Tag Archives: TV

1665: Shock Value

I’m pretty open-minded, as longtime readers will already be aware. But last night I, for pretty much the first time I can remember, found myself genuinely shocked by something that had been not only allowed on TV in the first place, but deemed worthy of repeating on one of those “nothing but repeats” digital channels — in this case, quiz show specialist channel Challenge.

There were two shows broadcast last night, neither of which I’d ever heard of prior to seeing them. And, having seen them for the first time last night, I’m now in no hurry to do so again.

I lump them both together like this because they both approached the same subject matter from a slightly different angle — the concept of humiliating contestants, causing them physical and mental discomfort and even inflicting pain in some cases. The shows in question? Distraction and Killer Karaoke. Both parts of the episode of Distraction in question are embedded in this post; watch at your own risk!

Distraction first. This was a Channel 4 show hosted by Jimmy Carr, who I’ve always interpreted as “cheeky” and occasionally a little bit risque, but never outright mean. Distraction turned that perception on its head — but more on that in a moment.

Distraction was first broadcast in 2003 and continued until 2004, so it had a relatively short life compared to some other gameshows. The concept of the game was twofold: in the initial elimination stage of the game, four contestants would compete against one another to answer insultingly easy question (in the episode I saw last night, all of the questions were from Key Stage 1 junior school material) while being distracted through various means. In the second stage of the game, the last remaining player would be presented with their prize, which would be damaged in some way if they answered any of their final questions incorrectly. The grand prize would either be a car — which would have parts of it smashed or defaced for an incorrect answer — or a pile of money, which would be destroyed piece by piece somehow with every incorrect answer.

The twist was the distractions themselves: these weren’t simple things like someone buzzing in your ear. In the episode I saw last night, the very first game saw all four contestants sitting in toilet cubicles, with the only means of them “buzzing in” to answer a question being to do a piss, which would cause a light to go on above their stall. Later stages saw the contestants being thrown around and pummelled by professional wrestlers while answering questions, and in the final pre-prize stage, getting piercings with every correct answer, causing them to suffer more and more pain and discomfort the more questions they got right.

Killer Karaoke, meanwhile, operated on a similar premise. Hosted by Steve-O, of Jackass fame — which should probably tell you something about what to expect — the show challenged contestants to sing their way through popular songs while being, there’s no two ways about this, abused in various painful ways. One contestant was on a swing and was unpredictably “dipped” into a tank full of snakes over the course of her song. Another was forced to wear vision-impairing goggles and walk barefoot through a cactus-strewn obstacle course while singing. Another still was strapped into a suit with a dancer “puppetmaster”, who pushed her around as she sang, smashed a bottle over her head, rubbed a raw eel over her face and finished the song by slamming her face into a cake.

I had exactly the same reaction to both shows: initial surprise and laughter at the seemingly slapstick nature of it, gradually giving way to feelings of unease, horror and even disgust at the fact that people were genuinely being hurt — both physically and psychologically — in the name of entertainment. Slapstick comedy is nothing new, but both of these shows felt like they crossed a line somewhat: that not everyone was “in on the joke” as a willing participant. In Distraction in particular, Carr’s appallingly written material — at least I hope it was written and not delivered ad lib – didn’t come across as the usual cheeky, light-hearted jabs you hear him making on shows like 8 Out of 10 Cats and its ilk: it came across as just plain mean.

It was pretty telling that we didn’t see or hear most of the participants’ reactions to his spiteful comments; one contestant — a woman named Gabriela Blandy, whom it just so happens that I was at university with, and who decided to chronicle her experience in this beautifully written blog post — just looked plain miserable; the very picture of despair. (“I finally realise how shameful all this is,” writes Blandy, reliving the experience, “and why I was never able to tell them I wanted to be an actress. I would have been admitting I was prepared to do anything to make it. There’s no Steven Spielberg, sitting in the audience, thinking: wow, that girl has talent! Besides, the talented ones are at home, learning monologues, putting genuine work in.”)

Both shows were certainly effective in their shock tactics and I don’t doubt that I’ll be remembering them both for some time to come — likely when I least want to. But, on reflection, even admitting the fact that both made me genuinely laugh several times, I don’t think I ever want to see them — or anything like them — ever again. And it’s not very often I say that.

1635: Badvertising, The Return

Andie and I often fall asleep with the TV on its sleep timer, typically tuned to the inoffensive endless repeats of late-night Dave or the ’80s and ’90s quiz shows of Challenge. This means that we’re continually exposed to some of the most stupid adverts in the known universe, what with the majority of channels on Freeview being commercial rather than licensepayer-funded.

We’ve already discussed the utter bollocks that is Alpen’s “Characters” series of skits that bookend most of Dave’s late night comedy offerings, so I won’t reiterate that too much, particularly since there doesn’t appear to be any clips of it on YouTube.

I will, however, discuss a few other things. Let’s begin with this.

This is clever, you see, because it’s for Gaviscon Double Action, and it’s got two people in it. One suffers from one of the things Gaviscon Double Action treats, and the other suffers from the other thing Gaviscon Double Action treats. Except when they suffer from the other thing instead. Or both of them. Making the whole “twins” thing inherently pointless and the whole advert just looking rather stupid.

Leaving aside the dreadful play on words “carfuffle”, let’s ponder the question this advert asks: “do the words ‘headless’ and ‘chicken’ spring to mind?”

No! No they do not! I can honestly say at no time in my life have I ever felt like a headless chicken when looking for a new car. It can be a tedious and time-consuming process, sure, but something that gets you running around in a panic? No.

Social media is big, right? Streaming video is big, right? Let’s make a mockup social media site of women who make videos about getting stains out of clothes! That won’t look at all patronising!

This is… just shit.

Look, it’s funny because women worry about leaving shitstains on the toilet, too. And there’s a “clever” play on words at the end.

“There’s nothing nicer than waking from a great night’s sleep,” says Lenny Henry.

I beg to differ. Sleeping is great. And I particularly won’t want to get out of bed if I wake up and find my bed is on a fucking beach. Or in the middle of a wedding party. I’m not entirely sure what point they’re trying to make here. Perhaps when you go to sleep in a Premier Inn you feel like you’re in the middle of a wedding party.

Confused.com have had some legendarily shit ad campaigns over the years, but “Brian” really takes the cake. This ad also highlights a bugbear I have with modern advertising: the age-old art of the jingle appears to be dead, on TV at least, with modern ads tending to bastardise old, often beloved pieces of music rather than come up with their own original music.

(Jingles are not entirely dead, mind you; if you want to hear some truly awful but hideously catchy advertising jingles, I recommend tuning in to your local radio station at the earliest available opportunity. Lovett’s move on up! Lovett’s move on up! Lovett’s move on up… ahem.)

I think I’ve made my point for now. Adverts are shit. And inescapable. Good night.

1615: As Yet Untitled

There was an interesting show on the TV channel Dave recently — yes, the Dave of my inexplicably popular Alpen Sponsors Characters on Dave post — that was, conceptually, very simple but managed to work extremely well. The show in question was Alan Davies: As Yet Untitled, a peculiar take on the chat show that was supposedly completely unscripted and off-the-cuff.

Davies hosted the show, accompanied by four guests, usually from the world of comedy. And not the newer brand of comedy that I talked about a short while back; the kind of comedians I liked in my twenties and still like now. People like Bill Bailey, Kevin Eldon, Ross Noble — that sort of calibre of performer; contemporaries of Davies himself, I guess. Performers who, in their own comedy material, do a good job of speaking conversationally to the audience rather than relying on heavily scripted routines, skits or one-liners. One-liner-centric comics such as Milton Jones, who are often seen on panel shows alongside people like Bailey, Davies and Eldon, were conspicuous by their absence, since their form of wit isn’t really conducive to a flowing conversation.

And this is an important point, because that’s all the show was: a bunch of people sitting around a circular table, drink in hand, and having a conversation. And like any conversation between a group of friends, the topic meandered from one thing to another at a moment’s notice, with all the natural flow and surprising twists and turns of a real conversation. One moment they’d be talking about dieting methods; the next they’d be talking about whether or not you’d grab a magic floating poo if it appeared in the air before you. (Would you?)

The format — such as it was — worked really well, and it played to the strengths of its participants. Everyone involved seemed very relaxed and natural at all times, and this led to some convincing, free-flowing conversations that were entertaining to observe. The audience was acknowledged and involved without the participants playing up to them deliberately, and it really made me want to see more stuff like this — it couldn’t have been particularly expensive to produce, after all!

When I think about it, I guess all Davies and his team were doing with As Yet Untitled were applying good practices from another related medium — podcasting — to television. And it really worked well. Podcasts are often simply groups of people sitting around chewing the fat, usually on a particular topic but sometimes not even having that much focus — Kevin Smith’s podcast is a good example of this — and such was the case with As Yet Untitled. It was nothing more than a group of friends sitting around talking about whatever they felt like — and in the process it managed to feel infinitely more involving, interesting and entertaining than any number of overly manufactured, lavishly produced, completely false-seeming shows like The X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent or My Dog Can Do This Thing With a Ball That is Quite Good. It was simple, raw, pure; it didn’t need to be anything more, and so it wasn’t.

More, please.

1612: “Box Set” Implies Boxes Are Involved

If you’ll indulge me a moment, I need to complain about something. It’s not anything particularly important or relevant to the world at large, but it has been bugging me recently.

I’ll preface this by saying that I accept that language is in a constant state of flux, as much as many of us may not like the way it is changing on a seemingly daily basis thanks to the fast-moving nature of Internet culture. I accept that words and phrases change their meaning as time goes on — there are probably hundreds of words and phrases we all use on a daily basis that would have meant something completely different fifty, a hundred, two hundred, five hundred years ago. That’s fine.

What I’m not so cool with is when there’s an obvious attempt by someone (or a group of people) to change the meaning of a word or phrase to something that really doesn’t make sense in the slightest. There are a number of examples of this in modern parlance, but the one that is bugging me in this instance is the use of the term “box set”.

What does that term mean to you? To me, it means a box of something — usually some form of “complete collection”. In the case of DVDs and Blu-Rays, a box set would include multiple discs and encompass either a complete season or a complete run of a TV show, or perhaps a movie and discs of special features. In the case of music CDs, a box set might collect together a band’s singles or albums, or, again, provide a collection of tracks that you might not be able to get in another way. Even books can come in box sets — I used to have a box set of The Lord of the Rings that, rather than splitting the whole story into three volumes, split it down further into its smaller constituent novel-size books, making it seemingly much more digestible. (I still never made it all the way through, but I made it further than I probably would have if I were trying to plough through three volumes of several hundred pages apiece.)

The key thing all of those have in common is that a box is involved. They’re a physical object. They’re a box, containing a set of things. A box set. Do you see how that works? Pretty straightforward, no?

And, then, do you see how utterly stupid it is for digital TV services to refer to both video-on-demand and channels broadcasting a show’s complete run back-to-back as “box sets”? There is no box involved. There is no physical object involved. It is not something you can collect and own; it is not something you can keep. They are not even the same thing. They are, respectively, a complete series available for video streaming, and a complete series being broadcast back-to-back on live television. Granted, the term “box set” is much more concise and people probably know what it means. But that doesn’t stop it just being bloody wrong, all right?

I get the feeling this is the work of some marketer who thought it would be a jolly smashing idea to attempt to rebrand the term “box sets” from its increasingly irrelevant meaning with regard to physical media. After all, if physical media is on the way out, why not take a term that’s becoming obsolete and try to use it differently?

Because it’s dumb. Stop it.

1594: The Changing Times, As Seen Through the Lens of Challenge TV

Challenge, for those of you not in the UK, is a digital television channel whose programming consists almost entirely of gameshow reruns from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. There’s the odd bit of original programming and occasional repeats of more recent stuff, but for the most part it’s about enjoying old gameshows.

One of the most interesting things about rewatching old gameshows in 2014 is pondering the sort of people who are on them — specifically, their jobs. In the older stuff you get on Challenge – stuff like Blankety Blank, 321 and any number of other shows with wobbly cardboard sets and LCD readouts of the participants’ scores — people tend to have very straightforward jobs. “I’m a plumber,” one contestant will say. “I work in a shop,” another will say. “I’m a newsagent,” another will say.

Compare and contrast with the sort of contestants you get on today’s shows — best exemplified by Challenge’s repeats of shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire?Catch Phrase and The Chase — and it’s a very different situation. “I’m a management consultant,” one will say. “I’m a business development manager,” another will say. (Andie informs me that this is the new name for what we used to know as “salesmen”.) “I’m an information technology technician in an educational establishment, specialising in campus-wide distributed network solutions,” another will say. (I made the last one up. Sounds convincing, though, doesn’t it?)

Notice the difference? That’s right, modern jobs all have utterly meaningless titles. Rather than being a straightforward description of what the person actually does, modern job titles obfuscate the person’s true purpose behind layers of doublespeak, presumably in an attempt to make everyone seem more important than they actually are. It’s probably the same reason that Asda has a “Colleagues Entrance” instead of a “Staff Entrance”, and why Waitrose employs “partners” instead of, you know, people who work in a supermarket.

It’s a trend that’s grown over the last ten or twenty years in particular, and it’s not a particularly positive change for the use of clear English. There seems to be a mistaken assumption that using the longest, most complicated and fiddly words possible to describe something makes it sound more “formal” and “intelligent” — it’s the same reason why people in suits incorrectly use “myself” instead of “me” when they’re trying to impress clients or superiors — but I’m pretty sure that most of us are wise to this little trick by now. Any time someone starts “myself”-ing at me, I just want to shake them and say “speak like a normal person! Do you talk to your friends like that?”

Actually, talking about this conjures up a number of fairly amusing mental images, the first one of which that sprang to mind was — don’t judge me — a management consultant having sex and breathlessly gasping that “the copulation between myself and yourself is approaching its conclusion, please prepare the personal cleanliness solutions for the removal of errant ejaculate from those areas in which it was unintended to fall”, by which point he would have probably already jizzed all over her tits anyway, rendering the entire statement moot and the pair of them sitting in slightly uncomfortable silence, both wondering why he can’t just say “I’m gonna cum” or “unnnnnggggghhhh” like a normal person.

[glances back at how this post started and where it ended up.]

I, uh… sorry, I don’t know what happened there. That sort of escalated quickly, didn’t it? Oh well. It’s late, all right? My brain is wandering to weird places and I apparently need to get some sleep.

1592: Funnymen

I really enjoy a good bit of stand-up comedy — emphasis on the good – and so it was with some delight that I recently discovered the work of Louis C.K.

Louis C.K. is someone whom I’d heard mentioned before — mostly by my American friends — but I’d never checked out his material before. I’m always oddly wary of American stand-up — I think it’s because I’m conscious that a number of stand-ups from the British Isles have struggled to make an impact in the States, so I find myself wondering if the reverse is true, too. Past experience — the best example I can think of being Bill Hicks — has demonstrated that good American comedy can very much still be funny on this side of the Atlantic, though, so I’m aware I’m being irrational; it’s just one of those things.

Anyway, Louis C.K. is extremely funny. I’ve watched two of his stand-up shows on Netflix and the first episode of his TV show Louie to date, and all of them have had me properly laughing out loud. He seems to strike a good balance between shocking — his discussion of the words “faggot” and “cunt” during the opening section of one of his shows is a particularly good example of this — and witty, intelligent, observational comedy with just a touch of cynicism. Meanwhile, Louie appears to show that he’s a good character actor, too, with some wonderfully deadpan scenes throughout — my favourite being “…can you stop smiling exactly the same way at me every time I look at you?” “…No.” — coupled with just the occasional dip into absurdity. I’ll have more to say about that when I’ve watched a few more episodes, I’m sure.

The reason why discovering Louis C.K. is such a pleasure is because I feel UK comedy isn’t in a particularly good place right now — at least not the stuff you generally see on TV. There’s still stuff like Dara O’Briain and Russell Howard being shown on repeat-centric channels such as Dave, of course, but the main face of British comedy right now appears to be Russell Kane, whom I just simply don’t find particularly funny. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or simply because I don’t like his style, but I find the show he comperes — BBC Three’s Live at the Electric – fairly excruciating to watch, not only for Kane’s sequences, which are by far the strongest element of the show (which isn’t saying much) but for the truly dreadful, painfully unfunny sketches and skits that punctuate the format.

Louis C.K., meanwhile, has a style that I very much like. There’s an air of seemingly defeated cynicism about a lot of it, with occasional crescendos into furious anger about something or other. He never seems to take it too far, though; the rants tend to stop before they become too preachy, and any tension built up through the yelling is usually defused nicely by a pithy comment or a reminder of what he was talking about beforehand. It’s a style I really like.

Anyway, if you’ve never checked out the comedy of Louis C.K. and you’ve been meaning to, I’d encourage you to do so at the next opportunity. I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve seen, and I hope there’s more material out there to discover. In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying the Louie series.

1552: An American Workplace

Finally reached the end of the American incarnation of The Office today, and I was very pleased with how it all wrapped itself up. I was very pleasantly surprised with the series as a whole, in fact — though the early stages of the first series where it was literally nothing more than a word-for-word remake of the English version were… not poor, but disappointing; and the latter part of the complete run did perhaps drag on a little longer than it needed to. Still, the finale was good, and the nine seasons of episodes meant that by the end you have a very strong understanding of all the characters involved.

I liked the balance it struck between some genuinely touching stories and somewhat formulaic character comedy. Many of the characters in the show almost had a “catchphrase” — not literally, but an iconic means of behaving — but the show, on the whole, managed to ensure that these party tricks weren’t used so much that the people using them became one-dimensional joke machines. Angela’s prim and proper attitude was subverted by what happened to her in the later seasons with regard to her relationships, for example, while the seemingly alcoholic Meredith points out in the last episode that the side of her captured on film — the side that drank too much, frequently got her tits out and behaved completely inappropriately — was only part of the entire picture.

And this was part of the point, really. As a spoof “docudrama”, both the English and American versions of The Office play with the idea that it’s possible to steer a narrative that you have no external influence on through careful, selective editing and manipulation after the fact. It’s a common trick in reality TV; some shows even supposedly have disclaimers that you may not be portrayed entirely accurately if you appear on them, because the footage will be edited to fit the “script” rather than to give a truthful picture of what actually happened.

In the case of The Office, of course, the whole thing was scripted and planned out from start to finish, and it was, at times, hard to forget that side of things. Jim and Pam’s romance was a little too perfect at times — even with the several pieces of tension introduced in the final season. Similarly, characters such as Dwight, Erin and Andy were almost too much of a caricature to be truly “believable” at times; this certainly didn’t hurt the show if you treated it as an ongoing comedy drama rather than attempting to suspend your disbelief and treat it as an ongoing documentary, but it did lose a little of the magic that the English original had.

That said, thinking back to the English original version, David Brent was an obvious caricature that, on many occasions, behaved far too ridiculously to be “believable” as a real person. The difference is that alongside his obvious nonsense, everything else was a lot more understated. The Tim and Dawn possible romance was constantly left dangling — something the American version simply couldn’t do with the considerably larger number of episodes it boasted — and even when it seemed to “wrap things up” had a certain degree of ambiguity about it. Not so much with Jim and Pam — though again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Jim and Pam’s relationship and how they overcame their difficulties and stuck together was a pleasantly heartwarming tale when all’s said and done.

On the whole, then, I really enjoyed the whole series, and the last couple of episodes were an excellent finale to the entire run. It’s a very distinct beast from the English original — I’m not sure if it’s better overall, but it certainly managed to maintain our attention for nine seasons of twentysomething episodes each rather than the original’s two seasons of six episodes each.

It’s a good watch, then; less dependent on outright uncomfortable comedy than the British original, and more focus on slow, gradual character development over time. The whole run could have possibly stood to be a couple of seasons shorter — things dragged a little in the middle — but it started and finished very strong, and I’m very glad I took the time to watch it from start to finish.

The question is, then, what’s next?