Film and Television Features

Slack-Jawed and Square-Eyed #2

Insomnia can do strange things to a person: Groucho Marx kept himself sane in the small hours of the morning by becoming a prolific crank caller; Alexandre Dumas used the extra time to (allegedly) father 500 children; Thatcher swore by it during her time in office and, well, look how she ended up.

Personally, I'm blaming it for causing me to sit through a whole episode of Hot Like Us (Wednesday, BBC3), the show where an array of couples, each more ghastly than the last, compete to win a modelling contract, all bound by the rather sinister, almost Orwellian, stipulation that if they split up then the deal becomes null and void. Though, admittedly, I have less excuse for catching some of Sky Living's currently running equivalent Signed By Katie Price (Wednesday, Sky Living). But, as I believe in making the best out of a bad situation, I'm choosing to write about the experience/ordeal in this week's column. In other words: I watched these shows so you don't have to.

Unsurprisingly once you got past their USPs, both shows were pretty much exactly the same: both spent most of their time telling us what a tough job modeling was, but then didn't show us how exactly (other than the poor girl on Katie Price's show who seemed to be incapable of keeping her mouth closed), and both featured the same panel of experts, ludicrously dressed, slightly patronising and dubiously qualified. In fact, to add more foundation to the existence of some bizarrely specific cottage industry, these 'experts' had also appeared on these shows' forerunner – the British spin-off of America's Next Top Model.

While both programmes may have aspired to be worthy successors to Tyra Banks' brain-child, there was something missing, some ineffable quality that stopped them from reaching such heights of ludicrous entertainment. That being said, there were also some differences that were much more 'effable'. For one, there was not even being a hint of Banks' patented move, the 'smize' in sight (for those who've never ventured into the the crazy world of ANTM it means 'smiling with your eyes' – which I'm not sure is physically possible but that's not stopped her building an empire on it anyway) instead we just got a lot of contestants staring cold daggers of hatred at each other, and to be honest it couldn't happen to a more deserving bunch of people. We Brits might sneer at the trashy nature of American Television, but in truth, when it comes to producing the most consistently reliable parade of human garbage to compete on reality shows, we're number one! Just compare the 'stars' of any season of America's Top Model with their British counterparts. And in the permanently-confused-yet-aggressively-defensive Tyrone and Saline, Hot Like Us just might have found the new claimants to the throne.

I suppose it's understood that we've moved a long way from the BBC being the edifying institution it was during Lord Reith's era, but that doesn't mean that it can't teach us anything any more, and indeed their offering to the genre was actually quite enlightening. By sitting through just one episode I learnt:

  1. That people don't understand the meaning of the word “charisma” anymore, nor do they understand the word “sacrifice”

  2. That the sort of person who goes on this type of show aspires to date someone who looks exactly the same (you could have swapped the heads of most of the couples featured and, thanks to all the fake-tanning and primping and preening, they wouldn't have looked any different).

  3. That grime artist Lethal Bizzle has been going for the best part of a decade, apparently.

  4. That this sort of thing really can't fill an hour of television.

Whereas Katie Price just showed us that, despite all the defensive arguments that “she may be known for her tits, but she's actually a sharp businesswoman”, she's actually a person so devoid of talent and personality that she's incapable of creating any sense of tension or drama: even the manipulative editing tricks of reality TV can't help you with that when you mumble your lines in monotone into your desk. Banks may be a lunatic, but she's actually a hard act to follow.

Of course, I could just be writing about this as, thanks to choosing the wrong time of year to start this column, there isn't much to talk about TV-wise. Just about the only big TV launch of the week being I'm A Celebrity... (every-bloody-day, ITV), but, personally I find the thought of sitting through an episode of it turns my stomach. Watch people attempt revive their careers by chomping on creepy-crawlies and marsupial genitalia, and then appear in Iceland adverts? No thank you. All that being said, I do wonder if actually anybody's watching this year's lot; even at the start of the series they were the definition of barrel-scraping, and now that Freddie Starr's gone, I expect most interest has as well.

No doubt, the BBC were hoping that Pan Am (Wednesday and Saturday BBC2) would prove to be a small beacon of excitement in the pre-Christmas lull, or at least would fill the Mad Men-shaped void in their schedule, although by the signs of things, once they actually watched the show they realised that it wouldn't be, hence why they decided to burn through four episodes of it in its first week.

Although, all signs pointed to it being a disaster from day one as really Pan Am is a show that has no reason to exist. Broadcaster ABC might have greenlit it to cash-in on Mad Men's success, but what they apparently forgot to take into account is that Mad Men isn't that successful – only a handful of people watch it, they just all happen to be part of the Emmy awarding panel and/or TV critics – and that, although the sixties-setting is part of that show's appeal, it isn't the main attraction. Far more important is its slightly esoteric approach to narrative structure; it wasn't afraid to confuse its audience, and that's how we liked it. In Pan Am's case they were so concerned that we'd keep up with the story (not that there actually was any: every interesting detail seemed to have occurred six months before the on screen events) that everything was clearly signposted, and, just to make sure the location-hopping didn't cause any confusion there was always a handy cliché to fall back on: torrential rain in London, motorbikes in Rome, patisseries in Paris, that sort of thing.

It was no surprise to see The West Wing's Thomas Schlamme listed as an executive producer, and director of the pilot, as both shows share a love of the walk-and-talk, and jaunty music inappropriately underscoring every single scene. The difference is that The West Wing had the wit of Aaron Sorkin, whereas Pan-Am's script felt like it had been ripped from the pages of Bunty (not that I've ever actually read an issue, but I'm sure you know what I mean).

You did have to feel somewhat sorry for the actors who were clearly ill at ease with the material they had been given – the spying subplot was in particular quite ludicrous (I'm willing to bet that one stewardess from the era has an anecdote about being approached by the CIA but I refuse to accept that the life of the Pan Am cabin crew in the 60s was quite so full of international espionage; it should have been a background detail at most yet the programme-makers pushed it front and centre) - and it probably didn't help that they had clearly spent most of their time on set marooned in front of a green-screen. Just about the only cast member who seemed confident enough to avoid cartoonish mugging was Christina Ricci and, surprisingly, she was barely in it (which, actually might explain how she got away relatively unscathed). I really hope that the reason for her limited screen-time was because she knew that she was above the show, and not because Hollywood have already deemed her too old to be a leading lady.

Despite all that, I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't entertained: it's fun (in small doses), it's glossy, it's a bit like televisual candy. Or more accurately, it's as if the producers were referring to the image of the 60s captured in the era's garish photo stocks, rather than the era itself (again, I have no real frame of reference for this comment, but there's no physical way that the reality could have been so lurid – it would have been like living inside someone's migraine). I wouldn't advise getting too attached though as it's fairly likely that Pan Am will be permanently grounded at the end of the first season, probably with some plane-crash cliff-hanger that will never be resolved (and more likely no-one will care).

Next time, something about The Killing probably as everybody's going on about it (by everybody I mean critics and people I follow on twitter), and hopefully something else that'll stop me from having to dip into The X Factor or I'm A Celebrity for another week.