TV brings out the worst in humanity. I’ve had a theory for several years that TV actually acts like a gigantic git lens. Anybody who appears on the magic taking box in your living room automatically becomes exactly the sort of person you would like to punch until everybody is crying and you’re just slapping wet chunks into the concrete. This is the mysterious appeal of reality TV. Normally a person like Kim Kardashian or Honey Boo Boo would merely make you wrinkle your nose in disgust. Put them on the screen and suddenly you’re fantasizing about strapping their screaming carcass to a fridge full of dynamite and catapulting it into the sun. Characters, too, become magnified by the mysterious glow of the cathode ray. When a writer sits down and bashes out a screenplay, he inserts characters into the story to give it depth and humanity, little realizing that the character he bases on his quaint Aunt Beatrice who everybody likes will have viewers quaking with silent rage.
I’ve learned this because part of my recent self-improvement has been about doing things that normally I would say no to. So I’m writing a television screenplay to submit to the BBC writer’s room. It’s a foolish endeavor, ultimately, because I have no desire to be involved in television at all. On the off-chance my script gets picked up and read it will seem lifeless and dull because I’m consciously trying to avoid making my characters into the seething gibbons they will inevitably be. It’s very off-putting.
So I have to sit down and work hard to remind myself of the truly spectacular moments that TV has given me and so many others. Having spent so much of the last few months inside watching movies and writing on the internet, my attention span is shot. I’m currently alternating between writing this, watching an episode of Homeland, checking the employment websites I subscribe to, reading Lifehacker articles and endlessly refilling my mug with coffee. I cannot sit still and commit to anything any more. A three-minute commercial break is too much for me. An actual hour of sitting doing one thing, namely gazing vapidly at the box? Forget it. These days everything happens on this laptop: my work life. My social life. My sex life (badum-tish). The television in my house sits sullen and unused, covered in a thin film of dust. Sorry, TV, I’ve out-grown you. Or you’ve outgrown my attention span. Either way.
Part of reminding myself how good TV can be means writing it down for you to enjoy, too. This blog is all about the sharing and caring. Let’s go hand in hand on a trip down the CRT avenue.
ER: Doctor Romano And The Helicopter
ER shattered my psyche and turned me into the loveless, nihilistic monster that stands before you, ladies and gentlemen. If you don’t remember ER (and you should, it was on for millennia) it was a medical drama penned by Michael Crichton (the guy who wrote Jurassic Park, no, seriously, look it up) famous for intercutting moments of schlocky love stories and absolute gut-wrenching horror. This is a five-second breakdown of every ER episode ever:
Doctor #1 : I love you, Doctor #2
Doctor #2 : I love you too, Doctor #1. Let me just pull this crowbar from this elderly black woman’s eye.
[Graphic depiction of the procedure. Gallons of blood spew around for no good reason. A baby overdoses. A young man sees the surgery, vomits, slips on the vomit and falls out of a window.]
Doctor #1 : I’m sorry, Doctor #1. She’s dead.
Doctor #2 : Oh rats. And I have to break up with you because my sister who’s really my brother has slept with my wife and is having her baby.
This particular scene is where Dr “Rocket” Romano (and I didn’t make up that name but wish I had), who was generally an arsehole to everybody, tries to shotgun an air ambulance. A momentary loss of concentration and…
There is a reason I don’t believe in god and this is it. Romano wasn’t a bad guy, he was just a bit of a dick to everybody. And, quite by accident he loses an arm. Just like that. He didn’t deserve it, but ladies and gentlemen we live in a universe characterized by randomness. After that, his life goes to shit. He accidentally sets the stump on fire (again, not making this up), goes through a personality crisis, loses his shit and, after many trials and tribulations, finally returns to work and… this happens.
HE DIES BY HELICOPTER.
Dexter: John Lithgow is a Maniac
Dexter is a prime example of a show that spends whole episodes being tedious and pedestrian and then delivering awesome dramatic moments like this out of the blue. The appeal of Dexter (for me, at least) is that you get to watch a guy acting normal and boring before suddenly turning into a seething maniac holding a knife. I love contrast like that.
This scene, which Youtube won’t let me embed, is a prime example of how good Dexter can be. Arthur Mitchell, played by John Lithgow, is a normal-seeming family man, a church deacon and a helping hand in the community. He’s also a violent serial killer who controls his family with an iron fist. I had previously only been familiar for lending his voice to that guy from Shrek and for Third Rock From The Sun, another example of a truly unique and clever comedy premise. So to seem him as a seething maniac intent on death was quite the contrast. And he manages to convey a deep sense of dangerous evil without making it schlocky and twee, so kudos to him. He makes a normal dinner into a creep-fest as he beats down on his poor family without ever once straying into parody. I have new respect for John Lithgow.
This is the pivotal scene of the series, where the mania of both seemingly-normal characters is revealed. They square off against each other. It made for truly gripping television.
The Young Ones: University Challenge
I haven’t mentioned The Young Ones before because my passion for it is so great I’m liable to descend into angry tears. The Young Ones was a new genre of comedy beyond anything seen before: funny, smart, violent, anarchic and childish. It set the trend for a generation of childish, post-modern comedians, with one exception: The Young Ones was actually funny.
It concerns the exploits of a group of mis-matched, grubby students. In this episode the gang travel to appear on University Challenge (for my American friends, University Challenge is where a group of posh students from Cambridge show their superiority over a group of second-tier-University students by answering questions about Gaspard Monge or The HMS Pinafore). The inclusion of the young ones leads things to become progressively more absurd and violent. Heads get stamped on. Posh people get blown up. It’s beautiful.
The Simpsons: The Blurst of Times
There would be a video here, but Fox are a bunch of soul-crushing bandits and have taken it down across THE WHOLE INTERNET. I’ll recreate it but it won’t be as funny.
Mr Burns: And here we have a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters replicating the works of Charles Dickens. [takes a page from the typewriter and reads]
“It was the best of times, it was the…BLURST of times”? You stupid monkey!
The monkey screams.
Moments like this reminds us of why we fell in love with The Simpsons in the first place. The writing here is crisp, dry, self-referential and achingly funny. It’s sad that great scenes like this will never be a part of new Simpson episodes (of, for that matter, Futurama, which is ball-achingly unfunny). We should remember that at one time The Simpsons, like Family Guy and South Park, were elegantly-written and sophisticated pieces of comedy. Talking about that makes me sad, so I will instead share my second-favourite scene: where Ned Flanders turns into a Werewolf.
Walking With Dinosaurs
Walking With Dinosaurs was the BBC’s attempt to turn Jurassic Park technology into an educational show, and against all odds they succeeded. This program was quite simply astonishing. To the modern eye it looks absurdly dated, because we live in an age where Michael Bay can devote more processing power to rendering Optimus Prime than existed an all computers in 1997 (I assume – I’m too lazy to check). It looks cheap and flimsy. Walking With Dinosaurs was, and is, the most expensive documentary ever made. It cost more to render a minute of dinosaur than some shows had as a monthly budget.
And it was staggering. Narrated by the great Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh, it told the story of the ages of the dinosaurs with finess and delicacy, mixing hard-core fact with brutal dinosaur fights. It remains to this day one of the best programs ever made. Its cultural and technical legacy led to a whole host of CGI-supported shows. In many ways it was a trail-blazer. Okay, so the dinosaurs look like something you could knock out on Photoshop in an hour. That’s part of the point. Re-watching this show reminds me how far we’ve come in so little time. There is more of a gap between us now and Walking With Dinosaurs than there is between Walking With Dinosaurs and James Cameron’s The Abyss. Way to go, Moore’s Law.
[EDIT: This is my eightieth post!]