BrokenTV’s Top 100 Television Shows Of The 00s: Part 5

  • 12/08/2009 12:25:00 am
  • By Mark Gibbings-Jones
  • 1 Comments

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As a few entries in this list have suggested, one of the things ITV can still do to impress us is to look back over its own history. What with 2005 being the 50th anniversary of the network, ITV Plc saw fit to treat us to an entire half-century’s worth of lookbackery.

Oh, lookbackery is so a word.

The flagship programme from amongst these celebrations was the Bragg-helmed “The Story of ITV: The People’s Channel”, a multi-part documentary series looking at the successes of the channel on a genre-by-genre basis. There was even a tie-in book for the series (by Simon Cherry, published by Reynolds & Hearn, ISBN 1-903111 98-6 – we’ve a copy of it to hand, you see). All in all, the series made a pretty good case of reminding everyone just why ITV used to be the nation’s most popular channel. Tellingly, when it came to the most recent years of ITV’s life thus far, it was mainly about the various pop talent shows and ‘…Millionaire’. In the case of the episode on comedy, the example used to highlight the network’s continued commitment to mirth was… Frank Skinner’s ‘Shane’ – the same Frank Skinner’s ‘Shane’ that flopped so badly, the pre-emptively produced second series was made yet never broadcast. Even worse, we don’t think TV Burp even got a mention.

See also: ITV50, the regional shows (ITV1, 2005). In many ways, these were an even better way of showcasing the history of ITV, with each region putting out a retrospective of their own output. This gave viewers a brilliant chance to take in the histories of all the regional outposts they’d likely only ever seen on occasional holidaying  visits to other parts of the UK – a rare treat for those of us who’d read the references in TV Cream to such figures as Harry Gration and Gus Honeybun. Entertainingly, the only ITV region to have actually been on air for the entire fifty years was London, meaning all of the other big regional celebrations had to kick off with lines like “of course, ITV have only been serving the Border region for forty-four years” which is the kind of thing we like seeing happen, because we’re odd. We’re assuming that the thinking behind that was, if ITV Plc have their way, by the time most regions actually do reach their 50th anniversaries, there won’t be any regional ITV channels left to celebrate.

However – and any description of a large-scale ITV project in the 21st century just has to contain a ‘however’ – any goodwill was piddled up the fence by all of the regional celebratory shows being sneaked out quietly on a Sunday afternoon, and they didn’t even make the most of all that effort by putting any of them out nationally on ITV3, meaning TV spods like us had to patiently wait for someone to put them all on UK Nova. Oh, ITV. An hour a day for a fortnight, at 1am on ITV3? Not even that?

Also see also: MTV: 15 Years In Europe (MTV, 2002). Another look back, this time from the perspective of a network with a somewhat less than rich history. That didn’t mean that MTV didn’t make an effort, putting together fresh interviews with big names from the golden age of MTV Europe, along with some brilliant clippage, such as the slightly misguided live Christmas (or maybe New Years Eve, we don’t have our tape of it to hand) special with guest presenters Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, from the tail end of the 1980s. Free from the grip of the BBC, Rik and Ade put on explosive and expletive-strewn performance (such as Mayall introducing a song with the words “Now, he’s not just a fuckcunt, but he’s also a cuntfuck!”), ending with the duo demolishing the very-much-not-designed-to-be-demolished set.

As with the ITV retrospectives, once the documentary reached a certain point, things took a much duller turn. While the first two-thirds of the programme had been marvelling in how lively, fresh and exciting MTV Europe had been in the early days (Ray Cokes! Front 242 on daytime rotation! Half of the adverts being in German!), once it made the split to MTV UK & Ireland, MTV France, MTV Germany et al, there wasn’t much left to say, other than “well, we couldn’t really afford original programming for each nation, so we bunged on a bunch of American MTV shows and hoped for the best. Ooh, but we do still have the MTV Europe Awards! Which, er, is usually hosted by an American, and all the nominations are usually American”. A shame, both for the sake of the documentary, and for the channel itself.
 

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You know when you’re really, really looking forward to a new programme? And there’s a new sitcom coming, and it’s based in the world of IT, and it’s actually performed in front of a studio audience, and it’s being written by Graham “Black Books Father Ted The All-New Alexei Sayle Show Dr Crawshaft’s World Of Pop” Linehan, and Chris Morris is in it? It’s pretty much destined to seem a little disappointing, isn’t it?

Indeed, it did take us a while to warm to The IT Crowd, but by the time the second series got into full swing (after the “Moss and the German” ep, if you’re counting), we were won over. Admittedly, it can suffer from Duff Episode Syndrome occasionally (we didn’t find ourselves enjoying the haunting-Adam-Buxton or introducing-Matt-Berry episodes nearly as much as other people seemed to), but as the series goes on, the laughs are falling from our mouths increasingly quickly, as if, oh, we don’t know, someone had installed a faster Laughter Card running Direct X 11 in our brains. Or. Some. Thing.

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One thing that relentlessly bugs us about US sitcoms – even ones that we really like – is that the characters in the vast majority of them are, at the very least, comfortably off. Yes, we know such shows are there for the purposes of escapism, and if a cafe waitress happens to look like Jennifer Aniston and can easily afford a huge New York apartment (“ah, but Rachel shared that apartment!” – A reader missing the point) it’s okay because it’s NOT REAL, But really – what are the most popular sitcoms of all time in the UK? Steptoe & Son, Fools & Horses, Porridge, Open All Hours – all about people basically struggling to get by, making the most of a bad lot. Even accounting for Dad’s Army or Fawlty Towers, they look at people stuck in a situation they’d rather not be in (either living in wartime Britain, or running a not-successful-enough hotel).

Now, look at most US (live-action) sitcoms. While there are pesky examples like MASH or Cheers to undermine this, for the most part they centre on really quite successful people who merely don’t have everything going their way. Soap, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Larry Sanders Show, 30 Rock or Frasier are all brilliant shows, but you never really get the feeling any of the characters are ever really trapped in their surroundings. Sure, the main characters may feel ego-bound to do whatever they do to cause mayhem in 22-minute syndicated bursts, but they could just as easily sell up for an easier life in Idaho. The marvellous Everybody Hates Chris takes a more British approach to comedy, looking at the fortunes of a hard-working but financially struggling black family in 1980s Brooklyn, with the action centred on eldest child Chris – who, of course, will grow up to be millionaire comedian and actor Chris Rock, but ignore that for now.

A sadly underrated show over here – not helped by being buried on Five and Five US, and often having its more hard-hitting lines censored to boot (including the pivotal use of the word ‘nigger’ by the school bully towards Chris in the first episode, which pretty much sets up the dynamic between the pair from that point on) – it’s another great example of the kind of tightly plotted, cleverly scripted, brilliantly casted US sitcom that we’re really going to need to think up some more decorative prose for by the end of this rundown.

The central character of Chris (played winningly by Tyler James Williams) is handled magnificently, being a fundamentally good, well mannered and honest kid who ends up in all manner of scrapes through little fault of his own. It’s the well-rounded characters making up the rest of his family – indeed, the regular characters from the neighbourhood – that help this show stand out from the crowd. Rochelle, the sassy, intimidating and fiercely protective mother. Julius, industrious, easygoing but frugal father. Drew, younger and  to the almost-imperceptible annoyance of Chris, bigger and more popular of the two brothers. And finally, Tonya, youngest of the three children, perpetual antagonist for her two brothers and a relentless attention-addict, always likely to win her parents over in the event of any argument. All brilliantly written characters, and all played wonderfully by the cast.

On a superficial level, the streets of Brooklyn, New York don’t have much in common with small villages on the outskirts of Wrexham, north Wales, which is where we happened to grow up. However, with us being of a similar age to Chris Rock, we can see a lot of the families we grew up amongst in the Rock family and their neighbours. People struggling to get by, people preferring to rip people off friends and neighbours instead of struggling, hard kids in school looking to distract themselves from the problems in their own home lives by taking it out on anyone unlucky enough to be deemed different, it’s all really quite uncanny. If we had an ounce of talent, we might even consider writing our own “Married For Life”-style spin-off for ITV.

(Oh, and please don’t leave a comment along the lines of “Well, [American Sitcom X] is just like that too! Why haven’t you mentioned [American Sitcom X]? Eh?”. We’re only at number 58, and we probably will mention it. Assuming by “[American Sitcom X]” you don’t mean a whimsical spin-off of the Ed Norton race-hate drama.)
 

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The first programme from south of the equator on our list, and one of the few to actually make it to a mainstream channel over here – several ‘best of’ shows (stripped of the more Aussie- centric content) were broadcast on BBC Four earlier on this year.

Coming from Australian satire troupe ‘The Chaser’ (think ‘The Onion’ or ‘National Lampoon’), ‘War…’ was the follow-up to their ABC-broadcast news spoof CNNNN (Chaser NoN-stop News Network), and took a (slightly) more traditional, studio-audience led approach **LAZY GENERALISATION ALERT**, think a sort of “Saturday Night Armistice meets Fantasy Football League, meets Trigger Happy TV”.

Much of what BBC Four viewers would see of the show centred on the “ha ha, aren’t members of the public/drones who work in retail/public figures of authority” aspects of the show, making it seem – at its worst – little better than Balls Of fucking Steel (case in point, the skit where a Chaserbloke walked into shops wearing a balaclava and a hidden camera, causing blameless staff to panic, fearing they were being robbed). This was a bit of a shame, really, as much of the original show centred on Australian current affairs, with often-entertaining consequences. For example, in 2006 a story had broken in the Australian press about a student who had hugged then-PM John Howard whilst holding a screwdriver. The Chaser team decided to check the level of security surrounding the PM, by sending Chaserbloke Craig Reucassel out to hug Howard during one of his morning constitutionals. Whilst holding a large (if plastic) battleaxe. Reucassel managed to succeed in his task, and subsequently tried to up the ante by trying again on another morning, but this time with a running chainsaw, albeit to a less successful outcome.

Similar stunts were a large part of the show (along with sketches that carried a lesser risk of imprisonment, such as where Andrew Hansen would write angry letters – under a false name - to the ABC, complaining about sketches in the show, and broadcasting the subsequent replies), especially so in election-themed spin-off The Chaser Decides. At the time of the 2007 Australian elections, the actions of the Chaser team were deemed interesting enough to merit a special report on BBC News 24 in the UK (we noticed the report on a Sunday morning, in a cafe that had its television’s sound turned down, so we’ve no idea what was being said. Still, that’s first person research from us, right there).

Possibly the team’s most high-profile stunt (discounting the pointless tabloid-filling bluster over the hugely rubbish anyway “Make A Realistic Wish” sketch) saw the crew visit the 2007 APEC Leaders Summit  in Sydney, under the guise of a fake Canadian delegation. Using rented limousines adorned with the Canadian flag, and waving faked ID passes at security, the Chasers were able to breach the APEC restricted zone, and stop outside the hotel where US President George W Bush (remember him?) was staying. It was only when a Chaserbloke dressed as Osama bin Laden emerged from the back of the rented limo that this particular “jig” was very much “up”. The two Chaserblokes fronting the stunt, along with nine crew members, were detained, questioned and charged by New South Wales Police, under an act which carried a maximum six month prison sentence. Now, while the charges were finally dropped (helped, we’re quite sure, by the overwhelming public approval for the team’s actions, and the fact lax security was largely to blame for them getting as far at they did), we’re quite sure Alex Zane, Olivia Lee, Mark Dolan, Neg Dupree, Toju Okoradudu, Dawn Porter et al would literally shit themselves before trying to pull a similar stunt. “Balls Of Steel”? Balls of marzipan, more like.

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We first looked at Land Girls back in September, in a very rare “actual update about an actual television programme being broadcast at the moment” update. And we can see why – to our cost, this rundown has reminded us just how long it bloody takes to ‘form opinions’ and ‘write sentences’ about TV programmes. Someone really ought to have warned us. The sooner we can go back to just posting a YouTube clip of Ceefax On View and saying something sarcastic about Michael McIntye every four days, the better. Anyway, Land Girls. This is what we’d said at the time:

“The trailer managed to confuse us on Sunday night, with what seemed to be a relatively expensive WWII period drama being shown at the surely-it-must-be-a-Bank-Holiday time of 5.15pm, but no, that’s the timeslot for it. And in our defence, we’d spent around 80% of Sunday in bed drowning in a sea of the most devilishly feverish visions – the concept of cricket or toast would probably have had us similarly floundered by the time we finally made it to the sofa. It’s on every weekday this, er, week at that time, suggesting it’s geared towards elder children.

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Not a bit of it. Episode two alone featured 1940s teenage pregnancy and subsequent attempted abortion, a nine-year-old boy selling bootleg whiskey, arguments aplenty, a bar brawl, thwarted equestricide, and three cast members from the magnificent Early Doors to boot. All in the traditional Blue Peter slot.

Despite us just making it sound like First Of The Summer Skins, or BBC Three’s Fuck Off I’m A Civilian Landworker, it’s all handled as sensibly as if it had been filtered through the typewriter ribbons of Michael O’Neill and Jeremy Seabrook. All the characters you’d expect to find in a classic BBC children’s drama are there:

The plucky teenage girl who’d lied about her age in order to help with the war effort, spunky and idealistic, and who’d think nothing of marching into the American soldiers’ mess to demand they improve the lot of their black compatriots.

Her steadying influence of an older sister (Christine Bottomley, below left), ready to pluckily corner any American GIs who’d try to take advantage of her young sis, and prod their chests so hard their medals will leave indentations in their ribcage.

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A plucky pre-teen scallywag happy to aid the scam-hungry farmer (Mark Benton) with some wizard carrot-related wheezes.

A nosey parker Sergeant willing to spend as much time peeking into the business of his own men as carrying out his duties. If this were being made in 1983, he’d be played by Stephen Lewis.

The Lord Of The Manor – a well-meaning war hero who is always on hand with a word of cheery encouragement or some first-aid tips gleaned from his time in the Somme

The deceitful Lady Of The Manor, on hand to pass on the valuable lesson to children that at least 50% of posh people throughout history were evil (legal note: may not be true).

The perpetually cheery (and plucky) midlands girl who refuses to dwell on the hand life has dealt her, lest it cause her to waver from her land-tending duties.

The superficially plucky land girl who is probably Up To No Good, We’ll Wager.

And at least half a dozen more characters more interesting and well-rounded that you’d find in a great deal of post-watershed dramas. We’re happy to make that judgement call after seeing just one-and-a-half episodes, and recommend everyone visit the Land Girls iPlayer page to dip into it. Go on, do it now.”

Now, admittedly, that iPlayer link won’t work any more (unless the BBC repeat the show over the Christmas break, which they should, because it was brilliant), but us posting all that does save us the effort of coming up with something new to say. Phew for that! Oh, and we were being a little disingenuous with the “on in the Children’s BBC slot” angle, but no-one really picked up on it anyway. So: phew for that, too.

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A programme that could incorrectly be labelled as “landfill documentary” by anyone not bothering to actually watch the programmes themselves. Now, that grouping could quite conceivably include the BBC bean counters who’d seen the proposed outline for the show, and who’d said “Really? Is that what you’re doing? A series of historical documentaries focusing on individual 24-hour periods? Here’s some money from the back of our couch to make it with. And we expect change”. You see, despite the programmes in question – taking in subjects such as “The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand”, “The Birth of Israel”, “The Resignation of Nixon” or “Hiroshima” – having rather grandiose remits, especially as most one-hour episodes took in two such subjects, there clearly wasn’t that much of a budget to play with.

For example, while the flagship BBC One docudrama on the bombing of Hiroshima (from 2005, winner of a BAFTA and an International Emmy) was narrated by John Hurt, used a huge cast of actors and interviewees, employed impressive CGI and went out in a prime-time Sunday night slot, the episode of Days That Shook The World covering the same topic (series one, episode four) doesn’t even warrant its own IMDB page.

That kinds of messes up our comparison of the relative cast sizes, but we will categorically state that despite costing a fraction of the amount to make, and despite containing only a handful of players taking on the pivotal roles in the reconstructions of the events of that day (in both cases, taking in the human cost on both sides of the blast,), Days That Shook The World was able to tell the same story every bit as well. Indeed, the concentration on stating the facts so comprehensively – from both sides wherever possible, of course, belying Johnny Rotten’s assertion that “history is just the winners saying what a bad bunch the losers were” – was to the credit of the people behind the strand, in most cases tasked with boiling down a hugely pivotal 24 hours in global history to a half-hour slot, from which can a few minutes be easily edited out? After all, we want to cram these onto Discovery as well, so we need the space for commercials. Thanks, loves.

 

 

Cripes, we’ve managed to drone on for ages, there. Why didn’t we just make this a top twenty, eh? Then we could just have spent the remainder of the month posting YouTube videos or links to other, much better, websites and relaxing. Not to mention how angry everyone is going to be when they realise they’ve sat through ninety-nine entries just to discover we’ve put The Sunday Night Project at number one… Bah! Anyway, check back tomorrow, when we’ll update anew, with an as yet undetermined quantity of entries on our list…

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