Okay, so I’ve not posted in a while. Sorry about that. Mainly I’ve been spending all my writing time battling to get the first full draft of my next novel done. But’s that’s something I’ll go into more detail in a future post.

But I’ve been meaning to share this article on representation for a while now, and finally have the chance (meaning I’ve remembered it when I’ve been at my computer).

Representation is important, and this post explains why in a way I’d not thought of in such details before.

 

My 2016 TV Show of the Year

This year, I’ve decided to post a few of the highlights I’ve come across in 2016 to share with you all. They won’t necessarily be things published or released this year, but will all be relatively recent works that I – at least – discovered in 2016.

 

This one gave me a little difficulty. We all know that we’re in a so-called “Golden Age of Television”, and as much as that phrase is tired and overused I can’t deny that with subscriptions to Netflix and Amazon Prime I’ve had copious excellent television to get through. By rather than one of the series that everyone’s already raved about online, I’m going to pick one that we started watching on a whim without knowing anything about it and turned out to the be one of the cleverest TV shows I’ve seen in a long time.

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On the day Rebecca Bunch is finally about to reach her lifelong goal of being made a Partner in a prestigious New York legal firm, she is suddenly struck by just how miserable she truly is. Then, mid-breakdown – she runs into an old boyfriend. Releasing that the time she dated him – for just 3 months one summer over a decade ago – was the last time she was truly happy, Rebecca drops everything and follows him across the country to win him back.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of the smartest pieces of television writing I’ve watched in years. While the premise could be one of a thousand bland rom-coms or generic sitcoms, writer and star Rachel Bloom instead created something that’s both a fun musical show and a deep look into the divide between what society has taught us to think we want and what we actually need.

Rebecca drops a high-flying legal career to be with the boy of her dreams. Why wouldn’t that be the right thing to do? They had a Meet-Cute on the day she needed it the most. That’s what television and movies have taught us; that our fairytale will come true if we just believe enough to fight through all obstacles. Why should it matter that she’s stalked him across the country? Or that he’s been with the same girlfriend for fifteen years? Or that her actions throw the lives of so many people into chaos? It’s meant to be!

Ultimately, this show is about the delusions we build for ourselves to hide from the truths we don’t want to face.

While also being a light-hearted musical.

Did I say the writing on this show was really clever?ceg1cast3_0509ra-max-620x600

It’s the layers to the characters and the plots that make this show unmissable. They’ve managed to avoid or subvert every trope in their path, without a single lazy path taken. If two characters have an ‘amusing misunderstanding’, rather than stretching that out for an entire episode they will talk it out and focus instead on the underlying issues. We’re introduced to characters such as “the boss who wants to be everyone’s friend”, or “the controlling bitch girlfriend”, or “the love interest”, but as the series progresses you see how none of them are solely defined by these labels. You also see why they are this way. Why does the boss so desperately want people to like him? Why is the love interest’s girlfriend such a controlling bitch? Why does the love interest stay with his girlfriend even though she’s so unpleasant and demanding? And, most impressively, all of them change and grow in a way that suit the character rather than the longevity of the show. Or getting preachy.

Basically, if you’ve not caught this show I cannot recommend strongly enough that you do. It’s currently half way through its second season, and you won’t find many shows so that subvert television character tropes so well.

 

An open letter to television: You’re better than this

I hope 2016 is going well for everyone so far. Mine started with rushing my wife into hospital for three days. On her birthday no less. So that was fun, but I suppose that’s the life of a kidney-transplant husband. At least it keeps life interesting.

Now, I felt reluctant to sully this blog with a rant so early in the year, but that’s what has popped into my mind so that’s what you’re going to get. As it is in our modern world, as someone who feels moral outrage and righteous anger about something I must vent my thoughts and opinions over the internet. Because that’s how it’s done now.

So. Lip Sync Battle.

What the fuck?

This is an thing now? On television? Come on! A quick browse through the all knowing Wikipedia tells me this is a US import that started life as a segment of a US Chat Show. That I can understand. Chat/variety shows do stuff like this. Silly little segments designed to entertain with the ambition of being little more than a little bit of fun. But turning that idea into a TV show in its own right? Really? And now Channel 51 are bringing it over to the UK.

I understand that this post going to come across as my being a total snob, standing up on a beautifully constructed high horse with the word CULTURE written across it in huge letters like some pretentious comic out of The New Yorker. And while I have to admit there is an element of that, I in no way want to look down on “easy” television. Escapism isn’t a dirty word. Life is hard, and we all need to relax. There’s nothing wrong with a guilty pleasure or two, and curling up on the sofa with a book or television show that we know won’t force us to think too hard is a part of life every single one of us enjoys. I grew up watching television and I could never say all of it was particularly good. Even now after coming in from work I’ll put the television on and re-watch episodes of The Simpsons or Futurama that I’ve seen a hundred times while I’m making dinner.

No. The reason that shows such as Lip Sync Battle, The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, ad nauseam2 are the lowest pits of the entertainment and televisual worlds is because they neither create or contribute anything of worth.

And I’m not talking about it being merely something I dislike. People enjoy different things and I’m always willing to accept that some things I hate, other people will love. The objective definition of “Good” doesn’t lie with me. No, when I say “Bad Television” what I mean are those shows that are vapid, soulless, and do not create anything new. Shows created with no more ambition than to fill space, promote a product, or maximise profit/investment ratios.

These usually tend to be “celebrity” or “reality” shows. They will either focus around someone famous, on the assumption that fame equals interesting, or on the increasingly depressing concept that that if you put someone on TV they will instantly become a celebrity. And that’s the whole problem with the concept of celebrity; there’s nothing behind it. Famous for being famous. Could there be a more depressing existence? And as it looks so easy there is a seemingly unending slew of people wanting to get fame through simply being on TV, rather than working hard on something to become famous through a skill or talent. 

And this creates a slippery slope. One channel puts out a reality/celebrity show. It does well, so other channels follow suit. Then as people are now watching these shows, TV executives assume that celebrities are a draw. So they put on more celebrity/reality shows. And because there are now more of them, naturally more people are watching them, so executives continue thinking that people want celebrity/reality television so make even more, and people have fewer choices and so watch more of it, so they make more of it, etc., etc., etc., until we reach an ever more depressing televisual ghetto.

And I say ghetto, as that’s the inevitable end of this process. I keep reading articles about how we’re in a Golden Age of Television. How writers and directors are moving more into television over film because of the creative possibilities it offers them. As the internet has matured we have more and more quality on-demand viewing options. Netflix, Sky Box Sets, Amazon Prize. BBC iPlayer. Apple iTunes. 4OD. ITV Player. And so as people now have the option to pick and choose the television they want to watch, their lifestyles and viewing habits are going to change and, like with so much else, the old way we consumed television will slowly die out. We will no longer be stuck with what the schedulers decide to put on.

But of course, the old guard won’t see and/or won’t accept this. And as people go to these online options to get quality, creative shows, it will appear that celebrity/reality shows are growing more popular.

So I guess that shows like Lip Sync Battles aren’t killing off creativity. They’re just a byproduct of an inherent laziness. People willing to make the effort will simply move away to find quality shows elsewhere. I suppose much cleverer people than I could say whether on-demand is a result of this trend, or completely unrelated. But that’s because they’re much cleverer than me.

How does this end? I don’t know. Will broadcast television recognise the changing landscape and proactively change their ways? Will the fashion for celebrities and reality die out and be forgotten? Or will broadcast television eventually become a 24 hour “Daytime TV” ghetto? With nothing but celebrity game shows, reality shows, documentaries about everyday jobs made “exciting” my cheap music and editing; while at the same time all creative dramatic and comedy programme makers will move to on-demand? Is this polarisation of television where we are heading? 

I don’t know. Maybe this entire thing is me being a massive snob. For some reason seeing the trailer for this new “show” just made me angry. Perhaps it’s just that I mostly avoid terrestrial broadcast television nowadays and so haven’t had to think about it, and then seeing hosts Mel B3 and some guy called Professor Green4 prancing about brought the whole depressing industry back to mind.

But if being a snob means wanting the world to put in effort and have pride in what they do, then I can’t see it being a bad thing at all. As long as you don’t go too far and reach the point there you assume you’re better than other people. 

So, please, don’t watch celebrity television. Don’t support laziness. Don’t reward people for being a recognised name and nothing else. Instead, encourage people to be creative. Reward contribution. If someone becomes a household name, it should be for something worthwhile rather than simply getting their picture in the gossip pages.

And for goodness sake, please don’t watch Lip Sync Battle. Whoever you are, you’re better than that.

1 Which says it all really.

2 The fact that this phrase literally means to continue until people are sick is rarely so appropriate.

3 And now we know which of the Spice Girls handled her money the worst by seeing which once is being forced to take celebrity hosting jobs.

4 I’ve no idea either.

The Doctor Lives

Last Sunday there was a lot of… let’s call it dialogue… across the internet over the casting announcement for Matt Smith’s replacement in Doctor Who. Some praised it, while others hated it. Some waxed lyrical about how it was wonderful to see an older Doctor at last, while others cried over the Doctor no longer being “young and hot”. Some people were glued to the screen, live-tweeting their excitement throughout the whole show, while others were making damn sure that their opinions on the poor production values were heard. Diehard Whovians were extolling the next stage in their favourite show, while the show’s detractors were once again ranting about how it’s the worst thing on television.

But each and every one of those people was saying exactly the same thing: ‘I care about Doctor Who!”

Whatever your feelings about it, Doctor Who is an iconic part of our culture. One of the longest running shows on television (even if you discount the break) it has managed to take a place in the nation’s consciousness that few other programmes manage. With the show lasting so long and casts, crews and writers coming and going, there is no focus for the show other than the show itself. Doctors come and go, quality peaks and troughs, but the show goes on. People might have their favourite time period or doctor, they might prefer the funny episodes over the scary ones or visa-versa, but we all know that the show is greater than our own preferences. It has become the ultimate televisual cult.

It cannot be denied that it’s a show of highs and lows. Doctor Who has not gained its place by giving us 50 years of pure gold. Nothing that has lasted for so long, with so many different writers and producers along the way, could have managed that. Even just considering the last couple of years, for every Asylum of the Daleks there has been a The Rings of Akhaten. Some of the show’s stories have showcased some of the greatest science fiction television there has ever been. Others have highlighted just how bad science fiction can get. For all its CG gloss the show it still the spiritual successor to pulp science fiction; so many stories to be told, with just some of the them striking that vein of genius that makes classic sci-fi.

The most obvious mark of the show’s enduring success is how many people still follow it whilst claiming to hate it. There are people I know who complain about every episode being terrible, but still tune in and watch the next one. Take this Sunday as an example; by no standards could the live announcement show be described a ‘good television’. What could have been a nice mini-tribute to Matt Smith’s tenure turned out to be a terrible sub-reality TV knock off consisting of filler interviews with C-List talking heads. Yes, they had Peter Davidson, but who gives a toss what the kid from Outnumbered thinks about Doctor Who?

But no one had to watch it. From the moment Zoe Ball walked out it was obvious that the next half hour was going to be total crap. Knowing this, I still chose to watch the whole thing. Morbid curiosity kept me going. I spent most of it laughing as each pointless decision followed the next until the actual announcement happened. But that was my choice. If I had simply wanted to know the casting choice I could easily have done something else for 30 minutes and tuned in for the very end.

And yet people seem to have tuned in to the whole programme just to prove to themselves that it would be as terrible as they thought it would. I doubt any of the Doctor Who creative team had any input in that show. It doesn’t reflect the actual show at all. It was just a vapid waste of twenty five minutes followed by a five minute interview.

I don’t know any other show or series that has this effect. The closest thing to match Doctor Who’s longevity and culture of constant change would be soap operas, and these don’t get nearly the same attention. Most people I know hate soap operas, as do I, but none of them follow and rant about all the decisions. We simply ignore them. We don’t have strong opinions to be taken out at parties or online message boards. We’re simply not interested and so leave it at that. People don’t seem to be able to do with with Doctor Who.

Perhaps it is simply that we want the show to be held to a different standard. Maybe the fact that Doctor Who is such an iconic part of our national culture we want it to try harder, to be the best it can be. We want every episode to be classic science fiction, not just two or three per season. We want to be proud of every single moment, to feel that the creative team behind it are working as hard as possible in their curation of this national icon. Deep down we all know that this show is an indelible part of our culture. It’s part of who we are. When it doesn’t meet our standards we want it – or rather those with the creative control – to know that we expect better.

We keep complaining as while we might not want a bad show taking up the airwaves, we also don’t want Doctor Who to go. There were many, many valid reasons for the show’s original cancellation in 1989, but the show was never forgotten. We wouldn’t allow it to be, and it was almost inevitable that it would be reborn.

Doctor Who is part of a television pantheon that few shows will ever reach. Iconic and imortal. Like the Queen’s Christmas Message, we might well have no interest in watching it but somehow we wouldn’t feel right if it wasn’t there any more.