In David Cronenberg’s extraordinary Videodrome (1983), there is an unforgettable scene in which
anti-hero Max Renn (James Woods), attuned to a strange broadcast frequency in
the air, begins to perceive his humble, homely television set as a living,
Taking on the physical features of the person on its
screen – who is Debbie Harry, no less – this TV set mutates and stretches to
the point where a huge pair of red video lips pout, extending several feet into
the living room. Max merrily buries himself in the apparition. Who wouldn’t?
Once in a blue moon, watching everyday, normal TV can
be a bit like that – even without hallucinogenic prompting. So accustomed are
we to the predictability, if not outright blandness, of so much TV, we let
ourselves half-doze off, in front of the set …
And then, if we’re lucky, something weird happens.
A sober newsreader breaks up in uncontrollable
laughter; the videotape suddenly gallops ahead in fast motion; an unrelated
image or caption from another program or segment breaks in with uncanny, wacky,
You can hardly believe it happened – but you saw it.
Will it ever be recorded in the tatty annals of TV history, or are you destined
to be its sole witness – the raver whom no one, subsequently, will ever
Remembering that indelible image of lips from Videodrome, I give such rare and
precious moments the label of Stretch TV.
Formula is simultaneously the saddest and happiest
fact of popular television as a form and as a medium. What makes sitcoms like Taxi or Cheers rich is the pattern of familiarities and predictabilities
they set up from week to week – comically inverting and perverting our
expectations (artfully tweaking and fiddling with the series’ template along
the way) quite as much as they fulfil them.
There is pleasure in hearing a character such as Alex
Keaton (Michael J. Fox) in Family Ties say exactly the same thing we expect him to say in a given situation, perfectly
on cue. And there is equal pleasure in seeing how the show, using the device of
a dream sequence or a flashback to early childhood, can suddenly, crazily
metamorphose Alex into one of the other characters for 25 minutes.
Formula is among the elements that distinguish TV from
cinema, giving it specific richness as a medium.
But formula can also mean boredom and flatness – dull
routine. Even the finest, funniest and most inventive TV programs – like Magnum P.I. or The Rockford Files – invariably, inevitably fall in line with all
the usual, commercial constraints.
Plot information must be clear and direct; stories
(and the problems they raise) must be cleanly resolved (hence, resolvable)
within the hour or half-hour format; photographic or sonic effects must not be
too brazen, lest they interrupt the smooth flow … that flow which is geared to
and structured around, naturally, the advertising breaks.
TV shows are obliged to conform to a certain rhythm
and a particular look, an aesthetic that can become all too familiar. Which
leaves viewers secretly wishing for a hiccup, a slip, a gaffe somewhere along
the track – a spanner to gum up the well-oiled, institutional machine of
It is not hard, then, to understand the recent appeal
of those endless Dick Clark specials devoted to TV Bleepers, Bloopers,
Foul-Ups, Blunders, fluffed takes … And, for an episode or two, it is certainly
invigorating to gloat over this parade of rough edges and clumsy crashes from
the lofty, professional heights of televisual perfection. (Even scratchy
Super-8 movies find their home here.)
Intriguingly, the live audiences who attend the taping
of TV variety fare such as The Bert
Newton Show or New Faces are warmed
up, before the cameras roll, by the station’s in-house blooper tape – which is
definitely too hot to publicly broadcast.
The appeal of Stretch TV is clear; and yet these
examples point to something which is a little troubling. Once bloopers and the
like are packaged and presented in this way – rumour has it that producers in
the US are now even contriving bloopers with the hope of getting them into a Dick Clark compilation – their
subversive spontaneity has vanished. They serve merely to bolster and reinforce
the same old standards of professional television.
Bloopers become the safety vale that lets off the
steam. But the machine grinds on, same as it ever was.
Stretch TV can be arrived at via another route. If
popular TV is indeed, for the most part, a matter of rules and limits,
constraints and repressions, then it might be, after all, an easy matter to
grasp the nature of these constraints so as to lift them for a time –
deliriously falling below or rising above that clear watermark of bland,
This is, in fact, what – on and off – TV has strived
to do, providing each of us with memories of some of our favourite programs and
In the Lower Depths – whether they ever intended to be
there or not – would be Insight, Perfect Match, The People’s Court; not to mention many celebrated, rambling,
late-night hosts in the immortal mould of Australia’s Hal Todd [died 1992].
In the Higher Realms, those programs that dare to
inject a bit more style and intensity into the treatment of their subjects: The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, Buffalo
Bill, Couples, Open All Night, Family …
Stretch TV is also a matter of anarchy. A flagrant
flaunting of broken rules, smashed conventions, fragmented surfaces. Along with
the destruction comes a real multiplication of possibilities: stories, images
and sounds ordered and displayed and played in every way imaginable – right
before our eyes and in our ears.
Think of Australia’s great contribution to the
international tradition of Vulgar Modernism (as J. Hoberman has tagged it): Hey Hey It’s Saturday, with its lunatic
chorus of off-screen sounds, its wash of scrambled, misspelt computer titles
and colour-synthesised graphics, and its performers who regularly abandon a
skit in progress because they crack up in laughter …
I end this brief survey of Stretch TV by
enthusiastically gesturing to the most remarkable show on our small screens in
1985, already the worshipped fetish object of a rapt, cult following: The Young Ones (12 episodes produced across
2 seasons between 1982 and 1984).
Anything is possible, and indeed probable, on this
program: doorways and closets that open onto parallel video universes (Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel  updated);
sudden, dead-accurate pastiches of other TV shows; interruptions of every kind
to the fiction; viciously over-the-top, grotesque, black-comedy gags … whatever
your heart and mind desire.
With its host of new stereotypes (the punk, the hippie,
the pseudo-anarchist, the entrepreneur) and its brilliant ensemble performance, The Young Ones embraces everything
that is potentially great in existing conventional TV formats. At the same time,
it pushes the medium forward, becoming a weird, almost unthinkable, televisual
amalgam of Bertolt Brecht, David Lynch, Jean-Luc Godard, The Marx Brothers,
Jerry Lewis, Dziga Vertov and The Three Stooges.
The Young Ones at its inspired,
anarchic best hits my short list of magic moments in Stretch TV. This general list
includes: the sight of a paraplegic man, the leader of an odd religious sect,
on a disco rostrum, leading his congregation in a rousing chorus of “Macho Man”
(in the sensationalist pseudo-documentary This
is America Part 2 ); and the spectacle of a secret platoon of the US
Army trained to speak, act, dress and think like Russians so that, when war
begins, they will understand their enemy – this, a segment on the “human
interest” program More Real People.
… Wait, more
real people? With a title like that, it has to be, at the outset, Stretch
© Adrian Martin September 1985