The US through a TV lens.

 

Previously published in the Irish Independent.

I was watching an episode of “NCIS” recently. You know “NCIS”, right? Actually, chances are you flicked through an episode if you were watching TV because it seems to be perpetually on one of the murder channels, yet have never watched it. 

A regular staple of American pensioners, “NCIS” can be watched as an intriguing insight into how mainstream middle America sees itself.

Every week is a collection of pre-baked tropes: a body is found, with some tenuous connection to the US Navy (NCIS is the Navy’s detective division). The victim used to be a marine or is wearing Old Spice or something.  

Special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs and his team investigate. 

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The rotting of classic television.

Steed(Previously published)

I’ve written previously about my interest in old British and US cult TV shows from the 1960s and ’70s, and the recent passing at 93 of British actor Patrick Macnee, who played debonair spy John Steed in the 1960s British spy series “The Avengers” has triggered a few thoughts on the subject.

Two  Christmases ago I treated myself to the complete Avengers TV series on DVD, which ran in its original format from 1960 to 1969. The show was a success in its day, being very popular as one of the few British shows to be exported to a US TV network.

But what struck me, watching it, was the number of then young actors in it who became quite well known later in life but have since passed away, with Macnee being the last male lead still living. Its main producer and de facto creator, Brian Clemens, also passed away earlier this year. Watching the show one realises that many of its original viewers have also since passed away (it was off the air three years before I was born) and that the show’s human hinterland, the people who made and watched the show are gradually vanishing.

This is actually a relatively new phenomenon given the fact that television as a medium is only really sixty five years old. Unlike music or movies or other aspects of culture, TV had, until quite recently, a large number of still living if elderly TV pioneers who had been the actors, writers, producers and directors. It was still possible to ask them what they had been trying to communicate, and what their stories meant.

That access, the ability to ask the actual participants, is rapidly dying out across the world.

We are now seeing a whole new avenue of cultural history open up as these shows go from being just old TV shows to a glimpse into the society and culture of a previous age. Watch spy shows from the 1960s and see how many of them like “The Man From UNCLE” or “The Champions” were about international cooperation to preserve peace. “The Avengers”, for example, had a number of episodes where the two heroes fought to stop some baddy trying to sabotage European unity (I’m not joking), the assumption being that it was obviously a good thing. By the 1990s, on the other hand, shows like “The X Files” or “Alias” were about how one’s own government was the enemy.

It’s the same with sitcoms. The 1970s sitcom “Maude”, starring a pre-“Golden Girls” Bea Arthur, was one of the first TV shows to address abortion, which in itself says something about changing culture. Imagine the hysteria that would have arisen if “Friends” had an episode where Rachel had an abortion. “Will and Grace” and now “Modern Family” both traced the changing social attitudes towards homosexuality. “Star Trek” allowed issues of segregation and race be addressed in a thinly disguised science fiction setting, including the first ever inter-racial kiss on US television. TV history is important.

That’s why programmes like the Emmy Foundations interview archive, where actors, writers and others talk at length about their experiences on these TV shows, is important.

RTE should be doing this, talking, for example, in depth to Gay Byrne and others about The Late Late Show. They are part of our living cultural history, and have a story to tell.

Picard: I am enjoying it, but…

Pictured: Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Trae Patton/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

*Spoiler alert*

“Star Trek: Picard” is the show I’ve been waiting ages for, as I’m always a fan of the What Happened Next genre in fiction I like. I want to know what happened to the characters I like, to the Federation, to the future. I enjoy “Star Trek: Discovery” and roll my eyes at the usual anti-SJW stuff but I have to admit, I don’t really gel with the characters in it. They all look like they’re about to burst into tears all the time, with the exception of Lorca, Pike and (my favourite) Georgiou who basically regards everybody else as a bunch of crybabies. Picard is about my guy, the emotionally retarded stiff upper lip captain of the Enterprise.

What worries me about Picard however isn’t the characters. I get that we live in an age where absolutely f**king everything has to be emotionally over the top. My problem is with a trait displayed by many US TV writers with regarding emotional gymnastics as being all that matters, and non-emotional plot becoming a McGuffin. For the benefit of unfamiliar readers, a McGuffin is a Hitchcock term for an objective/object that matters to the characters but not really to the audience. It’s The Thing they are trying to rescue, recover, destroy, but what it is doesn’t really need to be understood by the audience to follow the story.

And that’s my problem. Entertaining as it is, it feels like the backstory of Picard is just a McGuffin. Take the reason for Picard’s resignation from Starfleet and the Federation’s abandoning of the Romulans. It’s a fundamental change to the values of the Federation that we have been brought up to known (and love) throughout the Star Trek franchise. When talking with an admiral about it Picard she informs him that Federation members are threatening to leave if they are forced to help the Romulans after the attack on Mars. This is all quite believable, and not a million miles from the EU and it’s challenges with refugees. But it’s just used as an excuse for Picard to mope around feeling let down. I hope there’s more to it than that, not just another “bloody politicians” get out.

It’s the same with the Romulans. We are led to believe that the Romulan Empire was destroyed by the supernova, yet there is talk of a Romulan Free State and the Tal Shiar still exist. Again, no detail, just a convenient McGuffin baddy.

I get it. Few people want to watch a show about the intricate political debates of the Federation (Although I’d definitely watch Star Trek: Place de la Concorde) but still. Now, maybe I’m doing the show a disservice. Maybe there will be a big reveal at the end. I sure hope so, as opposed to the infamous “Lost” finale and the “They’re all in purgatory or something” ending.

Great TV you’re missing: Archer.

archerIf you like spy shows, politically incorrect humour and sexual vulgarity, Fox’s cartoon show “Archer” is for you.

It’s based around brilliant but incredibly self-centred and over-sexed agent Sterling Archer, operative of ISIS (Yeah, they’ve since changed that. Ahem.), and his battles against the KGB, terrorists, his domineering nymphomaniac mother/boss (played by the brilliant Jessica Walter of “Arrested Development” fame), his fellow agent/ex-lover Lana Kane, his dysfunctional/sociopathic/perverted co-workers and people who stole his Black Turtleneck Is Cool look.

Try it. But be warned. This is not one for the kiddies or the faint hearted. Think “The Man from UNCLE” but with a lot of dick jokes.

Cult TV: Bergerac.

bergeracFrom 1981 to 1991 mention the island of Jersey to anyone watching British television and they’ll almost certainly mention “Bergerac”. The detective show, set on the island, starred John Nettles as recovering alcoholic detective sergeant Jim Bergerac of the Bureau des Etrangers of the Jersey police, a special unit that dealt with tourists but more often with the many very wealthy foreigners who lived on the island.

By today’s standards, the Jersey of the 1980s all looks a bit naff, but at the time the wealth of the island, its sunny location and the French connection made it all seem very exotic and even glamorous indeed, and for ten years it was a Saturday teatime favourite.

As with many successful shows, Bergerac had a breakout character, Charlie Hungerford, played by veteran character actor Terence Alexander, who was a north of England bovver boy made good, a sort of Arthur Daley who had done very well for himself, thank you very much. One of the running jokes of the show was that Hungerford seemed to know absolutely everybody on the island, or at least was connected, often without his own knowledge, to every criminal enterprise on Jersey.

The show was a huge hit, and was responsible for boosting tourism to Jersey, with Nettles himself heading up the campaign.

Nettles went on to achieve a rare success for an actor in having played a household name for a decade as Jim Bergerac then went on to do it again for over a decade as Chief Inspector Barnaby in “Midsomer Murders”.

Coming soon to HBO*: “Threadneedle Street”

bank-england-logoWhen the governor of the Bank of England dies suddenly, and his obvious successor Sir Guy Acheson (Rowan Atkinson, in a surprising straight role) is ruled out because of a shares scandal, brilliant but maverick economist Steve Darblay (Episodes’ Stephen Mangan) finds himself appointed Governor of the Bank of England, in the middle of a currency crisis, by the ruthlessly ambitious Chancellor of the Exchequer Tom Parrish (Hugh Laurie.)

For Darblay, his appointment not only places him in the driving seat in dealing with everything from interest rates to the future of the euro to who goes on the new £5 note, but also a target for Acheson who feels bitterly wronged but also that the new governor is not exactly from the right side of the tracks.

With his former Cambridge tutor Bill Burke (Roger Allam-The Thick of It) and even more brilliant economist (and former girlfriend) Yves Cassidy (Lenora Crichlow-Sugar Rush) at his side, Darblay gets ready to take his seat at the most elite of the world’s councils.

Guest starring Delaney Williams (The Wire) as US Fed Chairman Matt O’Malley and Sidse Babette Knudsen (Borgen) as ECB President Martina Delacroix.

Special appearance by Stephen Fry as the Prime Minister.

*I wrote this as a joke, but as I wrote it I thought “Jesus, I’d watch this!”

Why Peggy Carter is the greatest Marvel TV/Movie universe hero.

Agent-Carter-poster-570x760Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen “Captain America: Civil war” then read no further. You have been warned.

******

There’s a scene in the movie where Steve Rogers is informed that the love of his life, SHIELD agent Peggy Carter, has died, probably aged around 100 years old. She gets a military funeral, and watching the scene I found it surprisingly touching, especially as the image of her used on the coffin is a current image of Hayley Atwell in character from the TV series “Agent Carter” set in 1946.

What struck me was that, watching her funeral, we realise that she is one of the few characters we have seen in her entirety, starting out as a much disparaged (by men) WWII intelligence officer who grows to become, as one of the key leaders of SHIELD, one of the most powerful people in the world.

But what really warrants her status as their greatest hero is the fact that she isn’t a superhero. She doesn’t have a super-serum coursing through her veins, or incredible intelligence matched to huge inherited wealth.

She’s just an ordinary woman, and a woman growing up in an age where for most of her life her looks count against her and discrimination based on her sex is the norm and in many cases the law. Then, as if that isn’t enough, she loses the love of her life, believing him to be dead well into her 90s.

And yet, despite all that, through a mixture of intelligence, hard work and competence, by the 1980s she is one of the leaders of the most powerful organisations in the world, and one of the most effective intelligence operatives ever.

Peggy Carter is the character every little girl can aspire to be, and that’s why she’s the greatest.

Things I’ve learnt from US TV drama.

1. You have to be professional model hot to be a female Assistant District Attorney.

2. It is the job of senior politicians to stick their jaws out and tell their juniors to “expedite” things.

3. No one who can grasp complicated scientific or technical concepts is allowed head an elite law enforcement unit. They have to demand other people “speak English” instead.

4. US intelligence and law enforcement agencies have legal standing everywhere in the world except Iran, Russia, Cuba and North Korea.

5. If a hero cuts corners, it’s ok. If some else cuts corners they’re not doing their damn job.

6. Sex between two beautiful people always makes the moon shine through the window.

7. If a working joe is decent and loves his family, his wife will always be at least two points higher on the hot scale than he is.

8. Every single piece of information in the world is just six key strokes away from US government employees.

9. People who threaten to “have your job” never manage to.

10. Americans don’t know that Christmas lasts longer than a single day.

11. Officials who say “The United States does not negotiate with terrorists” are alway wrong.

12. As are military or police leaders who never listen to the ordinary working cop/soldier on the ground.

13. Every terrorist has been on the hostage negotiation course, and has read the “Dealing with a hostage situation” manual.

14. Reciting someone’s CV to them in detail when you first meet them doesn’t make you sound clever. It makes you sound like a dick.

15. Every major company in America is run by either an asshole or a guy who worked his way up from the mailroom.

16. There are far, far more ex-Navy SEALS and ex-special forces people at work than there are people in the special forces of the world.

17. There seems to be some sort of system for allocating the title of “Hottest new restaurant/club in town”.