Tag Archives: CSI

Californivacation: Eight Things I Learnt in TV Land

I realise that my blog’s been pretty quiet for the last few weeks, but I have an excuse: I’ve been on holiday. I went to the States, where, thanks to the insistence of my travelling companion (my sister), we saw all kinds of cultural, educational and natural sights throughout the south west: San Francisco, Alcatraz, Stanford University, Pebble Beach, the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park. But, hell, I wasn’t going through California without stopping at my spiritual homeland, the epicentre of film and television magic, the guiding light at the heart of all that is broadcast on a rectangular screen: Hollywood.

So we went. And it was magical. And here’s what I learnt there.

1. TV makes stuff look bigger.

It’s a well-worn cliché that the camera adds ten pounds, but, as it turns out, it also adds metres, miles, hectares and cubic feet. Making brazen use of my sister’s love of FRIENDS, I managed to convince her that a tour of the Warner Bros studio in Burbank would be a fun activity, so we headed north, parked up, grabbed a Starbucks and hopped onto a golf buggy, where a friendly guide took us on a little drive around the backlots of the studio. And everything was SO SMALL. Around one little square in the middle of the lot are pretty much all of the buildings and places that ever popped up in FRIENDS – the Geller house, the street where Joey builds a cardboard-box Porsche, the field where Ross plays rugby, the newsstand where the squirrel threatens Phoebe – as well as the Addams Family house, City Hall from Batman (the original and best Adam West version), the Waltons house, the street where Kermit, Jason Segel and Amy Adams sang the opening number in The Muppets, and numerous other buildings from about a bazillion TV shows and films. Add a few distinctive lamp-posts, some brightly coloured signs and a distinctive shop or two and you get twenty different towns from one little hamlet.

I should add that the highlight of the Warner Bros tour was when we got to visit Central Perk. The actual Central Perk. And we sat on the actual Sofa. It was brilliant. But you know what? That was teeny-weeny too.

2. TV sometimes tells the truth.

So, yes, TV can mislead us (like, who knew that amateur detectives aren’t really allowed to stroll onto crime scenes and start solving stuff?). Then again, sometimes the box is bang on. Take Baywatch, for example. For a British viewer, it’s impossibly glossy: the sun always shines, everyone is beautiful, the lifeguard houses are so cute, there are lots of nice piers under which you can have a romantic tryst… Basically, the programme makers have created the perfect setting for a fun soapy drama. But the thing is – it’s actually like that. We went to Santa Monica. We saw the lifeguard shacks and the creaking piers. We gawped at the beautiful people running and doing tai chi and flicking their hair. We sunbathed. We paddled. We watched the silhouettes of surfers making the most of the last rays of sun. And then we damn well went to a diner and had fries and milkshakes.

"In us we all have the power, but sometimes it's so ha-ard to seeee..."

“In us we all have the power, but sometimes it’s so ha-ard to seeee…”

(It should be noted that some of the less savoury programmes are fairly accurate too. Take It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The main characters run a horrible bar in an awful area of the city; they live in squalor, they take drugs, they scrounge welfare money and they sometimes eat dog food. And when we went to see the place in downtown LA where they film the outside of the bar… Let’s just say we were afraid to get out of the car.)

3. TV is big business.

This seems like an obvious thing to say – if people didn’t love TV, no one would make it (and no one would blog about it either). But you go to LA, and TV (and film) is everywhere. Walk down any street and you’ll see signs that say ‘Location available for filming’ or ‘Catering/laundry/decorating services for production companies’; and even the buskers and street performers are dressed up as film and TV characters (we must have seen about a dozen Minions shuffling along the pavement). Plus, if you know where to look, there are TV and film locations all over the place: for example, Buffy’s house is in a nice suburb in Torrance, and the Scrubs hospital is in a pleasant street in North Hollywood (now turned into flats, which was a bit of a disappointment, but damn it, we pretended to be Vanilla Bear and Chocolate Bear anyway).

4. Like, REALLY big business.

Also, people (read ‘tourists’) will pay good money for TV-related stuff. Forget pricey studios tours and TV museums and ‘experiences’ (see #6 below); just walking along the street can seriously cost you, if you get sucked into wanting one of the pieces of TV-related merchandise that fill the shops and sidewalk stalls. All the usual tourist tat is there, Hollywood-themed as hell: key-rings, licence plate covers, sweets, badges, T-shirts. But this is TV Land, and people get creative. Who wouldn’t want, for example, a CSI-themed stain remover pen? Or ‘Bazinga’ shot glasses? Or John Wayne toilet paper?

Naturally, I didn’t fall into the trap of spending lots of money on frivolous television-related items. And I most certainly didn’t buy a dress that looks like the outfit worn by the Tenth Doctor.

Allons-y, Alonso.

Allons-y, Alonso.

5. Contrary to popular belief, celebrities aren’t around every corner.

But for all the excitement and television buzz, there’s one element that is conspicuously missing, and that’s actual actors. They must be there somewhere, of course – it’s where loads of them live and work. But we didn’t spot any. Well, we may have seen one; there was a really tall guy signing a piece of paper for an excited-looking woman outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. But my sister and I both peered at him curiously, and we had no idea who he was, so it probably doesn’t count.

Even if you go to a working studio, it’s tricky to spot a celeb. Apparently past visitors to the WB Studio Tour have been successful (our tour guide mentioned a group recently who’d got to meet Kunal Nayyar, AKA Raj from The Big Bang Theory – cue ‘Oohs’ from me and several other women, and eye-rolling from my sister). But we didn’t see any actors either there or at Valencia Studios, which is where – take a deep breath – NCIS is filmed. Tours aren’t available, so we drove there anyway to have a peek; unfortunately, it turned out that the show was on hiatus, so all we saw was a very bored-looking security guard and some closed-up trailers. But I was there, man. I was there.

6. It’s fun to pretend to be on TV.

After we’d left Los Angeles, of course, the television-related fun was over. Psych! It wasn’t. Our last stop on the trip (after the Grand Canyon and all that jazz) was Las Vegas, Sin City, a place of lights, flamboyance, bedazzlement, poker tables, martinis and, of course, gruesome murders that always turn out to have some kind of unexpected twist. This, my friends, was CSI: The Experience at the MGM hotel, a sort of interactive exhibition where the TV-obsessed tourist gets to be part of a criminal investigation team. I chose my scenario, ‘Skeleton Found In Desert’ (I thought ‘Car Driven Into Living Room’ and ‘Body In Back Alley’ might be too bloody), and then I set to work. I took notes at the crime scene, ran DNA samples, matched bullets to guns, visited Autopsy and looked at suspicious seeds under a microscope. And I had a lovely time. OK, so I probably had a slightly easier job to do than real CSIs (the puzzles at each station were about as tricky as a ‘Spot the difference’ game on the CBeebies website), but the fake bullets were nice and weighty and there were some cool UV lights and they gave me a little clipboard to jot down my thoughts. Plus I got a certificate at the end. Lush.

That's right. ACCREDITED.

That’s right. ACCREDITED.

7. There’s so much TV I haven’t watched yet.

The biggest lesson of all, perhaps, is that I haven’t even started to delve into the extraordinary world that is TV today. I’ve seen the sets for Pretty Little Liars, Suburgatory and Hart of Dixie, but I haven’t seen the shows yet. I’ve been offered T-shirts featuring Sam and Dean from Supernatural, the Stark family sigil from Game of Thrones and quotes from Girls, but I haven’t seen those shows yet either. When I finally got home and spent several jetlagged days collapsed in front of Netflix, I was presented with Wallander, Suits, The Thick of It, Heroes, Prison Break, Modern Family… The list goes on. Honestly, I should start watching more TV.

And the final lesson… 8. Don’t rely on technology.

Hope you liked the pictures that accompanied this post. Sorry there weren’t more – two days before the end of the holiday, the memory card in the camera had a meltdown and corrupted about three-quarters of the photos we’d taken. Guess we’ll have to go back sometime…


Puns, Plot Points and Puppets: A Guide to Spoofing

This week I finally got round to watching A Touch of Cloth, which has been on my DVD shelf since approximately the dawn of time. It’s a film-length parody of TV crime dramas, written by Daniel Maier and Charlie Brooker (he of Screen Wipe, 10 O’Clock Live, angry-ranting-about-a-variety-of-subjects and punching-well-above-his-weight-by-marrying-Konnie-Huq fame) and the cast includes John Hannah (hilarious in The Mummy, heartbreaking in Four Weddings and a Funeral), Suranne Jones (Scott and Bailey, plus two different programme with David Tennant – well played), Navin Chowdhry and Adrian Bower (Kurt and Brian from Teachers) and Julian Rhind-Tutt (understated hero/sometimes obnoxious jerk Dr Macartney from Green Wing).

Given the afore-mentioned cast and crew, I was quite looking forward to watching A Touch of Cloth – especially as I still get pangs of sadness that Kurt and Brian are no more – and it didn’t disappoint. As well as the near-destruction of the fourth wall over the course of the show, elements of hilarity included WPC Cardboard Cut-Out, the various jokes that popped up in the background (such as a hospital sign directing you to the ‘Shayne Ward’) and the increasingly painful puns on the hero’s name, DCI Jack Cloth (“Thanks to you, the entire department is losing face, Cloth”). Perhaps my favourite moment was DC Asap Qureshi (Chowdhry) welcoming Cloth to the crime scene and Doing Exposition:

Victim’s name is Aidan Matthew Hawkchurch, successful chef, 39 years old, six foot, 180 pounds, got his own TV show, now in its fourth season, been married for thirteen years, all in a row, lives in this house, estimated resell value £1.9 million, desirable catchment area, would suit professional couple or recently murdered man, black front door, entrance hall, Orla Kiely stem print mat, recommended retail price £29.99, six-peg coat hook, price unknown, walnut frame mirror, purchased 2006, grieving widow Claire Hawkchurch, 37, GSOH, Sagittarius, 34C.

This tickled me because obvious and unnecessary exposition is one of my pet peeves in crime dramas, with the various incarnations of CSI being the biggest offenders. Apparently, Jim Brass from the original series is known in the fanbase as “Captain Exposition”, while this blogger lists cheesy exposition as one of the reasons she despises Horatio Caine from CSI Miami (a view with which I have some sympathy) – but at least it makes sense that these guys would know the facts and need to tell them to someone else. In contrast, the worst examples of ‘Here’s what’s happening, viewers’ come when characters are giving information to people who would already know it, and especially when the viewer’s already worked it out anyway. Check out this absurd exchange from CSI Miami, in which two characters are talking about a crashed car:

A: “There’s damage here in the quarter panel and bumper.”
B: “She did impact at over 60 miles per hour. It could have happened then.”
A: “Well, there’s also paint transfer. [Ah! So there was another car that ran her off the road!] Now, it could be incidental, or it could be road rage.” [And therefore another car that ran her off the road. Maybe sample the paint and find out who it was?]
B: “We need to get these paint samples to Trace, have them analyzed. [That’s what I said.] Every paint has a distinct signature, so…” [Yes, so you can find it who it was that ran her off the road.]
A: “We find the collision car, we find a witness.” [Or whoever it was that ran her off the road.]
B: “That’s right. Or a murder suspect.” [I KNOW!]

And they always take themselves so seriously, too. This is apparently one of the reasons why Brooker and Maier decided to spoof crime dramas rather than murder mysteries, because the latter are already, as Brooker put it in an interview, pretty much parodies of themselves: the focus is on tea and cakes and village fêtes, and the actual murder barely comes into it. Other programmes with a light touch would presumably also be pretty hard to parody. Take Neighbours – sure, there are all sorts of ridiculous elements to Neighbours that are just begging to made fun of, but Neighbours does that itself. This week, for example, Toadie, Sonya and Susan invoke the soap trope that two people talking in the kitchen can’t be heard by anyone in the living room, despite the fact that the latter is about six feet away with a paper-thin interior wall between them; but Toadie and Sonya keep having to pause the argument whenever they go to the fridge because that end of the kitchen is in Susan’s eye-line. You get the feeling, with Neighbours, that everyone involved recognises the absurdity of the programme and tries to make it work for them, not against them.

A good spoof, on the other hand, takes an earnest programme and makes it nonsensical. Look Around You did a bang-up job of doing this to educational science programmes in its two series of non-stop lies and gibberish. The presenters (Robert Popper, Josie D’Arby, Peter Serafinowicz and the now deservedly ubiquitous Olivia Colman) play it absolutely straight as they tell us interesting facts about the world around us: the largest number is 45,000,000,000, ghosts can’t whistle, and baby birds are called ‘bees’. The Office did the same thing: yes, workplace documentaries will usually fixate on the office oddballs, who really do exist and are often more than a bit strange – but they’re not generally quite so strange as to start an office singsong during a corporate training session or entertain their colleagues with mimes of being shot by a sniper. This is why it’s so difficult to parody talent shows – you’re already watching a dog dance in front of an audience of people apparently brainwashed to cheer and boo exactly on cue. Where can you go with that?

And it’s in this context that Family Tree, which started last week on BBC 2, isn’t quite hitting the mark. The programme is based on the format of genealogy programmes like Who Do You Think You Are and it has a number of mockumentary features, such as characters talking to the camera as if being interviewed and lines of dialogue that imitate the pauses and stumbles of real speech. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to class it as a parody (many sources simply refer to it as a sitcom), but, come on, it’s written by Christopher Guest, co-creator of officially the best mockumentary that has ever existed, This Is Spinal Tap, so I was expecting some gold-standard piss-takery: people bursting into tears at the slightest mention of sadness in an ancestor’s life, a long-lost relative who turns out to have been a human taxidermist or the person who draws the faces on Jelly Babies – you know the kind of thing. And yet… Family Tree is just not that stupid: the only amusing occupation uncovered so far is a man who was the back end of a pantomime horse. And the single truly surreal element is the main character’s sister, who due to some traumatic past event talks through a monkey puppet – she’s played by Nina Conti, so the ventriloquism is pretty spot on, but it isn’t really spoofing any particular element of genealogy shows, which makes it weird in an aimless way.

The monkey-puppet aspect also doesn’t really fit the tone of the rest of the programme, which is mainly down-to-earth and quite sweet. Chris O’Dowd is lovely as the main character Tom Chadwick, doing his trademark stunned-disbelief face at his sister and the other slightly eccentric characters around him, including a blind date who thinks that the dinosaurs are still alive – this scene was actually pretty funny. Not that there’s not really anything wrong with a pleasant and (dare I say it) watchable show that raises the occasional laugh and also works in some bittersweet moments – the moment at the end of the second episode when a camp theatre manager reveals something unexpected about Tom’s great-grandfather is one example. I suspect that I will grow to care about the characters and get interested in what Tom finds out next. But so far, Family Tree is definitely not turned up to 11 – it’s a seven or eight at best.

So when it comes to parodies, I suppose what I really want is out-and-out stupidity: subtle-as-a-brick puns, knowing absurdity, recognisable archetypes grotesquely metamorphosed into insane caricatures. I want David Brent, DCI Anne Oldman (get it?), Synthesizer Patel, Nigel Tufnell. I don’t want subtlety and nuance – I want in-your-face proof that something, somewhere is being mocked. Proof, reader.