Public Service Announcement 40 of 2012: Dallas (and some thoughts about Glee, Chuck, and TV in the internet age)

You won’t have missed this news, but just in case: Dallas is back, blending old favourites J.R., Bobby, and Sue Ellen with another generation of Ewings and enemies, including Mary Alice and John the Gardener from Desperate Housewives. Widely expected to be a disaster, it got reasonable reviews and found an audience in America, leading to renewal for a second season. I’m disappointed to find out that Sue Ellen is no longer, in J.R.’s immortal words, “a drunk, a tramp, and an unfit mother”, but that apart this might – might – just be worth a go, particularly when Cliff Barnes – yay! – turns up as a guest star (Wednesday 5 September, Five, 9pm).

The Dallas reboot prompted a few thoughts. Firstly, it reminded me of the original show, which I loved. Those of us old enough to have seen Dallas first time round will recall the impact it had on the tired Britain of the 70s. It seemed like a bulletin from another planet: had there ever been anything so venal, so fast-paced, so sexy, so downright dangerous on prime-time TV? A few years ago I was watching daytime TV and a Dallas repeat came on; expecting to be carried away on a tidal wave of nostalgia and blistering immorality all over again I settled down to watch. And nothing happened. For an hour. People had long conversations about the oil business, I suppose; that was about it. This year I’ve tried and failed to imagine how British Dallas viewers from 1980 would feel on watching the show’s spiritual heir, the deeply, satisfyingly trashy Revenge. I suspect they would die of overload. (It should be noted that Revenge has a South Fork Inn, which can’t be anything other than an acknowledgement of the debt.)

Another couple of salient Dallas facts: it was, as far as I can recall, the first American import to have been the subject of a bidding war between what were than the only two broadcasters in the game. ITV outbid the BBC, then was told that British broadcasting didn’t work like that and was obliged to hand it back. And when the famous, world-stopping ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ episode was to be shown on British TV, there were news cameras at Heathrow to record the film canisters, with their top secret content, being unloaded. Film canisters. By plane.

All of which leads me to the news that Sky will be keeping back UK transmission of season 4 of Glee until January 2013, four months after broadcast in America. Now, let’s back up a bit: when Sky outbid Channel 4 for Glee, it boasted that it would be showing season 3 “just days after the States!”. Well, not any more: last week, Sky announced that, in response to “viewer feedback”, it would be holding the show until 2013 to “play (it) back in an unbroken run”. And I have to ask – just how unbelievably, wantonly stupid is this? For the internet-savvy part of the Glee audience – which, given the viewer demographic, will be 100% of it, to all intents and purposes – this ensures that September – December 2012 will be a frustrating experience, as our Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and favourite sites debate episodes, songs, guest stars, Finchel, Klaine, who’s-shagging-who-in-real-life, and the rest of it. There are no more top secret film canisters transporting shows around the world – anything we want to know about Glee will be available to us, more or less in real time, unless we make strenuous efforts to avoid it. But (assuming iTunes doesn’t have next-day rights) we won’t be able to see any of it. Unless, of course…

…And here’s where I need to be careful. For reasons I needn’t trouble you with, Unpopcult doesn’t particularly want to be seen to be indulging in or promoting illegal downloading. So, kids, let’s be clear about this – torrents make your hands fall off. However, it isn’t difficult to imagine (ahem) that someone who pays a lot of money for cable TV every month might have previously been a bit squeamish about the practicalities or legalities of downloading, might give it a go in frustration at not being able to see a favourite show, might then find it remarkably straightforward, and might then wonder exactly why they’re letting broadcasting companies dictate what they can and can’t see, when perfectly serviceable versions of shows are available, essentially free of charge, as long as you have a decent internet connection.

Here’s an example. Unpopcult has reviewed every single episode of Chuck shown on TV in the UK. We love it; we’ve promoted it; we’ve more or less proselytized for it. Season 5, however, has never been shown, and Sky – see how the names come round again? – went as far as confirming that it wouldn’t be showing the final season. At that point, remember, there was no UK broadcaster; it wasn’t on iTunes; it wasn’t on DVD; it wasn’t available anywhere. Nor, importantly, was there any guarantee that it ever would be – British viewers have never seen seasons 3, 4, and 5 of Friday Night Lights, for instance, or seasons 3, 4, and 5 of Breaking Bad (although seasons 3 and 4, as of today, are available via Netflix), or Parks and Recreation, and I suspect we might have seen the last of Parenthood. (There are plenty of other examples.) So any British viewer willing to pay to see Chuck legitimately was finding out that no-one wanted her money, in a difficult economy, when TV companies are complaining about falling revenues because of – yes – illegal downloading. These – and it can’t be stressed too much – are the economics of the madhouse.

As it happens, season 5 of Chuck is finally being released on DVD in the UK in October 2012, fully nine months after the final episode was broadcast in America. The mood might well have gone off some viewers. (Obviously – see above – I haven’t seen the final season. If I had, hypothetically, I’d probably think that after a slow start it hit something approaching form in its second half, with a finale which was ambiguous enough to be dramatically satisfying, while leaving viewers in little doubt that there would, in due course, be a happy ending. Or perhaps I wouldn’t think that at all, because I haven’t seen it.)

It’s pretty easy to see what the inevitable endgame will be: for a monthly fee, the viewer will have all-platform access to everything broadcast everywhere within (say) 48 hours. I’d pay for that. So, I guess, would most of you at this point. If I were the TV and production companies I’d get on it quickly, before even more people wonder why they’re ponying up lots of money in order not to be able to see Glee until 2013, which will be followed, in due course, by the TV business going the way of the music business.

Oh yeah. Anyway. Dallas on Wednesday.

Public Service Announcement 7 of 2012: The Lying Game, Chuck, The Almighty Johnsons

First out of the gate this week is The Lying Game, a trashy new teen drama series about twin sisters, separated at birth, who swap lives.  One’s rich, one’s poor, there are lots of secrets and lots of glamorous people: it sounds like the working title for this should have been “The Ringer Parent Trap”, although in fairness it began in the US before Ringer and is based on the series of novels by Sara Shepard.  No matter.  It looks it’ll be soapy rubbish, but potentially entertaining soapy rubbish, so while it’s not something we’ll be reviewing, it is something I’ll try watching.  And quite possibly enjoying.  You can catch it on Five* tomorrow (Monday 30th) at 9pm if you want to join me.

Staying on Five* for just a moment, can I give a quick shout-out to season 2 of Chuck which starts at 9pm on Tuesday 31st?  This is both ironic and painful for UK Chuck fans, given that the show has just ended forever in the US and there’s still no UK home for the final season, but if you’ve never caught it before or you want to remember why it is so many people are so fond of the Nerd Herd, season two’s a great place to visit.  And – shameless plug alert – why not re-read our season 2 weekly reviews while you do it?

Maybe we shouldn’t completely give up hope of season 5 showing up on British tv screens one day, though.  After all, Thursday 2nd February finally sees the UK debut of brilliant New Zealand series The Almighty Johnsons on Syfy at 10pm.  I thought there was no prospect of it ever being screened here but there it is, a bright, shining star in the Syfy schedule which regrettably won’t get it a lot of viewers.  It’s difficult to write a short description that does the show any sort of justice; plenty of people will run a mile when they see that it’s about a guy who discovers on his 21st birthday that he and his brothers are Norse gods, with major powers and major problems, but it’s riotously funny, bawdy, sweet and incredibly dark in equal measure and if you haven’t seen it already, please do give it a shot.  But – warning – not in a room with anyone who can’t tolerate cable-level amounts of sex and swearing on screen.

Of course, that’s not anywhere near it in tv terms for the foreseeable future: watch this space for more PSAs over the next couple of weeks as Being Human, True Blood, Ringer, Secret Circle and plenty of others all return in February.  Seeing as I’m here now, though, I may as well mention a few other shows popping up in the meantime.  On the sex and swearing front, Spartacus Vengeance starts on Monday this week at 10 PM on Sky 1.  The BBC drama department, meanwhile – presumably far less raunchily – gives us Prisoners’ Wives on Tuesday at 9 PM and Inside Men on Thursday at 9 PM, both on BBC 1.  None of them look like my cup of tea, but if you give them a go, let us know how you get on.

Public Service Announcement 41 of 2011: Braquo, Misfits, Chuck

FX’s attempt to move in on the small-but-influential Engrenages/Forbrydelsen demographic kicks off on Sunday, when UK viewers get their first chance to see imported French drama Braquo. We’re promised grit, amorality, and him out of Betty Blue. Unpopcult will be giving this the week-by-week treatment (FX, Sunday 30 October, 10pm).

And at the very same time, inconsistent ASBO-superheroes Brit-drama Misfits starts season 3. Now, we’re down a Nathan from previous seasons, and I have mixed feelings about this – on the one hand, he was the character most likely to have me putting my foot through the screen; on the other hand, it couldn’t be denied (and I didn’t) that Robert Sheehan had genuine star quality and charisma. Not surprisingly, therefore, he’s the first Misfit to fly the nest. On the face of it, the producers have responded well, recruiting Joseph Gilgun (This Is England) to fill the orange jumpsuit, but it remains to be seen whether Misfits is a better-balanced show without Sheehan overshadowing the others, or whether losing him is a mortal wound. (Incidentally, E4 has produced a short video, ‘Vegas Baby’, which covers Nathan’s departure and Gilgun’s arrival, and which at the time of writing is available on iTunes in the UK and E4’s own website.) Weekly reviews here, unless we lose interest (E4, Sunday 30 October, 10pm).

Now a couple of unusual PSAs. Returning for a fifth and final season tonight in America is Unpopcult favourite Chuck. We’re wedded to British transmission on Unpopcult, so we wouldn’t normally mention this. Except that (a) there are no details of when Chuck will be returning to British screens; in fact (b) the word from Sky Living, the home of season 4, is that they won’t be showing it, and (c) as yet no-one else has picked it up,  so (d) there’s some doubt that UK viewers will get to see it at all. On the other hand, (e) the last season appeared on iTunes in Britain after American transmission. So (f) if the same happens this time, and Chuck is therefore legitimately available in the UK, we’ll be reviewing it, but if not we won’t.

And after 13 years, Beavis & Butt-head has returned on MTV in the USA. It really shouldn’t need saying by now that it’s not the civilization-ending celebration of stupidity that some touted it as during its first run, but subtle, ironic, satirical, and very funny. Welcome back, guys. It’s been too long. Huh huh huh. I said “long”.

Also starting: American mystery drama Persons Unknown (Syfy, Monday 31 October, 9pm) in which a group of strangers are stranded in a deserted town; and Brit drugs drama Top Boy (C4, Monday 31 October, 10pm).

Chuck s4 ep 24

Chuck traditionally brings it for the season finale – probably because the writers have always had to contemplate the possibility that it will also be the series finale – and this was no exception. Sarah’s gravely ill, and a de-intersected Chuck has to find the antidote. To do so he needs to dig Volkoff out, but Volkoff’s now back to being Hartley Winterbottom. It would be fair to say that this isn’t a show which stands or falls on the quality of its acting, but Timothy Dalton – every inch a good actor – brings precisely the right amount of befuddlement and determination to the role of Hartley/Volkoff. Meantime, Chuck and the gang are being chased by the CIA, and specifically by Karl Meyer from Desperate Housewives (Richard Burgi), who wants to make sure that the big secret of Volkoff’s creation doesn’t get out.

It all ends well: there’s a minor cliffhanger which gives the writers somewhere to take the show, Chuck gets rich and starts a freelance spy agency which gives the writers somewhere else to take the show, and fittingly Morgan – who’s been the MVP for at least two seasons now – gets a moment in the sun, with the promise of more next season.

There have been dips along the way, but the last few episodes of this season saw a startling return to form, and overall the writers deserve credit for managing to integrate the Chuck and Sarah relationship into the show – not to mention Chuck’s relationship with his mother. I’m not sure the show needs any more than a final round-up, but I’m delighted that it’s going to get just that in the shape of season 5.

Chuck s4 ep 23

It looks as if the writers were saving the good ideas up for the end of the season after all. ‘Chuck vs the Last Details’ was another winner. This week’s McGuffin is the Norseman device, that DNA weapon we saw a couple of weeks ago, being chased by the CIA and Vivian Volkoff. (The weakness remains Vivian herself: she comes over as petulant teenager rather than Big Bad, and there’s still not been a remotely plausible explanation for why she suddenly became EVIL.) The writers pull off a coup by taking the standard tension between bride-to-be and mother-in-law-to-be and reframing it within a mission in which there’s a dispute between Sarah the spy and Frost the spy, with Chuck forced to take sides. And the Morgan/Casey relationship continues to pay dividends: Casey now wants to keep Morgan safe for Alex’s sake.

There were plenty of moments to cherish—keeping Morgan front and centre means that some of the geekery we saw from early-seasons Chuck has found its way back in, with repeated homages to ‘Star Wars’ this time round. Perhaps the loveliest moment, unexpectedly, came from Jeff: his video montage, soundtracked by Bright Eyes, was real lump-in-the-throat stuff for those of us who’ve been on Team Chuck since episode 1. (It bears repeating that this episode, like all of the second half of the season, was made and aired in America when it looked as if the show was about to be cancelled, which rendered this sequence all the more elegiac.) Having previously thought that Chuck was running out of steam, I’m now up for next week’s finale and the fifth season.

Chuck s4 ep 22

I’d just about written the tail-end of this season off, but then Chuck delivered last time out with as purely enjoyable an episode as we’ve had all year. And for those of us who’ve kept the faith, this one was very nearly every bit as good, bringing SpyWorld and BuyMoreWorld together in another episode with heart, humour, and thrills. Not only that, but Ellie—who’s been underused this season—was integrated into the plot as well.

In fairness to the writers it’s becoming increasingly difficult to come up with scenarios in which the parts of BuyMoreWorld which don’t know about Chuck and the CIA —really now just Jeffster! and Big Mike—can be worked into a spy plot, but they just about pulled it off this week with some satisfying nonsense about Chuck’s bachelor party. Meantime everyone’s after Daddy Bartowski’s laptop as the key to the identity of Agent X: a search which ultimately takes the team to a house in Somerset and Millicent Martin having a great time as the mother Casey never had. And it’s becoming increasingly clear to Chuck that he needs to ‘fess up to Ellie. With Radiohead’s ‘Codex‘ soundtracking the final couple of minutes, this was another episode to savour.

Chuck s4 ep 21

Calling this episode a pleasant surprise would be a considerable understatement: in fact, ‘Chuck vs The Wedding Planner’ turned out to be one of the best episodes of the season, and as I type this I’m struggling to think of one I enjoyed more. Chuck and Sarah have hired Daphne to plan their wedding.  Unfortunately she turns out to be a con artist who waltzes off with their savings. They’re extremely miffed about this; not only are they CIA agents, of course, but Sarah used to run scams for her father, and is firmly of the view that she should have been able to spot the con a mile off. So they pull a little trick of their own and convince Beckmann that Daphne’s an enemy of the state, meaning that the CIA’s resources are deployed to track her down. As this looks unlikely to be enough, it’s fortunate that Sarah’s father (the peerless Gary Cole) is back on the scene to help. It all goes wrong, of course, and even after Chuck’s identified a real threat Beckmann doesn’t want to know, and suspends the pair of them.

It all rolls on from there, with spy action and farce nicely balanced. (I loved the fake wedding.) On top of that, though, the episode hits some substantial and satisfying emotional beats. Sarah will forever have unfinished business with her father, which are explored touchingly. Even better than that, though, is Casey’s encounter with his babymama, who of course thought Casey to be dead. Adam Baldwin doesn’t have much proper acting to do most weeks, but he’s convincingly torn between duty and love this week. It’s great to be reminded of just how good Chuck can be; this was a lovely episode.