Wednesday, February 24, 2016 

The X Files: my part in its downfall.

(This is long, and if you'd prefer not to read about my adolescent love of The X Files, you can skip to halfway through where I review the new series.  If that's your bag.  Oh, and spoilers.)

I honestly cannot recall how I first came to watch The X Files.  I've got a nagging feeling that it might well have been when it was repeated on BBC2 late on a Friday night, although I might be confusing that with how I'm fairly sure the BBC repeated the first season later in the 90s.  My failure of memory seems fitting for how the show itself always held itself in a sort of vagueness: you could never truly trust what it seemed to be telling you was happening, just as Mulder and Scully couldn't trust anyone except themselves.

It's become something of an obvious go to that The X Files is symbolic of the 90s.  A decade that began with the dissolution of an empire, the crumbling, apparent extinction of any ideology other than ones that regarded the market as sacrosanct and unquestionable, the turn away from certainty towards the conspiratorial and the cynical, why wouldn't a show that contended we were all being lied to on a grand scale by governments and corporations and yet eschewed politics almost entirely be a smash hit?

On a personal level, though, The X Files to me truly is the 90s.  Memories fade of your actual day to day life, but the television shows, the films and the music you love remain, available not just to remind you but for you to relive.  It was a time before life, before I, got serious.  Quite why I somewhat precociously loved the show, as I must have started watching it when I was around 11, I again can't put my finger on exactly.  That said, I definitely identified with Mulder: the heroic, brainiac outsider, laughed at by his colleagues, toiling away down in the basement, trying to find the evidence that would prove him to be right.  In the first year of secondary school I put "Mulder" as my middle name on exercise books, and drove the English teacher up the wall with my constant reviewing of the novelisations of episodes, as well as naming characters in stories Fox and Dana.

And of course, you can't be an almost teenager on the cusp of puberty and not also have more than a bit of a crush on Scully/Gillian Anderson, as I'm sure a whole generation of boys (and girls no doubt too) did.  Unlike with other characters in shows that are often there to be little more than eye candy, or the token gorgeous woman among the males, there's not really anything to be embarrassed about in retrospect either.  Scully is attractive most of all because she develops into by far the most rounded character on the show, thanks not just to the writing but to Anderson's remarkable acting ability; she plays a character originally not much more than a foil to Mulder with such nuance, bearing and determination that after the first season she truly is his partner, rather than the sceptical subordinate following in his wake.

As for how when you think The X Files you think aliens and the paranormal, which angered a few of the more literal minded critics who saw it as being part of the Mumbo Jumbo takeover, that was never the important part for me.  I didn't then and definitely don't now believe in the supernatural, at least not the supernatural phenomenon they investigated.  I was far more interested in the "mythology" of the show than the possibility there could be some truth to the conspiracies featured.  Why would I want to get involved in looking to see if there's something more to our very dull reality when the one depicted in the show needed such deciphering on its own?

Looking back now, what once was satisfying because it didn't end, because nothing was ever truly, fully explained, is the show's biggest flaw.  The mythology doesn't add up, and those episodes centred on Mulder's pursuit of the truth, regardless of the danger it puts him and Scully in, resulting in the murder of his father and Scully's sister Melissa, Scully's cancer and miracle recovery, start to drag after you reach the fifth season.  By contrast, grown exponentially in my estimation have been the "monster of the week" episodes, the self-contained shows, the best of which are very special indeed.  Vince Gilligan, who as any fule kno got his start proper on The X Files before he went on to create Breaking Bad, is easily the most consistent, capable of both the deadly serious, as in Pusher or the light-hearted, such as in Je Souhaite.  What Darin Morgan started with his comedic episodes Gilligan perfected with Bad Blood, the 5th's season magnum opus, a vampire tale told from Mulder and then Scully's very different perspectives, and where you can see just how much fun everyone was having without it impacting on the quality as it so easily can.

As with so much else in life, the difficulty is in knowing when to let go.  The X Files really should have ended with season 7, as it was thought for a time would be the case.  Accordingly, the loose ends were sort of tied up: the syndicate behind the conspiracy involving the alien takeover of the planet was destroyed by the rebel aliens; Mulder discovered "the truth" behind his sister's disappearance; and in the last episode, Mulder himself is abducted and Scully reveals she is pregnant, despite having been rendered barren by her own abduction in the second season.  As it turned out, the show went on with David Duchovny, who having clearly tired of his role as can be seen in his performances, only appearing in a few of the 8th season's episodes. Robert Patrick, aka the T-1000, took over, with Scully becoming the believer and Patrick's character Doggett the sceptic.

While season 8 was in fact a significant improvement on season 7, this was the point where the "mythology" ought to have been stopped by the Colonel from Monty Python for having gotten too silly.  Mulder is returned, dead, half way through the season.  Only he's not dead, and is dug up, alive, after Scully realises their mistake.  Scully's pregnancy progresses, only for her to discover that her pregnancy is clearly incredibly special, such are the people who want her unborn child either dead or alive.  The season finishes with Scully giving birth witnessed by "super soldiers", actually alien replacements of humans, whom are under the impression that her son will be the leader of the resistance to their rule once the invasion begins.  They leave having decided this is not the case, only for it to turn out come the 9th season that William is indeed a special baby, so special indeed that he can turn the mobile above his cot purely with his mind.  Unable to protect him, and with Mulder on the run due to Duchovny leaving the show proper, she gives this telekinetic child up for adoption.

The series concluded for what is now the first time with Mulder on trial before a military tribunal for the murder of one of the "unkillable" super soldiers; duly found guilty, he somewhat easily escapes their clutches, the Cigarette Smoking Man receives a hellfire missile right up him, and Mulder and Scully put their faith in God preventing the alien invasion from taking place, religion having increasingly become an influence on the series courtesy of creator Chris Carter.

With it always having been the intention for there to be a series of X Files films, 2008's I Want to Believe wasn't the greatest shock when it came about.  Despite its critical reception, it's also rather good: a self-contained story about a psychic paedophile priest and his connection with one of his victims, it ends with Mulder and Scully in bed, again, apparently together and happy as the "shippers" always wanted.

Why then a new "event" series in 2015, other than for ratings and the money?  Are there still stories to be told about these two characters, indefatigable and apparently immortal as they are?  Is the time right, this far removed from 9/11, which by itself seemed to cleave the the justification for The X Files still existing in two, even while the series itself struggled on for another year and a bit?

The answer is possibly, so long as Carter does a George Lucas and gives someone else full control of any follow on.  For sadly, the reboot/event/whatever just about worked so long as he wasn't the person doing the writing.  The three episodes written by James Wong, Darin Morgan, and Glen Morgan, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively are decent, brilliant and good.  James Wong's sort-of follow on from Carter's reintroduction episode is quick paced, features classic X Files motifs and themes with the genetic experimentation on children with rare diseases and syndromes plot, and has some satisfyingly nasty special effects.  Darin Morgan's Were-Monster episode is a complete joy, as though he and Mulder and Scully have never been away.  Filled with references to his past work, it's funny, makes fun of the show and the characters respectfully without for a moment mocking them, and is an answer in itself to the questions as to why all involved are still keeping on keeping on.  His brother's episode would have been a solid monster of the week back in the day: those familiar with It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia might not be able to get by how the monster is known as the Trashman, a being willed into existence by a graffiti artist opposed to the displacement of the homeless and which takes revenge on those responsible, but otherwise it's as fine an entry into the canon as we had any reason to expect at this remove.

The same cannot be said for Carter's episodes.  The first show was always going to be partially about reminding of us how things were left off, and does have a few good lines.  Duchovny and Anderson are straight back into their roles, and well, that's about it.  As incomplete, contradictory and confusing as the "mythology" often was, why on earth would you suggest, yet again, that Mulder and by definition we also had been wrong all along?  Why would you make the deliverer of this truth a smarmy Alex Jones/Bill O'Reilly hybrid, and why would Skinner have ever taken him seriously enough to contact Mulder in the first place?  Why would Tad O'Malley have not just gone public with the alien replica vehicle he's constructed?  Surely the proof would have been enough regardless of the messenger?  Why would you apparently knock all this down again at the conclusion only to then reveal it was the truth all along in the event finale?

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  The penultimate episode sees Carter decide to introduce jihadism to The X Files, for reasons known only to himself.  A suicide bomber miraculously survives the blast, and the FBI wants to extract any information it possibly can from the comatose fundamentalist, by any means necessary.  In what can only be put down to Carter writing the episode while on something himself, Mulder's proposed method is to trip on magic mushrooms, get on the same astral plane as the bomber and converse with him there.  We also meet two young FBI agents, and wouldn't you know it, but one's female, a redhead, a scientist and a sceptic, and the other's male, handsome and wants to believe.  Oh, and in a you really can't get away with this Chris palm to the face moment, the female agent's name is Einstein.  No, honest, it is.  Their existence can only be ascribed to Carter holding out the hope of continuing the series with these two if either Duchovny or Anderson decide not to go on, despite neither showing anything to suggest they could equal Doggett and Reyes, let alone Mulder and Scully.  The conceit turns out that Mulder goes on a clichéd journey into his mind in spite of only being given a placebo by Einstein, and he naturally does talk to the bomber, preventing a much larger cell from carrying out their attacks.  Someone I respect described it as the worst episode of the show full stop.

That accolade really should go to the finale instead, so lacking was everything about it.  What seems like a good half of the episode we spend with Scully explaining what's happening, or rather what isn't to Einstein, as though the two actresses are trying to convince themselves that the plot makes sense.  We must act quickly, Scully says more than once, reminding of Mark Kermode's review of Revenge of the Sith and his escalating anger at Lucas's own reliance on exposition.  Tad O'Malley it turns out was right all along, and rather than an alien invasion, as we thought was meant to happen on the 21st of December 2012 as the mythology previously implied, instead the takeover is to be heralded by a mass extinction of human life via DNA implanted in everyone through the smallpox vaccination, achieved once activated by the collapse of the immune system.  This is meant to explain why the invasion didn't happen and we're here now but just doesn't work, not least because Scully we learn via the re-emergence of Agent Reyes is one of the "chosen few" to survive, her DNA having been altered during her abduction.  This makes absolutely no sense, as Scully's survival along with the rest of those abducted and subjected to tests by the military in an attempt to current an alien-human hybrid depended on the chip implanted in her neck, with most of those subject to multiple abductions having had them removed and succumbing to cancer as Scully so nearly did herself.

Thankfully, Scully realises that her alien DNA can be used to create a vaccine against the now activated part of the err, smallpox vaccination, activated we're told via Tad O'Malley's show by chemtrails and possibly microwaves also.  Mulder meanwhile has been for the umpteenth time in the lair of CSM, who somehow managed to survive the massive explosion that happened right in his face and is still apparently in control of events.  Each meeting and showdown between Mulder and CSM since he first confronted him proper way back when Scully was returned in season 2's One Breath has been less climactic, and the pattern remains here.  With Scully having apparently saved the world, she rushes to find Mulder, himself stricken despite having also been abducted and tested on, only for an alien ship (or is it?) to appear overhead and the event to end on a completely miserable cliffhanger.

Could it have been any different?  Would it have been possible to resurrect the series without discounting the old mythology to an extent?  Perhaps not, but it could have been so much cleaner, so much better executed, not so seemingly lazy while also feeling strained.  Carter, it's sad to say, just seems to have ran out of ideas.  The show previously didn't, couldn't rely on him as much, not least when the shortest season was the ninth and which still came in at 18 episodes, and it meant that if you didn't enjoy the mythology then other writers with different ideas would be along shortly.  Here, and constrained to just the six episodes, there was barely any escape.

The X Files event was then a failure, albeit a noble one.  Mulder and Scully might be as strong personalities as ever, played with the same skill as was the case for the majority of the original run by Duchovny and Anderson, and yet they don't feel right in the middle of the 2010s.  The world has changed, and where our cellphone and internet using heroes were once ahead of the curve back in the 90s, they feel out of time now.  I hope this really is the end as the title legend of the concluding episode said, that characters I and so many others grew up with are allowed to go out with some dignity remaining, only that lack of ending suggests they won't be allowed to do so.  We never want to say goodbye to our friends and loved ones, but as we ought to have learned, in the end we have to.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2015 

"Where are my testicles, Summer?"

"Nobody exists on purpose.  Nobody belongs anywhere.  Everybody's going to die."

One of the lines doing the rounds following the government's green paper on the future of the BBC was, if the BBC's so great and worth the £145.50 every household must pay on pain of fines and even prison, why can't it make Game of Thrones?  The line, naturally, can be altered to be about your favourite non-BBC and probably not made by a British broadcaster at all show and still retain the point.  Why indeed can the BBC not make The Wire, Breaking Bad, or as some wag soon had it, House of Cards, despite its vast income?

This set me thinking on what British television as a whole has never been any good at.  Best answer I could come up with: adult animation.  With the exceptions of Stressed Eric and Monkey Dust (both BBC productions, natch), the attempts at adult animation from our main broadcasters have been fairly horrific.  You could say there's not much point in trying to compete with the Americans when their output is so good, and yet, if you take a proper look, it's not strictly true, is it?  Family Guy and the Simpsons are so past their best (if Family Guy had a best) it's painful, American Dad and the various spin-offs from Family Guy can be good and yet still don't really satisfy, which leaves you with, well what?  South Park, which was great when both political and funny, and now more often than not is just political?  Bob's Burgers?  It might as well not exist such is the time slot it gets over here.

Bearing that in mind, it doesn't necessarily say much that Rick and Morty has yet to be picked up by a broadcaster in this country.  A new show from the guys at Adult Swim, it'll just be the same old same old, won't it?  Robot Chicken never made much of an impact here, let alone Aqua Teen Hunger Force.  A bit too screwball for UK sensibilities seems to be the opinion.  We like our animation shows with families, where the father despite being fat/and or an idiot is in fact the hero of the piece, where the female characters are either stereotypes (Hayley) or ciphers (Meg, Lois, Francine, and despite the attempts to flesh her out, some of which have been great, Marge too) and where each week there's a new moral lesson on offer.

Which is precisely what makes Rick and Morty the kind of show so good you feel you have to proselytise about it.  It is that familiar set-up we all know, the mother and father, the two kids (we'll not count either Maggie or Meg, as the show's respective producers certainly don't) only in this instance with the addition of the mom's own father, returned after years away for reasons never properly explained.  Only it takes those conventions and in the space of a single season of 11 episodes manages to fundamentally subvert them, to define these 5 characters in a way that other series have failed to do in 10 seasons.  Yes, it remains the case that Beth, the mom, the horse surgeon, is still the most transparent of the 5, but 17-year-old Summer, the other child that it looks is set to be neglected just like those other female characters, rises up in the latter half of the series to play a role almost equal to that of Rick, the grandfather, and 14-year-old serial masturbator Morty.  Jerry, the dad, moreover, is an idiot and a loser, who just like Homer, Peter and Stan managed to marry out of his league, only he's played as an idiot and a loser on the apparent brink every episode of being ditched by Beth.

Oh, and Rick just happens to be an alcoholic genius scientist who has a portal gun that can transport anyone to another dimension or any of the infinite parallel universes that exist alongside our own particular version of reality in an instant.  He's the Doctor and Doc Brown, only he's also on the edge of insanity and mania, whether driven there by his trips into the unknown, his drinking or by the sheer scale of his intellect we can't quite tell.  And to be clear, Rick spends almost the entire opening half of the first season essentially abusing Morty through their adventures.  In the pilot episode Morty breaks his legs after Rick fails to tell him he needs to turn his special shoes on before descending down a sheer cliff, then Rick informs him he needs to stuff the huge seeds they're collecting up his butthole to get through alien customs as they're out of portal juice after Rick had to get a cure for Morty's busted legs.  Rick's own sphincter just can't handle it any more.  After Rick and Jerry get trapped in an alien simulation with a uncannily real Morty in another episode, Rick stumbles drunkenly into Morty's room and holds a knife to his throat, until he's convinced this Morty isn't a simulation.  When Morty finally does object to how Rick uses him and demands they go on an adventure of his choosing, Morty's reward is to be nearly raped by a anthropomorphic jellybean in the toilet of an olde worlde inn.

Doing a show as wildly inventive, some would say almost as tiresomely inventive as Rick and Morty justice in words is difficult in of itself.  In that first pilot episode there's a chase scene at the alien customs/airport that contains more ideas in a single minute than other shows have in entire episodes, one creature brought into existence by Morty going through its entire life-cycle in the space of five seconds.  Even properly cataloguing its influences and references is hard: the domestic tensions at work are nearly straight out of the Simpsons (indeed, most people will probably get their first dose of Rick and Morty from the incredible, extended couch gag co-creator Justin Roiland provided for the Simpsons' season finale), just as the science fiction backdrop owes a debt to Futurama.  At the same time the wackiness and instinct to break things reminds of the best episodes of American Dad, while the writers also acknowledge how many gags they've stolen from Douglas Adams.

What truly marks Rick and Morty out though is just how far the writers are willing to take things.  In Rick Potion #9 our two heroes completely wreck their Earth, transforming every other human except for Beth, Jerry and Summer into deformed, monstrous creatures Rick swiftly dubs "Cronenbergs".  Unable to fix it, Rick simply searches for an alternate universe/timeline where he both did fix it and he and Morty die almost immediately afterwards, our pair taking their place, burying their doubles' bodies in the backyard.  Morty, like the viewer, takes quite a while to get his head around this total mindfuck, which comes right in the middle of the season rather than as a finale as you might normally expect.  

Then there's Rixty Minutes, where Rick installs cable TV "from every conceivable reality" in response to being forced to watch the Bachelor, only the family catching sight of an alternate universe Jerry on Letterman soon makes Beth, Jerry and Summer far more interested in their alternate selves than infinite TV.  The episode plays out between Rick and Morty watching adverts and shows that Roiland for the most part ad-libbed and improvised, and Summer's distress at finding out that in most alternate realities she doesn't exist as Beth had an abortion and never married Jerry.  It's only when Morty tells Summer of the epiphany he's had, thanks to the events of Rick Potion #9, including the quotes at the top, that she retreats from running away and goes back downstairs to watch a trailer for a parody of Weekend at Bernie's 2, involving an dead woman being "operated" by her cats.

The one apparent problem, that when so many ideas are thrown into a single episode there's a risk creative burnout will be hit all the sooner, thankfully doesn't seem to be manifesting itself as yet.  The first episode of the second season doesn't quite hit the heights almost all the shows from the first did, but the next two are right up there again at the top.  This said, I can't help hoping that Rick and Morty doesn't turn into one of those shows that carries on for series after series, long after the point at which the creators themselves have often wanted to put their characters out of their misery.  Nor does it feel like that kind of show: it seems special, with writers and creators who'll know when they've taken it as far as they can.

To return to the BBC, one of the other complaints heard was that with so many other channels and sources of entertainment Auntie is nearly irrelevant.   They almost never take into account how many of those channels are reliant on old BBC programmes to fill their schedules, or had their origins in doing nothing but showing repeats.  The most watched channels on Sky, despite everything, remain the BBC ones.  The assumption that if only the BBC got out of the way the commercial broadcasters would be able to further innovate and grow rather falls down when they show no indication of doing the things the BBC already doesn't, or does badly.  If they can't see the worth in a show like Rick and Morty, or won't try and produce an equivalent, why believe things would be any different after the fact?

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Wednesday, March 04, 2015 

Drugs, sensationalism and paternalism.

I didn't watch Drugs Live, mainly for the reason that like most people my age I know fairly well how cannabis affects those who use it.  It doesn't instantly make you an utter prick, as say cocaine does, nor is it unpredictable in the way alcohol is.  I've also known people who've been smoking it for so long it has almost no effect on them whatsoever, or seemingly doesn't.  David Nutt then ranking hash, as opposed to skunk at the very bottom of his harm index doesn't come as a major surprise.

You can't though have a television programme in this day and age purely discussing the effects of drugs or even just how they impact on the brains of Mr and Mrs Average Punter, as that's boring and not going to get Twitter, err, blazing.  No, instead you must have Jennie Bond and Jon Snow (the other one) getting baked, purely for scientific reasons, of course.  I did happen to catch one moment when the former royal correspondent's "pleasure sections" of her brain lit up while listening to music after taking a good long pull, which was instantly declared as definitive proof that weed does make shit music sound better.  It reminded me and no doubt only me of the Monty Python Planet Algon sketch, or at least the presenting style did, so the more things change etc.

Any chance the programme had of being more than just a typical Channel 4 stunt, coming after the previous show on ecstasy and Mariella Frostrup asking couples who had just finished shagging in a box in the studio how it was for them was rendered all but academic in any case by the advance promotion.  Jon Snow declared he found being on skunk while in the MRI scanner to be more terrifying than when he'd been in war zones, to which one response is he should try it while in any smaller town's excuse for a nightclub.  Post-traumatic stress disorder would no doubt instantly descend.  Regardless of Snow's intentions, this was the cue for the likes of the Mail to declare that if someone as unflappable and worldly wise as Snow could be reduced to such a state, just what is it doing to the immature and less refined?

Coupled with the other new research into psychosis and use of high strength cannabis, the government was quick to declare it had no intention of changing the law, unless of course there's enough of an outcry to think about tightening it further.  What better time for of all people, Richard Branson to renew his call for the government to follow the example set by Portugal's decriminalising of possession, only this time joined by the man who's turned many of his own party to drink if not drugs, Nick Clegg?

Had Clegg been as explicit in his support for decriminalisation earlier in this parliament, as opposed to simply making noises in that general direction he might just have made something approaching a difference.  Leaving it this late invites cynicism that his conversion to the Portuguese model is less out of genuine belief it would reduce drug usage overall and help addicts and more about trying to retain some of the votes his party has lost.  To be fair, the Lib Dems have long called for a rethink on drugs and they did succeed in getting their comparative study published, even if it did little more than just reinforce what most already knew.

We also shouldn't get carried away, just as it was advisable not to after said report.  Branson and Clegg write that as well as remaining illegal drugs should also remain "socially unacceptable", to which the obvious response is why?  Why should it be socially acceptable, even felt to be obligatory in some circumstances to drink fermented vegetables and fruits but not smoke or chew the extracts of a plant, when the effects are often far less damaging?  Why should it be unthinkable that MDMA could ever be legal, when the real danger from "ecstasy" is from adulteration, or when the supplied pill or powder doesn't contain MDMA at all?  Why should someone be arrested for possession of small amounts of cannabis or any other number of drugs we know to pose a low risk and cause little overall harm, let alone then sent for treatment or assessment for a problem the vast majority won't have?  Surely If we're looking towards any model it ought to be the American one, where the effective legalisation of cannabis has taken the trade almost wholly out of the hands of organised crime.  This isn't to deny there will always be problem users, addicts and the potential for harm beyond that measured on a scale, but we have the worst of all worlds at the moment.

The answer to all the above is not just that we have a sensationalist approach to drugs and the harm they can cause, hence why journalists can be felt responsible enough to take them and tell us plebs what it's like, just as The Day Today satirised years ago, but we also have doctors who believe smoking should be banned in parks and squares.  When smoking is to be made socially unacceptable, regardless of your personal view on it, and my own isn't favourable, what chance is there of making any progress on drugs that are illegal but we know to be less harmful?

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Monday, December 08, 2014 

Satire: it's a little too ironic.

Is it ironic those who complain about the lack of satire often give the impression they've never told a joke in their lives? Perhaps, perhaps not.  It's difficult to know when irony smothers everything with such a thick layer of, err, irony, which is a bit like goldy and bronzey.  Or is it?

Owen Jones does it must be said have something resembling a point, almost obscured as per by sanctimony.  Few people like being laughed at, opposed to with.  When Nigel Farage took up Andrew Lawrence's complaint about UKIP having become an easy target for the pound shop comics and "ethnics" of Mock the Week, he transmogrified himself with the party's voters, as though laughing at him was to belittle Mr and Mrs Average UKIPer also.  Since then it's become apparent you can't poke fun at the affectations of someone who might be working class, although you can laugh and gawp all you like at the stupidly wealthy, so long as they've invited the cameras in first.  Does this disprove Jones's first book, or confirm his second, in that the establishment (and capitalism) always succeeds in co-opting what at first was radical?

If we accept Owen's point that we need satire more than ever, it could well be one of the reasons why TV has such a dearth at present is a result of the social media he praises for picking up the slack.  Taking the piss has never been easier, and as this blog has demonstrated time and again, that goes hand in hand with doing it extremely badly.  With the exception of the Daily Mash there isn't really anything or anyone consistently succeeding in finding that sweet spot where truth, humour and offence cohabit in an unholy menage a trois.  When you add in how a gag that once might still have been funny weeks after someone first came up with it can now be dead within a matter of hours thanks to constant retweeting and Facebook pasting, it leaves those who at best have to come up with jokes that are still relevant a week later and at worst months in advance in a quandary.

The other key factor is that quality, or the lack of it.  It's not for want of trying we haven't seen a true successor to Spitting Image, although those who eulogise it seem to forget that its final years were an extremely pale shadow of its 80s heyday.  There's been 10 O'Clock Live, which contrived to waste the considerable talents of Charlie Brooker and David Mitchell while somehow managing to make Lauren Laverne look even more out of her depth than usual (the less said about Jimmy Carr the better).  It proved you can put together half of a comedy dream team and still fail if the writing simply isn't good enough.  Also forgotten is 2DTV, ITV's sort of attempt to do Spitting Image again, only in animated form, and without the humour.  Nor should the TV version of Dead Ringers go without a mention, if only because its Kirsty Wark quoting song lyrics of the time Newsnight rip was amusing.  The rest of it, not so much.  About the best attempt of real note of late has been The Revolution Will Be Televised, and yet while funny, it still comes across as that little bit too consciously left-wing for comfort.

Dare it also be said that if the BBC was prepared or forced to ditch its trilogy of dead on their arse comedy panel shows, HIGNFY, Buzzcocks and Be Rather Smug About the Week all, it might just provide the space where a new format or talents could be properly nurtured.  HIGNFY was last satirical when presented by Angus Deayton, now a very long time ago indeed.  There's also the question of whether it's possible to be populist and truly satirical both - does the Margaret Thatcher puppet, along with her cabinet of vegetables really seem all that funny or cutting in retrospect, or rather just an exaggeration of the truth which fed in to her myth?  Nearer the mark was the grey John Major, although it could just as much be said that was simply following what the public had already decided.  Worth asking too is whether something like the Brass Eye paedophile special would be commissioned today, when social media opprobrium would deliver immediate outrage at satirists daring to suggest there might be just a hint of hysteria in media coverage of the subject.

It could in fact be politicians are completely the wrong targets for satire at the moment.  Politics has gone beyond parody - the leader of the fourth, possibly third biggest party urges women not to breastfeed in public "ostentatiously" lest they offend older people, some mothers presumably having taken to squirting milk into the mouth of their child while sitting on the other side of the table.  The same man blames immigrants overcrowding the M4 for his failure to reach a meeting on time, rather than it being a busy time of year.  Instead of his line in semi-offensive bullshit turning people off, it seems to only make them more determined to vote for him.  Meanwhile, the chancellor of the exchequer all but says "Britain can take it" when it comes to his proposed cuts, as the Liberal Democrats yet again confect to be outraged at what their partner in government is doing.  And Labour is just one big joke, exemplified still by the Emily Thornberry sacking.

No, if satire is to stay relevant it perhaps has to go after those newly powerful in 21st century Britain.  Let's see the mocking of the Twitter mob, whether it be those out for Emily Thornberry's head, or by contrast Julien Blanc's, or Matt Taylor's.  About the closest we get at the moment is Private Eye's From the Message Boards or the odd Craig Brown rip on a specific tweeter.  There could be a line drawn between the modern day censors who've succeeded in preventing children from seeing the hint of breasts on newspaper front pages or inside them and those who then rush for blankets to cover up feeding mothers.  Let's have all social classes and none ruthlessly mocked, whether it be the bell-ends who still have England flags up six months after the World Cup and who are so insular in their outlook they fail to notice there's a by-election on (and whom are ribbed by the rest of the working class more than anyone), the (upper) middle class prats obsessed with house prices and private schooling, and the 1% without the slightest idea as to how the rest live.  Most of all, let's see the leeches on society who make out they're above everyone brought to book, their weblogs laughed at, their own petty yearnings shown up for what they are (cont. p94)

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014 

A street called deceit.

Call me the cynical sort, but it doesn't exactly come as a surprise that TV production companies can tell lies on the scale of our very finest tabloids.  That prior to going with Channel 4 Love Productions had approached the BBC and pitched "The Benefit Street", a series which would look at a certain James Turner Street in Birmingham rather underlines the contempt shown to those featured who weren't informed of the likely end title of the programme they were taking part in, only it was likely to be something along the lines of "Community Spirit".

The whole farrago reminds of one of the most depressing pieces of television I've witnessed in recent years, another Channel 4 "documentary" (I can't recall the title), which compared and contrasted a British and a Polish building firm, as well as the families they were working for.  The British builder, was, naturally, a lazy and incompetent white van man, while the Polish were, naturally, professional, courteous and motivated.  Despite this, the British couple the Polish were doing the extension for weren't satisfied with the work and complained at every turn, finally succeeding in getting a major discount, the Pole filmed driving back home saddened by the experience.  The whole thing was representative of absolutely nothing, except that at times TV producers seem to like nothing better than showing this country in the worst possible light.

Exactly the same is true of Benefits Street.  It's been put together with just enough panache that it confirms the prejudices of those watching it: Charlie Brooker felt it sympathetic rather than exploitative, while to Fraser Nelson and plenty of others it's just the latest piece of anecdotal evidence proving welfare reform hasn't gone anywhere near far enough.  Taken as a whole it's only slightly less fictional than Made in Chelsea or The Only Way is Essex, but as it's a "documentary" rather than a "reality" show it's deemed a worthy topic of political discussion.

Factor in the non-arrival of our friends from Bulgaria and Romania and the opening month of the year has been little more than one long announcement of new restrictions on who can and can't claim social security.  Yesterday saw not just Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith jointly make clear that jobless EU migrants aren't entitled to housing benefit, without of course providing any figures as to how many in such a position are claiming it, our old friend Rachel Reeves also popped up to explain how those who lose their jobs will have to jump through another new hoop before they can claim Jobseeker's Allowance under Labour.  They'll need to take a test in basic numeracy and literacy and agree to go on courses to improve both if necessary before they can get their princely sum of £72 a week.  Whether there'll be enough places available on such courses or not we'll of course worry about once yet another potential sanction is in place.

It doesn't take much to excite certain sections of the commentariat, and with Reeves also setting out how Labour might attempt to reintroduce a further contributory aspect to JSA, her speech was greeted with praise for how it could start to change the debate around welfare.  As laughable as that notion might seem, it did show just how difficult it is to suggest changes to social security which aren't punitive: Reeves set out how those who've made national insurance contributions for either 4 or 5 years could receive an additional £20 on top of their JSA for the first six weeks.  You don't need to pass even the most rudimentary numeracy course to realise that getting less than the equivalent of two weeks' JSA after having paid in for that period of time or longer doesn't strike as being especially generous.  It would be different if it was for three months if six months would be far too expensive, but just six weeks?  It doesn't even begin to re-establish the contributory principle, if such a thing was an unalloyed good idea in the first place.

The problem, as so often, is that Labour is approaching the issue from the wrong perspective. The  Institute for Public Policy Research, having been appointed to give Labour's plans the once over, says "[I]t is vital that those of us committed to a resilient and effective welfare system advance feasible reforms that can chime with popular values".  Popular values and popular views are not the same thing, it's true, yet values are influenced by views.  When the public believes £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is lost to fraud, and 29% think more is spent on JSA than pensions, gearing reforms towards popular values doesn't strike as going together with "defending against the worst attacks on vulnerable people".  The more Labour tries to triangulate with the Tories on welfare cuts, the more they're encouraged to go even further.  Trying to introduce facts into the debate could backfire further, but it would at least make for a novel enterprise in what otherwise seems a time of universal deceit.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013 

A sort-of review of The Fall.

Whenever someone says that films or TV designed to be frightening don't scare them, it's difficult not to regard it as a boast.  It is after all typically blokeish to maintain that regardless of the atmosphere a movie tries to create, despite how much ketchup is thrown against the lens and however loud the bang that signals it's time for the audience to jump is, none of it has ever and will ever faze *me*.

The problem is that I'm most certainly not one of "those" men, and yet it's been a hell of a long time since anything I've watched on a screen with the intent of freaking me out has done so.  I do get scared, most certainly, often at myself more than anything, and there are other things I just can't watch, or rather, simply won't, but as for the mainstream it doesn't tend to happen.  The closest I've come recently was during re-watching the Exorcist, and that was thinking you can see why someone like James Ferman genuinely thought this film could scar adolescent girls for life.  He was clearly wrong, but you can see why.

Instead of being scared, I tend to be either troubled, worried, uncomfortable or even close to being upset by certain content, most often sexual violence.  Our betters at the BBFC feel the same way, except they often seem to reach bizarre conclusions on the kind of scene which in their view "eroticises" sexual violence and therefore has to be cut lest it affect the impressionable.  In theory this is a worthy system, and clearly there's a responsibility on film-makers to treat scenes of rape differently to how they would mere violence, but where's the line drawn when a film instead skirts around the edges of both?

I ask this having watched last night's episode of The Fall on BBC2.  Where the episode last week introduced us to the characters of Stella Gibson, played by Gillian Anderson (the main reason I tuned in, I have to admit) and Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), the chief investigating officer and the killer respectively, and also led inexorably to Spector murdering Sarah Kay (Laura Donnelly), the woman he had been stalking, this week's opened with an around 8-minute long sequence cutting between Spector meticulously cleaning and then posing the body of his victim, and Gibson having meaningless sex with the officer she propositioned last week.  If those switching between channels may well have been slightly surprised at a man carrying the naked, clearly lifeless body of a woman between a bath and bed so soon after the watershed, then I have to say I felt distinctly uneasy as well.  Not because there were any taboos being broken, or that the juxtaposition was unwise, more at the length and the distinct feel of reality involved.

Most certainly, I've watched films that are either more graphic or downright nasty in the way in which they depict the work of serial killers or abductors.  H6: Diary of a Serial Killer and Lucker the Necrophagus come to mind, the former being a far superior film in every way to the latter, yet neither caused me to actually pause and wonder whether someone could possibly be influenced or informed by what was depicted.  Even closer to the knuckle is the sub-genre of exploitation films that have attempted to portray the lives of real serial killers, Bundy and the Hillside Strangler being prominent examples, both of which are utterly tasteless, even if not utterly without merit.

Perhaps closer to the disquiet I felt was some of the worry that surrounded Irreversible when it was released a decade ago.  The controversy surrounded not the rape itself, which compared to some others isn't particularly graphic, but the violence that accompanies it, the sheer length of the scene, which goes on for an excruciating 9 minutes and consists of a single take, and that a penis was digitally added to the finish. The film's defenders argued that as well as being realistic, in that it accurately depicted the brutality of a stranger rape where the act is seldom over quickly, there was also no ambiguity: no one could possibly find it arousing. While it certainly doesn't eroticise the rape, the length still seems problematic: movies often make killing another human look far easier than it is in actuality, with a few notable exceptions. The Passion of the Christ is one such, and is one of the most wretched films in recent memory as a result. Irreversible isn't a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, but it's also one that's impossible to actively like or recommend.

Which is much the same as I feel about The Fall so far. It's a cold and clinical production, the soundtrack is either lo-fi or silent, and the camera work is unorthodox, all things I admire in any work, yet the lingering on the victims, without being gratuitous, still seems a step beyond what's truly necessary to establish the calculation and perversion of this otherwise seemingly normal family man.  It also seems more than just a little clichéd that a drama set in Belfast that is otherwise so tightly scripted has to involve the continuing stand-off between the police and paramilitaries as a sub-plot.  That could yet turn out to be integral to the main plot, and with three episodes to go, there's plenty of time to make such criticisms seem short sighted.  Much like me in general. 

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012 

Are you a fucking horse?

The Thick of It has come to what seems likely to be the end.  For an ostensibly political comedy, its influence is difficult to overstate: it went in four series from satirising New Labour's spin machine to err, providing lines for the now in opposition Labour party to use against the government.  In Malcolm Tucker Armando Iannucci, the other writers, and of course Peter Capaldi have created one of most terrifyingly brutal and yet still likeable characters in recent sitcom history, a man who doesn't so much wield the power he has as use it to cosh everyone who screws up around him, which happens to be everyone.  In the hour-long special Rise of the Nutters, when Ollie somehow finds it within himself to accuse Malcolm of bullying, Tucker is insulted: "I am so much worse than that".

Tucker isn't just Alastair Campbell, just as the Tory spin doctor Stewart Pearson introduced in the specials isn't just Steve Hilton (although clearly, "The Fucker" is Andy Coulson).  Iannucci maintains he based him not wholly on Campbell as much as Hollywood agents and producers, but what he's come to symbolise and be is the political dark arts, the plotting, the sniping, the manoeuvring, the smearing, the treachery, the threatening and the double dealing which we've now come to associate with media management.  The Thick of It's success is that it took all these things, and managed to make them flesh.  Tucker is, as he's variously described throughout the series, a force of nature, a "bad Gandalf".  He seems to appear out of nowhere, and then as soon as he does he's gone, leaving little trace.  Moreover, he's a survivor of negative media coverage, plots by rival spinners and of eventual electoral defeat.  He's only finally brought low by doing things that are arguably in the public interest: bringing down a useless leader of his party while leaking information about a vulnerable man who's being treated appallingly by the government.

Just as remarkable is that The Thick of It isn't a cynical show, or at least isn't about politics itself.  In an age where the refrain often heard "is they're all the same", The Thick of It always presented the actual politicians not necessarily in a good light but almost never in a wholly bad one.  Chris Langham's wonderful performance as Hugh Abbott showcased a minister who's out of his depth, incompetent, false and desperate to cling on to his job, but also as demonstrably human.  He hates that he has to push through policies which he personally disagrees with but does it anyway, has almost no family life due to the long hours that leave him perpetually tired, and at one point even asks Malcolm if he gets lonely, only for both men to step back from admitting and talking about their problems.  The episode where Abbott is forced to give up the London flat that gives him a small amount of respite came before the expenses scandal, but touched upon whether while dismissing our representatives, we also expect too much of them, as does the episode where Nicola Murray is forced by Tucker into deciding whether her husband leaves his job in PFI or her daughter goes to a comprehensive instead of an independent school.

Indeed, arguably the only politicians to be presented as truly irredeemable are Fergus, Peter Mannion's Liberal Democrat junior minister at DoSAC (he's making me hate politicians and I am one, remarks Mannion when Fergus emotes for the cameras after the death of Mr Tickell) and Dan Miller, the horribly slimy, charmless Labour minister who eventually manages to become leader.  That Miller is also the most obviously electable politician on the show is a highly satirical comment on who we seem to keep electing: those who aspire for power or who believe they were born to rule when both qualities ought to rule those very individuals out.

In fact, with the notable exception of the spinners and special advisers other than Tucker, the rest of the cast also fit the "flawed but sympathetic and likeable" trait.  Chief civil servant Terri is hopeless, obtuse and hates her job but does her best while everyone insults her; her assistant Robyn provides additional comic relief; Glenn's the human sponge who realises he's wasted the majority of his life working for and with backstabbing bastards; and Angela Heaney is the journalist repeatedly caught in the middle of the spin storm.

Where the show's ire is squarely aimed is at the careerist young advisers from both sides of the political spectrum.  Ollie is as morally bankrupt as Terri describes him when asked by Nicola, and also dangerously unreliable, typified by when he screwed over Glenn to get in Malcolm's good books.  He effectively defenestrates his party's leader twice, on both occasions at the bidding of Tucker, for the reason that he one day wants to be him.  Mannion's junior SpAd Phil Smith meanwhile is the archetypal Tory child of the 80s, a nerd who could only possibly fit in amongst the weirdos and obsessives in politics, whereas Emma is an "insipid rich bitch" interested only in herself and her career trajectory, sucking up to anyone who she thinks might help her along the way.  These people aren't in politics to help anyone, or make life better in general, nor are they there because they believe in anything beyond an outline; it's just another job, or what seemed like the obvious thing to do after getting a PPE degree from Oxford.

It does in the end though all come back to Tucker.  As he puts it in his monologue at the end of the hour long inquiry special, this is a political class which has given up on morality for the sake of popularity at all costs, and he's the one tasked with achieving it, regardless of how.  The Thick of It says the blame for having reached this situation should be spread around liberally: with the fickle, cynical public, who often are as Mannion once referred to them, "fucking horrible", the media, for whom a crisis must always also be a drama and who allow no respite, and the politicians who can't do anything without a focus group or the advice of someone who's never had a real job in their life.  As for those who sit in judgement, they themselves had to bend the rules to get into that lofty position.  All are guilty, but all are human.

Which is why the show worked.  You might not believe they could all be as imaginatively sweary, but you can believe all these characters are reflections of real, flawed people with real, flawed ideas, all trying to stay on a ride that none of them truly enjoy, but who do it because they don't know anything else.

And I haven't even mentioned Jamie.

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Thursday, December 01, 2011 

Personally, I think everyone who complains should be shot.

Jeremy Clarkson must be thoroughly pissed off tonight. While there's probably no change there then, he really has been hung out to dry by the BBC over his appearance yesterday on the One Show. Shorn completely context, as even the BBC were originally providing it as, his apparent statement that all those on strike should not just be shot, but in front of their families does seem outrageous. If you watch just the clip of him saying that, then while it's clear he doesn't really mean it, it's still enough to offend.

Read the full transcript the BBC finally got around to releasing at the same time as Clarkson apologised this evening, and it ought to be obvious even to our modern day Mary Whitehouses that he was mocking the BBC's standard impartiality policy of getting two people with completely opposing views to debate a subject. He even mocks himself slightly, with his reference to feeling at home in the 1970s before he then goes on to provide his own "balance". As he says once Matt Baker and Alex Jones have attempted to add to the gag and failed, they're not his views, they are "two views".

From this, helped along by Twitter and what the BBC have described as an orchestrated campaign, we've had a mini-repeat of Sachsgate, that incredible worldwide incident where a comedian and presenter went slightly too far with a joke and the Daily Mail nearly exploded. Just as that was political and seized upon by those who should have known better, so now we've got those who've always disliked Clarkson and want to score points against David Cameron making an unholy stink. Even taken out of the crucial context demands for his sacking were ridiculous; now they look and indeed are downright ignorant.

It's also been wholly self-defeating on the part of Dave Prentis, the head of Unison: by most measures yesterday's strikes were highly successful in gaining public support. Instead of discussing the madness of the government's austerity plans, we've been talking about something entirely inconsequential. No change there then either.

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Tuesday, August 02, 2011 

TV review: Bodysnatchers of New York.

Michael Mastromarino would describe himself as a "quadruple A personality that's driven". Not many individuals currently serving a sentence of between 18 and 54 years in prison would talk about themselves in such terms, and it's also doubtful that should they essentially have an entire documentary dedicated to their crime they would deliver the line to camera while smiling.

It's also the essential problem with Bodysnatchers of New York, the More 4 documentary (first shown last October, so I'm only slightly belated with this, even if it was repeated last week) on Mastromarino's Biomedical Tissue Services company and its illegal harvesting of the skin and bone of the dead that it focuses to excess on the central figure, letting those involved tell the story and in effect lay all the blame at his feet, giving only very fleeting consideration to those who meant to be regulating Mastromarino's work as well as the companies that were paying for him to cut up cadavers.

The central conceit of letting the various interested parties tell their side of story most egregiously fails in that we fail to learn much about what led Mastromarino to set-up BTS in the first place. All he tells us is that while working as dental surgeon, having had at one point a string of practices across New York, including on Madison Avenue, he started to use Demerol to self-medicate his bad back. The full truth is rather more alarming: he fell asleep while performing surgery and was also found in the bathroom with a syringe in his hand and blood on the floor having already put a patient under general anaesthetic. He was forced to surrender his licence to practise dentistry after he left Ana Ortiz with a permanent "left-facial droop". He was then also arrested for being "under the influence of a controlled dangerous substance", charges which his lawyer Mario Gallucci managed to get dropped.

Knowing that last part would somewhat undermined Mario Gallucci's own appearance, who throughout, not always convincingly portrays himself as just another person misled and lied to by Mastromarino. It would also shine a light on the US Food and Drug Administration, whose extensive three-day course was all Mastromarino had to go on to set himself up as the owner of a tissue bank, his previous unfortunate failings as a dentist not a consideration.

The format does, it must be said, work incredibly well when there's a straight-forward tale to be told: Josh Hanshaft, the district attorney whose initial digging exposed Mastromarino's racket, drives the narrative forward, while the quiet dignity of Dayna Ryan, who had her spine fused with bone harvested from BTS and almost certainly contracted Hepatitis B from it, and Anthony Dumaine, whose father's bones were stolen, is incredibly affecting.

The overall effect though is to deliver an hour-long kicking to Mastromarino, who although still in denial and clearly unrepentant for his actions, continuing to justify them on the grounds that he was only giving people what they wanted and that through the sterilisation methods there was no chance of disease being passed on, doesn't really deserve further vilification. The documentary is far more relenting on Mastromarino's main accomplice, Lee Cruceta, who carried out much of the harvesting. This admittedly is a natural response when Cruceta's appearance gives the impression of a man whose conscience is weighing him down, the heavy bags under his eyes saying almost as much as his sentences, yet he went along with Mastromarino and didn't let the small things like how the tissue was meant to be harvested within 24 hours of death stop him from cutting the bodies up days later, and at least once sewed back up with a surgical glove left inside.

Completely left out of proceedings, one suspects in case legal action was threatened and not just because it wouldn't have fit within the first-person format, is any real comment from the companies whom Mastromarino was supplying. Even though they were tricked into taking the illegally harvested tissue with forged documents, and the samples supplied for pre-testing were swapped with healthy blood, it seems they never did a second test once the actual extracted tissue had arrived, nor did they double check the consent forms. They also didn't query how in such a short space of time Mastromarino managed to supply such quantities of what they wanted, when overwhelming numbers of next of kin normally refuse any such harvesting. Mastromarino's contracts with companies like Regeneration Technologies, Incorporated, still proudly trading and boasting on its site of a "proven record of safety", barely get a mention. The programme ends by fingering greed as the main underlying factor, and while difficult to argue with, it's only Alistair Cooke's daughter, Susan Kittredge, her father the most famous victim of BTS, who points out that "Mastromarino, crook and scum though he is, is a cog in the wheel". Bodysnatchers of New York suggests the opposite.

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