (I refuse to not parenthesise) Alan. As is the norm with The Apprentice, this task itself provided much televisual gold with many eminently quotable catchphrases on exhibit. For example, Edward’s inane (and often inappropriate) endlessly repeated “rolling with punches” and his boardroom tautology so watertight it could be used as an example of the concept to budding logicians: “when I was producing, it was production”. Though the latter quote undeniably demonstrated the logic of ‘Team Logic’, his zealous over-spending on produce did not, and represented a ridiculous over-compensation for being in his words a mere “humble accountant”  and “the youngest AND smallest in the team”.

But before this, there was The Apprentice equivalent of the peacock pluming its feathers as the contestants indulged in the seemingly customary braggadocio, which has brought so many classic TV sound bites in recent years such as one-of-a-kind Stuart Baggs’ “everything I touch turns to SOLD”.

This year was no different, with Helen Milligan claiming “social life, friends, family…they mean nothing to me” and, pick of the bunch, Melody Hossaini declaring: “don’t tell me ‘the sky’s the limit’ when there’s footprints on the moon”. This was in addition to her working “with an understanding that there is..ACTUALLY (who’d av thunk it?!) a purpose greater than (herself)” and being “trained by Al Gore and personally taught by Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama”. Naturally.

It got me pondering what brilliant nonsense could come next. So I came up with a few ‘Apprentic e-isms’ of my own. Feel free to join in at home, folks. Turns outs it’s actually quite fun getting into the ‘twat’ mindset….


A few rather standard ones, perhaps already consigned to the budding apprentice’s/twat’s proverbial dustbin:

“Audacity is my middle name.”

“I ALWAYS make sure I get my five a day: aspiration, assertion, audacity, achievement, alpha-male status.”

And basically any sentence of this ‘I am a champion’ American Football battle-cry of speech, which is so ‘Hollywood’ in its style, I don’t know whether to laugh or roar: . For example: “I do not understand when things go wrong. I do not understand mistakes. But I do understand victory and never surrendering!”


A few where the imagined apprentice/twat has actually managed to step outside of their own self-absorbed bubble for just long enough to consume some pop culture…only for it to confirm their supposed brilliance and subsequently return to their narcissism:

“If I’d have been in any way connected to the production of Jerry Maguire film, it probably wouldn’t have got made ‘cos I would have shown Rod Tidwell the money long ago.”

“Don’t tell me ‘the sky’s the limit’ when Emile Heskey has played for England 62 times”.

“If I’d have been Ian Brown, The Stone Roses would never have released I wanna be adored ‘cos I’ve always been adored, even in the womb”.

“I’ve got so much drive I make the Duracell Bunny look narcoleptic.” (Risque, but then why should apprentices care about the feelings of anybody but themselves?!)


A few where the hypothetical apprentice/twat has, to be fair to him/her, displayed a dextrous grasp of the nuances of the English language. To similarly cheesy effect, though:

“The only difference between ‘try’ and ‘triumph’ is a bit of ‘OOOOMPH.”

“I’m not a businessman…I’m a business…, man.” (O.K, as much as I’d like to, I admit I can’t take credit for those two, the former being from a friend, the latter; a Jay-Z line).


A couple where the apprentice/twat has, strangely, considered for a second at least the possibility that someone other than him/herself is, in fact, God and subsequently glanced at some Theology, albeit with spurious appropriation:

“I’m not just the best businesswoman in this world…I’m the best businesswoman in ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS”.

“In all honesty, I don’t really see the need for Christianity because, clearly, I am all three faces of everything great: entrepreneur, salesman and marketer, yet still, just one entity…MIKE!”


And, my favourite of all, which I will be sure to use just for shits and giggles (unless, god forbid, I get eaten up by the proverbial ‘man’) in the extremely unlikely event of me being on The Apprentice:

“I inhale mediocrity, excrete worthlessness, exude purpose and exhale brilliance”.

Quite proud of that, if I say so myself. Maybe I would make a decent apprentice. Or at least I could walk the proverbial walk…