Ameri-holics Anonymous or I'm from Britain but I don't like British Television

Category: , , By Rev/Views

A week or two ago; while looking at my DVD collection in it's entirety something started nagging at my mind, then last week while watching TV another unrelated thought suddenly linked itself with the previous one and I stood up to consider my collection again.

I realised, I really don't like modern British shows and in fact the only kind of British shows I enjoy watching are sitcoms and documentaries. I rarely watch any British drama and when I do it's often with a mix of derision and scorn, I'm very harsh at poor old Doctor Who for one.

The current running shows that I manage to watch are My Family, Moving Wallpaper, Mighty Boosh and Gavin & Stacey (all which I only catch when they are released on DVD). Occasionally I also watch Q.I., Top Gear, Doctor Who and Live at the Apollo but more often than not I forget what time these shows are on and instead. I did used to watch Skins but I've decided the cast change has soured interest in the next season, and I can only mention just one decent drama in recent times - Life on Mars.

I did also watch Deadset but felt mostly let down by it, it's not something I'd ever want to watch again.

The complete list of British shows I own on DVD is even more damming:
Black Adder, Black Books, Coupling, Darkplace, Extras, Fawlty Towers, Gavin & Stacey, Green Wing, Marion & Geoff, Jeeves & Wooster, Mighty Boosh, Monty Python, Moving Wallpaper, My Family, The New Statesman, Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights/Max & Paddy, Red Dwarf, Spaced, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Sharpe (I've not watched the newest two yet), Skins, Spaced and a range of BBC Wildlife Documentaries.

The vast majority of these have now ended with no sign of a return and quite a lot of them are from the previous decade as well. My American shows on the other hand covers a range of genres, drama, sitcoms, police procedurals, sci-fi, cartoons etc etc.

So I've spent a bit of time trying to figure out why I prefer shows released by our American cousins over ones from this wet, dour country that I so love.

I think it boils down to a few simple things; length, resources, depth, guns and channels.

American seasons are simply longer than British ones, often by a factor of three or more. The American show will normally have either around a dozen episodes or two dozen, while the British show will have six or eight. This time is important, you've got longer to pan out any story arcs and set up situations and it also means you get a lot more bang for your buck when it comes time to pick up the DVD set. Paying £15 for 22 episodes of Seinfeld just feels better than the same for 6 episodes of The Mighty Boosh.

Tied into this is the issue of resources, Britian has some incredible writers but suffers greatly when it comes to implementing ideas. Our country is small and lacks the natural resources America has, so not only do special effect budgets suffer and overall budgets are smaller as well. There's not much that can be done about that unless someone out there decides to create a British TV industry city. (A Brit-Hollywood so to speak)

Depth is a personal peeve and one I understand doesn't influence everyone. I like shows which are intelligent and challenge the viewer, I more than appreciate that most people just want to be entertained - and they're well catered for in the current world of quick fix TV. But for every five or so reality TV shows, sketch shows and so forth, there should be an intelligent show with a real story to tell. Where's my British show with the depth and scope of The Wire? We've got skilled enough crime authors and writers to do this, so why isn't it happening?

Guns, well guns is an interesting one. I'm not writing that guns are a selling point for me, no I don't need guns to make things exciting. But it's more the case that British shows keep trying to bring in guns, this is something that normally looks very unnatural on the screens as guns are a rare thing in the UK (thank goodness). Torchwood's penchant for the metal phallus is a great example of how not to do it, Marion & Geoff on the other hand managed to include a gun in it's story lines in an intelligent and entertaining manner. I guess I'm saying guns should be an exception in British shows, not the rule.

Channels, now this is probably where the biggest problem lies. Most British channels are essentially repeat or syndication machines designed for giving us other people's programming. There are exceptions, but a lot of new material ends up being pushed onto the side channels (E4, BBC3 etc) and poorly advertised.

Now I'm not totally bashing UK TV here, there are some bright spots, the BBC (thanks to Sir David Attenborough's influence) produces amazing unrivaled wildlife documentaries with superb narration (Attenborough again and Jack Davenport). We also do a brilliant cynical, grubby, low key comedy which often has unpleasant people being unpleasant to each other in hilarious manners. So there are bright spots, but there's a lot more trash on UK TV now than ever.

I've mentioned this before, but I'll repeat myself here. I really think that the UK needs something like a UK equivalent of Showtime, FX or HBO over here. A subscription channel that's dedicated to making quality original programming, heck do it in co-ordination with an American channel if the funding is needed. I'd love a HBO-UK for example (HBO & BBC worked together for Extras). I'd even get off my critic horse and write some scripts if that happened, I'm that starving for some quality storytelling set in the UK. Oh and Law & Order: UK doesn't cut it if that's what you're thinking.

So, what do you think? Should I just get my head out of the sand and embrace UK TV, am I wrong in my perception that it's all comedy quiz shows, reality voting shows and repeats from the past? Am I missing some real genuine gems?


6 comments so far.

  1. Aaron 8 December 2008 at 17:55
    HBO and the BBC worked together on Rome, which was excellent (and you really should give it a try). Sadly, the viewing figures killed the show off in the second season.
    The same partnership is also working on the adaptation of GRR Martin's Game Of Thrones, which if it can harness even a small percentage of Rome's excellence, should be great.
    Unfortunately mainstream BBC drama is, on the whole, unintentionally hilarious. However, despite my constant barracking of the BBC's primetime dramas, I am glad that they are taking risks and producing some imaginative if inept television.
  2. Rev/Views 9 December 2008 at 00:45
    Rome has been on my radar for a while and I've heard good things from several places. I'm just waiting for a sensible sized complete boxed set of both seasons in one.

    I do agree that the BBC are trying. I just wish they'd pay attention to what makes for a good show. They're capable of so much more than the current unintentional-comedy that they put out atm.
  3. Dan 9 December 2008 at 14:57
    There's lots of reasons UK drama struggles to compete with US drama -- at least for younger demographics. If you don't like costume dramas (Little Dorrit, Tess Of The D'Urbervilles) or sci-fi (Doctor Who, Torchwood, Life On Mars, Primeval, Robin Hood, Merlin, Survivors), your choices are limited to Spooks and a few one-offs (Einstein & Eddington) and gritty soap-like mini-series (The Street).

    I think a lot of the "problem" is that Brits have been fed a diet of US film/TV for decades now. The US has the tight grip on that new media, really, helped by their massive budgets and a big industry to fuel it. British TV/film culture is still like televising theatre, literature and history a lot of the time. Nothing wrong with that, in moderation. But it's nice to see things are changing and broadening.
    Brits who have been "Americanized" are shaking things up a bit, I reckon. Life On Mars would have been like a '70s version of Crime Traveller 10 years ago. Doctor Who has kick-started a whole new "genre" of family drama programming for Saturday nights, too. And, as the BBC have found to their great joy, shows like Who and Torchwood can hold their own against US series (despite lower budgets) and make them a LOT of money in overseas sales. Annoyingly, this does lead to "branding" -- with all manner of DW spin-offs and inspirations rising up. Or shows with the exact same intention as DW, in different clothes (Merlin, Robin Hood). Or remakes of old classics (Survivors, Day Of The Triffids).

    I actually think the mix of UK drama has been very good in the past 5 years or so. We just have a problem thinking of compelling drama ideas that aren't just the latest iteration of "hospital drama", "cop drama", "lawyer drama", and appeal to broad audiences. Americans are better at putting twists on established formats: House, Dexter and Damages. Britons seem to just stick the world "Holby" in a title and populate a show with another rag-tag group of former soap-stars.

    But, considering the best of our drama output is dished up by three broadcasters (BBC, ITV and Channel 4), we don't have a *bad* hit-rate, do we? Those US dramas you love are the cream from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Showtime, HBO, AMC, etc. They show a lot of crap, too.
  4. MysterLynch 10 December 2008 at 04:26
    How about trying a hybrid?


    Seriously, check out season one from both Da Vinci's Inquest and Intelligence.

    It is interesting to look at U.K. television today. I am surprised that you don't have more shows that might be influenced by American tv, but with a Brit twist.

    Ian Rankin is, as you might know, an amazing Scottish author. He writes what could be considered Police procedurals, but they are clearly influenced by Chandler and Hammett.

    I have enjoyed what I have watched of Wire in the Blood, but must confess that I have not seen too many other U.K. crime shows.
  5. MediumRob 10 December 2008 at 10:26
    I keep trying to watch British TV, but with a few rare exceptions (eg The Fixer, Gavin & Stacey), it's just not enjoyable or even well made half the time.

    Even when it is well made, it's not enjoyable, unless you're bleak and miserable like me (eg Wallander).

    90% of the time I take a chance on things, I'm taught the error of my ways very quickly (eg Survivors, Clone).

    There is a lot of crap on Canadian and US TV and while we do get the cream (as well as some total rubbish), generally the average is better, certainly so once you remove the "obviously going to be rubbish" shows from the mix (eg any sitcom on Fox, CBS or ABC; anything on also-ran networks like Starz).

    I'd recommend The Border as a Canadian show that deserves a wider audience. I'd also recommend buying/renting almost any British drama series for adults made in the 70s/early 80s as an example of how we used to make great TV.

    PS Citing Torchwood as an example of how good British TV can be automatically disqualifies the rest of your opinion: it's almost a variant of Godwin's law
  6. Rev/Views 10 December 2008 at 11:59
    Thanks guys, this is exactly what I wanted to read. I'll try and address a few points directly but all of this is brilliant.

    I do like costume dramas, but the recent batch just haven't done it for me. The Scarlet Pimpernel remains one of my favourite shows, Richard E. Grant is just brilliant. I also like the other genres you've listed, but the shows you've included. A lot of them I feel are the exact reason why I'm off Brit-TV; Doctor Who has occasional high notes, I already acknowledged Life on Mars, but the rest you've listed? I either watch them because Aaron rips into them (and I like to read his snarks in context as it's funnier) or I just don't like them (Survivors would be better except the female lead Julie Graham really sucks, ugh). Spooks in particular, don't get me started on that one... Let's just say I liked it once and now I feel it's a parody of what it used to be.

    Still; it's a fair point that we have a lower number of channels overall and we tend to notice the better shows from American TV and fixate on them. The flip side of that is (as Rob mentions in his comment) British-TV used to be a lot better than it is now, how has this happened? How is it possible that our channels have actually managed to take overall steps backwards in quality across the board?

    Myster Lynch:
    I have indeed been considering going Canadian, after I was so disappointed by Fringe (which does sound like it's getting better, Thanks for continuing to review it Dan) I started eyeing up ReGenesis and I've since decided that it's worth a pick up. I shall also now check out the two you've mentioned.

    Additionally, I must give props to Ian Rankin's books (and the dramatisations), I do have them all and enjoy reading them. Likewise I did forget about "The Wire in the Blood", I've been meaning to write about that show for a while now as it's one of the Brit-Proceduals I actually like.

    That's pretty much how I feel, I shall have a look at "The Border" and I'll leave it at that, because you've called TV-Goodwin's Law into effect! :P

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