onsdag 17 februari 2016

TV-Month: The Sitcom

What kind of TV-shows did you watch growing up? Apart from children's programming, I, and many others, would have to answer that question with "sitcoms". Most commercial TV channels I had access to filled their afternoon schedule with reruns of American sitcoms and it became something of a weekday ritual to sit down and watch That '70s Show (1998-2006) and the like before dinner. I still enjoy the genre, even though I haven't added any new ones to my watch list in quite a while, and I today would like to discuss specific traits and tropes related to the sitcom format.

What is a sitcom?
Generally speaking, what distinguishes the sitcom, or "situation comedy", genre from other types of comedy is that the comedy is derived from character interactions in a specific setting, be it a home, a school or a workplace. However, for the purposes of this discussion I will use the term in a more narrow, television-specific sense, which I will call the theatre sitcom. I use this term because I think the typical sitcom format is very similar to theatre: few sets, limited camera movement (similar to how a stage play is viewed) and a studio audience. Don't misunderstand me. I actually prefer comedy shows that deviate from this format, such as the one-camera medical comedy Scrubs (2001-2010) or the mockumentary-style political comedy Parks and Recreation (2009-2015). I chose to narrow my focus to the theatre sitcom for a number of reasons: I couldn't possibly discuss all of television comedy in one post, this format has the most nostalgic value for me and, most importantly, this is what most people associate with the term "sitcom".

There is a good reason why this format has been and remains popular. It is perfect for television, as per the budgetary restrictions discussed in last week's post. Most or all scenes are shot in a studio, using a small number of sets. It uses a small ensemble cast and rarely introduces new characters for more than a few episodes. The episodes are short and scenes can be shot rapidly because of the small number of sets and locations.

Sitcoms are commonly thought of as family entertainment. This is partly because content restrictions favour family-friendly content, but also because of availability. The best way to ensure a steady viewership, which is what all TV-shows aim for, is to make the show appeal to as many demographics as possible. Many sitcoms feature a family, providing characters that both parents and children can identify with and allowing plots that all family members can relate to. Watching the latest episode of a particular sitcom can even be a family event!

As with any genre, there are particular tropes associated with sitcoms. Below, I will focus on a few that I think are interesting from an analytical point-of-view.

Firstly, sitcoms, like most forms of comedy, uses plenty of stock characters. Stock characters are character stereotypes, e.g. the strict father, the clueless mother, the weird neighbour or the nerdy friend. Stock characters are used for a number of reasons. The audience can immediately recognise the stereotype and therefore already knows a lot about the character, without the need to spend precious airtime on character development. It is also possible to surprise the audience, who expects a certain character to act a certain way, by having a character occasionally act contrary to their stereotype. Finally, stock characters interact with each other in specific comedic ways, making the writing process easier and faster, which might be necessary to accommodate the production schedule. So, yes, you could call it lazy writing.

To exemplify the use of stock characters in sitcoms, I will refer you to That '70s Show. The show uses plenty of stereotypical characters, some related to the era in which it is set. Eric Forman (Topher Grace), arguably the main protagonist, is a nerdy Star Wars fan, his best friend Steven Hyde (Danny Masterson) is a counter-culture conspiracy criminal, and his love interest Donna Pinciotti (Laura Prepon) is a tomboy and, more prominently later in the series, second-wave feminist. Other teenaged main characters include the handsome but stupid Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher), the mean, shallow, upper-class brat Jackie Burkheart (Mila Kunis), and the foreign pervert Fez (Wilmer Valderama). Eric's parents, Red (Kurtwood Smith) and Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp), exemplify the strict father and the cheerful housewife mother respectively. In discussing stock characters, one must remember that the actual characters are show-specific variants of stereotypes and, as a show progresses, characters usually become more three-dimensional. However, stock characters are still useful as analytical tools, as they allow us to compare characters from different shows or films.

Secondly, as sitcoms are made to be accessible to anyone familiar with the premise of the particular show, they are often characterised by the status quo. While sitcoms may have season-long story arcs, they are often downplayed throughout most of the season and most episodes are quite formulaic and self-contained. A conflict is established, unfolds and is resolved by the end of the episode. Individual episodes rarely have a lasting effect on a show or its characters. Change, in the form of new characters and locations or changes in relationships between characters, is slow and carefully done to avoid upsetting the audience. If a change is perceived negatively, it can be undone using retroactive continuity.

In some sitcoms, however, change is inevitable. Child actors grow up and this can be used to explore other possibilities for the characters. Time is also a factor. In order for a show to be set in the current year, and deal with contemporary topics, some character evolution and aging is often necessary, unless the show employs a floating timeline - when the characters don't age and the show is always assumed to be set in the current year. This is more common in animated sitcoms, a distinct genre, such as The Simpsons (1989-) and Family Guy (1999-). That '70s Show uses a variation on this, as the eight seasons of the show takes place between 1976 and New Year's Eve 1979, with every season, for example, having its own Christmas episode.

The Big Bang Theory (2007-) is a good example of how change often works in sitcoms. The show is about Caltech scientists Leonard (Johnny Galecki), Sheldon (Jim Parsons), Howard (Simon Hellberg) and Raj (Kunal Nayyar) and how their lives change when they meet Leonard and Sheldon's new neighbour Penny (Kaley Cuoco). The early seasons deal mostly with Leonard's crush on Penny and their subsequent attempts at a relationship, before they finally get together and eventually marry. Along the way, new female main characters are introduced in Howard's girlfriend and later wife Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) and Sheldon's girlfriend Amy (Mayim Bialik). Over the course of the series, the five original main characters each change noticeably: the shy Leonard becomes more confident; the irresponsible Penny becomes more responsible and abandons her struggling acting career for a more secure profession; the social oblivious and anal retentive Sheldon grows up and becomes more considerate and socially open; the childish and perverted Howard matures; and Raj, who in the early seasons was unable to speak to women when sober, gets over most of his insecurities. However, the characters are still recognisable as their counterparts from the first few seasons.

Thirdly, another common trope in sitcoms, as well as television in general, is the "will-they-won't-they" couple. There are usually two main characters who throughout the series pursue each other romantically without ever establishing a stable relationship for more than a season at a time. They do however often end up together at the end of the series. One reason this trope has become so conventional is because it allows for a number of plots and conflicts: pursuing one another, getting together, breaking up and dealing with the consequences.

How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014) is a sitcom that, in a way, attempts to subvert the trope. The show is framed as "Future Ted" (Bob Saget) telling his children in 2030 how he met their mother. In the first episode, we are told that main character Ted's (Josh Radnor) new love interest Robin (Cobie Smulders) is not the titular mother. Over the course of the show, we see Ted pursuing Robin, the two of them dating and breaking up, and both characters meeting other people - in Robin's case, other main character Barney (Neil Patrick Harris). In a controversial twist ending, Ted and Robin get together at the end of the series finale, set in 2030. Even if we ignore the ending, the show still fails to subvert the trope. Ted and Robin's relationship is the focus of the series and a problem in many of their romantic relationships with other people.

Values and ideology
I would like to finish this discussion with a reflection on what sitcoms, consciously or not, teach us about life. There are values and ideologies to be uncovered in any genre or work of fiction and I will now attempt an ideological analysis on the sitcom as a genre.

Most sitcoms emphasize what I like to call "extended family values". Sitcoms deal with conflict between family and friends and these conflicts are often resolved by the characters realising that family/friendship is more important than whatever the conflict may be about. The main characters learn to see beyond each other's differences and bad sides and focus on what really matters. They have to put up with each other, because defection is never ethically acceptable.

Another common theme is "true love and destiny". Related to the "will-they-won't-they" trope, love usually conquers all. The unstable couple cannot give up on each other because they are soul mates. They are expected to keep trying until it works, regardless of how hopeless it seems. Because all's fair in love and war, attempts to hinder the other person from pursuing other romantic relationships are not only morally defensible, but also imperative. When s/he finally realises that the two of you are meant to be, all will be forgiven. In the real world, this kind of romantic behaviour is usually referred to as harassment or stalking. Another important aspect of sitcom love is that it is almost always heterosexual. Homosexual characters may occasionally be featured, but are rarely written as main characters. They may be used as comic relief (e.g. as silly, sassy or for the purpose of a "gay panic" joke), as a way for the show to comment on LGBT issues or for the sake of diversity. Nowadays, gay characters are more common than before, but I cannot recall a single gay character ever being featured on The Big Bang Theory, arguably the most popular sitcom right now.

Many sitcoms try to be socially progressive, but often find it to difficult because of the status quo. Let me explain what I mean. All In The Family (1971-1979) is famous for its dealing with social and political issues, through the conservative main character Archie (Carroll O'Connor) and his liberal daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and son-in-law Michael (Rob Reiner). The show dealt with controversial issues like racism, feminism, homophobia and the Vietnam War, and episodes usually ended with Archie being proven wrong. While the show was progressive in that it did not shy away from taking a stand on social issues, the problem is that Archie never learns or changes and most issues are only episode-specific. Because of the sitcom format, it is not even possible. If episodes dealing with important issues can't have any impact on the show as a whole, how much can the show be said to care about those issues? In the defense of the show, it was actually quite ground-breaking for a sitcom in the 1970s to actually adress controversial topics.

For some reason, I, and many others, are still drawn to the sitcom genre, even though it is predictable, formulaic and ideologically suspect. The process of writing this analysis has been strange - why would you overthink something so thoughtless? Well, to be honest, because critical thinking is important and, often, self-reflecting. I realise now why I, and so many others, love sitcoms. They are unchallenging. They are safe. And that is why it is important to analyse them. What makes us feel safe says just as much about us as what feels threatening, maybe even more.

And some of them are quite entertaining.

lördag 13 februari 2016

Hot Off The Presses: Deadpool (2016) Review

So, I just got back from the theatre. While I prefer to do more in-depth reviews and reflect on a film for some time before reviewing it, I thought it would be fun to share my initial thoughts on this particular film. Why? Well, this is a film that demands to be talked about. Not because it's ground-breaking, which it isn't, but because it is, in my opinion, extremely well-made. And fun. It's really fun. Because I sincerely think you should see it, this review will be spoiler-free.

Deadpool (Tim Miller, 2016) is a black comedy-superhero-action film about Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a former special ops operative, now a thug for hire, who is subjected to horrible experiments, giving him superpowers but deforming him in the process. He becomes the masked vigilante Deadpool and embarks on a quest for revenge and to get his girl back.

As you can see from the trailer, there is more to this film than the basic story. The film is based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name and is set in the same universe as the X-Men film series. While I haven't read any Deadpool comics myself, I do have an idea of who the character is. Known as the "Merc with a mouth", he is an insane, witty antihero mercenary with a tendency to break the fourth wall. In other words, he is aware that he is a comic book character.

How does this character then translate into film? I'm going to break this review down into three parts, each focusing on how the film works as comedy, superhero and action film separately, before finishing with some concluding thoughts.

You will laugh. The film is constantly throwing jokes, of varying quality, at you and you will laugh throughout most of it. Some jokes are vulgar, some are childish, some will be completely lost on you if you aren't up to date on pop culture trivia. Some are clever and set up and executed extremely well. These, along with how much fun Ryan Reynolds seems to have portraying the character, will help you cope with jokes of lesser quality. If you see the film with subtitles, you'll also laugh at the feeble attempts of the translators to interpret Deadpool's inventive insults to a non-english speaking audience. However, one thing that bothered me a bit is that the film is riddled with pop culture references. Some, especially those related to other superhero films, are brilliant, but a lot of them just makes you think of Family Guy (1999-).

Anyone familiar with Ryan Reynolds body of work knows that he is a great comedic actor, which is incredibly important in this film. Deadpool is not only the film's protagonist and narrator, he is the focus of nearly every scene. And Reynolds definitely does a good job. He is, however, not the only funny actor in the film. Morena Baccarin, of Firefly (2002) fame, who plays the love interest Vanessa and T. J. Miller, who plays Deadpool's best friend Weasel, both get funny lines and scenes. However, they do come up short compared to Reynolds.

Superhero film
Is Deadpool even a superhero film? Deadpool is an antihero, who in the film explicitly rejects the superhero label. He also doesn't save the world, as is typically the case in superhero films. He does however have a villain to defeat and an underdeveloped love interest to save. He also seems to be aware that he is in a superhero film. This type of fourth wall-breaking self-awareness is, as far as I understand, very typical of his comic book counterpart and, as mentioned above, it does open up a lot of comedic possibilities. In one scene, he visits Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters and comments on that it is almost empty because the producers couldn't afford to have more than two X-Men in the film. He also makes fun of other superhero films, particularly X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Hood, 2009), where Reynolds portrayed a much-hated version of Deadpool.

Is Deadpool then a subversion or a parody of the superhero film genre? I wouldn't go that far. To call it a subversion would be to ignore how much it borrows from other superhero films in terms of plot structure and scenes. There is, for example, a scene where a deformed pre-Deadpool Wade Wilson walks down the street with a hoodie, trying to hide his deformed face, reminiscent of a scene with Ben Grimm/The Thing (Michael Chiklis) from Fantastic Four (Tim Story, 2005). To call it a parody would be insulting. The best comparison I can make is to Edgar Wright's "Cornetto trilogy" - Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007) and The World's End (2013) - which are not really parodies of zombie, action and science fiction films, but are comedies set in those kinds of genre film universes. This is probably the best way to view Deadpool.

Why do we watch action films? To get excited, get our blood pumping and just say "whoa" at how magnificent fights, car chases, and destruction of property can be. And Deadpool delivers. Its action scenes are well-made, albeit not particularly innovative, and the fight choreography is brilliant. Deadpool fight with guns, swords and martial arts and does some very impressive jumps and flips.

There is, however, another important part of any action film that is arguably missing in Deadpool: the sense of danger. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, Deadpool's skills and superpowers make him almost indestructible and we never really fear for his life. Contrary to this, one could argue that the film still has high stakes. Deadpool has to save his love interest and defeat the villain, who is a very threatening character. Ed Skrein gives a quite scary performance when his character is the one in control of the situation.

Secondly, the film is sometimes a bit too self-aware and breaks the cinematic illusion, which reminds us that we are indeed watching a film. Some action scenes even stop for a second for Deadpool to deliver a one-liner. This was something that I was worried about early in the film - how can we empathise with a character that doesn't appear to take anything seriously? While this was a bit of problem throughout the film, there are scenes that show us that there is a real person behind the red mask and the jokes.

Concluding thoughts
Deadpool is, despite the problems mentioned above, a really good film. It somehow manages to be both dark and light-hearted at the same time - don't ask me how. If you're a fan of superhero films, you should go see it now.

fredag 5 februari 2016

TV-Month: Television vs Film - Production and Adaptation

While there are numerous of highly anticipated films coming out this year, like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016) and Captain America: Civil War (Anthony Russo & Joe Russo), 2016), it seems a lot of people are more excited about the next seasons of TV-shows like Daredevil (2015-) and Game of Thrones (2011-). When did television become big enough to compete with movies for audience attention?

This month, I will focus on television rather than film. I will discuss television as a whole, particular genres and review a few TV shows. The focus will be on American television, as American TV-shows are watched all over the world and are often seen as the standard for television production. Today I will discuss the differences between television and film and how these differences are becoming increasingly less clear.

At first glance, movies and TV-shows seem very similar and analytically comparable. However, this is only partially true. While we are in both cases dealing with moving pictures, there are significant production differences that must be taken into account. The most important ones to keep in mind are budget and content.

This is probably the most significant difference between TV and film. Since films are usually released in theatres, every audience member pays a certain sum of money every time they watch it. Films are budgeted according to how many people they think will pay to see it. In times when a lot of people go to the movies, films are produced with higher budgets. Television, on the other hand, is paid for by either advertisement or, in the case of publicly funded television, by tax-payer money. This results in lower budgets, which in turn results in differences between the two media to keep in mind.

Firstly, television is traditionally produced very quickly. Producers can't afford long production times and one season of a TV-show, up to 14 hours of episodes, can be produced in a single year, while a two hour movie often takes a few years to finish. This hectic schedule affects the quality of the final product - TV-shows rarely do re-shoots.

Secondly, TV-shows are limited in terms of sets and locations. Because they can't afford to shoot in locations all over the world, and provide housing for cast and crew, production is usually limited to one city and a few sets and locations. This limits the plot of the series or forces the crew to build sets for foreign locations which may end up looking artificial, breaking the illusion. However, some television genres are build around these limitations, for example the "sitcom", which I will discuss next week.

Thirdly, a limited budget also means limited special effects. In a drama series with supernatural elements, the script has to keep in mind that some effects are more expensive than others. For example, it is quite expensive to have a character that can fly, at least if you want the effects to look realistic.

Television content is heavily restricted by law and network standards, as shows are usually expected to be suitable for anyone. While films are also subject to similar restrictions, if a director wants to include cursing, violence and sexuality in their film, they can do so and the film will receive a higher rating. Moreover, films are generally stand-alone products, while TV-episodes are not and therefore the content of each episode is subject to the same standards as the series as a whole; you can't just have one R-rated episode in a PG-13 series.

The big exception to this rule is Cable television and other subscription-based services. HBO, Showtime and Netflix are not subject to the same standards as their programming is not publicly available.

The times they are a-changin'
While these limitations still affect the television medium, we are seeing shows with larger budgets and more explicit content than ever before. This change has everything to do with the subscription-based services mentioned above. As people are paying for their programming, they can afford bigger budgets and make higher-quality shows. HBO took a big chance with Game of Thrones. It is one of the most expensive TV-shows ever produced, with episode budgets ranging from five to ten million dollars. It paid off extraordinarily well. Nowadays we are seeing more shows with higher budgets, more diverse locations, larger casts and better special effects. These improvements are not limited to subscription-based services; even networks are spending more money in this golden age of television.

Is television a better medium for adaptations than film?
George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels, famously refused to sell the rights for a film adaptation of the series. In hindsight, he definitely did the right thing. His books are long and full of complex relationships and world-building, and it would be impossible to fit most of it in a two-hour movie. While Game of Thrones has excluded some of it, as you have to do with any kind of adaptation, it uses its ten-hour seasons to do Martin's world and characters justice. With this in mind, should we prioritize television adaptation before film adaptations?

It makes sense, doesn't it? Novels, like television, generally employ episodic storytelling, while films use a three-act structure, which isn't as visible in novels. Also, we don't generally read books in one sitting, we read them a few chapters at a time, which is comparable to watching one episode every week. As any fan of a book series that has been adapted to film can attest, they always leave out important things. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Mike Newell, 2005) they excluded a subplot from the book about Hermione's activism to liberate the house elves of Hogwarts, which angered a lot of book fans since it was important to her character. A season-long TV-adaptation wouldn't have had to cut it, since they would've had more time. Also, wouldn't the very episodic The Hobbit have been better as a miniseries than a overly long trilogy with tons of added material that no one thought was necessary?

The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes the most faithful adaptation is also the best film or TV-show possible. Changes in adaptation are unavoidable, because novels, comic books et cetera are written and published differently from films and TV-shows. There are different standards; you can usually get away with more in terms of content in short stories and novels than in any visual medium. What makes a great book is not the same thing that makes a great film or TV-show.

Every adaptation is an interpretation, not a representation, of the source material. Which medium is best suited for the adaptation is dependent on what kind of story you want to tell. If you want a faithful adaptation of a long story, television might be better suited than film, but some stories are better presented in a shorter format. Comic books, the single largest provider of source material for Hollywood today, is an interesting example. Most famous comic book characters today have decades-long histories and countless different versions have emerged over the years. Sometimes, the best thing to do is not to adapt any one storyline, but to write a new story based on the characters, which is what most comic book adaptations have done. In these cases, the important part is to be faithful to an interpretation of the characters; the adaptation does not have to represent the entire history of the comic series. Take Batman, for example. There have been countless film, television and video game adaptations of the Caped Crusader: their Batmans are not the same, but they are all Batman, in different media, genres and creative hands.

These considerations are important, but I have neglected to mention another important aspect of adaptations: they are not simply made by creative artists, but by studios and production companies. Hollywood blockbusters are not primarily meant to be great films, but to be profitable. There is of course a financial incentive in television as well, but TV-shows have to be consistently good to keep a large audience, especially with a smaller marketing budget. Therefore, the decisions made during the adaptation process may be made for different reasons in different media.

With everything above in mind, we cannot simply dismiss film as a worse medium for adaptation, but there are differences we need to take into account. Some stories and interpretations are better for television and others more suitable for film.

This will have to serve as an introduction to "TV-Month". Come back next week when I discuss the possibilities and limitations of the traditional American sitcom.