Category Archives: Television

Dancing With The “Stars”

Having your cultural references surgically removed when you become an expat can be fairly wearing. If ever I watch television with The Special One, I spend most of my time apologizing for not knowing that the guy from CSI: Milwaukee was actually the former star of the hilarious CBS sitcom Three Women & A Toaster back in the 80s. Obviously I retaliate by trying to get her to name every vet in All Creatures Great & Small, but then she snorts with derision and mutters something under her breath about calling her tennis coach.

Anyway, given that my knowledge of D-List American ‘stars’ is marginally worse than my understanding of avant-garde Ukrainian crochet work from 1951-53, watching celebrity-based reality TV shows is about as enticing as a double date dinner with Tiger Woods and his wife. Infact, even just watching the trailers can be confusing for me, as I discovered this weekend when I saw an ad for the new series of Dancing With The Stars (the American, Bruce Forsyth-less adaptation of Strictly Come Dancing).

Don’t get me wrong, some people I know. I mean, there’s probably not a person alive who hasn’t heard of Pamela Anderson, although I’m starting to believe she might be more famous these days for her – erm – live action self-directed short films than for her glory days on Baywatch. Obviously Nicole Scherzinger is a Pussycat Doll, although a) I wouldn’t have been able to pick her out of a police line-up if it hadn’t been for the fact that she dated a British racing driver, and b) making up a silly surname does not automatically guarantee you fame. I also have to confess that in the early 1990s, I had a bit of a thing for Brenda from Beverly Hills 90210, and so the appearance of Shannon Doherty in the show would at least provide me with the opportunity to tell The Special One that I only married her because she too came from Tennessee.

Buzz Aldrin. Yes, that Buzz Aldrin. Even if we put aside the fact that he must be 97 by now (and that zimmer frame is going to be tough to swing around in a show about ballroom dancing), did Buzz really need to do this? I mean, seriously Buzz? I know you’re still upset that that Amrstrong bloke beat you in an arm wrestle for the right to be first on the moon, but is making a fool of yourself on national TV going to take away that pain?

As for the rest of the sorry bunch, I was initially lost for words. This Brit Out Of Water doesn’t give up without a fight though, so I quickly scribbled down their names, and have finally managed to work out what brought them to our TV screens.

Chad Ochocinco
Born and raised in Bad Axe, Michigan, Ochocinco (real name: Bill Perkins) is the inventor of the Sham Wow cleaning cloth. He officially changed his name three years ago, to reflect the number of different uses he claims his miracle cloth can be put to. Chad Eightyfive clearly wasn’t catchy enough for him. Became the subject of a controversy last year when federal consumer experts claimed that they were unable to find more than one use for the Sham Wow, and “even that doesn’t work very well.”

Aiden Turner
One half of the hit country combo, “Turner & Hooch”. Guitarist Turner met former flight attendant Holly Hooch in 1987, on a trip to Denver, marrying her three days later after a whirlwind Makers Mark-inspired romance. The pair began performing on stage together the following year, and are perhaps best known for the 1993 hit “You Caught Me Looking At Your Cupcakes”. The pair split in 2005, after Turner took a flight alone and was given a much-publicized ‘upgrade’ in the cabin’s rear galley by a blonde former colleague of Hooch’s.

Erin Andrews
The former Miss Poughkeepsie was stripped of her title when she was found stealing Chupa Chups from the supply cupboard of her paediatrician’s office. The “Beauty Star Steals Candy From The Babies” headlines forced pageant organizers to strip Andrews of her title, and prompted Andrews into a tearful mea culpa on Larry King. Andrews claimed to have developed a forty-a-day lollipop habit after the death of her beloved dog Francis in 2008.

Evan Lysacek
Star of the hit NBC comedy “Up Against The Wall”, Lysacek has perhaps the most irritating voice in sitcom history – quite an achievement in a field that includes The Nanny, and that woman from Will & Grace. Last year, Lysacek became the public face of Clorox’s multi-purpose cleaning sprays, although rumours abound that he is shortly to be replaced by Daphne from Frasier.

Niecy Nash
Until last year, Nash was the senior Republican senator for Utah, winning a landslide 2005 election running under the slogan “Niecy and Easy”. He narrowly avoided indictment on corruption charges after using public funds to put his son through culinary school, and was swept out of office after more than one million people joined the “Not So Niecy After All” group on Facebook.

Jake Pavelka
The Atlanta Braves catcher, who fought a very public battle with alcoholism. After one particularly heavy drinking session, Pavelka still managed to hit a triple in a key play off game against the Chicago Cubs, but ran the wrong way around the diamond to end up only making first base. Pavelka is now the poster child for Budweiser’s no-alcohol beer “Clear” (slogan: Even Less Tasty Than Bud Light).

Kate Gosselin
One time labour and delivery nurse who – not happy with having already had twins – turned to fertility treatment in her to have more kids, and ended up with sextuplets. Her and her husband – let’s call him “Jon” – then sell their souls to a television network in order to get some cold hard cashvaluable exposure for the struggles of parents with eight kids. Five years later, Kate and Jon split up, and their story was plastered over the cover of entertainment titles for approximately three years.

Yeah, alright, the last one was a bit far-fetched, wasn’t it?

A very public sense of loss

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never exactly been a royalist. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the queen and her mob of dubious inbreds, and I’m sure they’re a useful attraction for the theme park that is Englandland. But you’ll never catch me manning the barricades with the republican forced when the revolution comes.

That said, the presence of royalty can do funny things to you, as I’ve said before. Back in the 1980s, when I was a kid in North Wales, Princess Diana came to our tiny little town in North Wales. I’ve no idea why she was there to be honest – probably opening a small envelope somewhere, on the way to opening a slightly larger envelope elsewhere in her putative kingdom. All I know is that we somehow knew that her car was going to be driving past our friends’ house on her way through the town, and as a result we gathered alone at the side of the road to watch.

As the tiny motorcade drove by, we waved gleefully at the main car with the royal standard flying from it. We assume she waved back, but to be honest, the windows were blacked out so we couldn’t even see her. She could have been flicking v’s and mooning at us for all we knew, in a desperate attempt to get back at Charles for forcing her come to the middle of nowhere to kiss babies and smile inanely at lascivious local dignitaries.

When I woke up one morning fifteen or so years later to find out that Diana had died, it’s fair to say that while I was shocked (and saddened for her two sons), the death didn’t have any personal impact on me. I seem to remember that some friends and I spent the afternoon at a long-planned barbecue, and that while we stopped to watch the emotional return of her body to the UK, the majority of the day was spent idly talking about football, work and – let’s face it – girls.

For the rest of the week until her funeral the following Saturday, I looked on with confusion as Britain collectively seemed to lose its head. I mean, it’s one matter to mourn – as I have, and will no doubt again – the loss of people close to you, but it’s a whole different thing to wail publicly in the street at the passing of someone you never met, however much good work that person did to raise public awareness of vital issues such as land mines and Duran Duran.

The strange thing is that it’s only in the last couple of years that Americans have stopped asking me how I feel about the death of Princess Diana. I used to feel like saying “oh you know, pretty much the same way that you feel about the issues of fiscal responsibility and escalating inflation in Zambia.” Instead I say something inane about the loss that Britain felt, and let the other person waffle on about how they felt that a shining star in the galaxy flickered out that night.

Coincidentally, given that Diana’s death was twelve years ago this week, America has just lost another member of its own royal family. No, don’t worry, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen are both still alive, and all the Baldwins are safe and accounted for. But the Kennedy clan continue to show the importance of investing in a good black suit at an early age, with the passing of Edward Kennedy from brain cancer at 84.

In many ways, the television coverage of Kennedy’s death and funeral was weirdly reminiscent of that of Diana – round the clock and over-the-top at times. To be fair, Kennedy did much more for the world than the People’s Princess, although he had tragically failed to dance publicly with John Travolta before his untimely passing. But I still have to ask whether we need to see live footage of the plane carrying his body from Boston to Arlington.

The fact is that the big winners from these high-profile deaths are the TV networks, who manage to deliver high-yield ad breaks as a result of the demise of such well-loved figures. In years to come, we’ll probably find out that the likes of Fox, ITV, CBS and NBC employ a crack team of international assassins to take out international icons whenever business is looking tough. Poor Michael Jackson never stood a chance when the massed powers of Television Inc decided that his time had come.

If I were Madonna, I’d be looking nervously over my shoulder the next time a guy comes to fix her cable box, I can tell you.

Ten things we can learn about life from American sitcoms

Though my first visit to the United States wasn’t until I’d reached my 20s, I think it’s fair to say that I thought I knew a fair amount about the country through the years of watching American TV. From Newhart to Chips, US telly played an unquestionable (although on some level, highly questionable) role in my cultural upbringing.

More than anything, it was US sitcoms that I loved. Whether it was Willis in Diff’rent Strokes, Balki in Perfect Strangers, or Becky in Roseanne, I took deep into my life the characters that appeared on my screen every week. And to be fair, I think that they – and many others – taught me some valuable lessons and principles about life in America:

Cheers
If you spend a substantial period of your life in the same bar, there is the distinct likelihood that everybody will know your name (Shelley Long is the exception that now proves this rule). Unfortunately, such heavy drinking may mean that you are no longer capable of remembering your own name.

The Golden Girls
If one of your best friends throws a party, you should not spend time carefully planning what to buy as a present. As long as the host sees that the biggest gift comes from you (and you attach a card with a casual inanity such as “thank you for being a friend”) you should be fine. Oh, and old ladies can be sexually active too, apparently.

Seinfeld
Being a neurotic obsessive who is incapable of commitment doesn’t stop you from pulling women if you are a popular comedian. Being a short lackey in the employ of a baseball team is slightly more limiting.

Friends
Close pals do not need to worry about calling each other to check if it’s OK for them to turn up at an acquaintance’s house. They just roll up and let themselves in. Despite all the frequent comings and goings, and the constant crossing of the corridor between your apartments, you will never once be accused of being free loving swingers by your neighbours. Not to your face, at least.

The Cosby Show
If you’re a successful doctor and you’re married to a successful lawyer, and you live in New York City, you will still not earn enough money to live somewhere where two of your kids don’t have to share a room.

Happy Days
If you can make a jukebox play merely by hitting it, you are guaranteed sex. Even if your real name is Arthur.

Will & Grace
Having an incredibly irritating voice should never be seen as a barrier to success if you’re an actress (cf ‘The Nanny’).

Frasier
Fathers can be the most down-to-earth, honest-to-goodness people, and their sons can still turn out like unconscionable pricks. If Fraiser had been my son, I’d have known exactly what to do with that tossed salad and scrambled eggs, and I can absolutely promise you that it would have taken at least ten years of extensive psychotherapy for him to erase the memory.

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
If you were born and raised on the streets of West Philadelphia, and a couple of guys (who were up to no good) started making trouble in your neighbourhood, your mother’s idea of punishment will be to send you to live in one of the most expensive areas of the United States. Not only that, despite Los Angeles being 2,712 miles away, she’ll send you from the ghetto in a taxi. Approximate cost – $7,250.

Mork & Mindy
Moving to New York from London is broadly similar to landing on Earth in an egg-shaped spacecraft from the planet Ork. Sadly, greeting staff in New York delis with the words “Na-Nu Na-Nu” does not go down well. And I should know. Shazbot.

Never mind the show, let’s watch the adverts

It’s the biggest day of America’s televisual year tomorrow – a day so big that retailers such as Best Buy are ramping up their marketing to capture the trade of all those people tempted to upgrade their televisions in preparation. Food is being readied, beer being bought, and corner shopsbodegas are running out of ice across the country. And all because millions of people want to watch a few advertscommercials.

Unfortunately the most eagerly anticipated ads of the year are interspersed with short breaks featuring the Superbowl,  the most overhyped sports game of the year. Apart from this year, of course, where the match-up between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers has all the allure of a game between Derby County and Fulham on a wet Monday night in November.

Never mind, there’s still the ads to look forward to. The Superbowl offers one of the few opportunities left for advertisers to reach a mass audience in one go, with last year’s clash between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots attracting an audience of around 97 million. As a result, brands are falling over themselves to get into the breaks, with each attempting to outdo each other with big budgets, Hollywood production values, and a healthy dose of humour thrown in for good measure.

To be fair, many of them are pretty amusing or impressive. Certainly impressive enough to get featured in shows such as The Greatest Superbowl Commercials Ever, at least. There’s no getting around the fact that, during the live broadcast of the ads, you have to watch some overpaid men try to move a ball ten yards forward, but you can’t have everything.

The strange thing is that the UK doesn’t have an equivalent ad-fest, despite the attempts of broadcasters to create one. Nobody puts a particularly special effort into their FA Cup Final ads, for instance, or fight amongst each other to get into the Christmas special of Heartbeat. Personally I’d like to see the World Darts Championship final declared the focus of UK marketing efforts, if for no other reason than it will take your mind off how big Raymond van Barneveld’s gut is these days.

Incidentally, the Superbowl broadcaster NBC today announced that it is currently in talks to sell the last two of the 67 spots for the game, the rest of which have already been sold for between $2. 4 million and $3 million per 30-second slot. And that’s before the advertisers have even thought about the cost of creating the commercial itself.

Economic crisis? What economic crisis?

General Hospital: a lesson in the difference between fact and fiction

Luckily enough, I’ve never had to spend much time in hospital. There was the time I fainted and fell back off my stool in a physics class at school, although walking in with a suspected fractured skull and walking out with a fractured thumb was frankly embarrassing. And when I was a toddler, I naively put my hand on the side of a hot oven and had to be raced off to casualty. It wasn’t a lesson I learned particular well either – a couple of years ago I cooked Christmas dinner for fifteen friends, badly burnt my hand as I served up the food, and spent the rest of the evening watching other people eat while I sat in excruciating agony with a bag of frozen Thai green curry in my rapidly blistering hand.

Given that those were my only two visits to an A&E department, I’ve generally had to look elsewhere for my understanding of medical emergencies. And by ‘elsewhere’, I’m clearly referring to hospital dramas on TV.

In the UK, hospital drama means ‘Casualty’, the gritty weekly show based in the fictional city of Holby. Famous largely for the presence of the world’s worst actor (Derek Thompson, who plays Charlie Fairhead, somehow manages to make David Caruso look like a Shakepearean veteran), Casualty is apparently the longest running emergency medical drama in the world. I appreciate that this might not be the most expansive category in the world, but bless ‘em for coming up with the stat anyway.

In the US, Casualty’s equivalent is ER, the George Clooney-launching monolith that has just lumbered into its fifteenth and final seriesseason. For a while back in the 90s, ER seemed to be the biggest show in the world, although if you ask me it was just Casualty with more money and less wooden acting.

Anyway, the point is that as far as American emergency rooms go, my experience was limited to the times when I happened to watch ER. With flying trolleys carrying half-mutilated traffic victims, and surgeons bearing high voltage defibrillators asking passers by to stand back, the US emergency room always seemed to be the pinnacle of unbelievable tension. Especially compared to the early years of Casualty, when the most exciting injury of the evening was generally a pretty nasty paper cut.

However, having spent much of Friday night sitting with a friend in a Brooklyn ER, I can’t begin to sum up my disappointment at the grim reality. That the biggest piece of excitement seemed to be the moment one woman breathed in on an asthma inhaler would probably best sum it up. No dashing trolleys, no electric paddles, and not an Alex Kingston or Anthony Edwards in sight. Hell, I’ve been in more exciting shoe shops.

In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a situation in which there could have been less of a sense of urgency. It’s almost as if hospital staff were trying to bore patients into curing their own illnesses. Although given that most patients appeared to be founder members of Brooklyn’s ‘Why Take Up One Chair When You Can Put On Enough Weight To Take Up Two’ society, it would have taken more than casual nonchalance to shift some of these folk.

At least I wasn’t in a British A&E on a Friday night, I guess, watching a succession of dishevelled and dirty individuals, almost certainly over the legal driving limit, and ready for a fight at any moment. And that’s just the staff.

Still, with Charlie Fairhead and Doug Ross as examples, what can you expect?

A cultural loss

In a classic ‘the dog ate my homework’ style, can I apologize for the lack of the last segment of the 200 Things You Simply Have To Know About New York list? I may or may not have written the vast majority of the final 50 points on a series of Post It notes, which were stuffed into my jeans pockets and subsequently thrown into the washing machine this weekend. I’d like to think that Charles Dickens, William Golding, Joseph Heller, Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy had similar domestic appliance-related woes at various points during their writing careers. I know for a fact that the first draft of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ was almost entirely destroyed when his wife accidentally spilled hot water from the kettle as she attempted to make a cup of instant soup. These are the issues that face all writers at some point, I know.

So as you wait eagerly under your Google Reader feed for the final installment to drop merrily into view, I thought I should mention another writer – and one far better than I could ever dream of being. Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington bureau news chief and host of ‘Meet The Press’, passed away on Friday after suffering a heart attack at work. The outpouring of tributes and emotion – whether from journalistic luminaries, politicians or the man on the street – suggests that this was a man whose ability to ask the difficult question and provide insight made him loved by all. Clearly Russert’s death has impacted a huge number of people.

It’s at times like this that I really notice that I’ve only been in the US for ten months. For while I know of Russert’s work, he hasn’t formed part of my cultural and journalistic upbringing for the last thirty five years in the way that, say, Michael Buerke, Sue Lawley or Kate Adie have. If Sir Trevor McDonald dropped dead tomorrow, there would (in the UK) be a tidal wave of tributes and sorrow which I would be able to understand given that Trevor’s news reports (not to mention his surprise Tiswas appearances) were a constant presence in my life from the age of about six. There is a very clear emotional attachment to these people that you invite into your house every night, and one that only time and repeated exposure can bring. But that’s a long way from happening for me with American newscasters, meaning that I can’t quite relate to the grief in the way that I might otherwise hope to.

In fact, such is the limited amount of TV that I watch at the moment given a move of country and job as well as the acquisition of a ready-made family, the only television stars that I might mourn the loss of would be Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colichio. ‘Top Chef’ is hardly ‘Meet The Press’, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

When the chips hit the fan

It’s always strange to find out how other people view your nation. For example, every single day, somebody talks to me in a faux British accent that suggests they’ve come straight off the set of Mary Poppins or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. To the majority of Americans, the British are posh and haughty. Even the fourteen year old from the council estate who was knocked up by her drug dealer and now pushes around baby Britney in a pushchairstroller all day talks like the Queen as far as most residents of this fair land are concerned.

Why people feel duty bound to talk to me like I’m a Cockney is beyond me. I don’t go round talking to people in their particular accent or dialect, however tempting it might be sometimes. I tried it in a WalMart in Tennessee, and it almost led to the cashier refusing to sell me a cheese ball – a harsh punishment if ever there was one.

The slightly unsure attitude to Britain is particularly apparent in the world of entertainment, where the baddies are almost exclusively played by Arabs or the British (just watch 24 if you want confirmation).

And who cares about our history or beautiful countryside when you can obsess incessantly about Princess Diana? I still get asked about the ‘People’s Princess’ to this day, as if somehow we were close and my insight could prove useful to laying her ghost to rest. At that point in the conversation, it seems difficult to confess that Mr MacBottom and I didn’t even cancel a barbecue on the day of her death as, well, we’d already bought the meat and it wouldn’t keep for another day.

Of course, when it comes to food, everybody thinks Britain is a third world country. That is, until they go there and realise that some of the best cooking in the world now takes place in the UK.

Such high culinary arts caused a problem for the “Bizarre Foods” series on the Travel Channel. The basic concept of the show is that Andrew Zimmern (of whom it was famously once said “Who?”) travels the world eating strange and disgusting food. And when it comes down to it, the UK just doesn’t produce enough gruesome food.

Admittedly sheep intestines don’t look great when raw, but in haggis they seem pretty appetising. Eels aren’t my bag, it has to be said, but do they really require a dedicated segment in a bizarre foods show? And pigeon, cockles and hare just don’t seem to compare to deep fried rat if you ask me.

The show reached a new low on the bizarreness scale when the show turned its attention to Christmas pudding. I mean, dried fruit, nuts, peel, eggs, flour and sugar may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s hardly monkey brains is it?

Strangely there was no sign of black pudding, although given that even The Special One has tried that now, maybe it has begun to lose its bizarre charms? Thankfully, she’s a full convert to the Great British Banger, and didn’t even bat an eyelid when I ordered sausage, chips and beans for Sunday lunch in Bay Ridge.

Now that’s love.

Where’s Sky Sports when you need it?

There’s something slightly strange about watching football on television in the United States. For a start, you have to tune into a station called the Fox Soccer Channel. I’ve no idea what this ‘soccer’ thing is, but if anybody has got any insight, do let me know. Nevertheless, if you’re separated from your beloved team by a matter of a few thousand miles, this is the place you have to turn.

I think it’s fair to say that the Fox Soccer Channel isn’t one of the most watched channels on American cable. On Time Warner Cable, it’s down at position 124. In other words, there are 123 channels considered more important than FSC – including the Speed Channel, which is currently showing a programme called ‘Unique Whips’. Mainstream stuff, I’m sure…

The relatively low viewership is particularly evident in the advertisingcommercials that appear around key games. Most of the adverts have been shot on a budget that wouldn’t even buy you a coffee in Starbucks, and I’ve seen better production values in kindergarten art classes. And that’s the good ones.

What’s most alarming though is the nature of the products being advertised. Tuning in yesterday to watch Manchester United’s second half demolition of Newcastle, it was like being forced to sit through the 3- 4am slot on one of QVC’s less successful competitors. Merely being marginally impressed by one of the products on offer would be enough for family members to have you committed. I daren’t even think about the consequences of actually making a purchase.

Among the items being sold were the Teeter Hang Up, a device that hangs you upside down by your ankles so that you’ve got gravity on your side when you’re doing your exercise. It looked ridiculous on the TV, but you’ve got to hand it to the website for their attempt to sell it:

“Used sensibly, inversion is extremely beneficial, and no more dangerous than many other popular and widely practiced fitness activities.”

No more dangerous than other widely practiced activities? Such as boxing blindfolded, presumably.

Also on offer was the Riddex digital pest repeller which apparently “eliminates rodents automatically”. Ignoring the sheer bravado of the product claim for a moment, I was particularly taken by the customer testimonial of one old lady (who was in no way an actress), who claimed:

“Riddex just makes me happy”

After all, who needs love or money when you’ve got a digital pest repeller?

My absolute favourite though was the Forearm Forklifts, a device to help you lift heavy furniture or equipment with the minimum of effort. I’d like to report that the Forearm Forklift is a small and highly mobile lifting device. It’s not. It’s a couple of plastic straps that you and a mate put on your arm to help lever your sofa into the air. They’re selling it for $20 if ever you’re seized by a desire to purchase something that cost 56 cents to manufacture.

Impressively, Fox Soccer Channel doesn’t interrupt the match to play commercials. Sadly that means that there’s no expert analysis at half time, just constant adverts for sleeping aids, home decorating aids and dodgy exercise devices. Clearly advertisers believe that the average football fan is a lazy couch potato whose general untidiness leads to armies of rats invading his (or her) messy pit.

It’s amazing how accurately consumers can be targeted these days, isn’t it?

On the telly

Having been a bit of an addict back at home, I’ve barely watched any TV since I moved to America. With Sky+ (that’s Tivo, to the Americans amongst you) now a distant memory, by the time I’ve navigated through what seems to be 1003 different channels, I’ve generally either fallen asleep or missed the one programme that was vaguely worth watching in the first place.

In fact, the only show* I seem to have managed to watch on any kind of regular basis is Kitchen Nightmares with our very own Gordon Ramsay. But forget Rococo in Norfolk, or Mamma Cherri’s Soul Food Shack in Brighton – this is Kitchen Nightmares, American-style – with all the glamour, tears and tantrums that American television demands.

They say that everything in America is bigger than its equivalent elsewhere, and they’re not just referring to national debt. Indeed, the level of US debt has undoubtedly been increased by the amount of money thrown at Kitchen Nightmares on this side of the pond by Fox TV. Where in the UK Gordon saves a restaurant by giving them his coveted fish pie or burger recipe, here the master chef gives them a complete restaurant makeover, with every glass, table, fork and plate replaced with sparkling new products.

To be honest, new plates are about as close as you get to food with the US version. Unsurprisingly for a country gripped by such a fervent desire for self-examination, the show is dominated by blazing arguments, personal breakdowns and meltdowns and confessional vox pops. It’s like the Jerry Springer Show meets Jamie Oliver. With more swearing.

Ah, the swearing. There’s one thing that doesn’t change about Kitchen Nightmares. There’s more ‘f****’ and ‘f***ings’ than a boat trip with Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. Although every single one of them seems to be beeped out. After all, you can’t expect people watching TV at 9pm to be grown up enough to hear the odd swear word, can you?

For two shows with the same name, it’s difficult to imagine them being handled so differently. With one a food documentary, and the other a soap opera set in a restaurant, comparing them is like pitting Mike Tyson in the ring against Arnold from Diff’rent Strokes. Even so, you can’t help but admit that Kitchen Nightmares USA is entirely superficial but pretty damn enjoyable.

Sounds like a pretty good metaphor for life in America, if you ask me.

* When I say ‘the only show’, I obviously have to exclude CSI: Miami from that. But then, that’s less television and more a religion.

This is a low

One of my favourite phrases in television is “jumping the shark” – the moment when a series whose popularity is possibly on the decline does something desperate to try to give ratings a boost. The saying comes from a moment in Happy Days when Henry Winkler, playing The Fonz, literally jumped a shark on a pair of water-skis. The Fonz was on the water skis, I hasten to add – The Fonz jumping over a shark that was in turn wearing a pair of water skis would be a step too far, clearly. But it was still pretty ridiculous, and the episode is generally regarded as the beginning of the end for the show.

Tonight, running myself ragged on the treadmill at the local gym, I finally saw a show jump the shark. In fact, I may well have seen popular culture truly eat itself.

There’s not much excuse for this, but I was watching entertainment news show Extra, on NBC. There, I’ve said it. Given that my other options were “All Access: Awesomely Ridiculous Celeb Moments” on VH1, or back-to-back Pavarotti obits on CNN, it somehow seemed like the lesser of three evils.

Hosted by Dayna Devon and Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath, Extra is the televisual equivalent of reading OK! magazine, yet marginally more vapid and irritating. You’d get more in-depth interviews from trained turtles. And everything is coated in a shiny layer of pure unadulterated sucrose. Mark McGrath has progressed from rock star to polished presenter, while Dayna Devon’s no slouch in the journalism stakes. She’s presented TV news for ten years, and while at ABC in Memphis, she was part of a team that picked up an Emmy for Best Live Broadcast.

So when Dayna decided to have tummy tuck plastic surgery because she felt that she couldn’t lose the weight gained after having two children, you might have expected a serious piece on the pros and cons of such invasive surgery. You’d have been wrong.

Not only was Dayna advertising the fact that she had sold the ‘before, during and after’ pictures of her surgery to People magazine (“the new edition hits newsstands tomorrow” according to Dayna, in a thinly veiled voiceover plug), but the feature was essentially a commercial for the revolutionary techniques of her incredible plastic surgeon.

Who just happens to be her husband.

Yes, Mr Dayna Devon (Brent Moelleken) is a plastic surgeon – and coincidentally when Dayna decided to have work done, he bravely stepped in to offer his services. The remarkably positive coverage of his surgery on primetime American TV did not even enter his mind.

How astonishing is it that in this country, a TV presenter can sell to People magazine an exclusive story essentially advertising her husband’s business, and at the same time persuade her TV employers to run a feature on the whole thing? Can we expect Davina McCall to appear on her own show on BBC1, urging viewers to buy Heat magazine for its feature extolling the virtues of her father’s graphic design business? Whatever happened to the days of journalistic integrity and independence? They vanished long ago, it would appear.

At least viewers are having the good grace to be outraged by the feature. On Extra’s own website, viewers are leaving less-than-complimentary comments about the whole sorry affair. “Annie” sums it up pretty well:

“Nothing better than showing off your good-for-nothing huge ego while giving your hubby some free advertising. Niiiiiiice.”

While “A.B.” hasn’t got a bad point either:

“I remember when I heard that Dayna was marrying a plastic surgeon. Hmmmm… I wonder what her underlying motive was. She always desperately seems to try to be someone she’s not – fake laugh, fake sympathy in her voice… and now it’s been confirmed, a fake body.”

And “Donna” seems to have it sewn up too:

“I am so amazed that you did this story. How could you? …You may be fortunate enough to work in entertainment and be married to a plastic surgeon but you were very insensitive with this report. You come across as competely vain and I am very disappointed in you and the network. There are millions of women who “live” with their “ugly” bodies and you just made then feel terrible. I am ashamed of you.”

If you want to watch the piece in question, you can do so here. Just don’t expect Emmy Award winning television from Dayna Devon this time, OK?