Friday, December 10, 2010

2010: Top Albums

All my latest lists and articles get posted to Facebook and Listology instead of this blog nowadays. But I figure I should probably have a copy of stuff here too. So, here's my top 20 albums of 2010, which will published in a slightly different format (and with description) on Facebook and Listology later this month

1. The National - High Violet
2. The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang
3. Barenaked Ladies - All In Good Time
4. Bruce Springsteen - The Promise
5. The Magnetic Fields - Realism
6. She & Him - Volume 2
7. Steven Page - Page One
8. Bruce Springsteen - London Calling: Live in Hyde Park
9. Tired Pony - The Place We Ran From
10. Sleigh Bells - Treats
11. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
12. Meat Loaf - Hang Cool Teddy Bear
13. The Dum Dum Girls - I Will Be
14. Los Campesinos! - Romance is Boring
15. The Fall - Our Future, Your Clutter
16. Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me
17. The Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever
18. Brandon Flowers - Flamingo
19. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Mojo
20. The Magic Numbers - The Runaway

Runner-up: Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
I wanted to include it but it wasn't quite good enough: Keane - Night Train

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Hm. It's been a while since I last posted here. What have I been up to?

My interview with the fantastic Geoff Byrd is up at Blogcritics: here. Yep, here, click here. In case you haven't already seen me whore it out elsewhere on the Internet.

Watching Oz a lot lately. Brutal. Also watching Two and a Half Men. Somewhat less brutal.

Been listening to Springsteen (you might have heard of him), M. Ward (most intriguing non-Campesinos!-or-Sufjan song title ever: "Epistemology", unless you already know what it means), Gaslight Anthem (Killers-but-better), She and Him (it's Zooey Deschanel singing! how could it go wrong?), Coconut Records ("West Coast" FTW, or whatever other internet meme is currently being used instead of FTW at the moment) and Morrissey (latest album is pretty damn good) the past few months.

As for the more important stuff.. what's actually been going on with me. The feelings stuff. Allow me to quote Springsteen, who sums up my life better than I ever could (which, I admit, is ever-so-slightly disturbing). "Same sad story, that's a fact. One step up and two steps back." Without going all emotional-outpour-y on you, dearest reader, my life - and a majority of the people who feature in it - disappoint me more with each passing day.

I think it's time to admit that I'm really not that happy with life. But admitting that brings with it a whole load of follow-up questions that I don't want to deal with and can't be bothered to answer. It's like trying to explain to an elderly relative that "no, I don't think watching pronography makes one some kind of perverted monster". It's easier to just put up and shut up. Accept the status quo, pass things off with a dismissive "yeah". Am I happy? "Yeah".

Monday, January 05, 2009

2008: An Unnecessary Retrospective - Part 2: The TV

So, with 2008's music covered, it's time to move on to that mightiest of media: the gogglebox. As with music, I tended to spend more time discovering the old than tuning into the new, and as I still refuse to watch any scripted show as it's broadcast (instead holding out for the DVD, so it can be consumed in three-hour-sized chunks), it's hard to compile any kind of "best episodes of 2008" list, because I spent more time watching old Moonlightings from 1987. Still, I'll have a go.

Top 5 Shows I Actually Watched On TV In 2008

As mentioned above, a list like this is restricted to shows that don't get released on TV - mostly unscripted shows. But, as my list will prove, unscripted doesn't mean un-good! Heavens, no.

5. Have I Got News For You
At times this year it felt like the show was treading water - and pretty average water at that, none of your upmarket Evian stuff - and Ian Hislop occasionally descended into the marginally-too-smarmy, but the occasional episode still managed to knock "it" right out of the park, whatever "it" is. The recent Christmas special, with all on fine form, was non-stop hilarity.

4. Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe
Charlie Brooker is the thinking man's thinking man, and the latest run of Screenwipe was among the best yet - particularly when Charlie was either a) organising a public piss or b) taking the piss (especially the classic Britannia High scene). More please.

3. The Apprentice
Another series, another pile of undeserving dolts that don't have a brain cell between them. I'm more deserving of a job with Sir Sugar. But that's all part of the fun; this year's fourth run was as viciously compelling as ever.

2. Mock the Week
Nowadays more consistently hilarious than HIGNFY, Frankie Boyle and Russell Howard - the real highlights of the show - were on fine form. Plus without Mock the Week, we'd never have had the classic Newsnight moment wherein Emily Maitlis (quoting Frankie Boyle joking about the Queen - one hopes) tells some head BBC honcho "I'm so old, my pussy is haunted".

1. Never Mind the Buzzcocks
Simon Amstell is probably the funniest man Britain's got right now. He, and arguably he alone, makes Buzzcocks brilliant.

Top 5 Shows Of 2008 That I Didn't Watch On TV, But I've Seen Up To The Latest Season Released On DVD, And They're Still Continuing Anyway, So I Won't Look Too Out Of Date

5. Dexter
Michael C. Hall is absolute perfection with a capital perfect as Dexter. Season 2 somehow even managed to heighten the tension even further than the superb season 1. My only concern is that with season 3, I might just tense up so much that I'm temporarily incapacitated and unable to change the disc.

4. Monk
Still one of the most fun, enjoyable and downright likeable shows on DVD, the sixth season of Monk - that's the one released on DVD in 2008 - was among its best yet. "Mr. Monk Stays Up All Night" is an al-time televisual highlight, blending comedy, drama and emotion masterfully. Also, I heart Traylor Howard.

3. Friday Night Lights
Gah. This shouldn't be so fall-down good. It's about a small-town football team in rural Texas, for crying out loud. But it just is. The characters are fully-drawn; the stories make you laugh and cry like few other TV shows can. This deserves a bigger, better audience. If its third season is its last, that's about as strong a condemnation of the US' public failure to tune in to quality TV as there ever has been.

2. Californication
Doesn't take itself too seriously, it's just hilarious, self-indulgent good fun. David Duchovny fits the role of Hank Moody almost suspiciously well.

1. ER

Grr, I'm now up to season 13 and I still can't wait for the next season to come round. It's fallen since its S1-8 heyday but it can still wrench the heart and churn the stomach like precious few other shows. Here's hoping it goes out with a bang in spring.

Top 5 Shows Of 2008 That I Didn't Watch On TV 'Cos They Finished Approximately Fifteen Years Ago, But Somehow I Only Discovered Them On DVD This Year

5. Moonlighting
It got a little crazy in the last couple of seasons, but early Moonlighting is classic TV, no doubt about it. The chemistry between Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd is mind-bogglingly spot-on; the dialogue is witty and just the right amount of self-aware.

4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
More depth than any "teenage" show has a right to. Alyson "now in How I Met Your Mother" Hannigan is the unlikely highlight among a remarkable cast. Equal parts dark and light, Buffy never fails to engage.

3. Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip
Another show destroyed by premature cancellation (jeez, if that doesn't sound like an innuendo I don't know what does), Sorkin's third masterpiece in a row - set behind-the-scenes at an SNL-type sketch show -
offered a remarkable cast and storylines that compelled, both when on-set and off-set.

2. Sports Night
Yeah, two Aaron Sorkin shows in a row. With good reason, though - the man's a genius. I swear, he could even make According to Jim good. His rat-a-tat-tat dialogue was already well-developed and on display in this, his first network show, which happens to be set behind-the-scenes of a cable sports show. Hm.. to anyone who hasn't seen The West Wing, he's beginning to sound like a one-trick-pony. But then again, anyone who hasn't seen that show doesn't deserve an opinion on television, right?

1. Titus
The best sitcom you've never heard of, Titus is a post-Seinfeld torrent of Very Special Episodes that lack emotion, dysfunctional families that make the Simpsons look like a model of respect and order, and piss-takes of the most horrendous events (terrorism, rape, homophobia.. you name it, it's here). If it weren't for the restrained language, you'd swear it had been on HBO, not Fox.

Top 10 Shows Of 2008 That Didn't Fit In Above

10. House
For the sublime two-part S4 season finale, "House's Head"/"Wilson's Heart".

9. Without A Trace
For Anthony Lapaglia kicking ass in "Malone vs. Malone".

8. Psych
For not being the Monk rip-off it so easily could've been.

7. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia
For proving Danny Devito's still got it.

6. 30 Rock
For keeping the effortlessly brilliant Tina Fey on screens outsie of Sarah Palin impressions.

5. The Shield
For that powerhouse of a season five finale. OMG LEM!!!1

4. Frasier
For making me laugh, even on the fifteenth viewing.

3. The West Wing
For "In Excelsis Deo" and "Two Cathedrals".

2. How I Met Your Mother
For keeping Alyson "once on
Buffy" Hannigan on our screens. Also, Barney Stinson.

1. South Park
For the denouement of "Scott Tenorman Must Die". The crew at Tales of the Unexpected would be proud. Maybe.

--Later this week: "Part 3 - The Websites, And Other Stuff". Possibly.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

2008: An Unnecessary Retrospective - Part 1: The Music

So, 2008 is over, and 2009 is beginning. What better time than this arbitrary demarcation to look back at 52-and-a-bit weeks worth of television and music?

Like Tesco's almond coke, this blog post is an entry into a saturated market, an unwanted and unnecessary addition to an already heaving catalogue; but also like Tesco's almond coke, lurking beneath a rather mediocre wrapper is a unique taste just begging to be tried.

Okay, contrived metaphor falls apart there. On with the lists.

Top 5 Albums Released in 2008

I'm rubbish at listening to music as it comes out. Instead, I discover an artist somewhere between five and fifty years into their career and catch up with their back catalogue as time and money allows. Thankfully, despite this idiosyncrasy, I still found time to hear at least five albums released this year that I actually liked. (Even if four were by artists I was already familiar with..)

5. The Killers - Day and Age
I liked Sam's Town, but it seems no-one else did, so it was back to synth-pop-rock for album the third. I won't complain, as the songs here are consistently good. Even if that godforsaken "Are we human or are we dancer?" will crop up in "worst lyrics ever" polls from now until infinitydom. Opener "Losing Touch" is probably the best song here.

4. Los Campesinos! - Hold On Now, Youngster
Indiepop kids of the moment, Los Campesinos!' first full-length album was a delightful affair (though they'd probably be mighty pissed that I'm describing their material as "delightful", a word usually reserved for post-menopausal women discussing Daniel O'Donnell). The highlight would be "My Year In Lists", because I like lists. Heh. A song called "My Year In Lists" is featuring on a list of my favourite albums of the year. How's that for meta.

3. Magnetic Fields - Distortion
Stephin Merritt's latest 12-track travail into indiepop was united by the running theme - er, sound - of distortion. It works well, making already-awesome songs at least 1.4 times as awesome as they would otherwise be. Highlight is "California Girls". Most definitely not a cover of the Beach Boys song. Oh, my, no.

2. Keane - Perfect Symmetry
The most varied Keane album yet. Ok, that's not really saying much, but there's a surprising amount of ground covered here. In parts there are even hints of reggae and trip-hop beats! I'm as shocked as you are. The absurd catchiness of the opening tracks, "Spiralling" and "The Lovers Are Losing", makes them the top contenders for my favourite track from the album, but the epic-by-Keane's-standards title track is no slouch.

1. R.E.M. - Accelerate
In which the guys' rock roots hadn't died, they were just hibernating. R.E.M. kick ass for the first time in more than a decade, and sound great doing it. Even the slower numbers - "Houston", "Until The Day Is Done" - engage; while the album's very best - "Man-Sized Wreath", "Supernatural Superserious", "Mr. Richards" - rate among R.E.M.'s all-time finest.

Honourable mention: Barenaked Ladies' Snacktime. Some quality stuff for a kids' album, especially "Pollywog In A Bog" and "Louis Loon".

Top 5 Albums Not Released in 2008

A far more hotly-contested category than the former. But I'm not just rating any old album that wasn't released this year: these are the best five albums I've discovered this year, that just happened to be released in years gone by.

5. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes - Best Of
Okay, so we're only on the first album and I'm already cheating. A best of?! I'm everything that's wrong with the record-buying public. But whatever. At least I buy records. Sometimes. Anyhoo, this compilation of Southside's best bits is surprisingly well-picked - including, as it does, nine-tenths of the seminal Hearts of Stone, alongside some of the very best mid-tempo ballads to ever emerge from the Asbury Park scene - "Love on the Wrong Side of Town", "This Time Baby's Gone For Good", "I Don't Want To Go Home".

4. Die Ärzte - Jazz ist Anders
Mellowing in their later years somewhat, Die Ärzte deliver an R.E.M.-like mix of rock songs that range from the crazy-catchy ("Vorbei ist vorbei") to synthpop ("Lasse redn") to their traditional hard, punk-influenced work ("Allein").

3. Various Artists - Indoor Picnic Music
iTunes-only compilation of the best bands on the Nettwerk record label. Every song is a winner. Barenaked Ladies are the main event, but cuts from Josh Rouse ("Looks Like Love"), Adrienne Pierce ("Arizona"), Hem (the heart-stoppingly beautiful "Not California"), Conjure One ("Extraordinary Way") and The Format ("She Doesn't Get It") are just as worthy. I haven't yet tried listening to it while partaking in an indoor picnic, but it's only a matter of time.

2. Joe Grushecky - American Babylon
Pal of Springsteen, Grushecky's American Babylon is arguably his best LP. Full of rockers ranging from the restrained frustration of "Chain Smoking" to the harsh, aggressive "Dark and Bloody Ground" to the, er, waltz of "Billy's Waltz"

1. Bruce Springsteen - Tracks
Ok, so I've screwed you all. My number one isn't even a proper album. Instead, it's a 70-odd track collection of Springsteen (yep, him again, I'm obsessed) miscellany: B-sides, outtakes, demos, songs his next-door neighbour heard him singing in the shower, etc. With any other artist this collection would suck, but tis Brucie baby, so a good 2/3 of the material here is on a par with tracks that made his "proper" albums. Especially the power-pop of disc two ("Roulette", "Where the Bands Are", "Loose Ends" and "Dollhouse" are simply perfection).

Honourable mention: Vonda Shepard's entire back catalogue. Best. Pop. Ever.

Top 5 Songs Of The Year That Didn't Come From The Above Albums

My full top 100 songs of 2008 list is filled with tracks from the aforementioned albums, so to make this article marginally more palatable (and if you've made it to this stage, you'll take what you can get), let's look only at songs that don't feature on the LPs above. And, to make it even more difficult, they can't be by any of the artists mentioned above at all. So, what you're really left with is "5 Random Songs I Kinda Liked This Year". But it's not boring!

5. Julee Cruise - "Falling"
Eerily haunting. No surprise, as it was composed by the eerily haunting Angelo Badalamenti, and was featured in the eerily haunting Twin Peaks, which was directed by the eerily haunting David Lynch.

4. Hybrid - "Finished Symphony"
Classical-come-trance classic. Hauntingly eerie. I would go as far as to call it eerily haunting, but you might think I was repeating myself.

3. Marah - "Christmas With The Snow"
One of the best Christmas songs ever, the insane jollity of the chorus ("It's Christmas with the snow, with the snow, with the snow, snow") able to provoke memories of the wintertime even in boiling-hot June. Well, this is England, so moderately-hot June, but you take my point.

2. Johnny Cash - "I Hung My Head"
Approximately 49 trillion times better than the original, Cash imbues this song with a disconcerting fragility. Liable to make me cry if I hear it at the wrong time. But keep that quiet.

1. Tommy Tutone - "867-5309 (Jenny)"

-- A look back on my favourite TV of 2008 coming later this week.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The joy of the one-season wonder

n.b. - this article originally published at Blogcritics

It's generally accepted that television - and, in particular, American television - has been going through something of a renaissance for the past twenty years or so. After decades where mind-numbing soaps and formulaic procedurals had dominated primetime, the appearance of shows like The Simpsons, Seinfeld and Twin Peaks - shows that genuinely challenged the viewer heralded in a new era of television. It's not that the shows that preceded these were genuinely bad; it's just that, in order to remain competitive, networks relied upon the tried and true. There was no reason to deliver complicated, multi-threaded dramatic plots or scathing social satire to an audience that would be just as happy with the comfortable moralising of Diff'rent Strokes and the frustratingly linear narrative of Columbo.

But as the nineties approached, things gradually began to change. The biting satire of The Simpsons proved an instant hit; the "show about nothing", Seinfeld, proved to be genuinely something in the Nielsens; and the complex and surreal Twin Peaks became appointment viewing. Suddenly, the game was on: while lowest-common-denominator shows remained a mainstay (and still do), challenging, intellectual fare was recognised as more than able to hold its own. The network upfronts would never be the same again, as more and more challenging, creative and genre-bending shows were commissioned: Northern Exposure, Picket Fences and thirtysomething in the earlier part of the decade; The West Wing, Sports Night and Buffy as the new millennium approached. Cable became a breeding ground of television that could genuinely be considered art: HBO were undoubtedly the frontrunners, The Sopranos, The Wire and Six Feet Under consistently rating atop critics' choice lists; but FX, Showtime and AMC have got in on the act too, with the likes of The Shield, Dexter and Mad Men, respectively. The networks continue to raise their game too: the likes of Lost, Scrubs, Friday Night Lights and How I Met Your Mother prove even among the most mainstream channels, there's a home for inventive, cross-genre programming.

But any TV critic across the land can reel off all of these examples. These are the success stories, the shows that stayed on air for season after season - or, if not quite managing that, garnered significant hype during their first run. It's my hypothesis that there are a number of less successful shows - in many cases not even managing to last one full season - that had just as profound an effect on the televisual landscape, largely thanks to the effect they had on screenwriters-to-be.

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is My So-Called Life, created by Winnie Holzman, regular writer on the likes of thirtysomething and The Wonder Years. Lasting just nineteen episodes through late 1994 and early 1995, the series detailed the day-to-day high-school life of Angela Chase (played ably by Claire Danes) and her family and friends. Based on that synopsis, you might be forgiven for making comparisons with Beverly Hills, 90210, or - heaven forfend - Saved By The Bell. Let's get it clear right off the bat: Saved By The Bell, it's not.

Beyond the appealling, familiar concept, lurked a show unlike any seen on primetime TV before. The show was, above all else, realistic. Drug abuse, casual sex, homelessness, domestic abuse: all were fair game. One character was a closet homosexual, who, upon coming out to his father, is kicked out of his house and suffers through . Our main protagonist, Angela Chase, is not a happy-go-lucky teenager whose problems end when the final school bell rings: her teenage years are frustrating and difficult, confusing and heartbreaking. Happy endings on the show were rare, and on the rare occasions they did occur, were always tempered by a consistent atmosphere of fragility: some parents in the show clearly are on the brink of divorce, some are clearly one drink away from full-blown alcoholism.

"Sure", you might say, "but what good is that if no-one's watching"? You may have a point. But with "My So-Called Life", at least, it didn't matter too much that 99% of the country wasn't tuning in. What mattered was that among the 1% who did was a man named Joss Whedon. A man who would later go on to create international hits Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, as well as the cult Firefly franchise. Included in the luxurious special edition DVD box set of the show, there's an essay by Joss, wherein he imparts just how profound an effect the show had on him and his creative vision: "[it's] a show that delivered more joy, laughs, pain and cringing self-recognition than any show before or since [..] I learned from it, but never matched it". It's a sobering thought: without My So-Called Life, we might never have had Buffy. And, by extension, we'd never have had Veronica Mars.. and we might not have had Freaks and Geeks either.

That's an interesting point, as Freaks and Geeks (created by the brilliantly talented Paul Feig) is the other key single-season show of the '90s I feel has had a profound effect on popular culture, reverberating far beyond its original 1999-2000 run on NBC. Indeed, the effect of Freaks and Geeks has been felt not just by television, but in the world of Hollywood film too.

As with MSCL, the premise of Freaks is deceptively simple. Once again, it's set in the world of high-school; only this time, we're transported back to 1980, and the world of two groups of high-schools outcasts: the titular "freaks" and "geeks". This isn't a That '70s Show-style exercise in nostalgia, though; crass cultural references are abandoned in favour of realistic, well-drawn plots and characters that reference in the era in the most genuinely subtle ways. As we grow to love these characters through the nineteen short episodes, it's clear the '80s setting is little more than contextual grounding for polished, perfected storylines that examine every aspect of what it's like to be a high-school outcast in extensive detail. There are no rose-tinted spectacles here, but equally, the fun side is presented with the negative side: the kids here enjoy playing "Dungeons and Dragons", or practicing with thir band.

As strong as the story arcs are, for me, the real draw of Freaks and Geeks is the immensely talented cast. Not that MSCL had anything but the strongest, most believable cast one can imagine; but that show was more noteworthy for its unique attitude to the stories it was telling. It was shockingly realistic, and surprisingly downbeat; it was its unique attitude that cemented it in television history. Freaks, meanwhile, is rather more traditional in its tone - dramatic story points contrast with more light-hearted ones: the geeks seeing a porno film for the first time remains one of television's most memorable moments. The brilliance here, however, not in the general attitude of the show: it is in the sharpness and believablity of the script, and, perhaps more importantly, the genuineness of the cast.

The impact Freaks (and its college-based successor, Undeclared) has had on the television landscape has been profound: everything from How I Met Your Mother to One Tree Hill owes it a debt. But even more impressive is its effect on film. Various members of the team behind Freaks - both creative staff and cast - have come together, and rebroadcast a refined vision of high-school life to sell-out audiences across the world. Judd Apatow, and executive producer of Freaks, has played a key role in this, instilling in all his films - albeit often in a rather cruder, mainstream form - the sense of naivety, innocence and honesty his show was so known for. Knocked Up is perhaps the finest example of this; it's no surprised that a veritable smorgasbord of Freaks alumni are along for the ride: from star to Seth Rogen to a cameo from James Franco via major roles for Jason Segel and Martin Starr. The Freaks sensibility is evident in almost everything Apatow's worked on - from The 40-Year-Old Virgin's sense of honesty to the Revenge of the Nerds-style attitude of Superbad.

It goes without saying, but it's a shame shows like My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks never got the attention they deserved. Not just because fans - and, whoo boy, are there dedicated fans of these shows - would have liked more. But because they form a crucial part of modern-day television history. Without them, prime-time network television genuinely wouldn't be the same. But hey, I guess had they drawn bigger audiences, there may well have been network pressure to make things more mainstream, to inject some big cliffhangers, to have big-name guest stars. Such facile tactics are bad enough on your average sitcom or procedural; they simply wouldn't have fit in with the ethos of these shows at all. I guess it's something of a consolation that, while we'll never get more of these particular shows, they have laid the way for many other superb programs to hit the airwaves. In many ways, that's testament to their quality enough. American Idol can have its audience-grabbing theatrics and blockbuster ratings: it's never going to have as profound an effect on so many lives, in so many ways, and on so many industries, as the honesty and genuine emotion poured into, and expounded from, one single episode of the likes of My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The sorry state of British television

A discussion on Frasier Online about the current sorry state of British TV has got me thinking. I certainly don't question the premise - sure, we make some good shows, but nowhere near as many as the States, and even those shows are mostly documentary or "quizcom": when it comes the sitcom and drama stakes, we're doing appallingly. What I do question, though, is whether that will remain the case. And, you know, though, the really sad thing is that I think it will -- and I don't even care anymore. I've resigned myself to the fact that the USA are the world's best at making television, and the UK isn't really a contender any more. That's sad - in years gone by, years before I was even alive, the British TV industry was clearly at the forefront of the game. But nowadays, we don't even try to compete. Gone are the days of Only Fools, Blackadder, The Prisoner. In the UK, we don't even try to push televisual boundaries anymore. By any objective measure, it seems we've gone seriously downhill.

I disagree vehemently with the usual theory that other countries only get to see the best output of the States, and that in fact, the quality of the US's output can be just as bad as ours. Certainly, the US has bad shows. Fear Factor, Dancing With the Stars and Joe Millionaire give our worst shows a run for their money, yes. But these are the exception, rather than the rule. What's more, they usually get just a single slot on primetime, once weekly. Channel 4 gives Big Brother close to to 24-hour a day coverage on digital channel E4, with one to two hours of highlights a day! Meanwhile, production-line-churned, mediocre scripted programming has no place at all in US primetime, Days Of Our Lives and shows of that ilk confined to the appropriate home of the mid-morning and early-afternoon hours. But the BBC and ITV give Eastenders, Emmerdale, The Bill and Coronation Street a combined ten hours of primetime slots per week! Sometimes as many as twelve hours!! Across just two channels!!! All these exclamation marks are justified, honest!!!!

I suppose that would be acceptable, if the remained of primetime was taken up with quality sitcom and drama - trash TV has its place. But no! Taking tonight, Thursday October 30 as an example, there's just one sitcom in primetime on any of the five main channels - Beautiful People on BBC2. (And it's shit.) There's good non-situation comedy in the form of Never Mind the Buzzcocks and The Graham Norton Show - both brilliant programmes, it must be admitted. But I'll be damned if there's anything else worth watching. Natural Born Sellers - an Apprentice rip-off. Real Crime - lazy reality schlock. Embarrassing Teenage Bodies. Danger Men. Slaves In The Cellar. All reality/documentary fare. The only sign of scripted programming anywhere is in BBC's overrated Silent Witness.

Then look at what viewers in the USA can look forward to tonight. My Name Is Earl. The Office. 30 Rock. CSI. Smallville. Supernatural. Ugly Betty. Grey's Anatomy. Life on Mars. Okay, there's some reality stuff - Survivor, Kitchen Nightmares. But at least it doesn't dominate the schedule. I'd argue there's around eight hours of what I'd call quality TV airing in the US tonight. In the UK, there's two at a stretch.

If UK broadcasters want to compete, they need to seriously up their game. Kill off the appalling soaps and mediocre hospital dramas that ER consistently kicks the ass of over a decade into its run. Bring in a decent Friday night sitcom, not crap sketch shows and My Family series twenty-five. Invest in quality drama and don't fall back on the (genuinely good) BBC4 documentaries alone to justify the licence fee. But I can't see it happening. Oh well, at least the US is still delivering a steady diet of quality programming. Here's hoping the credit crunch doesn't damage the pockets of the major US studios.. if it does, I don't know what viewers after quality television will do. The UK broadcasters certainly won't be there for them, that's for sure.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Objective or subjective?

As a semi-professional list-maker (and by "semi-professional" I mean "I don't get paid for it but I do it as much as a paid list-maker would") I often find it hard to determine whether I'm looking at things subjectively or objectively. Sure, most of my lists are heavily dependent on opinion - top TV shows, favourite songs, etc. - but it's still possible to reasonably judge a show based on certain quantifiable criteria - its influence; the extent to which it broke tradition and flouted convention; its cultural impact; its success, both domestic and internationally; its realism; its ability to weave multiple genres together seamlessly; its critical acclaim.

Yet when it comes to compiling my lists, I tend to pick and choose from these criteria, in an attempt to justify my rating of it (positive or negative). I often laud Friday Night Lights, for example - one of my favourite drama series - for its realism, yet its influence is minimal, and its success both at home and abroad has been muted. Similarly, Friends was fairly popular with critics and was a remarkable success, but it had minimal effect on the sitcom genre - instead of flouting tradition, it often adhered rigidly to it. Yet I still rate it as an all-time classic, and many others do too.

My top TV shows list surprises many people; not usually for what shows make it in to the list at all, but for some suspect choices in the top 10. King of the Hill and Malcolm In The Middle often elicit surprise in particular. Most accept them as good shows, but all-time top 10? Maybe not. Thing is, I actually agree with them that neither belong on an objective all-time top 10 list. Sure, King of the Hill is more realistic than most of its animated counterparts; and Malcolm was a pioneer of mainstream multi-camera laugh-track-free sitcom - but neither shook up the TV world like, say, The Wire. It's with these shows that subjectivity enters my list. One can make good cases for The Simpsons, ER and Seinfeld showing up in a top-10 TV show list - but KOTH and Malcolm? Harder.

So why are they there? I think it's because, along with The Simpsons, they were among my first forays into the world of TV beyond Nicktoons and Cartoon Network. I first stumbled across both back around 2000, at ten years old (and just a year after I discovered The Simpsons). Even though I'd been hooked on the idiot box since an early age, it wasn't until then that I picked up on the potential of the format, albeit in my little ten-year-old way. Comedy without a laugh track? Cool! Animated people that actually seemed like real people? Even cooler! I've been hooked on both ever since. It's no surprise that, given rather more years of exposure than almost any other shows, I rate them highly. 24, one of my highest-rated dramas, has been similarly affected: it was the first genuinely dramatic show I got interested in, back when I was 13.

Meanwhile, shows such as Friends, Whose Line Is It Anyway? (US) and Everybody Loves Raymond have been similarly affected. All rate within my top 20, even though none of them really challenged the format (and of course, WLIIA (US) is just a remake of the original UK show). Here, another subjective emotion comes into play: the feelgood factor. In late 2004 I was pretty unwell for a couple of weeks; marathoning seasons 2-5 of Friends for the first time made the time pass so much faster. Whose Line (US) became a staple of my Saturday in 2007; Five US's weekend afternoon marathons, which I'd always settle down to with a family member or two, was a highlight of my week. Raymond S3 made the return to school in September 2006 far more palatable. It's these little things that help me to build up a positive picture of a TV show in my mind, even if it's not genuinely deserving. (Not that I think the shows I've mentioned aren't deserving; but I'd be lying if I said those certain circumstances didn't have at least some effect on my perception of them).

I guess I've given up my search for objectivity. I'm sure stats-mad TV fan could come up with the perfect equation to determine how important a TV show is, based on ratings, sales overseas, Google hits, blog mentions, and the number of times Matt Roush has been quoted on its DVD boxset cover. But I'm happy to continue grading things my way: searching for what I find objectively hilarious and genuinely dramatic, certainly; but also allowing personal circumstances to prevent my list from becoming a dreary clone with no sense of independent taste. (Where else can you find Judge Judy, Saved by the Bell, The Sopranos and NewsRadio all on the same list?)