Showing posts in TV on Trial

TV On Trial: The Bridge And Louis Theroux: Extreme Love: Autism

Posted in TV, TV on Trial
By Temoor Iqbal on 24 Apr 2012

Many people would agree that subtlety and minimalist presentation can often be superior to a gilded extravaganza. Show the rest of this post…

Succeeding with such an approach, however, is very difficult to get right. The Bridge and Louis Theroux: Extreme Love are examples of beauty in sparseness, expertly done.

The Bridge (Episode 1, available on BBC iPlayer until Sat 26 May 2012)

Scandinavia is a region that polarises opinion. It seems to be viewed either with noticeable disinterest or significant fascination and curious awe. The former view is perhaps due to a subconscious preference for sunny weather, whilst the latter is inspired by an appreciation of the exact opposite. Existentialism, that harbinger of thinking man’s depression, is inextricably tied to the icy winds and tempestuous skies of the region, and it is this affinity with intellectual darkness that makes Scandinavia so interesting. With sombre relish, then, did I take in the intro to The Bridge. Grey shots of imperious buildings in the snow, coupled with subtle, mysterious music set the scene perfectly. The storyline, in and of itself, is not the most original (a dead body is found straddling the Sweden-Denmark border), but the expertly toned-down style of the show makes for gripping viewing from the beginning.

The characterisation is appropriate for the setting too. There is little extravagance or bombastity, with the stark dialogue often playing second fiddle to the facial expressions of Kim Bodnia and Sofia Helin. Of course, I cannot speak too knowledgably about the dialogue, as the show is subtitled. It is de rigueur to laud subtitling for its superiority to dubbing, but this often causes one to ignore the other benefits it affords. Acting, for example, can be easier to objectively assess in an unknown language. The Bridge again scores highly in this department, as the performances are believable, but without being so real that they become dull. Every element of the first three quarters of the episode is basically a feast for the senses, at least for lovers of the mysterious and the slightly strange. It is a pity, then, that the plot (cursed destroyer of the sensory orgy) returns to the fore for the episode’s conclusion. I won’t reveal any details, suffice to say that the whole process is reminiscent of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. That film had a similar air of Nordic mystique and dark beauty which was ruined by a crappy plot no better than that of Saw. The Bridge may yet prove strong enough to recover from the sudden dive into silliness that you have to see to believe the disappointing effect of, but one still can’t help feeling slightly betrayed after the first episode. In a sense, this is testament to how strong every other element is, but it is a strong storyline that makes a show worth returning to every week. Overall, The Bridge is definitely worth watching, but be warned that there is a risk of descent into a catch-the-killer bore fest.

Louis Theroux: Extreme Love (Episode 1, available on BBC iPlayer until Thu 3 May 2012)

Television rarely affords the opportunity to watch a master at work. Louis Theroux’s return to the small screen is, for this reason alone, extremely welcome. Extreme Love is not the documentary king’s most probing or fascinating work subject-wise, but this somehow heightens the appreciation of the craft itself. This episode is about autism, following several families with severely autistic kids and a school that is designed to help the kids develop social and work skills. Such a subject is ripe for both the BBC Three childish sympathy treatment and the ITV/Channel 4 freak exposée. In trademark style, however, Louis ignores the obvious and picks the most difficult path. Thus, unaided by sad music, on-demand weeping and hand-picked success stories, the real and actual lives of the kids, their families and their teachers are presented.

One of the main reasons this approach succeeds is Theroux’s manner. He has perfected a tone of voice that blends earnestness, inquisitiveness, politeness and charm in such a way that it is almost impossible for him to cause offence. This allows him to ask probing questions that others wouldn’t, or at least would get called aggressive for asking. “Does his condition make it harder to love him?” he asks, deadpan, of an emotionally-drained mother. “Why can’t you create a safe environment at home?” he enquires of the parents who have sent their child into full-time care. Were Jeremy Paxman to ask these questions, he would be accused of bullying. Were Piers Morgan to ask them, the parents would break down in floods of tears without giving a response. When Louis Theroux asks them, he gets honest, frank answers, which reveal far more about the true emotional and mental difficulties of caring for autistic children. Not only does he know how to talk to people though, he also knows when to stay silent and observe. At several points during Extreme Love some very hard to watch, personal and sometimes dangerous scenes unfold. Rather than cut the recording or intervene, the camera team and the presenter subtly back away, so that you get the feeling that even the interviewees forget that they’re in the room, so natural and real are their actions. It bears repeating as well that such scenes are never accompanied by tender piano strains or emotive voiceovers. Only the cold thuds of reality punctuate the scenes, making for ridiculously gripping and involving viewing. Most people don’t need any encouragement to watch a Louis Theroux documentary, but take this as one anyway – Extreme Love is nothing short of factual TV at its finest, and it should not be missed.

TV On Trial: MasterChef & Take Me Out

Posted in TV, TV on Trial
By Temoor Iqbal on 14 Mar 2012

It is an accepted truth that TV is not one of the high arts. Show the rest of this post…

The HBO side of the industry seems intent on changing this, delivering cinematic shows by the bucketload. However, sometimes true TV magic can be found by embracing the concept of light entertainment, rather than seeking to flee it.

MasterChef (Episode 12, available on BBC iPlayer until Thu 22 March 2012)

We the liberal-minded, educated and youthful  are often very quick to slip into critical trends. With as much ferocity as we exhibit in protecting the underrepresented and the niche, we also attack what we perceive as mainstream and popular. Excellent pop songs and some very good hip hop are too often dismissed without proper evaluation, based on pre-conceived genre notions, just as many terrible indie bands are given cursory respect without earning it at all. This same mentality also affects our TV habits. Competition shows are rarely openly discussed, unless they are bad enough to fall under the cursed umbrella of irony. I myself confess to feeling self-conscious when discussing The Apprentice; the mould is difficult to break.

One show that deserves better is MasterChef. Rarely, if ever, does a programme achieve everything it sets out to do. MasterChef manages this and goes beyond it. From the simple premise of a cooking competition comes genuine exhilaration as Tom suicidally decides to remake his macarons from scratch with 10 minutes to go, delicious brutality as Eamonn’s over-complex chicken dish is verbally abused while he weeps, and odd tension as Aki pulls combined stroke and orgasm faces whilst awaiting the final results. The oddness also extends to the nature of the challenges, which can see the unfortunate contestants forced to slave away in the sweltering heat of a Thai marketplace, only to then be judged solely on making afternoon tea for Bill Oddie. All this, blended with displays of real culinary talent, is enough to make MasterChef worth watching, but what truly sets it apart from anything else is the presence of the booming goliaths John Torode and Gregg Wallace. Purposefully shot to seem larger than life, it is both spine-tingling and hilarious in equal measure to see Gregg (camera aimed from below, staring into thin air) roaring “it’s ambitious, but does he really have the ability to pull it off?” into a seemingly-empty room. The hilarity may partly stem from the excellent rumour a few years ago that the two judges were sworn enemies, so had many of their ‘conversations’ filmed individually in separate places, then edited together. This is unlikely to be true, but is an entertaining lens through which to observe them. MasterChef is, after all, a masterclass in making the seemingly-mundane brilliantly exciting, addictive and gripping. This show is not just for those with an interest in cooking, but it’s almost impossible not to end up with an urge to start dicing and experimenting with flavours by the end.

Take Me Out (Episode 4, available on ITV Player until Mon 9 April 2012)

I mentioned irony earlier for a reason. Shows like The Only Way is Essex and its ilk have spawned a related trend to the one that keeps good things down – a trend that elevates shite to the level of caviar. These days it’s far too common to see a standard piece of TV rubbish popularised by scores of people who like to think themselves alternative minded pioneers of post-ironic pseudo meta-cool. They say it’s so bad it’s good, and wear their fandom like a badge of honour. Take Me Out has achieved such status. It is inordinately popular for what it is, and can far too often be overheard being talked about.

Unlike many people who agree with my overall view, I have nothing against the shows themselves. The mere existence of something terrible doesn’t cause me to lose sleep, as long as I’m not forced to watch it or discuss it. Take Me Out is no exception to this. It is the product of the general fashion for almost-retro things, like bread adverts set during WW2 but shot in beautifully-edited HD. The set, the coo-on-cue crowd and Paddy McGuinness’ outrageously jolly presenting style all scream 1990s. It’s an affront to the senses, with bright lights and sudden, booming music every few seconds, but this is nothing unexpected. Blind date shows have always been circus-like, so the presentation is hard to get angry about. I can’t hate on Paddy too much for jumping through hoops either – everybody needs to get paid and, as a famous fictitious Frenchman once said, “my children need wine!”. No, what bothers me is the thinking that brings this kind of show to light in the first place, and facilitates the success it continues to enjoy. In the most basic sense, to like something in an ironic way is to try to have your cake and eat it. It seems like cheating for a person to be allowed to keep the lofty, judgemental air of a cynic whilst also freely partaking of what, in certain company, they would spit on and deride. If you think this qualifies as more of a chip-on-shoulder gripe than a review, you’d be right, but heed the message anyway – buck the trend by bucking the trend followed by people who think they’re bucking the trend. Clear? Good.

TV On Trial: Homeland & Upstairs Downstairs

Posted in TV, TV on Trial
By Temoor Iqbal on 7 Mar 2012

In TV, being released to fanfare is always a worrying sign. Show the rest of this post…

In the visual arts world TV shows are the twitchy nerdlingers. They are capable of great things, but not robust enough to stand up to massive expectations and overly-effusive praise in the way that strong, muscular films are able to.

Homeland (Episode 3, available on 4oD until Tue 3 April 2012)

Homeland is, in many ways, no exception to this. That is not to say it is a bad show, but rather that the surrounding hype promised quality surpassing anything ever seen before – a formula guaranteed to yield disappointment. That Homeland is a product of the 24 stable is clear to see. The story and characters are largely archetypal, with Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, the mandatory hard-boiled, work-before-life, perfectionist CIA agent. One could perhaps reason that any American show about terrorism must follow a blueprint, and that it is the quality of the subtle deviations from the blueprint on which it should be judged. In this regard Danes’ character is not a success, with her uniqueness stemming from a psychological problem that the writers obviously often forget about, causing them to make her suddenly do a crazy face and try to kiss her boss just to remind viewers that she has so very many dimensions and nuances. Much more admirable is the character of Sgt Nicholas Brody, played by Damian Lewis. Again, the blueprint shows through, with frequent flashbacks of a prison cell in Afghanistan that might as well be in Hanoi or Colditz Castle. However, the situation is rescued by a genuinely interesting twist which sees his allegiances called into question.

One interesting plot line/character is not enough, though. Irritating paint-by-numbers presumptions still abound in Homeland. A particularly infuriating one is the conflation of the bad guys’ negative traits with their benign, neutral character aspects. This results in Brody’s revelation as a Muslim being presented, albeit subtly, as an equal revelation that he has a dark side and is not a straight-up good guy. It may seem like nit-picking, but there is an underlying assumption here that crops up in too many US films and TV shows, and smacks of laziness (at best). One thing that does set this show far and above its predecessor is the soundtrack. Where 24’s was relentlessly thumping and seemed designed to cause nothing but anxiety and high blood-pressure, Homeland’s is suggestive, subtle and appropriate. Gone is the lick of snake charmer pipes every time an Arab is shown, replaced instead by music that sets a mood rather treating the audience like imbeciles who need constant reminders of how to feel about each character. Make no mistake – this is not the artistic masterpiece some would have you believe, and it is not high-brow viewing either. However, it is, for all its flaws, interesting enough to warrant the required attention span for fans of the genre.

Upstairs Downstairs (Episode 3, available on BBC iPlayer until Sun 1 April 2012)

Sometimes a mere human being can be struck by a blast of otherworldly psychic ability, allowing him to glimpse the unknown and see into the void of the future. When I turned on Upstairs Downstairs, I was blessed with such a moment. I could see the toilet of the next few hours before my eyes and I knew in my heart the agony to which I was about to be self-subjected.

Each episode of Upstairs Downstairs could best be described as an hour of flouncy masturbation in a four-poster bed. Present as the overriding theme is the BBC standard of silly, infantile serving staff juxtaposed with high-minded, serious society folk. The servants also tick the box of having a complete melting pot of randomly-chosen regional accents (presumably they let the actors do whichever one they are best at) and the most sickeningly absurd plotlines possible. Whilst the lords and ladies, or whatever they are, debate the likelihood of war with Germany and the potential dangers, the frivolous and idiotic Untermenschen panic wildly over the demise of a monkey. What goes through the minds of the programme makers is beyond me. Here is a show whose premise is that it presents both sides of manor house life, and yet the coverage is as far from even-handed as it is possible to get. Most offensive of all is the occasional ‘moment of wisdom’ from the staff, when their superiors nod sagely and acknowledge, in their benevolence, that truth can spring from the most uneducated of sources. It is fortunate for the BBC that the vast majority of people now do not have servants, as there would be a full-scale backlash taking place against this Bagger Vance level of insulting assumptions.

The question now arises, does the other half of the show have anything to offer? The answer is, as you might expect, no. Some men are shown to disagree with their wives, and a very dull ‘we already know he’s right’ storyline lamely follows a young man who shockingly thinks that Chamberlain is wrong to try and appease Hitler. Watch Upstairs Downstairs at your peril – it is a sad reminder of just how easy it is to slop out a TV show these days.

TV On Trial: Skins & Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy

Posted in TV, TV on Trial
By Temoor Iqbal on 5 Feb 2012

There’s a definite trick to being original. When the old ideas start to become a bit stale, the solution certainly is not to become more ridiculous. Show the rest of this post…

Realism is by no means a requirement, but a fantasy has to be buyable in order to succeed. It’s a pity nobody told Noel Fielding or the makers of Skins.

Skins (Episode 1, available on 4oD until Wed 22 Feb 2012)

Yes, Skins is still marching on. Six seasons in and it seems adolescents are still having emotions. Untold years ago, I was a moderate fan of the first iteration of Skins. It was a bit silly at times, but overall it provided a just-about-believable character exploration. The ensemble idea was interesting too, when it still felt fairly new. However, after basically repeating the formula over and over again, the show became tiresome. Too often I would feel nothing but irritation as I gazed into the tear-filled eyes of some whiny turd, listening to him bemoan the fact that a girl didn’t like him. Too often I wondered why the school kept offering Being a Little Bitch as an A Level subject, despite it having no academic potential or vocational merit. With the advent of the new series, it seems the producers have had similar thoughts, at last regarding repetitiveness. Their solution? Keep the hackneyed angst and just dress it up with incredibly ridiculous storylines and offensively poor dialogue.

In this manner, the first episode begins. The girls greet each other in infuriating style with “hey black bitch”, “hey white bitch”, “hey crazy bitch”. Thus formally reacquainted, the gang (the usual mix of archetypes and stereotypes) find themselves tearing through the Moroccan desert on the way to a holiday villa. They all have a great time, then remember that they’re teenagers and start getting sad about various things, then several thousand pounds’ worth of heroin is strapped to the bottom of their car. The ensuing desert chase, fuelled by diesel and jilted relationship tears, is best described as 90210 meets The Bourne Ultimatum. Fine, one might think. Some excitement at least, to spice things up. However, the overriding sensation of watching this event play out is utter confusion. Nothing makes any sense. What starts out as a love triangle is transformed into a hostage situation with all the subtlety of a stegosaurus hiding behind a flower. None of the characters’ decisions make sense, and there are bizarre moments when it almost feels like everyone has forgotten their lines for a few seconds. In seeming anticipation of these problems, the producers have found a novel way of making the audience stay focused: a soundtrack as jarring as the plot. Loud, angular crashes blend with shrill, discordant squeals at every opportunity, causing a genuine feeling of discomfort. Oh and just to cover all the bases, they also added a softcore porn scene of a girl having a passionate (presumably very emotional) shower. Skins is best avoided unless you’re a new age religious penitent determined to show your faith by having a very strange time.

Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy (Episode 1, available on 4oD until Sat 25 Feb 2012)

The opening sketch of Luxury Comedy features some classic lines. The deadpan “that’s my own shit” had me chuckling aloud. But even after this promising start I wondered whether I was set for basically another episode of Mighty Boosh, an excellent show that definitely had to end when it did in order to avoid becoming repetitive and dull. It turns out the similarities between the two programmes start and end with that first sketch, but sadly not in a positive sense. In his efforts to be original, Noel Fielding has simply lost the plot completely. Harsher critics might even say that he was never much without Julian Barratt, but I’m willing to give him some of the credit for their work as a duo. Whatever talent he did have, however, has certainly abandoned him now. Gone is the sharp wit and the brilliantly unacceptable, dark humour. It has been replaced by colourful drivel that can only be described using the awful adjectives ‘kooky’, ‘random’ and, God help us, ‘surrealist’.

The second sketch brings in Rich Fulcher, sitting on a swing in outer space and spewing such sickeningly zany lines as “oh boy, I think I’m one of them lizard people”. Meanwhile, some aliens are running back and forth in a cartoon kitchen, throwing food at one another. I punched myself just to divert my attention until this debacle ended, hoping that the next sketch would bring relief. Sadly, this was not to be the case, as a chocolate finger emerged and (speaking in a rehashed Mighty Boosh voice) proceeded to declare something about PE teachers riding home on pommel horses. I won’t bore you with the details of every sketch, suffice to say that the pattern continues to the very end. Along the way, you can expect to be subjected to Fielding’s terrible American accent (probably shooting for ‘so bad it’s good’, but missing the mark), further attempts at being krazy-surreal with a pathetic nod to the pseudo-intellectual imbecility of ‘what is art?’, and several reappearances of the aforementioned chocolate finger. But worst of all, most wildly vomit-inducing of all, and most incriminating of all is the sketch that reveals why Luxury Comedy is what it is. A lion trapped in a zoo slowly goes insane, addressing the audience directly with “it’s all coming together, please tell me it’s all coming together”. This seemingly-innocent travesty is the only bit of the episode which has stemmed from an actual idea. It’s the only sketch that is trying to say something and to have meaning. This makes it the worst offender, as it shows the true shallowness, lack of originality and downright blandness of the show’s creators. Without Julian Barratt’s dark humour and talent for mini-plots, Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy is nothing but obnoxiously bright artwork and boring silliness. Oh yeah, and apparently the music is done by Serge Pizzorno. Who gives a shit?

TV On Trial: Call The Midwife & Earthflight

Posted in TV, TV on Trial
By Temoor Iqbal on 22 Jan 2012

This past week two shows stood out on paper, despite both being examples of well-trodden TV genres. One showed, remarkably, that innovation isn’t always necessary when there’s a foundation of real quality, the other fell miserably flat. Show the rest of this post…

Call the Midwife (Episode 1, available on BBC iPlayer until Sun 26 Feb 2012) (above)

When I previewed Call the Midwife, I noted that the most prominent danger for any period drama is an excess of sentimentality. Sadly this one walked straight into the trap, emerging steeped in syrupy smugness. Smugness, one might think, is the last thing you’d expect to get from a show about post-war midwives fighting to help the downtrodden of East London – surely it’s sad, surely the message of hope in the face of adversity is magical to behold? Wrong. It can be very subtle, just a whisper of back-slapping on the breeze, but there is a definite sense of self-satisfaction emanating from this tired portrayal of ‘common folk’. It could best be described as a sense of having done something noble and worthy just by showing their tribulations, like some sort of atonement for enjoying the fruits of modernity on the back of years of other people’s hardships. Whatever you want to call it, it pervades every facet of Call the Midwife, from the facial expressions of the dismayed posh girl to the premature baby saved by nothing more than happy thoughts and love. This goes hand-in-hand with a stark lack of believability (I’ll be careful not to say realism, not being an expert on post-war Londoners). Programme makers frequently struggle to depict the ‘common folk’ in a believable way, as ITV’s Downton Abbey showed.

Without getting into that very different period piece too much, the huge downside was the portrayal of the servants and house staff – a working class accent (cockney or default northern, or sometimes the rare Cornish) seems to be forever tied to an innate silliness and frivolity in characters in programmes such as these. The opening scene of Call the Midwife features an immediate immersion-breaker of this nature, with two women engaged in fisticuffs. I’m sure this sort of thing used to happen, perhaps Jennifer Worth (on whose memoirs the show is based) even witnessed this exact fight, but there was something jarringly unconvincing about the bloodthirsty onlookers screaming “come on, fight, fight” in exaggerated cockney accents. I am willing to admit that all of these complaints could be filed as pet hates. However, this would only be an issue if the meat of the plot stood up well, which it sadly does not. Some babies are born against the odds, a posh girl learns that some people are poor, and it is strongly suggested that wishing really hard is an adequate substitute for proper medical care. Just what you’d expect from programme makers who believe this sort of unimaginative sickliness is an adequate substitute for trying.

Earthflight (Episode 4, available on BBC iPlayer until Thu 9 Feb 2012)

Coming off the back of the phenomenal Frozen Planet is no enviable task. Especially not for a nature show with an undoubtedly smaller budget and no David Attenborough. In spite of this, however, Earthflight somehow manages to stand up in its own right. I say somehow, but the reason is clear: focus. Frozen Planet focused on seasons and environments, tackling a particular landscape at a particular time and exploring it broadly. This worked excellently with the stunning visuals and the epic drawl of Attenborough’s voiceover work. Earthflight, on the other hand, is very simply a show about birds. Granted each episode centres on a different continent, but the subject matter feels tighter and more concentrated. This is no bad thing, as it provides a sense of purpose that compensates for the (only slightly) less grandiose presentation and packaging. There are still stunning shots of mysterious and breathtaking environs, complete with cleverly worked music that adds to the emotions with commendable subtlety. And of course the level of factual detail the show goes into keeps it interesting beyond just sound and visuals. The only real snagging point is the voiceover work of David Tennant. I realise this may seem petty, but nature shows have the good fortune of their material being readily provided for them; issues of presentation are what they must ultimately be judged on.

Far from being actively bad, Tennant’s effort is just average. This may partly be due to the unshakable knowledge that, like Morgan Freeman voicing March of the Penguins, he is reading a script and relaying information from others. I am not suggesting that Attenborough wings it from his own knowledge, but knowing about his expertise somehow adds gravity to the things he says. This makes you forget that you’re watching a TV show and instead get drawn into his mind, as if in some sort of beamed-to-the-brain personal lecture. This is not a question of accents either; Neil Oliver of the much-underrated Coast proves that a Scottish accent can work wonders in such situations. The real issue with Tennant is that he is an actor. Instead of a genuine passion for nature, what comes across is a guy trying to create the illusion of one. In doing this, his delivery becomes very creamy and Jackanory-esque, more suited to an advert for a high-end supermarket than a factual programme. But don’t let this put you off – the issues are incredibly minor in the grand scheme of things. Earthflight is still stunning, with unique features like on-board bird cameras adding to the experience and making it well worth trying if you’ve ever enjoyed a nature series before.

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