Archives for category: TV

I have spent the last few years living without a ready access to broadcast television. The only time I tend to see it is when I visit my family every few months: every time without fail I am all the more joyful for having no working connection with which to received the rapine of the airwaves, enabled as I am by DVD boxsets and the internet. It also suits my method of viewing: I would much rather sit down for a couple of hours and wallow in the viewings of my preference and choosing, rather than wade through the muck and despair that is most TV channels. Most TV is crap, frankly. My tastes are by my own admission snooty and high-faluting, with the occasional dip of necessity into lighter fare. This is not however an excuse for a lack of quality – if the dumbest thing I watch is How I Met Your Mother, it’s evident then that my thresholds are excruciatingly high (My issues with the effective immorality of shows like X-Factor and the fallaciousness of ‘reality TV’ can wait until another day.) All of this is a very roundabout way of showing that the TV model as exemplified by RTÉ, national and public service broadcaster of Ireland, is about as relevant to me as sexual education in a monastery. I’m grateful they employ people I am fond of, but that is about as grand an emotional connection as we are likely to have.

This naturally leads to a butting of heads metaphorical, since the government (and in effect RTÉ themselves) levy an annual television licence against the population of this overly-damp rock of land. I’m not as stridently opposed to the notion of a television licence as I once was – Stephen Fry made a sterling argument in favour of them which managed to convince me of at least some of the merits inherent to the concept. His argument, paraphrased briefly and brusquely, was that it was the method by which public service broadcasting should be funded since it would ensure a covenant of sort between producer and audience. Not all shows would be entertainment – due to the use of public money, it would instead require the development of not just commercial entertainment but educational and informative programming. There would, in short, be a remit to develop programming extant to the conceit of commercial viability. As a beneficial side effect, it would also remove the necessity of advertisments to generate revenue (I’m aware that the BBC has other methods of generating revenue, such as the exploitation of intellectual properties and merchandising, but that is a more recent development that the formation of the model, and in any case the same applies to RTÉ). The problem that emerges hence however is that Mr Fry referred to the BBC’s initial exploitation of the concept: RTÉ also have adverts, just as any commercial – and publically unfunded – TV station does. It doesn’t matter that RTÉ is drawing funding from a population base too small to give it the funding it claims to need in order to compete in a modern marketplace inundated with competition: no other company has access to the revenue generated by the TV licence, so in theory it’s actually giving them an unfair advantage, detrimental to the health of the beast that is competition.

To an extent, I am willing to not care and overlook the matter. RTÉ doesn’t offer me anything unique in terms of what series I would like to watch, and it creates no content based around my interests or cares (anything of interest they do show is broadcast elsewhere to a higher standard). They can follow whatever trends they want, irrespective of how homogeneous they are making the company and its output. All fine, well and good as I don’t watch the stations, listen to the radio or have any issue of necessity relating to it. Were a line to be drawn under it and ne’er in the centre would we either of us meet anew, that would be fine. I am not their target demographic nor one that can later be exploited. But this happy medium is not to be found: irrespective of my utter disconnection from the  output and (let’s be ego-stroppy for a second) utter lack of input allowed to this member of the hoi polloi, I am by nature of having a television in my house required to pay €160 a year to not watch their channels, listen to their programming nor indeed partake of their various media assaults. Should I get rid of my television – a beast used exclusively to exploit my PS3 and Wii – I will still have to pay the fee as I have a computer, recently inducted into their charter of media and telephony. Every year without fail, we will have someone come to the house to ensure we have damn licence, which is a move about as clever as having anti-piracy trailers in front of the film we have just paid to watch.

In short, it’s a load of toss pushed on us because it can be. It’s not simply a matter of having cake and eating it, it’s taking all of the remaining cakes in the shop and diving in the manner of Scrooge McDuck into fiscal gluttony. The vast majority of television broadcast on RTÉ is imported rather than homegrown, while what is homegrown is so godawfully self-indulgent and or dull and or desperately trying to grab hold of whatever trend they feel is in as to not have been worth bothering with in the first place (qualifier: I gave up years ago on trying any of the new shows, which makes me on one level the archetypical unreliable commentator in this little tirade, but since I am a lost viewer as a result of the constant missteps taken beforehand my televisual hermitage and have had nothing put forth to entice me by those whose critical values and mores I respect and trust I think we can reasonably move on from there). As a key comparison, I would suggest the now deceased children’s magazine programme, The Den: previously, they had someone qualified in psychology as a host; by its end, it had no-marks who… did… what, exactly? Wanted to be famous without any appreciable quality beyond? I’m all for the promotion of new talent, but there seems to be a dearth of same (not helped by the obsession of late with making things more ‘grown-up’ for children, but that’s not exclusively the domain of RTÉ, simply their bandwagon).

So a challenge I lay down: politicos and other doomed souls running for office, hear me! Run in the impending General Election (I’m thinking March 2011?) with an intent to scupper the TV licence or reform it into something approaching sane and reasonable and I will promise you my vote. I don’t care what ridiculous policies you will run that will be the ideological, legal and financial ruin of me (given that you have already passed a blasphemy law enshrining the position of the church over freedom of speech, created a new and retroactive law regarding entitlements and support which forces my partner and I to have papers drawn up so as to keep our affairs in order, and the amount of tax I paid last month, I fail to see how much worse it can get in that regard anyhow).

I was out dancing back when I was in college, and there she was…

Okay, that’s a lie. I hated dancing when I was in college. A-cha cha!

How I Met Your Mother is an odd duck. Every time I ever see an advert for it, it’s presented as yet another in a long line of efforts to reverse-alchemise the Friends formula. But HIMYM is, once the superficial elements of cheap marketing have been scraped away, really nothing like Friends. For a start, it’s funny. The character dynamics are more inventive and subversive: the lead is a guy – not a girl – desperately trying to be in a relationship; his initial love interest wants to further her career, not start a family (and critically does not change in this motivation); the player is both charismatic and outright sleazy, both loved and loathed by the laides; the most emotionally stable and sensitive character is the lumbering Marshall… More importantly, it recognises and acknowledges that its characters are flawed and often odious people. Not enough American sit-coms do that: typically, there will be a character or two that is there specifically to be hated by the audience, but they are tangential to the core group. It misses the point somewhat to make them be so one dimensionally unlikeable, when a better show will create a character we care about that also happens to be a complete jerk.

Almost like what happens in real life.

I’m not just referring to Barney, by the by, although he is the most overt and obvious example of the character type. In truth, the entire cast of their moments in the dark, but it tends to be on a spectrum of morality, running from most relatively moral and decent to least, in my estimation, as Marshall, Robin, Barney, Lily to Ted. Yes, Barney is more respectable morally than either Lily or Ted, since he at least is honest to himself and those around him in his motivations and character. He may not be very nice, but he doesn’t abandon the people around him. He even has the wherewithal to be utterly distraught when he breaks his own moral code. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

The structure of the show is also fascinating. As the show goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that the narrator is increasingly unreliable (mixing up dates and events, skewing perspectives…). When Friends had a flashback episode, it was a gimmick, and more often another excuse to shove Courtney Cox into a fat suit. When HIMYM delves into its own continuity and history, it’s not for a cheap laugh but to establish or enhance motivations. There is a purpose present which is built into the DNA of the show – it’s a continuity which stretches out beyond the six-or-so episode arc cycle.. A throwaway joke in one episode may turn out, two years later, to be a critical plot beat. It may be planned, it may be serendipitous for the writers, but it nonetheless feels natural. Once a running gag is set-up, attention is never drawn to it so as to alienate a newbie (never mind the sandwiches, who caught Ted’s current ringtone, for example?) It doesn’t operate at quite the giddy level of Arrested Development, which at its peak seeded jokes referencing future events that you could only get on the second viewing, but then again AD was a commercial failure in part because it pushed itself so hard at the audience. HIMYM is much more friendly and inviting to a new viewer, albeit with a caveat: you need to watch multiple episodes before it really begins to click (the pilot was quite dull until its twist; even then, it took a half dozen episodes or so to really take off).

Irrespective of the slow burn, the show does have more obvious and ongoing issues: Ted is the least interesting character, and his quest to find his soul mate is usually the least interesting element of the show. Both of these issues were alleviated by season 2 (when he was in what we the audience knew was a doomed relationship) and we instead got to see more of the group dynamic actively in play. It also helped that the writers finally developed an interesting take on Ted as a hopeless romantic, after nearly driving us to dementia with Ted being an insufferable bore in season 1 (that they later make him a pretentious insufferable bore is fine, because he was in that still funny). There is an impressive level of discretion in play that the more charming and insidious Barney isn’t constantly shoved into the front and center of every episode (though his player Neil Patrick Harris is so perfect in the role, you could feel the temptation). The real revelation is Jason Segel, who is rarely anything less than wonderful as the utterly relaxed and nigh-permanently conflicted Marshall.

Maybe it helps that HIMYM isn’t repeated on every station over and over and over and oh my… Maybe it helps that my recent viewing was five seasons worth of material clustered together (which helped to view the ebb and flow of gaggery both short and long term)… But it really is the best ongoing sitcom coming out of the the States at the moment. I really wish other shows would try this hard with their light entertainment.

3D: The latest entertainment innovation that’s already decades old! I fall into that vehemently loud subset that really dislikes 3D movies. Was there a point beyond anti-piracy measures, I would be more sympathetic. But the case for the prosecution mounts very quickly. As flawed as AVATAR was, it was at least designed with 3D projection in mind. Its very purpose was to showcase the marvels of the extra dimension, and so it gets a pass. But anything converted from 2D into 3D (CLASH OF THE TITANS and ALICE IN WONDERLAND being the most noted egregious examples) does not hold this merit; they are simply cash-grabs. It’s a sell-out tactic which has the knock-on effect of taking up twice the number of screens (since the movie will still be shown in 2D) and as a result ousts anything that is lower scale and likely to take in less money.

So then: 3D is going to start killing independent cinema. All those quirky, odd and amazing movies made by new talent for thruppence is going to fall by the wayside even moreso than before. The omniplex has already taken a major toll on independent film makers (quick summary of theory: omniplexes have more screens, so they will offer a greater selection of movies, allowing smaller scale films to get an audience they might not otherwise receive; quick summary of reality: omniplexes will use multiple screens to show the same movies, leading to a reduction of choice); this will increase the problem. If your local cinema didn’t show gems like MOON or BRICK for long, they definitely won’t have them now. I had to go to Dublin to watch FOUR LIONS because my local cinema was busy showing SEX AND THE CITY 2 on multiple screens. The best new directors may have to hope for is discovery by DVD.

I could live with the clear and blatant tastelessness of the cash grab to an extent. It’s a business, 3D is the latest gimmick, much the same as colour and sound were, back in the day. But colourised black & white movies were an abomination unto the world of cinema and man, and no one can argue otherwise. While colourisation then was usually garish and over-saturated, 3D conversion as it stands now actually reduces the colour palette, leading to darker, murkier films. Even ignoring that the mise-en-scene was designed with a very different motion and aesthetic in mind, the loss of colour is a further desecration of the work in question.

A desecration which they have the temerity to charge extra money for. When someone produces something inferior or damaged in any other field, the price is reduced – the suppliers don’t demand that you subsidise their sloppy product. If 3D is the future, then why exactly am I paying extra for something that is a built-in cost of doing business? Particularly given that once paid for, the projector remains a constant that I will continue to pay for thereafter. How much piracy is enabled by the fact that people can’t afford to go to the cinema? How is bumping the price beyond standard inflation going to help your cause, aside from having a diminishing population cover the cost of those who stop going?

We then fall into a more mired area. 3D, when used properly, should immerse you in the narrative. It should make a more cohesive film-going experience. It should enable you to lose yourself in the world of the story to an extent incapable by 2D means. If 3D serves the movie, as opposed to the movie serving 3D, your thoughts must be “Wow! What a great movie!” and not “Wow, what a great 3D spear projecting out of the screen in a wearily phallic fashion.” If it takes you out of the movie, what good is it? It’s simply reducing your involvement with the film. Watching UP in 3D, I was distracted by the 3D moreso than involved, consciously thinking about the the enhancement it provided, rather than the moment it affected. What scenes moved me weren’t based around the added scope, they were based around a man losing his wife, and that man later reading a book.

WHOO! 3D page turning! The cinematic experience Just! Got! Crazy!

It’s little wonder then that I have gone to the cinema twice in as many months. 3D has thus far added nothing but a lot of errata and junk to an experience already fraying in importance for me. I used to go to the cinema every few days; now, I am being alienated by a trend that has put the cart so far in front of the horse that the equine fellow has gotten lost looking for it, fallen off a cliff and is now in desperate need of medical attention. Will the trend continue on its current course? Is there a way to blend my cranky, this ain’t how it were in my day attitude with the modern sensibilities of wrong-headed champions of alleged depth? Can 3D legitimately add something to the filmic language? Are these questions truly rhetorical?

But I digress. Do you know what the biggest problem with 3D is? The bloody 3D glasses. I already wear glasses, dislike contacts and have no intention of getting laser eye surgery. Instead, I have lump the stupid, clunky goggles in front of my required spectacles in order to uncomfortably reap the benefits of 30% colour loss, a higher ticket cost, an often obnoxious crowd and an effect that, if it is successful, I will not actively notice.

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s new iteration of mssrs Holmes and Watson is taking the not so radical step of placing them in the modern day. Purists may well bitch, but the point of the original tales being set when they were set is that they were at the time set in the modern day. It’s not a soulless revision of the concept, it’s giving it a new lick of paint.

The marvelously monikered Benedict Cumberbatch is thus far entertaining in the role of Sherlock himself (it is easy to see why the press has been asking if he would be playing the Doctor in Moffat’s other show, however erroneous the suggestion might be), but the stand-out is actually Martin Freeman as Watson. Freeman usually doesn’t show much range in his roles, due in part to the typecasting hangover of The Office, but in Sherlock he gets to play a role quite different to his usual oeuvre. He is still playing an everyman role, but one this time with more flair, drive and ability. It reminds me of why everyone liked him before The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

As to the story itself, it was engaging moreso for the introduction to the world rather than the mystery itself (although the idea of murder by suicide is interesting). The main issue was that at an hour and a half the suspense wasn’t quite able to maintain itself as fully as might be hoped, but as the series at the standard one hour length hereafter, that shouldn’t be an ongoing problem. The emphasis on establishing the world in this instance took precedence, so slight padding was otherwise going to be inevitable. Hopefully, the slight repetition between the visualisation of Holmes’ thought process and exposition will also reduce over the coming episodes (again, I suspect this was an issue of filling the timeslot rather than a determination to make sure the audience is following the story). Overall, it was a good start: I’ll be watching the next few episodes with interest.

True Blood
This is the stupidest and most ridiculous thing I watch, have watched and am likely to watch in the near future. It’s erratic, flailing, over the top nonsense that drives my every notion of craft and criticism crazy with rage. It has managed to realise all of this and has since begun to mock itself, adding with every episode more and more madness to its burgeoning, overloaded Jenga tower of a mythos, including but not limited to: vikings; hillbillies; Jessica; Nazi werewolves; vampire PR and governmental machinations; a vampire queen who plays Yahtzee; every other character mocking Bill’s accent; Talbot’s obsession with decor; town-wide bacchanals; Tara faking Stockholm Syndrome; the single most twisted sex scene to ever air on television; and having Jason Stackhouse kick the crap out of a blatant Robert Pattinson analogue.

It is utterly brilliant in a weird and broken way. It’s a soap opera with fangs: the more insanity the show adds, the better (and the funnier) it becomes. There is little chance that it will last its run without imploding into a hideous mess, but even that mess is likely to be hilarious to watch.

Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour
Technically not something I watched, but it gets a mention because it contributed to a magnificent weekend. Having mentioned the series before, and given the theme of closure in the book, it’s certainly apropos! In the aftermath of book 5, Scott is at a loss as to what to do next. Worse, he has begun to regress to the state he was in before the start of the first book: struggling and failing to get over heartbreak. This time however, Scott’s circle of friends has now disintegrated and no one is willing (or able) to deal with Scott’s self-centered funk on an individual basis. The series has always been about moving on and growing up, but here it is put into sharp relief: everyone bar Scott is in a different place, while Scott is trying to retreat from what progress he made rather than deal with his losses and culpability.

The final chapter of Scott’s story is absolutely fantastic, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. O’Malley strips away any pretense that Scott is a victim of circumstance and instead presents us with a man-child trying to allay all his own guilt at the cost of those around him. Whereas before the cast were willing to rationalise his behaviour and even excuse it, he is allowed no such room here and instead must finally face up to his responsibilities and grow up once and for all. This doesn’t mean that we lose the humour and giddy fun that was the hallmark of the series prior: we still have subspace, glowing heads and Scott’s uniquely filtered view of the world, but it is now balanced against his personal realisation and those final, vital and defining choices.

What is also interesting is that it’s in many ways the least dense of the volumes in terms of stories. Looking at it from the outside, it’s Scott bouncing between friends while trying to cope with the state of his life, before launching into the final battle of the story and its resulting epilogue. As the first chapter title states, Things Stop Happening. Instead, it becomes an artistic tour de force as O’Malley drives his art into overdrive and smashes it through the wall. The result is glorious: Scott and his friends have never looked better, nor more expressive or individual.

Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour is in a lot of ways about closure, not just for the characters but the audience as well. Everyone gets a moment to shine, while Scott has a final opportunity to prove his worth not just to his friends and enemies, but also to himself. As sad as it is to see the series end, it’s fitting that the title is appropriate.

It’s going to be pretty hard to discuss Inception without spoilers of any kind, so before reading any of this, please go watch the movie first. This will still be here when you leave the cinema. I’m typically a stickler for people going into a movie as blind as they can and Inception requires that you know as little as possible for maximum impact. It is hard to avoid spoilers these days, but not entirely impossible (having steadfastedly avoided trailers, previews, podcasts and reviews, it was the posters that got me in the end…) Anyhow, get thee hence if not yet seen, as spoilers follow. Read the rest of this entry »

Hey look, it’s a new background theme! As much as I liked the old one, there was a weird spacing issue that I was too lazy to go in and fix via CSS (also, nerd fail: I don’t necessarily know how). How long until this one is changed? Wuhidunno. I keep meaning to put some level of personalisation onto it, but then I keep forgetting to make space on the desk for my scanner and that is how a baby procrastination is born…

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Predators in 30 words: Perfectly good and unpretentious shooty-uppy, swordy-wordy B-movie that provides ample entertainment for its hour and forty minutes. Also: Kurosawa fight! Spetsnaz! Larry Fishburn as Bear Grylls! Mild gunporn!

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Not living in a major metropolitan area has the rather unfortunate drawback in having to be very damn careful of what websites I look at when something comes out that I don’t have immediate access to and wish to avoid spoilers of (in this case, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour). It’s the very reason that I took days off work to read the Harry Potter books when they came out – after a certain amount of time and investment, you don’t want your enjoyment taken down by anything but disappointment in the work itself. Having the best parts explained to you by someone lacks a certain… quality.

Remember: nerd rage is not big, nor is it clever. It’s just kind of sad and embarrassing, really.

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And now, our feature presentation.

Rewatching The Wire is an interesting experience I allow myself every couple of years. The first runthrough, in which you watch it with virgin eyes unless you have evil friends or the Wikipedia Disease, is an education in sociology and the nature of institutions. The second runthrough is almost certainly going to be an examination of craft and a reevaluation of your original views: there is no way you can consider Daniels or McNulty in the same way as you did when first introduced to the characters; your viewpoint is altered by knowing where they go and what they do. Critically, you are not perturbed by the close of their character arcs: in a lot of fiction, a character’s departure can be almost random and without any logistical purpose other than the efficacy of their removal; in The Wire, even though you may not predict how their stories will finish, it feels like a logical and natural progression of the character and their actions. With the second viewing, this is emphasised doubly so.

I, however, am now onto my third viewing. What is fascinating about this is that I am still seeing new angles and interpretations of the same story. The main difference is that I am more focused on the secondary and tertiary characters, such as Ziggy in season 2. Ziggy is a perfect example of the depth available to multiple viewings: in your first view, he is a frustrating and difficult character to watch until the very end in which you hopefully feel some pity or at least sympathy for him. On the second viewing, you bring this sympathy with you, and it colours how you see him. By this point, my heart is broken by him as he comes into focus as one of the biggest victims of the series.

Without saying too much (spoiling The Wire being one of the Great Taboos of TV), he is someone who is not only ground down by social institutions, he is destroyed by the people around him as well: typically, it is people acting on behalf of the institution that cause the effect; in Ziggy’s case, the individuals do this as much for their own pleasure as they do social dictates. For all his bluster and arrogance and bad decision-making, he is someone desperately trying to find a role for himself and some measure of acceptance. All his trash talk is a direct response to external stimuli, which frequently tends to be the derision of him supporters and enablers as much as his opponents and dissenters. After the Thing With The Duck, the stevedores in the bar mock and insult Ziggy behind his back even though they were the ones who egged him on. Rather than send Ziggy to college as they did his brother, his father keeps him trapped within the same social decay he is himself trapped within, unable to qualify why. Ziggy’s unseen brother is critical in this: he is not mentioned before Ziggy and Frank’s father-son talk on the docks, and is never mentioned again; he’s the one who escaped the circumstances of his birth and the dock life, while Ziggy is the one destroyed by it. Even Nicky, Ziggy’s uber-competent cousin, treats Ziggy as his mood takes him and without any real empathy outside of personal convenience. All of this is crytallised with Ziggy’s final major act of the series: not only do we realise that this could have happened at any point prior, but it is only in the aftermath that we see anything resembling Ziggy’s actual personality, long since submerged in an effort to fit in. It’s the only time we see a genuine, sober and honest reaction from him.

It’s impossible to see this from the first viewing, and with the cast of hundreds, hard to see on the second. There are few things in this world that can stand up to this sort of scrutiny. Some of the Terry Pratchett books I read when I was younger have taken on new meaning since I came into some semblance of adulthood and a vague understanding of how and why people act, but it’s only the more recent books (such as The Truth and Going Postal) that bear up as entities of sociological and mechanistic scrutiny rather than interesting character dynamics and jolly comedy. Infinite Jest is about the only thing that springs to mind as something comparable (and even then with two caveats: first, that there are probably others and suggestions are welcome; second, that Infinite Jest requires even an even greater gap than the couple of years The Wire requires before diving in anew).

And so another season of Doctor Who passes into the gentle night. Whenever I mention how much I like the series, either historically or presently, I always seem to run into the same question with the same boggled expression. “Why?” It’s fascinating. The show is generally just behind Eastenders in terms of ratings, and a major success as an international export – moreso than any other show the BBC makes – and yet I am somehow the odd person for enjoying it. It’s like I’m breaking a rule no one has told me about. “Yes, it’s on, but you’re not supposed to enjoy it. Are you mad?”

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There are indeed criminal sanctions contained in the relevant UK legislation: the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. These are generally in respect of the wrongful distribution of copyright material, usually on some commercial basis. But the private end user copying a copyright work for personal use is not a criminal; he or she is not a thief; their wrongful act is not theft. As Tim O’Reilly has pointed out, the right term is copyright infringement. At this point, the vested interests – showing their legal illiteracy – will suggest that I am suggesting that it is somehow alright to infringe copyright.

I am not. An infringement of copyright is still wrong; more precisely it is a wrong, for copyright infringement is a tort and a wrong is what the word tort actually means.

There’s more in the link, which I would recommend checking out. It’s a more balanced perspective on the matter of piracy, intellectual rights and the misrepresentation of the law as a means to a profitable end.

Man, say what you will about True Blood, but after the last few episodes I think it’s safe to say that it is probably the most democratically-spirited TV show around when it comes to gratuity of the sexings and the violence. Never before has a series been able to render the very concept of fan- and slash-fiction so completely pointless…

Also: mythology!

More TV and movies! Will I stop this nonsense and talk about something else? Eventually!
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It’s the end of the prime TV season and most shows are wrapping up – what better time to wax critical then on theoretically whole and complete story arcs? Glee, 30 Rock, Going Postal and The Losers all lie in wait underneath the cut…
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