Saturday, January 21, 2012

Thinking About the Ideologies of Criticism: Roger Ebert Meets Downton Abbey



Recently noted film critic Roger Ebert wrote a blog about how he has been curling up in bed not with a book, not with a film, but with a TV show, Downton Abbey (http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2012/01/for_an_hour_before_bedtime.html). Ebert praises the show and singles out the British class structure and class consciousness as at the heart of the narrative of Downton Abbey. Ebert is right to see class as central to Downton but there is more to the show than that. But that is the subject for another paper or blog.

As I was reading Ebert's take on Downton Abbey and reading about his anglophilia which he outs in the essay I found several of Ebert's comments fascinating. Ebert admits that he doesn't spend much time watching PBS, which pioneered the notion that there was such a thing as quality television when they began broadcasting British shows on American airwaves in the 1960s and 70s, or its grandchild HBO. He expresses limited knowledge of British television practises expressing surprise that series one of Donwton ran for only seven episodes. As a matter of fact British shows rarely run for more than thirteen or fourteen episodes. Upstairs Downstairs which he mentions in his article, ran for thirteen episodes during each of its first four series and fourteen for its last, series five. Most British series, be they on public or commercial television, generally last for much less than thirteen series. Fawlty Towers, arguably the greatest English language comedy ever made, and The Office ran for only six episodes per series while Life on Mars ran for only eight.

Personally I prefer the shorter nature of British TV. Why? Because there tends to be more quality television shows on British TV than on American TV. American television series, for largely commercial reasons, run to around 22 episodes per season these days and have the potential to run to four, five, six, seven seasons, or more during their run. The problem with this quantity is quality commodity aestheticism approach that dominates US television is that it tends to result, over time, in a creative drain where the commercial mandates for keeping a popular series alive for financial reasons often results in a situation where television shows are kept alive long after their artistic prime. American television is often the equivalent of flogging a dead horse. And we shouldn't forget that it sometimes seems there isn't much artistic creativity in American television in the first place. Isn't ABC's Work It, after all, little more than an awful remake of that awful show Bosom Buddies?

To be honest I found Ebert's ignorance about British television a bit surprising until I realised that Ebert, like so many film critics, appears to find reviewing television beneath him (cue Buffy reference). Presumably this is because he and they think of television as the commercialised bastard step child of film.

On a cultural level this ideology about television as a commercialised bastard is, to say the least, curious for a number of reasons. Historically, of course, film has a longer history than television. Film goes back to the 19th century while television really begins in the 1930s and only becomes important and significant after World War II. This notion that television is a commercial practise, however, is both right and wrong. Right in the United States where television, with more than a little help from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), came to be dominated by the big commercial radio networks that dominated the radio airwaves in the 1940s and 1950s, NBC and CBS. Wrong for Great Britain where public non-commercial television dominated the airwaves just as public radio dominated the radio waves before it. And while private commercial TV was introduced in the UK in 1955 with the advent of ITV the non-commercial BBC remains a if not the major player in British television even today. Additionally, given the impact of the BBC on the British television landscape even ITV has played the "quality" BBC game on occasion. I give you ITV's Upstairs Downstairs, ITV's Naked Civil Servant, ITV's Brideshead Revisited, and ITV's Downton Abbey. The moral of this little tale? The it is too commercial argument doesn't really work when it comes to British TV.

What I find interesting and fascinating about the disdain some film critics have for television and television programmes is that it parallels attitudes some defenders of "high art" held toward film in the 1940s and 1950s, namely, that it was a business not an art, that it was not art but mass entertainment geared toward making a profit. It took years for film critics, with a little help from the rise of the art cinema in Europe, and academics interested in film to break through this prison house of disdain for the cinema. For this reason alone film critics should think thrice before they bury television for its commercialism. Don't worry dear unreaders, I am not holding my breath waiting for this to happen.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Musings on British versus American Television

I grew up in the United States in 1960s Indiana and Texas. The television I generally watched when I was a kid was thus American commercial television. It wasn't until the 1970s that I began to watch as many British television shows as I could. By the 1980s my limited television diet consisted mostly of British TV shows including Upstairs Downstairs, Danger UXB, Edward and Mrs. Simpson, To Serve Them All My Days, Private Schulz, The Citadel, The Irish R.M., the Jewel in the Crown, Brideshead Revisited, A Very British Coup, the Yellow Wallpaper, and Morse.

Recently I began work on a paper on the British television shows Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey. As a result I have been thinking a lot recently about the differences between the two and about why, as a general rule, I prefer British television to American television.

Though the histories of British television and American television are somewhat similar they are also somewhat different in interesting and telling ways. Both British and American television began before World War II but really didn't come into their own until after World War II had ended. Both British and American television were greatly impacted by radio and radio programming, vaudeville and the music hall, and the theatre.

One of the major differences between British and American television was the fact that television in the United Kingdom, like radio in the UK, was public radio until 1955 when the British commercial television channel ITV came on the air. The BBC, whose remit was not only to entertain the public but to educate it, had a monopoly on the British airwaves and as a result dominated British television up to and even beyond 1955. The BBC thus provided the template for British television with its public service programmes, its educational programmes, its children's programmes (like Dr. Who whose original mission was not only to entertain viewers but to teach them about history and science), its adaptations of literary classics, and its genre programmes. ITV, which was and is much more regulated than American commercial television and was thus required to air public service and educational programmes, generally followed in the footsteps of the BBC that had come before it.

Early television in the United States, on the other hand, was dominated by the same private corporations that dominated American radio, NBC and CBS. Public television was an afterthought which really didn't get going until Lyndon Baines Johnson's Great Society in the mid and late 1960s. It was Johnson who really created and funded American public television in 1967 when he signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.

As a result American television is commercial television. It is a television dominated by big business and by the advertising of big business. Even the minutes and the years or seasons American television programmes run is determined by the commercial nature of American television. It is simply easier to generate more advertising revenue if popular television series have a significant run during each television season and run for multiple seasons. American television thus has long been obsessed with and dominated by notions of commodity aestheticism, the notion that the only good TV show is the most watched TV show because it can generate more advertising revenue.

This is not to say that American public television, PBS, hasn't had some successes in a television landscape dominated by commodity aestheticism. Upstairs Downstairs, An American Family, Tales of the City, Civil War, and Downton Abbey have brought viewers to public broadcasting. However, two things have and likely will continue to keep public television in the US down. Unlike the BBC, which is funded by a license fee, US public television was funded directly by the American government. Thus when politicians from Richard M. Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Jessie Helms didn't like something on PBS they could simply cut its funding. This has meant that PBS has been increasingly unable to make the number of fiction programmes it once did. Additionally, with the increasing deregulation of American television the little watched public service, documentary, and art programmes once a mandated part of American commercial television, have disappeared from the commercial networks and are largely found today only on PBS.

Another major difference between British and American television has to do with its entertainment and artistic influences. As I noted both British and American television were initially heavily influenced by radio programming, the music hall, and the theatre. By the late 1950s, however, American television had been taken over by the Hollywood film studios.

British television was, of course, impacted by the genre cinema but in a much less significant way than American television. The theatre, a prominent institution in UK artistic and acting life, had a much more long lasting impact on television in the UK than in the US. A programme like Upstairs Downstairs was, as Alfred Shaughnessy, Upstairs Downstairs story editor once said, televised theatre. As such it is actors TV. The show was rehearsed for several days before it was videotaped live on Fridays over a three hour period. Scenes last sometimes as long as ten minutes giving the actors space to act and the scenes space to breath.

American television, particularly when it was live and particularly when it was centred in New York, home of Broadway, the Actors Studio, and the Method, was impacted by the theatre on early as television series like Playhouse 90 and Studio One show. When television networks like film studios before them moved West to Los Angeles, however, the theatre's influence on American television declined while that of the Hollywood studios increased. With the Hollywood takeover of American television in the late 1950s American television has come to look like a poor man's version of Hollywood film. And as Hollywood became more and more geared to the youth demograhic in the wake of Jaws and Star Wars with its juvenile friendly genres, its ever briefer scenes, and its jump cut style, so has American television. The American TV show that perhaps best symbolises this transformation of American television is The Hills, a show whose target demographic is tweens and teens, whose scenes rarely last more than three minutes, and what dialogue there is isn't much longer than a few sentences.

British TV, including British public television has, particularly since the 1990s, increasingly come to look more and more like American television and Hollywood. A show like Downton Abbey, a remake in many ways of Upstairs Downstairs, symbolises the increasing Hollywoodification of British TV. Downton, like The Hills if not to the same extent, is characterised by scenes that rarely last over five minutes, lots of jump cuts, and limited dialogue.

I have never been a member of the cult of youth or the cult of jump cut editing built on the foundations of attention deficit disorder. I guess this is one reason why I much prefer Upstairs Downstairs with its more theatrical form and its more leisurely pace and British television in general to American television. I much prefer Outnumbered to Modern Family. I much prefer Spaced to Big Bang Theory. I much prefer Dr. Who to the Star Trek franchise. I much prefer The Worst Week of My Life to Suburgatory. I think Fawlty Towers was probably the greatest English language comedy ever made.

There are, of course, other reasons I prefer British television to American television. I love adaptations and British television, in my opinion, does adaptations far better than does US television. If you don't believe me watch the BBC adaptations of I Claudius, Pride and Prejudice, Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy, and Oranges Aren't the Only Fruit, Channel 4's adaptation of White Teeth, or ITV's adaptation of The Naked Civil Servant. I love cynicism and satire and British TV does both far better than American commercial television. If you don't believe me watch Yes Minister, The Thick of It, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, House of Cards, or Spooks.

I am not arguing here, by the way, that American television is devoid of creativity and art. I loved Rockford Files, Buffy, and Firefly and American cable TV, particularly HBO, does, in my opinion, some great, if some sometimes overrated, stuff. It is worth remembering, however, that HBO, Showtime, and AMC, with their shorter television series (shorter is sometimes better as the tendency for American TV to flog dead TV horses shows) are more like the BBC and ITV than they are like ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, American over the air commercial television.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Left Wing Media????

In an article in the Guardian today, 6 January 2012, Joshua Alston blogged about the return of the Independent Film Channel's (IFC) hit comedy Portlandia. I have never seen Portlandia, which debuted on IFC in January of 2011. Alston sees it as a show which skews liberals, much like the earlier unsuccessful The Goode Family, Mike Judge's (Beevis and Butthead, King of the Hill, Office Space) comedy about a family of environmentally responsible socially conscious politically correct liberals which ran on ABC for 13 episodes and on Comedy Central for four.

Portlandia, set in the trendy bastion of liberalism, Portland, Oregon, lambasts, according to Alston, liberal zealotry, on a cable channel that most people would presumably see as liberal. His point: See liberals CAN make fun of themselves. Can conservatives?

Neither Portlanda nor The Goode Family were the first American television shows in which liberals laughed at themselves. The "skewering", some intentional, some unintentional, of various types of American liberalism has been around for awhile. Think All in the Family (the US version of Till Death Do Us Part). Think the wonderful "Quickie Nirvana" episode of Rockford Files which makes much wonderful fun of the diverse liberal spiritualism of the 70s that arose out of the individualist yet conformist hippie middle class culture and was, in some cases (as Quickie Nirvana shows) transmorgified into, as it did in the life of Jane Patten/Sky Aquarian/Gopi/Hester (Jane Curtin), the central character in "Quickie Nirvana" along with private eye James Rockford (James Garner), Jesus Peopleism.

Though one right wing blogger and his cyberposse seems to see "Quickie Nirvana" as the ultimate media warning about the dangers of liberalism in general and see Sky's everywhere in America's schools, unions, political parties, well the Democratic Party anyway, and political bureaucracies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, the irony is that the Sky's of the world, the spiritualist hippie liberals of the world, are the ultimate in bourgeois individualism while, simultaneously, being the ultimate in American conformism. This description, bourgeois, individualist, conformist, can, of course, also be used to describe most of the American right. And that is, dear unreaders, is irony.

Bibliography:
Joshua Alston, Look Out Liberals, Portlandia Returns for a Second Season, http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2012/jan/06/portlandia-liberals-second-season-tv?commentpage=last#end-of-comments
American Digest, Quickie Nirvana, http://americandigest.org/mt-archives/5minute_arguments/the_more_things_change_th_1.php

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Life in Cyberspace...

One of the things I get great enjoyment out of, misanthrope that I am increasingly becoming, is trawling through reviews of books, films, television programmes, and DVD's in cyberspace looking for something incredibly stupid.

Recently I found yet another example of stupid human critic tricks. On Amazon.com I found this review under the Acorn release of the acclaimed British television show House of Elliot which aired on the BBC between 1991 and 1994 (http://www.amazon.com/House-Eliott-Complete-Collection/product-reviews/B000PC6YUI/ref=cm_cr_dp_hist_1?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&filterBy=addOneStar). According to, I presume he thought this was a witty as Wilde moniker, C.U. Later, House of Elliot, a costume drama set in the 1920s created by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, who also created the seminal British television programme Upstairs Downstairs (ITV, 1971-1975) is something only a socialist, communist or Fabianist could love. C.U. Later not being a "socialist, communist, or Fabianist" did not like House of Elliot. Instead it reminded him "of the reasons" he doesn't watch Hollywood productions. Hollywood, Mr. Later claims, is a promoter of socialist propaganda and so is The House of Eliott. And for that reason alone Mr. Later prefers to bury both Hollywood and the House of Elliot in a flurry of right wing rhetoric and demagoguery about the demonic horrors of socialism. He thus gives it only one star out of a possible five. Amazon, of course, doesn't allow its critics to give something 0 stars.

As you can imagine there have been several comments on C.U. Later's "review" of House of Elliot. In one of my favourites Ms. S. Westley replies "Wow, am I glad I looked at your review 'CU Later'. As a Brit I had always thought that 'House of Eliott' was just a tame, rather silly programe about posh girls designing frocks in 1920's London. Now, however, I realise its really a Hollywood version of The Communist Manifesto. Thanks for opening my eyes! "

Apart from the fact that C.U. Later's review is rather frightening in its idiocy I think his review tells us something about how many on the American right today think or more accurately misthink. To turn contemporary Hollywood, whose main goal seems to me to be to try to get kiddies and tweens to spend money by going to movies and make themselves rich in the process (now that's what I call socialism), into a den of socialism requires, given the real nature of the films and TV programmes that come out of Hollywood, an incredible manipulation of reality. It requires that Rambo become a commies turned me, a true blue American, into a bad ass dude by taking revenge on anyone who screws with me so that I, in the process, lose my true blue Americaness. It requires that Die Hard become a tale of a socialist cop who takes down "evil" capitalist terrorists in the name of red socialism. It requires that Transformers become a tale about how evil technology is always a commie plot trying to take over the world. It requires that Star Wars become a commie plot because it quotes Triumph of the Will. Fascism equals communism, socialism, and liberalism after all in right wing paranoic discourse. It requires that The War Horse become a film grounded in socialist ideas about why we should be humane to animals. It requires that Gladiator become a socialist film filled to the brim with all that equality crap. It requires that Alvin and the Chipmunks become a film about a bunch of communist inspired animals who, while hiding behind their cuteness and appeal to true blue American kids, saps Americans of their red, white, and blue bodily fluids. It requires that Bewitched, the Munsters, and Once upon a Time all become part of a communist plot to take over the United States because fairy tales are always inherently socialist red. It requires that Two and a Half Men become a socialist TV programme because it preaches the joys of sexual libertinism, a sexual libertinism that is undermining American virtue and the American family. It requires that Lipstick Jungle become socialist because it preaches the red, white, and blue heresy that sisters, women, can do it for themselves when they should, in good red, white, and blue fashion, stay at home and take care of the kids. It requires that Friends become a socialist plot because it praises bad old cooperative, i.e, communalistic, living in New York City. It requires that His Girl Friday become socialist propaganda because it can only be socialists who milk a murder story for fun and profit. It requires that Scarface become leftist propaganda because it has the audacity to make fun of good old All American Ebenezer Scrooge capitalism. Bah humbug. And finally it requires that King Kong become socialist because it is a communist depiction of the horrors of imperialism and the horrors of notions of white supremacy. Communism, after all, preaches equality of the "races".

This twisted world is the looney world of right wing demagoguery. This type of stupidity, of course, has been around for a long time--the John Birch Society was significant in Utah when I lived there in the 1990s--but it is becoming, thanks to the World Wide Web and its blogosphere, ever more prominent and ever more mainstream, with the help of idiot savant ideologues and demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Anne Coulter and others, at places like Fox News, Amazon.com, and Blogger.com. As we begin a New Year it is worth remembering that these twisted ideologically driven perceptions founded on a fundamental lack of understanding of history and historical evidence reveal quite clearly why we are, at least in the United States, doomed. We are doomed because of the illogical logic of C.U. Later and his ideological comrades in arms. Flee to the hills. The apocalypse has finally arrived. And remember, "there's nothing we can't face except for bunnies".