Tag Archives: Summer

Season Premiere: Shameless – “Summertime” and Televisual Space

“Summertime” and Televisual Space

January 8th, 2012

After rewatching the entire first season over the holidays with my parents, I found myself enjoying Shameless more than when it premiered (as I wrote about soon after), and I looked forward to checking out the second season. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was to find it so disarmingly different from what we saw last year.

This isn’t to say that the show has dramatically changed its approach to storytelling, although there is evidence to suggest that they are finding better ways of balancing the different character dynamics based on reviews from critics who have seen beyond tonight’s premiere. Rather, the fast-forward to the dog days of summer has created both a temporal shift and, more importantly, a spatial shift in terms of the characters and the world they live in. More generally, though, the long summer days offer a plethora of sunlight, dramatically transforming the aesthetic of the show and signaling a new season in a very direct, meaningful fashion.

I realize that this is not particularly evaluative, and if we were to speak exclusively on those terms I found the premiere promising but uneven, but I want to spend a bit of time discussing these changes relative to the question of space, an increasingly important factor as worlds begin to converge in a new spatial dynamic within the series.

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Lighter, not Lesser: In Media Res confronts the Enigma of Summer TV

Whenever I write reviews of summer television, I always sort of rub up against society’s general conception of summer programming – for example, if I get around to reviewing Covert Affairs, my review will likely discuss how its low-impact spy environment feels like “Alias gone Summer,” which implies that there is something about Alias (a darker vision into the struggles facing a new CIA recruit) which is inherently different from summer programming. In these reviews I rarely offer an overarching glimpse of what summer television is, largely because it means something different to every network and every viewer, and its meaning changes from year to year. There is no definitive role which summer television plays, and this summer’s programming has us no closer to understanding the enigma which is television’s most maligned, and yet perhaps most fascinating, season.

Well, this week a Fellowship of Summer Television (ala the Fellowship of the Ring) has converged at In Media Res to confront this enigma, as a collection of professors, critics, grad students and even unaffiliated intellectuals have come together to discuss trends within summer television, or the historical or social context of some of the season’s most popular programs. The goal of the week, which I’m very proud to be a part of, is to better understand how viewers and the industry confront summer television: the pieces are short observations accompanied by a video or a slideshow which provides additional context, and our goal is not achieved through extensive analysis but rather through discussion and interaction. In fact, the pieces aren’t even as long as this blog post, which long-time readers will know made this project particularly challenging for me; however, the result was a greater focus on the core of my idea, and throughout the week as others pieces have been posted I’ve seen how clarity of purpose helps to create new avenues of discussion that even the longest of independent posts wouldn’t have been able to achieve.

So far this week, Charlotte Howell looked at the ways in which USA Network has formed their own genre, while on Tuesday Jaime Weinman looked at how the Summer’s breakout cable hit, TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland, is related to both 90s sitcoms and Disney’s efforts to target the tween demographics with similar fare. Yesterday, meanwhile, Jeremy Mongeau looked at how summer series use pleasure (or the appearance of pleasure) to create a ‘must watch’ series amidst a season very different from fall or winter. Tomorrow, Chris Becker is going to look at how DVD marathons are changing our summer viewing habits, which I’m very much looking forward to.

However, today is my day, and I am looking at something which nicely bridges the gap between Jeremy’s discussion of what makes a successful summer series and Chris’ discussion of the ways in which alternate viewing methods are changing those qualifications. I discuss what I call “Seasonal Synergy,” that being an inherent (and clearly understood by both network and viewer) connection between a series and the summer in which it airs, or premieres. I specifically look at Royal Pains and Burn Notice, and how the challenges the series have faced after becoming so synonymous with the sunniest of seasons.

The Rigidity of Seasonal Synergy – In Media Res

If you’re intrigued by summer programming and interested in discussing more about it (or hearing more about it), I truly suggest clicking through and reading these great pieces. Summer TV may be lighter than regular fare, but I do not believe it to be lesser, and discussions like this one (masterminded by Noel Kirkpatrick) are integral to better understanding what role it plays in our media consumption and in the industry as a whole. I’ll be reflecting on the week as a whole, including an elaboration on my own piece, early next week, so stay tuned for that as well.

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Season Premiere: Gossip Girl – “Reversals of Fortune”

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“Reversals of Fortune”

September 14th, 2009

There is no question, whatsoever, that Gossip Girl is a flawed show which only on occasion finds its true potential. That potential is most often bottled  when we get the opportunity to see Chuck Bass and Blair Waldorf together, trading barbs and turning what is often a depressing melodrama that fails to capture the potential of this concept. By so isolating the show’s universe in a small collection of characters (many of whom I, you know, don’t like), the show has become less about teenagers and their wily ways and more about these individual characters repeating the same cycles over and over again. For Chuck and Blair, this has weakened their appeal: for Dan and Serena, it’s eliminated it altogether.

So why do I keep watching? I think part of me wants to be able to say that I’ve still got a less than critically fascinating series on my schedule, but at least some part of me wants to see how the show handles itself as the teen soap of its generation. There is something about Gossip Girl’s bizarre dichotomy between cultural awareness and actual ratings/quality which says something about this generation of television viewers, and Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage are not slouches behind the scenes.

“Reversals of Fortune” does what every Gossip Girl premiere does, playing off of the uncertainty of what happened in the past summer and the kind of mistakes and ill fortunes that the characters find themselves in as a new year begins. It’s the same formula the show has used numerous times before, but it also still works, in particular this time around as the show resists turning Dan and Serena to the forefront and lets Blair and Chuck’s relationship keep its spark by playing with expectations.

It’s not high drama, but it’s the right kind of premiere for the series.

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Series Premiere: The Philanthropist – “Pilot”

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“Pilot”

June 24th, 2009

The Philanthropist has been a rather rocky development process for NBC, with numerous showrunner switches and some changes of vision in terms of what the show was supposed to be. The result is that it’s airing later than it was supposed to, hustled off into the summer months like it’s a half-baked Canadian (Worst. Canadian. Ever.) co-production rather than a globetrotting drama with a pretty high-profile cast. And while part of me thinks that this is strange since it seems like it could be quite a compelling piece of television programming, I sort of see their logic.

The Philanthropist is a show that derives its setup almost entirely from the notion of experience, as hero Teddy Rist is changed overnight from a billionaire who pays lip service to charity work to someone who risks his life in order to deliver cholera vaccine to a Hurricane-ravaged village in Nigeria. The pilot is all about us experiencing that moment with him, told as a story to an disbelieving waitress in a bar in the middle of nowhere. That experience, though, is a highly isolated one, as really it is only James Purefoy’s Rist who gets anything close to a setup here. This is his show, without question, and right now there doesn’t appear to be much of a story or characters around him to really go beyond that.

However, since Purefoy remains extremely charming, speaking here in his native accent even, it seems like that’s enough for the show, at least in its pilot. Not trying to bring characters to the various supporting players, and choosing to define them almost exclusively based on their relationships with our protagonist, this is a slavishly linear adventure of how a billionaire turned into a one man foreign aid machine, a transformation that Purefoy sells that that is honestly quite fun to watch, a sort of 24: Redemption meets Burn Notice kind of scenario that hits buttons both emotional and comic. They haven’t quite created a show around him yet, but as an experiential introduction into this world the pilot’s an effective tool for convincing me to give the show a shot.

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Better Off Ted – “You Are the Boss of Me”

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“You Are the Boss of Me”

June 23rd, 2009

I realized when preparing for this post that I have never written about Better Off Ted before here at Cultural Learnings, which means that I am officially “part of the problem.” Suffering from fatigued ratings, but bolstered by critical raves and strong network support, Better Off Ted left the airwaves having aired about half of its 13-episode order to an uncertain fate that thankfully (and surprisingly) ended in a second season renewal with a return at midseason paired with returning Scrubs. Then, bizarrely, ABC decided to burn off the remaining episodes of that order in the summer instead of holding them over to air at midseason.

Dan Fienberg has a big discussion of all of that logic (short form: it helps the show fit into the window being provided at midseason, plus ABC isn’t the brightest network around), but right now I just want to rectify what has been a poor oversight on this part. I’m sure I’ve told anyone who asked that Better Off Ted was the sharpest new comedy of last season, arriving without much fanfare with a top notch cast, a humorous setup, and one particular hilarious episode (“Racial Sensitivity”) with which non-fans can easily be turned into converts (which ABC has smartly made available for FREE on iTunes, in both Canada AND the U.S. even), but unfortunately I’ve never taken the time to really sit down and write about the show.

So, a few months too late, let’s take a look at why Better Off Ted, and “You Are the Boss of Me” by extension, presents a case for the show’s high quality.

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“Those Stories Plus…” – Sports Night Season One

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Those Stories Plus…

Sports Night Season One

It’s no secret around these parts that Alan Sepinwall’s criticism is a fairly big influence on both what I do and how I do it, but what I find is his most influential contribution to the television watching community is his summer coverage of various shows. Last summer, I started watching The Wire when I did because of his detailed writeups of first season episodes; yes, I knew the show existed and had even purchased some DVD sets ahead of time, but Alan’s work was the motivating factor that made me commit to the series wholeheartedly. Alan’s devotion and commitment to these shows motivates people to watch TV, to buy TV on DVD, and more importantly to discuss that television within a community of like-minded surveyers of moving image.

It also means that this summer, as Alan turns his attention to three different projects (The Wire Season 2, Band of Brothers and Sports Night), many wallets are somewhat lighter, including my own: while I have already seen The Wire’s second season, his other two projects served as the right motivation to keep catching up on shows or miniseries that I missed in the days before my television addiction. It is as a result that I now own a copy of Band of Brothers and the complete series of Sport Night; I’d blame Alan for my dwindling bank account, but then I’d have to lie and say that they weren’t worth every penny.

Sports Night, which aired on ABC from 1998-2000, is something that I’ve always known about, but to be honest I really didn’t know much about its origin, or its format, or really anything to really recommend the series beyond its pedigree. Serving as the training ground for The West Wing for writer Aaron Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme, the show covers the behind the scenes goings-on at a cable news show (ala SportsCenter), and relies heavily on the dynamic of its cast, led by the show’s two anchors (Josh Charles and Peter Krause) and the show’s executive producer (Felicity Huffman).

I’m not going to go episode by episode, or really even offer any sort of constructive thoughts about the show’s storylines – it’s a damn good show, one that I suggest everyone watch, but there’s more important things to discuss. For now (I’m only done the first season), I want to talk about what works, what doesn’t, and how I’m absolutely fascinated that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip fell apart like it did when Sorkin had these lessons to fall back on.

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Series Premiere: Royal Pains – “Royal Pains”

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“Royal Pains”

June 4th, 2009

You know, pilots are kind of a pain.

They’re a necessary evil: they exist in order to give us an understanding of how a show is going to work, which is an important thing to sell a network and potential viewers on before they commit to ordering, or watching, more episodes. But the result is often that a lot of character and plot development that should be given time to unfold naturally is checked off at a blistering pace. It’s possible to make a great pilot, but those people are both few and far between and definitely not working behind the scenes at USA Network’s Royal Pains.

As a critic, it’s hard to really confront a pilot as obnoxiously contrived as this one, because you run into a problem: considering that it’s our role to judge a show based on its potential, and considering that the contrivances are more pilot shorthand than inherent to the show’s formula, you can’t spend too much time complaining about something that is par for the course. And while Burn Notice has given us some fairly high expectations about what a USA Network “procedural” is capable of being, this show does not appear to have similar aspirations, and it’s not really fair to judge it as if it does.

So taking into account its contrivances, and its ham-fisted parallels, and its tendency to rush its way through storylines that should probably be given a bit more time, Royal Pains managed to do enough to convince me that as a piece of escapist summer entertainment the show might not be such a pain after all.

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