Sunday, August 10, 2008

Trying to be funny on TV

Local English TV debuted two new sitcoms this evening, "Calefare" and "First Class". The former looks at the lives of the people cast as extras in film and TV shoots. The latter is about the goings-on in a secondary school and, um, not quite sure what else 'cos we didn't get past the introductions of the characters in the first episode.

I wondered about the word "Calefare". It seems to be a word used only in the local entertainment industry. The recognized term is "extra" so where did this odd-sounding noun come from? The closest etymology I can conjecture is from the French term, "le faire", which means "to do [it]", which makes sense. It is for the extra to do and die. But the "Ca" part eludes me. Can anyone offer assistance?

English drama has been pretty dire on local TV (still is) because it has never moved past playing stereotypes. And bad stereotypes at that. What English TV has yet to twig on is that TV is a very different medium from theatre. I know theatre, and I know that there is room to play with form and presentation because theatre is an inherently artificial environment. The characters need to appear larger than life, with clearly defined characteristics because much of the context (that word again) they exist in is created with a lot of fill-in-the-blanks in the minds of the audience. Theatre couldn't be 'real' if it tried.

The audience for TV treats the medium as 'real', though. The TV camera can transport the audience to real locations and 'converse' with real people. News, documentaries, chat or magazine programmes, reality TV all exploit the audience's belief in the realism TV presents. The TV camera is a mobile device that can shoot from any location in 3-dimensional space, so there is no reason for the audience to make allowances for any theatrical backdrop, or be in any way limited by the theatrical convention of the '4th wall'. The camera brings the audience to intimate proximity with the characters on-screen and that gets pretty real for us, moreso than theatre ever could anyway.

MediaCorp tends to hybridize both media, but it doesn't work. The sets are real locations -- or at least realistic locations -- but the characters are just unbelievable. They are like 2D cartoon characters superimposed on 3D space. In the pilot of "Calefare" we have a diva actor who is all diva, a wistful Bollywood has-been, a spaced-out snarky rocker chick who speaks like Raven of the Teen Titans and plays 'dead' quite well, and the usual raft of characters from any local school skit featuring 'local people'. Likewise in "First Class" the range of teacher-types and student-types is as predictable, and played to death already. No need to elaborate, you already know what I'm talking about.

Despite the promising issues that can be explored in sitcoms involving extras and school-based high jinks, if the characters don't develop any personalities soon, we'll have yet another crop of English TV drama that won't surpass the quality of a Power Rangers series, or maybe LWT's Mind Your Language at the most.

This is not to say that the use of stereotypes on TV cannot make successful TV shows. We know how popular the Power Rangers franchise is, and MYL was more than a laugh and a half, but MediaCorp also needs to mind its audience and mind its own medium if it wants to raise the level of English TV comedy in the S'pore.

I'll be watching...

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