Tag Archives: ABC

The final word on Travel Channel (unless I think of more)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an entry on the blog about TV travel shows – how terribly uncreative and bland most of them are, in Britain and here, and how so many people still write to me about my show, Stranded, after four years.

Boy, did that stir up a hornets’ nest. I never expected so many of you to be that interested, frankly.

Well, anyway, there have been several developments since then. So here, quickly, before we all grow bored with the topic, is an update.

First, the blog generated another avalanche of belated support for Stranded from fans – bless you all; I only hope that level of allegiance spills over into the documentary I’m shooting currently – and also a steady level of disgust, apparently, with Travel Channel for canceling it. Not something that was intended, by the way, but I totally understand. There’s a general malaise out there these days. As TV viewers, we feel shortchanged by network executives who, after finally getting around to producing a decent show for once, axe it again almost immediately before it’s built an audience. Personally, I am still grieving the loss of Journeyman and Better Off Ted. Damn you, NBC and ABC respectively.

When it comes down to basics, my problem when I was filming Stranded was that I wanted to make an intimate travel experience that I shared with the viewers, revealing the ups and downs of a guy voyaging around the world alone, surviving on the kindness of strangers and exploring other cultures, other perspectives on life. Whereas the production company wanted to make a whiz-bang fast-paced adventure show.

Right there you can see the issue. Those two don’t go together well, and so the series behind the scenes became a constant battleground, with me on the one side seeking to make programs about people and cultures, and the producers on the other hand insisting on having lots of bungy-jumping and snowboarding and whatever else. I wanted spontaneity and living by the seat of your pants-type stuff; the producers insisted on planning everything down to the last detail, leaving barely any room for anything real to happen at all. In truth, I thrive and come alive in spontaneous situations. That’s my forte; it’s where I excel. So of course excessive planning was claustrophobic for me. I was forced to be an actor and often made to do three or four takes to ‘get a shot right’. Ultimately the American audience sensed the fakery and pretense of it all and tuned out.

At its core, the show was a great idea that could have worked – in fact, it did work to an extent, in that, when I got my way and did what I wanted to do, it was refreshingly different and very funny – but in the end it died as a result of too many unwanted cooks jumping on board and messing with the ingredients. There was also someone working with us who had severe anger issues and who could be a ferocious tyrant at times. That attitude, I noticed, seemed to generate so much fear and unhappiness among the staff and crew that the show felt doomed almost from day one.

In respect to Travel Channel, the general drift of the conversation seems to be, “What were they thinking, getting rid of one of their best shows ever and replacing it with one dopey series after another?” But since I don’t watch T.C., I honestly can’t comment on how dopey their recent series are, if at all. Then again, when you’ve experienced the cringing torpor induced by most travel shows over the years, you can understand anger mounting at a network when something really good and refreshingly original makes it into the schedules, only to be allowed to die on the vine.

A former executive from Travel Channel (and there are a lot of them these days, from what I hear) wrote to me commiserating with viewers’ disappointment that the show wasn’t better supported at the time. “I don’t think it ever got its due,” this person said. That seems to echo many people’s opinion. The email additionally assured me that there was no bad blood between me and the network at all, that was just a bad rumor. Most of the original management team and others had gone, so how could there be? Well, that’s something, at least.

One extra fascinating little snippet: it seems the show was axed in the end, not because of lack of devotion by viewers, but because it told the truth about the various locations, especially the bad ones. I didn’t know this, but apparently no travel network can allow that. Travel shows are exercises in PR, pure and simple. That’s why they’re so bland. If the producers want to go back and film in the same locations in future, they need to appease the local tourist office at all costs. That’s what killed Stranded: the perky little bugger was just too honest for its own good.  Of course, I’m kicking myself now. I wish I’d lied about everything – we’d be in season 9 by now.

So there you go. Who would have thought people would still remember? Not me, that’s for sure. And certainly not Travel Channel.Then again, with so much lame retardo rubbish being thrown at us on TV nowadays, as networks increasingly across the board try to pass junk off as entertainment and hope we don’t notice, maybe it’s not so surprising.

TV Swami – he proud and teary-eyed at fans’ support.

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Drop everything! We’re forming our own army.

It’s rare I feel strongly enough about a show to actually fear for the life of it, but that’s how I am with ABC’s Better Off Ted right now.

Superbly written, acted, produced, entirely original, daring, envelope-pushing, and setting a new standard for “funny as hell” – in any fair and just world that would be the perfect combo to guarantee the extended life of a new series. It certainly worked for 30 Rock. But that’s because 30 Rock had Lorne Michaels and a bold NBC management behind it, so it lived on long enough to become a cult hit.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case with Better Off Ted, which is still a nervous fledgling fighting for survival, and I’m not sure the weaselly suits at ABC  have the balls to stick with it. Currently, my spidey sense tells me that this genius of a sitcom isn’t doing well enough and could be cancelled.

Why? Because it’s simply too good for us. Fact.  

The premise is easy enough: Ted is a good-looking, smooth-talking, moralistic R&D guy at a big immoral corporation, Veridian Dynamics, one of those sprawling faceless global leviathans that makes everything from “pills that look like candy” to “hurricane-proofing for dogs.” His days are spent locked in battle with his boss, Veronica – played by Ellen Degeneres’s husband Portia di Rossi – an ambitious, feisty blonde with a viper’s tongue and both eyes of the tiger. She would never settle for just one.

Half the fun of the show is seeing these two locked in battle, negotiating the tricky problems that go hand in hand with introducing new products to a world gone mad. Last night it was a solar-powered microwave oven that is perfectly safe until it’s exposed to sunlight, at which point it kills anyone using it.

The week before, it was money-saving sensors that reflect off a person’s skin as they enter a room to automatically turn on lights, elevators, water-fountains. Only one flaw: the sensors don’t work on dark skin, which means the building is full of black clerks trapped in elevators and black lab technicans unable to go home because the doors won’t open. The solution Veronica comes up with is ingenious: she hires a white intern for every black person, to walk behind them everywhere they go. 

Now, please, tell me that isn’t funny, daring, and everything else I said!   

And because it is, I think it’s doomed.

I’ve said this before: too many viewers now are poorly-educated, lazy, and dim. They want straightforward humor. Slapstick, fart jokes, and sometimes witty banter, but only if it’s accompanied by strange facial expressions or lots of manic gesturing.  That’s why The Simpsons does so well. Oceans of stupidity, bright colors, and movement.

What doesn’t do so well is stuff the audience has to think about. Where they have to put two and two together and stick with something – a joke, a situation, a story arc – ’til it pays off, and do so without the help of a laugh track. When TV executives in the 1950s invented the laugh track it was because they understood the mentality of their viewers – those unaccounted-for millions who make up the audience figures, and who are basically content to sit idly in an armchair all night with a six-pack and a bag of doughnuts, watching almost anything that’s put before them, as long as it has bright colors, explosions, emergencies, shouting, running about, a sappy “you’re perfect just as you are” kind of message crowbarred in two minutes before the end, and can be squeezed in between bathroom breaks. 

That’s not Better Off Ted, alas. You have to stick with it to like it.  You have to use your brain. You have to have a sense of humor that’s triggered by actual humor, not by a sign saying “laugh now.”

So, like some of my other favorite shows – Journeyman, Surface, and a wonderful little thing I loved called Stranded With Cash Peters – this one looks destined for the scrapheap.

Unless, that is, we do something to save it.

Making sure we tune in and don’t miss an episode, that’s one way. The old way. The old way that leaves people to make their own minds up – which we know is extremely dangerous and doesn’t work. Look at the 2000 and ’04 elections. One catastrophe after another.

No, this new way I’m thinking of is to form a small private battalion – you, me , and a few others, coalescing into an unarmed but brutal militia that goes door to door on Wednesday nights in every corner of America and makes sure everybody with a TV is glued to Better Off Ted. And if they’re not, we ridicule them. Ridicule them hard. And wherever possible make them feel small, using the only weapons at our disposal: our intelligence, superior sense of style, and wit.

Good, eh? So what do you say?   

The idea’s only at its formative stages yet – like solar-powered microwave ovens that kill people – but I think it might work. Are you in?

 

Better Off Ted gets five magic carpets out of five.

TV Swami – he say YES.

www.cashpeters.com.

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A massive tease, an undeniable treat

Today a few lucky people get to take a peek at the video tease for my new book.  Bear in mind, it’s a low-grade version that may stop and start when you first run through it. But the second time – this assumes multiple viewings, possibly in awe – it flows like a dream. The high-grade version will be up there next week, inviting more viewings and more awe.  

The video is available only on a secret page of my website that nobody else can see. That’s because the book isn’t out yet, and won’t be for another two weeks. But on a slow but happy Monday morning, it’s my little gift to you. www.cashpeters.com/promo.html.

This monumental event is spoiled only by an ABC promo I saw today for a new quirky cop show called The Unusuals, which was so good that it made me want to buy expensive software and invest time in learning how to make professional promos myself. I mean, how hard can it be, really? You stick a bunch of the best scenes together in a row and every time you think viewers are about to get interested, you do a quick fade to black and cut the thing dead. Simple.

The Unusuals marks Amber Tamblyn’s return to network TV after the demise of Joan of Arcadia. Her character joins NYPD’s Homicide Division, a smart, swift, jokey bunch of cops “to whom things happen” (a standard plot device in drama). Strangely, despite the title, it’s more in line with the usual kinda police drama stuff we get on TV, except more jokey, like MASH. But it’s well-written…

Two cops pledging allegiance to each other:

A: “I’d throw an old lady off a roof for you.”

B: “I’d throw an old lady off a roof for you too!”

…well-played, and looks a lot of fun.

The Unusuals gets four magic carpets out of five.

TV Swami – he say YES.

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Today’s excuse why there’s no blog

I’m shooting a promo video for my book and it’s taking forever.

But I will say that Better Off Ted on ABC is one of the funniest sitcoms I’ve seen in a long while. As good as, if not better than The Class. It’s about a guy with morals who works for a company that has none at all. They spot-freeze their employees, invent pumpkins that kill people, and design electronic mice that can withstand temperatures of up to 195 degrees. For no reason.  

It stars Ellen’s wife, Portia, and is utterly fantastic. Waaaaaay too smart for its audience, of course, who like bright colors, aliens, and explosions in every scene. If you recall, The Class, which was also too smart for its audience, got canned. Better Off Ted will probably go the same way. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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I’m not going to lie to you: we’re screwed

They’re showing an episode of new cop drama Lie to Me on hulu.com. Episode 6. A young girl has gone missing. In order to track her down, the main character in the show, played by Tim Roth, is given the job of striding around various houses and offices being quirky and unpredictable for an hour, as main characters in dramas have to be now, if they’re to compete with Hugh Laurie in House.  

Roth plays a human lie detector who uses body language and other psychological tics to tell if people are being deceptive. And we the viewers play a group of people who have to sit through sixty minutes of this stuff, of actors clearly acting and reciting words they’ve learned from a script, and try to pretend we’re enjoying it.

So unriveting is this show, in fact, that, leaving it to play in the background, I skip the visuals and only half-listen to the dialogue while switching to another screen and writing emails.  

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding dramas like this harder and harder to focus on these days. And it’s all the fault of reality television.

Such is the pervasive, even insidious presence of reality TV in our lives, from the good ones like Amazing Race  and Kathy Griffin, Life on the D-List (and even those are contrived to a certain extent), right down to the lowest of the low, such as I Want to be a Hilton, Keeping up with the Kardashians, Hey Paula, Kid Nation, and Sons of Hollywood – clunkers all – that anything less than real people on screen yelling at each other and facing constant rejection and upset in real environments (mostly Hollywood mansions), is starting to seem phony and dull and performed.

I’ve said this before, but actors need to watch out, because they’re going to be surplus to requirements soon. In fact, a word to Rachel Bilson and Hayden Christensen about their wedding: I hope someone’s filming it, my dears. You may need the income.

Luckily for us, TV networks are in a recession too, and since top dramas cost around three mill an episode to produce, and reality shows cost…I don’t have an exact figure in front of me, but let’s say fifteen bucks. And also since recent tentpole dramas that were supposed to be huge – Christian Slater’s My Own Worst Enemy, for instance – tanked badly in the ratings, the focus is shifting away from scripted tosh to less costly ways to keep us entertained. Or if not entertained exactly, then at least preoccupied, diverting our minds from how this ghastly economy is impacting our lives, which nobody wants to think about.

Anyway, according to ABC News today, when the fall season rolls around in September, one of the networks’ prime responses to the deepening recession will be a raft of programs about…the deepening recession.

Kelsey Grammer’s in one of them. He plays a Wall Street financier who becomes a nanny. Totally believable, that. Another is about young investment bankers who quit the world of finance to become something else. What that might be is unspecified – though unemployed and living under a bridge is probably the most realistic option. And there’s a sitcom about a Detroit car worker who’s down on his luck. Of course, if he were to move out of Detroit, his luck would change immediately and he would be a lot less depressed, it’s a terrible city. But I don’t think that’s part of the story arc.

So you get where I’m going here. TV is downsizing. Even NBC, to save money among other things, is about to replace its entire 10PM drama strand five days a week with Jay Leno’s new talk show. A bad idea? Sure. And believe me, I’ve told them a thousand times in my dreams. But one we’re stuck with. 

Interestingly, though, the crisis we see playing out on TV is a reflection, not only in content but actual substance, of what’s going on out here where it matters, in the real world.

Hard times like these are good for us. They’re cleansing. The tide of prosperity has gone out and it’s going to stay out for a while. That forces us to reevaluate our priorities. Losing your savings, being laid off from a job, getting thrown out of a house you couldn’t really afford because you overextended – all of that is traumatic and a major shock to the system, natch, but believe it or not, it’s a good thing. It helps you regroup, prioritize, clean out the cobwebs. You’re compelled to ask yourself, the way the networks are doing: what job do I really want? Where would I like to live in future, now that this unwanted and unexpected choice has been thrust upon me? Am I in the right relationship? Have I been happy up to this point or do I need to make changes? Was it wise to put Jay Leno on at 10PM, given how bland, uneventful, and anemic his talk show usually is?

All of this is a vital step towards a better life. So that when the tide comes back in again, and it will, you’re ready for the next stage. That’s why there’s no point complaining about it, or getting depressed, or, worse, taking it out on society by shooting up a post office or shopping mall, or whatever your plans were for today. Instead, get a grip. Make the big changes now, and when everything stabilizes again, you’ll be glad we all went through this. Trust me.

By that time, of course, Lie to Me will have been canned, as will that Kelsey Grammer sitcom probably, reality shows will represent 95% of all TV output, and the only memory our children’s children will have of these gruesome, difficult, depressing times will be that Jay Leno will still be on at 10PM and nobody can figure out a way to get rid of him.   

Lie to Me gets two magic carpets out of five for being slick. Otherwise…

TV Swami – he say NO.  

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I’m shocked that you’re shocked

I marvel sometimes at the naivety of television viewers.

That they’re prepared to sit through badly-c0nceived and -executed drivel for hours and hours and hours at a time being just one example. (If you’ve ever watched reality programming on the E! network or anything produced by Ryan Seacrest and felt dimmer for doing so, then you’re on the right side of the nonsense fence.)

But, second of all, that they watch reality shows and believe what they’re seeing is reality – well, I mean, jeez, that’s just craziness fueling more craziness. Looking for reality in a reality show is like looking for nutrition in Pop Tarts. Or a tune in Shostakovitch. Or the letter F in BICYCLE.

Example: take this brouhaha with Jason Mesnick. You know him, right? He’s The latest Bachelor on ABC’s smash hit series.

On Monday’s finale, he claimed to have found true love. He proposed to the very beautiful Melissa Rycroft, and we watched her howl with delight when she heard, and jump up and down, and the pair of them did all that prim kissing thing that heterosexuals are prone to doing. As opposed to ripping their clothes off and having sex right there on the ground, which is the way a couple of healthy homosexuals would approach it.

But that’s how it went anyway.  We had a winner. The classic “all’s well that ends etc…” scenario.

But nowadays that’s not enough. Happiness is old hat, quite honestly. So ABC milked our loyalty further with a Bachelor follow-up special, After The Final Rose, during which Mesnick promptly dumped Rycroft, taking back the ring, and saying he preferred one of the runners-up instead, the ‘more characterful-looking’ (ahem) Molly Malaney, who, if she hasn’t had an Irish drinking ballad written about her yet, can’t be far off.

So there you have it – again. A neat twist, a shock ending, everything a ratings-grabbing drama needed. True love didn’t run smooth, the guy’s a cad, the chick got hurt, and so on. Perfect. And because they’re on TV, who cares if lives are ruined and their emotions are a cauldron of resentment and loathing? It’s the ideal scenario.  

Just one problem: according to MSNBC last night, quoting Mesnick, the whole thing was fake. It was written into his contract, apparently, that he had to trick viewers. There was a script. And the script said he would choose one girl, dump her, then switch to another in the follow-up show. Well, the outcry that’s followed in the wake of this cynical ploy to get higher ratings has made headlines. Critics and fans alike are holding their faces macauleyculkinly, going, “What? A TV network deceived us?”

Well, I don’t have Mesnick’s contract in front of me, and am too lazy to go look for it (it’s upstairs somewhere), but I’m truly shocked to learn that anyone else is shocked at this stage to learn that reality shows are scripted.

Most reality shows have a story editor. Someone in their 20s, with a vivid imagination and not quite enough life experience yet to be able to appreciate the value of telling the truth and living an honorable life without deceiving people. It’s this person’s job to sit down with the producers and figure out ahead of time the best way for the plot-points to go, allowing, of course, for certain variables and inconvenient changes in circumstances (in other words actual reality) that might happen.

Then, later, as the footage comes in from the shoot location, that same 20-year old, giddy that he’s even got a job in TV, when everyone, including his parents, predicted he’d be flipping burgers by now, or selling vacuum cleaners door to door, plonks himself in front of a TV monitor and conscientiously toils away at connecting the dots, writing a rough storyline around them that the guy who’s editing the show can then take and heighten still further, to make them even more dramatic. That’s what they’re hired for. Scripting and editing are defined in the TV Dictionary as “simply very clever ways of bamboozling viewers.” Look it up.  

And why do shows go to all this trouble, possibly risking outrage and accusations of lying and deception someday if their – quite legitimate – shenanigans should leak out? Because there’d be chaos otherwise. The show would be rubbish. The story would go nowhere and none of it would make sense. Which would be fun for a few of us, who quite enjoy chaos and seeing stories go nowhere, but would be a disaster on every other level.

So if what MSNBC claims Mesnick said is true, and the plot twist in The Bachelor was contrived to entertain viewers and keep them tuning in…well, I don’t know how to end this sentence. Because we’re all aware – or if we’re not, we should be (what’s going on with our education system? They don’t teach this stuff in schools any more?) – that reality programming is not real. It’s hammed up, chopped up, set up, and presented as real for your dubious entertainment.

So if you’re naive, if you allow yourself to get suckered in, and are prepared to fritter away valuable hours of your life watching it, and find yourself being hurt or disappointed by the result, that’s your fault, not television’s, which, after all, is only doing what you bought it to do – lower your IQ, diminish your capacity to deal with the world outside your living room, and to leave you feeling emotionally and spiritually impoverished.

In which case, you deserve all you get.

UPDATE: Mike Fleiss, producer of The Bachelor, denies it was fixed. http://www.digitalspy.com/ustv/a148483/bachelor-denies-finale-fix-claims.html

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Another British Import Hits the Scrapheap

70s drama Life on Mars axed

It was pretty so-so in its original form, I thought. They made it a little zippier in the US version, but it simply never caught on, and ABC killed it.

So – another one down. Add this to the worst comedy of all time, Coupling, game shows by the horrendous Ant and Dec and also Eamonn Holmes, and a bunch of personalities from Ann Robinson to Ainsley Harriott who tried to make it in America and fell short, and there’s a grim lesson to be learned.

Unfortunately, the British won’t learn it. You can’t just dump stuff on us and hope for the best. It has to be good too. Life on Mars wasn’t special, it was just more actors yakking. Drama’s costly, reality’s still popular, and cheap. A lot of actors need to start looking for second jobs. Their days are numbered on TV. Hopefully, the networks will think twice before importing any more dramas from the UK. Or anywhere else for that matter. 

The big-time British successes, such as Ricky Gervais and The Office, Simon Cowell and American idol, Piers Morgan on America’s Got Talent, and Gordon Ramsey, deserve to be popular because they’re authentic, extremely gifted, articulate, clever, and not just out to woo American audiences with their ‘act’. The losers – Ant and Dec, for instance – simply tried too hard and came here with insufficient charisma, talent, or material to make it. They weren’t up to the job and were sent packing by American audiences. Right now, Paul McKenna is making shows here. Another gifted guy. I hope the series takes off. 

After the demise of Life on Mars, next comes the American version of Absolutely Fabulous, which I predict will fail too. The BBC original ran for 36 episodes, beginning about 17 years ago. Loved that. It never gets old. But I already dislike the US version, to be called AbFab, and not one frame of it has been shot yet.

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