Monday, February 13, 2006

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Transatlantic radio and telly debate

Kieran Healy has a post up at Crooked Timber on the superiority of U.K. radio trivia to the United States, and then closes with this paragraph:

Incidentally, Radio 4ís The News Quiz, when set against NPRís execrable Wait Wait, Donít Tell Me, joins the long list of cultural objects that serve to illustrate the difference between Britain and the United States. Others include The Office (UK) vs The Office (US), Yes Prime Minister vs The West Wing, and so on.
This has prompted quite a lively debate in the comments section (including an intervention from yours truly), about a) whether Kieran was correct; and b) What kinds of programming do not appear to be replicable across the Atlantic?

For example, Kieran is correct to point out the complete lack of a U.S. competitor to Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister. At the same time, however, I'm not sure that there's anything in the U.K. that can compete with The Daily Show or The Simpsons. The U.K. version of Friends was pretty appalling (curiously, though, that didn't stop NBC from trying to copy it). Both Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm are commedies of manners, yet I can't think of their British equivalents.

When it comes to genre shows, well, I can't think of any program that could compete with Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the new Battlestar Galactica.

I'm not sure there's any great lesson to be drawn from this, but I invite readers to do two things: 1) Isolate creative excellence in TV that appears to be non-replicable once you cross the border; and 2) Reasons for why this is so. For example, I'd wager that the U.S. does better at certain kinds of comedies and teen shows because television producers have a much greater comfort level with America's affluent class than British producers have with their yuppie audience (there's that whole need to sell advertising as well).

posted by Dan on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM


Eh?! "Coupling" was great, almost Simpsonianly good. The guy who played Jeff was a genius of some kind. This is the UK version, I mean. The US "Coupling" was terrible.

But then the only way you'd get me to watch "Buffy" is Ludovico's Technique, so there's not much common ground here.

posted by: P. Froward on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

I agree -- I thought "Coupling" was fantastic. But to me the best British TV series of all time is "Yes Minister" and it's not even close.

"Long time no see?"

-- Sir Humphrey, on an Anglican clergyman who has been passed up for promotion on many occasions.

posted by: asg on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

BBC's As time Goes By, with Judy Dench, airs on PBS, can never be reproduced either here or in the UK. The gentleness and quirkiness are of the bygone eras, circa 1990's.

posted by: ic on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

Farscape was easily as good as BSG, and it was an American production, filmed (and largely cast) in Australia.

I hear very good things about the new British Doctor Who, but I haven't gotten to see it yet.

I think a problem is that good genre demands exorbitant effects budgets, which historically haven't been available outside the U.S.

posted by: jonquil on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

Off course we get the best of British TV but trying to find direct comparisons is tough.
That said I cannot think of any US show to compare with Rumpole of the Bailey, Red Dwarf, Good Neighbors just to mention some golden oldies.

Canadian TV is an interesting comparison. The Daily Show v. This Hour has 22 Minutes and Royal Canadian Air Farce.

"Made in Canada" would match up to "Curb your Enthusium".
"Wonderland" are brilliant that I only think of a few "Picket Fences" or "Allie MacBeal" at its best as comparisons.

posted by: Ken on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

As for stuff comparable to The Daily Show: Bremner, Bird and Fortune. It just tends to be mostly focused on UK politics, and therefore might not be seen as relevent to non-UK audiences.

posted by: blufive on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

I'm not sure that these are exactly analagous but I'll give it a shot:

Curb Your Enthusiasm - Fawlty Towers

Buffy - Dr Who (It's hard to compare here since Dr Who has been around so long and I tend to get distracted with many of the older episodes by the incredibly cheap special effects, but the new series last year was pretty solid.)

posted by: Mark on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

I'll give it a shot. The British are better at absurdist humor - Blackadder, Fawlty Towers, Monty Python, Young Ones. Americans cannot do this sort of humour with a straight enough face to make it work, it just seems silly. Until recently American television comedy was also tarnished by sentimentality - truly great humour is very cruel. Fortunately Seinfeld paved the way here and now Americans are finally producing funny shows with no "redeeming social value" - Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, etc. Whereas the British seem to be moving backwards if "Coupling" is any indication.

When it comes to drama British shows are by and large much better acted. But Americans are able to balance irony and sincerity in a way that I've never seen a British show do. Buffy for example is a show that doesn't take itself that seriously, is self referential and self aware in a very post modern way but still manages to be emotionally affecting. The X-Files had that for a while as well. I can't think of any British shows that pull that off in quite the same way - yet Veronica Mars, 24, Deadwood, the Sopranos and Lost all do that now in the US, and so does BSG (all the self-referential jokes about the original very silly series somehow don't detract from the real drama). British writers are either truly ironic and cynical, or they produce straight shlock. The American writers can affect a pose of irony and cynicism while at heart being very sincere people - which maybe allows them to create more textured dramas than the British.

posted by: Vanya on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

I don't care about the hours of reality TV. OK, I do care that a lot of good shows aren't getting a chance. But America has some great and some really good TV shows on right now. We can complain all day about Arrested Development, but it still got roughly 5x the number of episodes of the UK version of the Office. Speaking of which, the second season of the American Office is really coming into its own. Veroinca Mars is damn near perfect. Lost is still quite good. Amazing Race. Entourage. The new HBO Mormon series looks interesting.

I would recommend the first 2.5 seasons of the BBC's MI:5 over Fox's 24.

posted by: Jeff on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

Not sure I agree with the comment that Britain doesn't do a good job a nuanced drama. Series like Shameless and Clocking Off, both by Paul Abbott, had a thoroughgoing realism that seems totally absent in American television.

posted by: Lance Knobel on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

British TV is all about the documentaries. Life of Grime -- about people who do really disgusting things like meat inspectors, rat catchers. Yeah, its copied on the other side now, but they were about 3 years ahead. Game shows Millionaire, which I think is fair to say set a new paradigm for game shows, is a Brit invention.

The cooking shows here are great (Nigella Lawson, Jamie 'Naked Chef' Oliver, Ready-Steady-Cook. Rick Stein's Food Heros --if paleo-conservatives had a cooking show, Rick's would be it) , generally beeting (ha ha) what's on offer on food network.

And of course nothing comes close in the US to NewsNight with Jeremy Paxman. This guy actually asks hardball questions and the politicians give it back in kind. Also, Spittin' Image , which is a traditional spoof of TV -- like back when Saturday Night Live was good, but it's even better.

While the TV is good, you have to pay a license, though in my inner London neighborhood they really don't make the effort to collect. And its good that TV is good, because this is really one of the most dingy countries I have ever lived in.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

Three words: Vincent Kennedy McMahon.

posted by: Zathras on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

The American writers can affect a pose of irony and cynicism while at heart being very sincere people.

Agree, and it's our cultural trait. Call it the Rick Blaine pose, after Bogart in Casablanca. Call it the Whitman ("Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.") It comes into play in the American view of politics, where people assume that every politician is corrupt yet are idealistic at the same time.

The American cultural trait is to be idealistic about ideas and goals, but pessimistic and cynical about what is actually accomplishable. (Compare to E.K. Chesterton's writings on Christianity.)

posted by: John Thacker on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

Argh, typo. GK Chesterton, of course.

posted by: John Thacker on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

English humour is best typified
by Benny Hill. Way more of that
stuff on English Telly than any
Brit will ever care to admit.

posted by: Ted on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

And don't forget Spooks! I still prefer 24, but Spooks is great.

posted by: asg on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

The TV licence fee. Networks (and cable broadcasters to a certain extent) in the US, like commercial TV in the UK and print media everywhere, are not in the business of selling content to consumers, but in the business of selling consumers to advertisers. So, obviously, they make the sort of programmes that ABC1 20-35s want to watch (a simplification, but you see my point). The BBC doesn't have to; it makes programmes that it wants to make, that it has to under its charter, that it thinks some people out there would like. So it gets a bit more creative freedom, and the result is slightly more interesting programming. 'Yes Minister', 'Fawlty Towers', 'Monty Python', 'The Office', 'The Day Today' (the UK equivalent, a few years earlier, of the Daily Show), 'Newsnight' - all BBC productions.

posted by: ajay on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

You media patriots, you know for damn sure that British satire...if you have patience (channel 4) is the straightest in the western world (hemisphere), I mean we have the the most patriachal parliment long before the new world was ever burdening us with its presence

posted by: george evans on 02.13.06 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

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