The Anarchic Beauty of Taskmaster

If there’s one thing I love on this earth, it’s game shows. I’m kind of a connoisseur.

A great game show combines luck, risk-taking and some kind of skill or knowledge. Deal or No Deal was just luck and risk-taking, but they always pretended as if there was all this strategy where none could exist, it was bizarre. Winning Streak is the worst because it doesn’t even test risk-taking, just luck, so it effectively just throws money at people with the only variant being how much. Shows that have the potential to lapse into being just a dry test of skill usually have a time constraint to force the risk-taking element. But my favourites combine genuine difficulty with being a ton of fun to watch. Way too many shows are stupidly dramatic: every time someone gives an answer on Tenable, there’s probably a full thirty seconds of dramatic reaction shots and lights going up the answer board. It tries to be “fun” by having Warwick Davis deliver terrible pun after terrible pun, instead of striving towards a fun tone overall.

My favourite has long been Pointless: its reverse Family Fortunes format that rewards the most obscure correct answer makes it incredibly fun to play along with, whether you know a lot or very little about the category. The banter between its hosts, Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, is charming and makes the tone of the whole thing light and fun, in sharp contrast with the most self-serious quiz shows (Mastermind, mostly). I love Only Connect, the hardest show in the world, both because host Victoria Coren-Mitchell is delightful and because I feel elated if I get an answer right. I am kind of obsessed with Richard Osman’s House of Games, and love following the throughline of each week, rooting for my favourite contestants and waiting with bated breath for the day someone wins all five shows.

But there is one game show that is more fun to watch than basically anything on television, and that’s Taskmaster. Pitched perfectly between a light-hearted “normal” game show and Shooting Stars surrealism, it’s both one of the best game shows I’ve ever seen and such a weird, inventive thing that to even classify it by genre feels wrong. It’s glorious.

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Wrestling for Sceptics: Ten Matches to Whet Your Whistle

Wrestling is in a weird place right now. In some ways, it’s going through a bit of a golden age, with a massive international independent scene that’s no longer dependent purely on local interest for support. I’ve never been to Germany – apart from a nightmarish layover in Munich Airport – but I’ve enjoyed dozens of matches from the German Wrestling Federation thanks to their availability online. I know lots of people with video-on-demand and streaming subscriptions for companies all over the world, from Mexico’s Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre to Japan’s DDT Pro-Wrestling to my home promotion, Ireland’s Over the Top Wrestling. You can watch high-quality wrestling with solid production values every week on YouTube for free from NWA Powerrr and China’s Oriental Wrestling Entertainment. WWE, the largest wrestling company in the world, is facing serious competition from a rival for the first time in years courtesy of All Elite Wrestling and its weekly TV show, Dynamite. There’s even a pretty good women’s wrestling show from GLOW founder David McLane called WOW that I’ve reviewed over at Bell to Belles. More great wrestlers are working today than you could ever imagine and with so much variety, there really is something for everyone.

But, in other ways, it’s a scary time for wrestling fans. WWE might have a new rival, but it’s not a rival really capable of breaking their effective monopoly on wrestling in the US. AEW is showing WWE up regularly in terms of the quality of its programming, but WWE is such a big company, and has such deep pockets, that its mere existence distorts the entire industry. It can outbid any competitor when offering contracts and constantly signs new wrestlers while rarely releasing anyone or doing anything to encourage retirement, which shrinks the pool of talent available to other companies. Unlike most companies, it demands complete exclusivity from most of its employees (sorry, “independent contractors”) and even the rare few on its British brand, NXT UK, who are allowed to perform in other companies do so under heavy restrictions and with the constant risk of being pulled from shows at the last minute. The vast majority of independent wrestling companies run on very thin margins, supported entirely by ticket and merch sales, with virtually no cushion if financial disaster strikes. There may be more companies than ever before, reaching more people than ever before, but it’s not clear whether the wrestling audience is actually expanding or if fans are just spending more and more on wrestling. I kind of suspect it’s the latter and that most of the industry is built on a foundation of fan support and audience goodwill that’s not sustainable unless more people get into wrestling. When the next big financial crisis hits and pocketbooks shrink, it’s likely it will be the end of many independent companies, not to mention the careers of the wrestlers they employ.

I’m not writing this article to save wrestling or anything, though if I did, that’d be neat. But as someone who got into wrestling in just the last couple of years, I understand a lot of what the wrestling-sceptical and even the wrestling-curious can find off-putting about it. I want to talk about some of these issues and point those who are open to wrestling, but not yet convinced, in the direction of some matches that represent the various shades of what wrestling has to offer right now. It’s not at all exhaustive. I’ve left some really weird shit on the drawing board, and it’s limited to a handful of mostly English-language companies, but, with a little help from my friends, I’ve put together a list of matches that, in my personal opinion, (1) slap hard and (2) can and should be enjoyed by people coming to wrestling with fresh eyes, whether you’re interested in hard-hitting technical wrestling, operatic emotional storytelling or silly nonsense (the three things that make wrestling great).

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Check out Ciara’s article on TV preservation! [Current Affairs]

I’m not much given to ranking such things, but if you put a gun to my head and asked me to rank my favourite sitcoms, The Likely Lads would easily make the top tier. It aired three seasons on BBC between 1964 and 1966—which, because it’s British television, means twenty episodes and a Christmas sketch—following Terry and Bob, two young men working in a factory in the north-east of England. It was commissioned because The Beatles were big and that made someone at the BBC want a show about young northerners, even if they ended up in Newcastle instead of Liverpool.

Terry and Bob are instantly, vividly realized: they are united in their shared ambitions of getting drunk, picking up girls, and watching football, but there is always a tension between Terry’s pride in being working-class and Bob’s ambitions for social mobility. Bob will always blame Terry for his bad behavior, but the phrase “pushing an open door” was invented specifically to describe Bob. While many 1960s sitcoms are warm, wholesome and full of wacky misunderstandings, The Likely Lads is vulgar, realistic and incredibly modern. Season one’s “Older Women Are More Experienced”—in which Terry dates an older woman and Bob dates a younger one—ends on a punchline that wouldn’t feel out of place in Peep Show. It’s a show I adore, that I will evangelise for any chance I get.

Of the twenty episodes produced, only ten survive.

I wrote an essay for the new issue of Current Affairs. It’s about TV wiping, the inaccessibility of popular art and the precarious archival implications of streaming. You can subscribe to read it here, or buy a copy of the issue here.

DVDs Don’t Buffer

Debates about the relative merits and pitfalls of the rise of streaming services are among the most frustrating cyclical discourses in the world of film and TV critics, entertainment journalists and other people who just like to argue about pop culture. It’s right up there with the annual “pick one film in the Oscar race and arbitrarily designate it the evil one” discourse, the quarterly attempts to cancel Martin Scorsese, and the monthly skirmishes over “letting people enjoy things”. Yet, as with those tangles of bullshit, I am drawn inexorably toward streaming debates like a shrimp to an anglerfish’s luminescent head frond. I just don’t see how you can care deeply about film or television and not care about the material conditions under which they’re produced, distributed and exhibited.

There are lots of interesting ways to think about streaming: whether it offers more creative freedom to artists (kinda), whether it’s more democratic than theatrical distribution (no), whether it’s all just gonna implode one day and thousands of original movies, television series and stand-up specials will just kind of vanish from any legal distribution channels (probably). I’m glad to see more of a sceptical eye turned to immoral business practices in the industry lately, from Disney’s attempts to destroy independent cinemas to talent agencies selling out their clients for their own benefit to the obvious moves towards monopoly by the major media conglomerates. (Not how exploitative record deals are, though. I guess I’ll have to dust that one off sometime.) It’s important these issues are not just highlighted but explored thoroughly, so we don’t end up with situations like the California law ostensibly designed to stop Uber and similar companies misclassifying employees as independent contracts, which has (1) not stopped Uber et al. doing anything and (2) ruined the lives of basically every freelance journalist in the state.

But I also think a robust engagement with streaming requires looking at narrower issues with user experience. I kind of hate talking about topics like this, because you end up using terms like “user experience”. Materialist analysis is a useful and important way to look at art as a function of the economy, but it still makes my skin crawl to hear works of art described as “products” or, worse still, “properties”. I would rather never have to think about the minutiae of how movies and TV shows are presented to me, but since they are both literally and figuratively embedded in the mediums they’re distributed in, it must be done. Especially because there’s an issue in the debate over streaming vs physical home media that I’ve never seen anyone else really articulate.

DVDs don’t buffer.

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The Problem with Your Netflix Recommendations

I despise The Big Bang Theory to an almost pathological degree. According to Netflix, The Big Bang Theory is an 88% match to my interests. By contrast, Blackadder is just a 71% match, even though it’s a show I’ve watched and loved my entire life. Breaking Bad, which I’ve watched from start to finish multiple times on Netflix, has a healthy 96% rating. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which I used to watch on Netflix until it got crap and I stopped three and a half years ago, has an even healthier 97%. Hannibal, another show I’ve watched from start to finish on Netflix, clocks in at 84%, narrowly ahead of Peppa Pig at 82%. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, a show I would only watch if paid a princely sum to review, is a 90% match to my interests. Only Fools and Horses, a show I watch all the time, is rated too low for Netflix to even bother giving me a number. My recommendations are full of anime, even though I haven’t watched any anime since I was a child. Netflix thinks I’d like every single Louis Theroux series it has, even though I have never, ever watched any documentary TV series in my life.

Netflix’s recommendation algorithm seems like it’s broken. But it’s not, it’s working just fine, at least for now. The problem is the algorithm’s job isn’t to help users find TV shows and movies they would enjoy. It’s to trick Netflix’s investors into thinking the company is worth more than it is.

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The Sundae TV Awards 2019

We can’t really claim these are what we think should have been nominated at the Emmys, or should win, since there’s an impossible amount of television to watch in the world. But if we were the only two members of the Television Academy and we could nominate any TV that aired in the most recent television season (from June 2018 to May 2019), and we only cared about the seven major awards in drama and comedy, this is what you’d get.

We didn’t distinguish between limited series and other drama series, since supposed miniseries get second seasons if they’re popular enough (see: Big Little Lies), and regular drama series get rebranded as miniseries when they get prematurely cancelled (see: Dig), while modern anthologies are just regular series that replace narrative continuity with thematic continuity (and some don’t even shed their narrative continuity completely, e.g. American Horror StoryFargoBlack Mirror). Each of us filled out our personal nominees and then selected the winner by consensus, so the winners only came from shows we’d both nominated, but we’ve each picked a personal runner-up regardless of whether the other has seen or nominated it. We also each gave a Special Achievement Award for something not covered in the major categories – Ciara gave the award for Drama, and Dean gave the award for Comedy.

You can see each of our full slates of nominees at the bottom of the post.

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You Should Watch Vic Reeves Big Night Out

One of the most common refrains about Peak TV is that the sheer volume of television produced means there are more weird, interesting, niche shows getting made. If there’s more stuff getting greenlit, there’s a better chance of something outside of the box getting greenlit, not because the gatekeepers are more interested in broadcasting that kind of show, but because they have to cast a wider net to keep up with the demands of just how much original programming they’re pumping out despite previously being able to fill out their schedule with reruns of Rules of Engagement. This is true, up to a point. But for all the weird, interesting, outside-of-the-box shows being made in the last few years – Lady Dynamite, Legion, The Young Pope – none come close to Vic Reeves Big Night Out.

Vic Reeves Big Night Out – no apostrophe, no colon – aired two seasons on Channel 4 in 1990 and 1991. The first television outing for the double act of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, it’s a parody of light-entertainment variety shows, with Vic in the role of host and Bob playing a variety of characters. It might sound like Big Night Out could bend into some familiar shapes – that it would seem recognisably like a light-entertainment variety show, like if you were flicking through the stations it would take a minute or two to realise it’s not. But Big Night Out is one of the weirdest shows I’ve ever seen. It’s a masterpiece of surreal comedy that makes most surreal humour look mundane.

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Deconstructing Louis CK, Part 2

Read Part 1, on the fraught expectations around reexamining the artistic works of bad people, here. 


“There were some changes in how certain shows are classified this year. For example, Orange is the New Black is now technically a drama, while Louie is now technically jazz.”

– Andy Samberg, 2015 Emmys Opening Monologue

The word “innovative” is thrown around a lot in contemporary cultural criticism. It’s hard to say why, though I have some theories: a lack of historical literacy, particularly with younger critics; an increase in critics, especially reviewers and recappers, using broad language and easy shorthand due to the punishing deadlines demanded by a hectic 24/7 online publishing environment; a growing tendency towards a mindset of critic-as-advocate in a crowded pop culture marketplace, which encourages critics to overstate the virtues of works of art they want to support in the hopes it will persuade more of their audience to give them a shot. Probably there are other reasons, but I like my theories because of all the first-hand evidence I have. I’ve called movies and TV shows innovative out of ignorance, expedience and a desperate want to convince other people to like the things I like so I have someone to talk about them with. Sometimes the truth – that something is “merely” fresh, interesting or novel – can seem a bit lacklustre. But “innovative” is a word with some heft behind it: not just new, but so new it represents a major break with the old way of doing things.

But artistic innovation is rare, and only gets rarer the longer a medium is around. Every medium has its limits, and while its early days will be a flurry of invention as artists create the basic vocabulary of material, structure, form, etc. eventually most things an artist can possibly do with paint on canvas or light on film will have already been done. Irmin Roberts, an uncredited second-unit cameraman (or cinematographer, sources vary), invented the dolly-zoom in 1957 during the making of Vertigo, and that was the first and last time a dolly-zoom was innovative. People have used them in new and interesting ways since then – the reverse dolly-zoom from Goodfellas melts my face off to this day – but it was innovative once. It opened up the medium to new possibilities once.

Maybe this seems pedantic, and it would be if “innovative” was a perfect synonym for “fresh” and “new” and “original”, but the concept of innovation is an extremely loaded one. It’s no surprise the term has grown in use over the last few decades given the valorisation of “innovation” spread by Silicon Valley and its pantheon of “visionary geniuses”, each as mythical as the last. But it’s exactly in that source we should see the danger in throwing it around so loosely. Technological innovations are constantly credited in the public imagination to people who did not create them, treated as the breakthroughs of singularly brilliant minds whose sole role, very often, was owning the companies where the workers who actually created the innovations were working at the time. Even to credit those workers is usually too simplistic, because their breakthroughs are frequently just the final step in a years- or even decades-long process of inquiry, research, design, testing, etc. that likely involved dozens if not hundreds of people who deserve recognition for their contributions. But they don’t get it. Even the one who makes that final jump doesn’t get it. Irmin Roberts invented the dolly-zoom and he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

The word “innovative” is thrown around a lot in contemporary cultural criticism, and it wigs me out. It’s such a bold claim to make: not just something you’ve never seen before, but something no one has ever seen before. And even when you’ve correctly identified something as innovative, if you’re not careful, you can credit it in such a way as to bury the contributions of people without whom it would not exist. It’s not a word to be used lightly, not when criticism is often where the history of an art form – or at least the dominant narrative of that history – is written.

Let’s talk about Louie.

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Deconstructing Louis CK, Part 1

For the last several years, an increasing number of celebrities and other powerful figures – mostly but not exclusively men – have been exposed for sexual assault and harassment. People call it the #MeToo “moment” and it’s fair to say the outing of Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual predator in the pages of the New York Times and New Yorker was a kind of tipping point. But it was a tipping point in a trend that’s been growing for years and many of the people exposed since Weinstein are people whose behaviour were the stuff of rumour for a while before. Sometimes, people ask me why I’m so willing to believe accusers when they speak out when it’s all just “he said, she said”, and there are a lot of reasons, but one is definitely that I’d been hearing things about several of the people recently exposed years before anyone came forward. I’m not some celebrity insider or anything. I’m just some guy from a small town in Ireland who’s never met a famous person I couldn’t fail to make small talk with before falling completely silent and walking away mumbling to myself, as Father Ted’s Ardal O’Hanlon could attest if our encounter in a pub in Galway had been memorable in any way whatsoever. I’m not connected. But if someone had asked me to name sexual predators in Hollywood a year before the Weinstein story broke, I could have named at least a few of the men whose crimes were about to be dragged into the light: Bryan Singer, John Lasseter, Louis CK.

These past few years have raised a lot of challenging questions about how to relate to artistic works made, at least in part, by sexual predators. I’ve written about some of these questions before, and I will probably write about them again in the future. They’re not questions with easy, straightforward or final answers, if they have answers at all. An argument that might persuade you in one case could fail in another: when people say Woody Allen’s movies are inseparable from the man and his crimes, something about it just rings truer to me than when people say the same about the songs of Brand New, whose lead singer Jesse Lacey admitted to sexually exploiting teenage girls while he was in his twenties, and it’s hard to pin down why. Why can I listen to Brand New without guilt but just the thought of listening to Lostprophets, whose lead singer Ian Watkins is a convicted child rapist, turns my stomach? Why do Lostprophets songs turn my stomach when I was recently able to watch multiple episodes of Glee starring Mark Salling, who plead guilty to possessing child pornography before hanging himself, with minimal discomfort? The details differ, obviously, but all four of these men hurt children. What makes me want to take back Brand New’s music from its association with Jesse Lacey but not Lostprophets’ from Ian Watkins?

I’m not sure and may never be. Certainty may not even be the point. Perhaps constantly questioning ourselves and our judgement is the response these issues require. Not to the extent that we suspend judgement indefinitely and let ourselves off the hook from making decisions, obviously, but maybe a satisfying answer shouldn’t be the goal.

Let’s talk about Louis CK.

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Rape Jokes: The Michael Scott Story

The American version of The Office is a much lighter, goofier show than its BBC counterpart. Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s original show is cynical and essentially misanthropic, such a pure distillation of cringe comedy that it’s uncomfortable to watch. Although the NBC version started as an almost beat-for-beat remake, it quickly became a radically different show: warm and pleasant, with characters who seem like nice people. The BBC show is painful, exquisitely so; the American remake is a go-to comfort show for many.

So it’s kind of weird that it’s in the American version that the main character gets raped.

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