If you haven’t been watching “Yellowstone” on Paramount Plus, which enters its fifth season, you’ve been missing a treat. A cross between “Sons of Anarchy” and “Falcon Crest”, the show features Kevin Costner (He of tongue in bottom lip fame) as John Dutton III, the patriarch of the vast 50,000 acre Yellowstone ranch in Montana his family founded and own since the 1880s. Created by Taylor Sheridan, the show has been labelled by some as a conservative or red state show, and superfically it could bear that label. The value of “keeping what’s ours” is one repeated by many characters throughout the series, and coupled with the constant resort to frontier justice, you can easily see why a certain type of conservative would like the show.
And yet, the politics of the show is much more blended with grey and subtlety.
Dutton is obviously a wealthy and politically powerful man in the state, practically handpicking certain state offices that matter to his business interests, including appointing himself state livestock commissioner, which allows him to have a de facto private police force. He uses a helicopter to both travel to the state capital but also to ranch. In one scene, whilst remonstrating with a Chinese tourist who complains about one man owning so much land, Dutton declares “This is America: we don’t share land.”
And yet, he’s not without money worries. It becomes apparent that whilst his land might be worth nearly half a billion dollars, his personal wealth is probably closer to $40m and he fears local development could sharply increase his property tax liabilities beyond his ability to pay.
Nor is he greedy: when he’s offered huge wealth in return for abandoning his family legacy he simply refuses, even though he knows he is fighting a losing battle against change. For him, legacy and family is everything, a value many Americans can see and respect very easily. He’s not without compassion either: intervening to help a widow deprive a bank of assets he feels her family needs more.
His various nemesis also have a political dimension: his ranch is bordered by a Native American reservation led by business savvy politician Thomas Rainwater (Gil Bermingham) who wants to retake the Yellowstone ranch because “for thousands of years our people hunted, fished and lived on that land: then John Dutton’s great grandfather built a house.” Rainwater supports development because it brings his tribe more revenue for public services. Yet he also shares, with Dutton, a desire for conservation and preserving as much of the valley they both share.
The show is also full of contradictions. Dutton sees the irony, in his family claiming the land in the 1880s from Native Americans, then having to face off against even more well-resourced developers who make the same point the Chinese tourist did, and marvel at the arrogance of one family blocking the creation of thousands of (low paying) jobs. Indeed, one developer, Dan Jenkins (Danny Houston) is genuinely outraged at Dutton’s belief that outsiders have no right to share in the beauty he owns except on his terms.
One other aspect of the show is the disparity in wealth on display: Dutton, Rainwater and the developers all live in relative opulence, whilst their employees and voters live in a world of precarious employment, threats of banks foreclosing, and the powerful pretty much deciding which candidates will be permitted even contest elections. Most of his employees live in a dormitory on the ranch. Many Europeans will look at Dutton paying for an employee’s medical expenses not as a sign of generosity but an indictment where vital medical treatment is only available on the whim of a wealthy employer. The occasional gun battle, normally led by Dutton’s ex-special forces (On USTV, there are no ex-military cooks or plumbers, only special forces) son Kayce in his guise as a Livestock Agent, tend to be against hired goons from developers muscling in on Dutton, or petty criminals trying to make a living in the hard scrabble society of modern-day America. And yet few complain: so inbred is that “Keeping what’s ours” mentality that far fewer people in the show question the morality of a single man owning a vast part of a state than applaud his son and shake his hand for machine gunning a petty cattle rustler and leaving his daughter an orphan.
If it has a political bias, Yellowstone is culturally liberal (recognizing the great crimes committed against Native Americans) whilst just shrugging its shoulders at economic disparity as if it is some form of natural phenomenon, like a tornado. That’s probably a mainstream view in America today.
I’ve recently been rewatching the sitcom “Cheers” on Paramount+, where the entire series is currently available. It’s easy for people under the age of 45 to not be aware of the show or how huge it was when it originally aired. Running from 1982-1993 for 275 episodes, and then occasionally resurfacing in spinoff “Frasier” crossovers which ran another 11 seasons, when the show finished in 1993 it was watched by over 90 million people in the US.
The show centred around Sam Malone (Ted Danson), a charming, womanizing, recovering alcoholic ex-professional baseball player who owned the bar, a below street lower middle class bar frequented by regular customers which provided a home from home for them. Whilst the initial seasons focussed on Sam’s relationship with haughty waitress Diane Chambers (played brilliantly by Shelley Long) the real source of the show’s eventual “Friends” like domination of the ratings was the ensemble cast, from kind but dim Coach and Woody, sharp-tongued waitress Carla, know-it-all postman Cliff and failed accountant Norm. When Long left after five years she was replaced by Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca Howe, Sam’s neurotic boss (he’d sold the bar) whom he constantly tried to bed.
Cheers is both genuinely funny but also charming, with a cast that regular viewers came to love as an extended family, all flawed but all lovable. Looking through today’s eyes Sam Malone would be a sex pest who would be either swamped with legal bills or long dismissed by his employer for inappropriate behaviour, but it’s fascinating to watch as a snapshot of the time, before mobile phones and social media, with plots based on misinterpreted phone messages and Cliff’s barside pontifications not being open to challenge (“You know Sammy, it’s a well known fact that…”)
One particularly interesting feature of the show is how female characters deal with Sam’s constant sexual advances. This was the post-1970s, where the “Women’s Lib” movement was petering out against the New Conservatism of Reagan’s America (Reagan was only 20 months in office when the show first aired) and the female characters tend to fend off his passes through sarcasm. Having said that, many of his lovers are as equally sexually aggressive and promiscuous as he is. You can’t help grimacing at his wandering hands, all the same. He’s never grabby, but can be overly touchy.
File under cosy stress-free nostalgic viewing, and keep an eye out for the many guest stars who went on to be much bigger, although none will be as big as Kate Mulgrew’s hair.
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.
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.
“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.
If 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.
From 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”.
When 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!”