It’s the dawning of a ne-e-e-ew era for television, and for Telly Addict. Just over two years in the chair, and I’m reviewing my first ever television programme that I didn’t watch on my television. I’m talking about season four of Arrested Development, which can only be viewed by subscribing to video streaming service Netflix, which I have now done. I can’t make the sound work when I connect my MacBook to the TV, though, which is why I’ve only watched the first two of 15 brand new episodes on a laptop screen. Meanwhile, back on steam-driven TV, I’ve been beaten by Chris Packham’s games on Springwatch on BBC2, re-educated by Horrible Histories on CBBC (shouldn’t there be some kind of adult-lock that prevents me from watching this channel?), entertained by Psychobitches on Sky Arts (which is the best female-centric comedy that started last week), and gripped by The Americans on ITV1, which is money well spent by the network. There’s also time for a quick clip from Five Years on BBC2, which I failed to review last week because of the stupid Bank Holiday/Memorial Day Weekend.
Taking my cue from a remark made by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan in the final episode of the excellent PBS documentary The United States Of Television (re-framed and shown here with added Yentob on BBC2), this week’s Telly Addict sets out to prove that the best TV drama is better than Hollywood movies, with specific reference to Game Of Thrones and Mad Men, both at episode seven in their respective seasons on Sky Atlantic at time of writing; also, a tiny leap from Oliver Stone’s Untold History of America, also on Sky Atlantic, to The 80s: The Decade That Made Us on National Geographic (first time on Telly Addict for the channel – ripple of welcoming applause); plus, The Fall, on BBC2, an excellent new police drama from BBC Northern Ireland that punches it weight with the American occupiers; and a strange signal from Hannibal on Sky Living. A packed programme tonight, as the Ronnies used to say. And better than The Great Gatsby, for sure.
Catching up with the Masterchef final on BBC1 from last week this week on Telly Addict. Also, the quick death of Four Rooms on C4; Da Vinci’s Demons on Fox; a much more promising new US drama, Banshee, on Sky Atlantic; and two new sitcoms on ITV, Vicious and The Job Lot, one of which I’m sticking with. Due to the Bank Holiday, I hadn’t seen the final episode of The Village when I wrote this one, so I’ll catch up with it next week, as I understand it ended with a song and dance number.
So, we’ve reached 100 and nobody’s taken us off the air yet. This is the centennial of Telly Addict. I wrote and read out the first one in May 2011, and have done so pretty much every week (except occasional public holidays and the week I had off when the insanely ambitious Stuart Heritage siezed his opportunity) ever since, for 100 weeks in total, not including the Bake Off special I did at Christmas. That’s a lot of first episodes of a lot of TV programmes that I never watched again, assessed in a pithy and I hope lenient manner while sat at a diagonal from the camera, straining at the Autocue, and taking care to rotate my shirts so that the same one doesn’t appear more often than once every six weeks. (Don’t go back and check, nerds, as I’m more vigilant on this score now than I started out being, and anyway, a lot of those black shirts are different black shirts.)
The big celebration is just a normal Telly Addict, except with a rare clip from one of the first shows I reviewed, which I feel sure you’ve all forgotten, Exile on BBC1. From the modern day: the final moments of Broadchurch on ITV; The Politician’s Husband on BBC1; The Wright Way on BBC2; Playhouse Presents: Snodgrass on Sky Arts; Masterchef on BBC1; and a couple of quick nods to Mad Men, and Da Vinci’s Demons.
What interesting connections we can make on this week’s telly on Telly Addict. Brushing Up On … British Tunnels with Danny Baker on BBC4 is essentially a middle-aged man reading out words he has written between some archive clips; Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States on Sky Atlantic (from Showtime in the US) is essentially a middle-aged man reading out words he has written between some archive clips; in Panorama: North Korea Undercover, easily the most talked about TV show of last week, reporter John Sweeney attempts, as does Stone, to get under the skin of a country whose propaganda is all-powerful (and in both cases, Stone and Sweeney risk excommunication from the nation which they criticise); 30 Rock‘s Season 6 finale, on Comedy Central, includes jokes – aired in May 2012 on NBC – about the totalitarian quirks of the North Korean regime; Modern Family, an imported US comedy not given to inter-textual cross-media jokes that are the stock-in-trade of 30 Rock, tries one on for size with a coda based on The Godfather on Sky1; and I also review new ITV three-parter The Ice Cream Girls, which has no link whatsoever with the other shows. Ah well. You can’t join everything up.
A mere 58,000 viewers tuned in to Sky Atlantic overnight on Wednesday to watch the majestic return of Mad Men, which is down even from the channel’s 98,000 for the start of Season Five last year. It really is one of the least-watched pieces of genius on TV, and it’s the lead review on this week’s Telly Addict, so the Murdoch-intolerant and/or surcharge-averse will at least get to see some majestic clips from its December 1967 incarnation. I also check back in with Game Of Thrones on the same channel (which gets more like 710,000 viewers, by comparison); welcome the first full series of Morse prequel Endeavour to ITV; warm to Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup Of Tea on BBC1; mark the upward turning point of Season 2 of Parks & Rec on BBC4; and applaud Mark Gatiss’s latest period Doctor Who on BBC1.
It wasn’t exactly the Battle of the Blackwater, but there was a brief exchange of fire below the line under this week’s Telly Addict, which was dominated, predictably, by my review of the opening of Season 3 of Game Of Thrones. Although I was careful not to give away any important plot details from Episode 1 in my review – nor to let anything slip in the clips I chose – I strayed, indirectly, into the minefield anyway. This was the pretty angry comment posted by a man called Richard Berry:
Why did the Guardian ensure this video gave a blatant spoiler, even for those who haven’t watched it?
The still image used to advertise the video on the Guardian HOME PAGE shows a character who is clearly alive in season three. The entire plot of series two is that a whole range of others are trying to kill him. Thanks for ruining it.
We don’t all have Sky, and I thought the Guardian would try to refrain from forcing their viewers into the embrace of Rupert Murdoch.
Note that he does not blame me, which is why stepping in may have been a mistake on my part, but it seemed unlikely, what with around 120 comments left under the review at that stage, that anybody involved in producing Telly Addict or responsible for choosing the still that accompanies each one on the page would be following the discussion as vigilantly as I do, so I responded. In my haste, I parried that the offending still was actually from the end of Season 2, which I believed it was. (It certainly features two characters who appear in Seasons 2 and 3, but I have been re-watching episodes from the first two seasons of late so I can’t be trusted!)
Anyway, it turned out to have been from Season 3 after all – from Episode One, in fact. Either way, Richard Berry felt that in revealing that two characters from Season 2 were even in Season 3 was, in and of itself, a spoiler. One of the characters is a principal. It is not out of the question that he might have been killed at the end of Season 2, as a principal was killed at the end of Season 1. However, Sky have been advertising Season 3 with huge billboards in the UK, and these feature the faces of the principal characters, one of whom is in the still the Guardian used. (Is all this obfuscation really necessary? I don’t know.)
Having myself recently re-watched the climax of Season 2 (which revolves around the Battle of the Blackwater), I know that the story does not hinge upon … actually, I now feel too paranoid about spoilers to even discuss it in vague non-detail. After all, not all GoT fans are Sky subscribers, HBO customers or illegal downloaders; although many will have read the books and will know exactly what happens throughout Season 3, and, I think, 4, maybe even 5. (I haven’t looked.)
I have some sympathy with Richard Berry, as he’s working his way through the box sets, as I have done with a number of US imports, notably Battlestar and Breaking Bad, in both cases behind the actual broadcasts and susceptible to spoilers. I’m currently watching the stirring and addictive Friday Night Lights, on Sky Atlantic, which started showing all five seasons after the fifth had aired and when the whole saga was in the public domain. I made the innocent mistake of looking up one of the lower-ranking actors during Season 1 and found out that he was in all five seasons, so I know he’s in for the duration – a spoiler of sorts, although nobody’s fault but my own, right?
But a vanilla still of two characters, officially released by HBO and Sky, surely cannot be categorised as a “spoiler”. Richard will have to wait until Season 3 is out on box set – at the end of this year no doubt – before he can see it. In the meantime, I expect he’s diligently avoiding any internet sites related to GoT, including Wikipedia. He saw a photo on a newspaper’s website below a caption saying something like “The Week in TV”, assumed it to be from a future episode, and felt that it “spoiled” Season 2. Without going into any plot detail, it was impossible for me to explain to him why it wasn’t a spoiler, because you’re on thin ice the whole time when you’re ahead of someone.
The spoiler is well-named. “A person or thing that causes spoilage or corruption,” according to the dictionary, or else “a plunderer or robber”. Before the internet proliferated, its most contemporary setting might have been in print publishing, where newspapers still habitually print spoilers to undermine a competitor’s scoop, and entire magazines are launched to interfere with a rival’s plans. (OK! is just about the most successful spoiler title in publishing.)
I wrote about spoilers for the Observer in 1999, but the focus then was movies. I noted that the concept of spoilers was “an underground one”, which seems quaint now. “Nuggets of information made public with the sole intention of undermining the authority of a forthcoming cinema release” were, I wrote, “all the rage, thanks to the Internet, where knowledge truly is power. If you want to know what happens at the end of The Blair Witch Project, just key the title and the word ‘spoiler’ into your search engine, and you’ll soon find the goods.”
I had been commissioned to write the piece because of the forthcoming Sixth Sense, whose twist had the new-fangled Internet aflame. Its twist had, in fact, become a commercial issue, as patrons in America had already started buying a second ticket to re-view the film. “That’s a very important element,” said Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney, in between counting his takings. “People are going back to catch all those things you don’t pick up the first time.” The spoiling of twists is, of course, a one-time-only offer.
I did a roll-call of those 90s thrillers with a twist – The Usual Suspects, The Game, Scream, Primal Fear, Wild Things, Twelve Monkeys, Basic Instinct, Jagged Edge – and it did seem like an epidemic. I also observed that many actually fall to bits once you revisit them armed with the special knowledge gleaned at the end.
An article about The Sixth Sense in 1999 in American magazine Entertainment Weekly was stamped with a warning to readers: STORY CONTAINS KEY PLOT POINTS. This was an early example, I believe, of what we now know as the SPOILER ALERT. As a longtime subscriber to Sight & Sound, whose trademark synopses of new releases inevitably give away endings, I have grown used to the warning. I may as well also confess to being the type of person who reads on when advised not to.
I read the Entertainment Weekly piece right through, not having seen the film, and I went in to see The Sixth Sense knowing the wham-bang ending. I wrote, “As a result, barring amnesia brought on by a blow to the head, I will never be able to see The Sixth Sense the way it was intended.” This has remained true ever since. I am simply a sucker for reading synopses and long reviews, where twists are most likely to be revealed. The warning SPOILER ALERT is a welcome mat to me. (The recently deceased Roger Ebert, perhaps America’s most famous film critic after Pauline Kael, admitted to having been “blind-sided” by The Sixth Sense in the Chicago Sun-Times. Lucky him.)
When Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game came out in 1992, journalists and those attending preview screenings were asked not to give away the big twist. (If you’re still unaware of this one, it occurs long before the end and has an important bearing on the central relationship. It’s also one of the most beautifully-handled and powerful gasp-moments in modern cinema, the sort you envy someone not knowing.) Because The Crying Game had so many other merits as a moviegoing experience, most kept their mouths shut. Ebert, again, ended his review with the words, “See this film. Then shut up about it.”
Being asked to shut up about a hot new film sends out mixed messages: we, the paying public, are usually urged, “Tell your friends!” Because no matter how sophisticated and well-oiled the Hollywood publicity machine has become, word-of-mouth, and its successor word-of-Tweet, is the one marketing factor that’s truly out of The Man’s control. (Only this week, the new Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller Oblivion was screened to journalists the night before it went out on general release, but that was, I suspect, for a different reason of media control.)
In 1960, Psycho was publicised with the memorably jolly tagline, “Don’t give away the ending – it’s the only one we have!” Hitchcock actually issued theatre-owners with a handbook, The Care And Handling of Psycho, with half-jokey notices for the foyer reading, “It is required that you see Psycho from the very beginning. The manager of this theatre has been instructed at the risk of his life not to admit any persons after the picture starts.” House lights had to remain down for 30 seconds after the end credits, to allow “the suspense of Psycho to be indelibly engraved in the minds of the audience.” Try maintaining that level of compliance in the iPhone age. (Although Steven Moffat and the Doctor Who team were able to pre-screen the first episode of last autumn’s new series to die-hard fans before transmission and successfully implored them not to electronically blab about the unscheduled appearance of the Doctor’s new assistant. Moffat effectively made it a trust issue.)
Back in August 1999, the Sun filled its front page with the headline, “OFFICIAL: BBC’S LOST THE PLOT”, claiming it had obtained “all the storylines of EastEnders for the next year”. However – and here’s the twist – the paper didn’t reveal a single detail. Readers were asked to vote by phone whether they wished to have their enjoyment scuppered or not. They did not. (I was writing for EastEnders at the time and felt very close to this passing scandal. When Phil Mitchell was shot, none of the writers knew who’d dunit. It was safer that way.)
All the Internet has done is made the sharing of information easier. For diehard fans of a franchise, whether it’s Doctor Who or Star Wars or Game Of Thrones or Twilight or Harry Potter, leaks and rumours and revelations feed their devotion. (I always felt luckier than everybody else in the cinema when I saw a Harry Potter, as I had no idea what was about to happen, not having read a word of the books; whereas the more devoted fans around me must have known every last detail.) Richard Berry and those like him who are one season behind on GoT and who have not devoured George R.R. Martin’s source novels, exist in a permanent time-delay: the story they are following is way ahead of them, and it’s out there, in the public domain, out of the bottle, airborne. They moan a lot in comments sections – a pretty risky place to dwell if you’re afraid of spoilers, in any case – but whose responsibility is it to protect them?
I fully intend to see the new Ryan Gosling film A Place Beyond The Pines at the cinema this weekend. David Denby revealed its surprise twist in his review in the New Yorker. I was initially as annoyed with Denby as Richard Berry was with the Guardian. And then I got over it. Not knowing something that happens isn’t the only enjoyment to be had. If something’s good, it won’t really matter.
It is not until the final frame of Citizen Kane that we learn who or what “Rosebud” is. As Kane’s effects are burned on a bonfire, the camera alights on the answer. Just as no-one heard him utter the word at the beginning, no-one notices the reveal at the end: the secret rests solely with us, the audience. Orson Welles, of course, thought it was a “hokey device”.
Finally, a review of the start of Season Three of Game Of Thrones, although this week’s Telly Addict will, of course, start looking old and off the ball again by Wednesday, when Mad Men returns to Sky Atlantic for Season Five. You’ll have to wait until next Tuesday morning for a pithy summation of that. I do recognise that not everybody had Sky Atlantic, whether for fiscal or ideological reasons, and I do my best to sidestep spoilers in my reviews of these imported classics that may not arrive on DVD for a year (and the same with the clips I choose). But it’s a cold, hard truth that we must all learn to work with: some of the best telly in the world is on Murdochvision. Also this week, on telly-for-everybody, The Great British Sewing Bee on BBC1; The Village on BBC1; and The Intern on C4. Hooray.
Since Game Of Thrones – or GoT as all the uncool kids are calling it – is the most talked-about TV show of the moment, with catch-up guides in every newspaper for those losers who haven’t been watching it from the start (we’re at Season Three for heaven’s sake – do you really have to wait for the broadsheets’ permission?), I have to confess that I’m not reviewing Game Of Thrones on this week’s Telly Addict, because, when I wrote and filmed it yesterday afternoon, the first episode hadn’t aired. (I review, not preview, as previously established.) But we do have the jolly return of Doctor Who on BBC1; Paul Hollywood’s Beard/Bread on BBC2; the latest sci-fi saga from the JJ Abrams universe, Revolution on Sky 1; an update on Broadchurch on ITV; a warm welcome for the regeneration of Foyle’s War on ITV; and a sneak preview of The Village on BBC1.
I have now, of course, watched the first episode of GoT, and it really is not for the latecomer. That’s all I’ll say. Full review next week.
This week’s Telly Addict has been brought to you by Into The Woods, a bracing new book about screenwriting, with particular emphasis on the craft of storytelling for TV, by my former boss John Yorke, who produced Collins & Maconie’s first ever radio programme in 1993, Fantastic Voyage, and then became my executive producer on EastEnders some years later, and then Head of Drama at the BBC (he’s now hopped it to the private sector). Anyway, it’s published in April, I’ve been devouring a preview copy, and it currently infects the way I view TV. Henceforth, take copious notes as you view my analytical reviews of the monomythic Masterchef on BBC1; In The Flesh on BBC3; Prisoners’ Wives on BBC1; and It’s Kevin on BBC2. There is no masterplan here, they just happen to be all BBC shows. (I say there’s no masterplan, but as John’s book proves, all stories subconsciously adopt the same structure, so even Telly Addict has a quest, a midpoint, an inciting incident, a protagonist and antagonists, a prize, a resolution and a symmetry between beginning and end. Check it out.