International TV

I don’t know about you, but apart from classic TV made in the US, I’ve always enjoyed exploring shows from other countries, predominantly from Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Israel, South America and Europe. Pride & Prejudice made me fall in love with Colin Firth in 1995, Bleak House turned me into a Dickens addict 10 years later and that same year, Slings & Arrows reassured me that my stage experiences were not unique. Some of these international shows have since been made available on DVD, others were remade in the States including The Bridge, The Killing, Hatufim (US: Homeland), Be Tipul (US:In Treatment) , Mistresses and House of Cards.

It’s a matter of personal taste whether or not you like a reboot. In some cases I did not, in others I did. No matter how much I have liked (or disliked) an original show though, the remake often missed a crucial ingredient, something the American version never seems to quite get. It’s not only the appeal of a foreign setting and culture or the sound of a different language, it’s the different approach to storytelling, or better, differing aesthetics. Each year, the market is flooded by American productions with silly or crude characters and storylines that all too often jump the shark. Despite this unfortunate development (unfortunate at least to me, not the industry itself it seems), my heart beats for a good TV series and I’m happy that this up-coming season, two new American productions actually got my attention: Madam Secretary starring Téa Leonie and Matthew Perry’s update of The Odd Couple.

Madam Secretary may fill a gap I’ve longed to fill since The West Wing ended, The Good Wife lost its vibe and The Newsroom did not live up to my expectations. Judging by the first look trailer, this show may be my kind of treat, the kind of show that has the potential follow into the footsteps of my favorite Danish series, Borgen.

Borgen has what a lot of international shows of my liking have in common: a wonderful cast, a smart female character, crafty writers, witty dialogue, intelligent storylines and a distinctive design. For three seasons, Borgen was highly addictive without leaning on the soapy side like Britain’s Downton Abbey. That’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy ITV’s period drama, Maggie Smith is starring in it after all. But given the choice, I prefer stories without unnecessary malice or personal drama blown out of proportion.

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New Vintage TV

To pick up on my nominations’ post on Thursday, I want to introduce a trend that’s been coming and going: revisiting bygone times and reinventing the past on TV. Happy Days did it in the 1970s, That 70s Show did it in the late 90s and early 2000s and Mad Man‘s been doing it since 2007, recently joined by Boardwalk Empire and Pan Am. The decades differ, as well as genres and style, but all of these shows have one thing in common: a look back at our past through contemporary eyes.

Mad Man is a popular example for reminding us of the early 60s, a program often praised for its authentic setting and style. Personally, I love the wardrobe, the acting and the music – my personal icing on the cake. I’ve not been all too impressed by the perpetual cynicism however, reflected in every storyline the show presents, nor by the depiction of either men or women. Not only does every character seem to have a fetish with smoking, blown out of proportion by our reversed reality in 2011, they are also easily engaged in sex, something I could live with (because yes, out of wedlock pregnancy rates already escalated in the 1940s) if only the portrayal wouldn’t leave such a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. It is one thing to present the uncomely truth of sexism in 1960 and the challenges for women back in those days, it is another to add to the cliche of the depressed houswife, the floozie secretary or the ever lewd male. Interesting way of pointing to the origins of our presentday societal issues, shortcomings or accomplishments, utterly simplified by ascribing everything to the “evil” influence of consumerism and advertising.

In the pilot, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) says, “What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” Which is pop culture nonsense. What we call love today was invented by Jane Austen and her contemporaries. Before, people rarely knew anything beyond arranged marriages. But I forgive him his lapse, it only adds to the way the character treats the women in his life. He probably doesn’t even know who Jane Austen was or that women can spell without having a man showing them how. I’m sorry, but although some men used to be as smallminded as that (and some continue to be today), there were also others like Erle Stanley Gardner for example whose Perry Mason highly appreciated his office gem for both, her brains as well as her nylons. Granted, Della Street entered the scene in the 1930s, a good time for female characters, on screen and off. But the very same girl Friday was popular on TV in 1960 and never treated like dessert after lunch (how Peggy Olson played by Elisabeth Moss so nicely put it on Mad Men). So there you go, that’s what I mean: contemporary perception on new vintage TV.

Gail Patrick Jackson was executive producer of the Perry Mason show by the way, only to comment on influential women in and before 1960. There weren’t many, but they did exist, those ladies of power, some of them developing or producing their own programs. Now that would make a truly intersting show, off the beaten track of cliche flight attendants, secretaries and their male bosses seducing or abusing them.