The golden age of American TV


American television has hit a purple patch. Be it series about warped islands, a mobster’s psychiatric issues or Baltimore cops, they’ve developed sophisticated shows blurring the margin between film and television. Where does this leave British television, which always seems to be playing catch-up? Sure, we knock out a good period drama, but can we compete with the number of high-quality shows crossing the pond or are our styles just too different?

President’s seal of approval: Hit television show The West Wing ran for six seasons and won numerous awards, and represents a creative peak for the American TV industry.

Firstly, US television seems to have oodles of money. Unless you’re Doctor Who, British television isn’t one to flash the cash. Modesty isn’t a flaw but it does pale in comparison to the no-expense-spared attitude stateside. Money’s spent on acquiring the best of everything. House has Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) championing it whilst Ridley Scott (Alien) produces The Good Wife. And, naturally, their stunts are spectacular. Lost has that plane crash. Battlestar Galactica has realistic space dogfights. Even Desperate Housewives throws in a few stupendous set-pieces. Entertainment in the US is frequent, with capital letters and exclamation marks.

Money also means big-name actors. US television is a credible way of reigniting careers. Five-time Oscar-nominee Glenn Close is incredible in Damages, arguably the most complex character of her career. Kiefer Sutherland, always having a very bad day, got the role of his career by turning to television with 24, so popular it’s getting its own film. Sadly our own actors don’t seem as enamoured with home-grown shows, opting for stateside studios a la Hugh Laurie and Gabriel Byrne.

There’s also more leeway in the States. Yes, there’s all sorts of debauchery in Shameless but Channel 4 can’t top the dirty habits of its US counterpart HBO, a breeding-ground for obscenities, nudity and violence. If you think The Office is hide-behind-your-hands embarrassing then you’d barely make it through ten minutes of Curb your Enthusiasm, depicting the cringe-making ‘life’ of social disaster and Seinfeld writer Larry David. Even Ricky Gervais admitted that his show wasn’t as daring as David’s. Networks like HBO remove the shackles and encourage audacious television. Unfortunately for us we have people ringing up Ofcom every other minute doing their best to clamp the handcuffs on.

Yet, for all their splendour, American television is perhaps not as advanced as it seems. Notoriously ruthless – removing shows like Firefly after one series – America demands instant success. Understandable really, with all that money, but still a little callous. Britain, meanwhile, couldn’t be more different. We’re so generous that we gave My Family ten years to try and get it right. I mean, really. It’s not even as if we overegg the television pudding. Most acclaimed series last for a couple of seasons, like Extras and Life on Mars. That’s another thing with. We don’t particularly care about ratings. A generalisation I know but indulge me. Shows can attract few viewers to begin with, usually by being on digital channels, but are given the necessary time to find their feet. Gavin and Stacey wasn’t on BBC1 until after its second series and it’s been one of the biggest and best hits.

Maybe the differences are positive. The gloss of The West Wing and Glee is aesthetically apt to the States, in the same way that the awkward realism of The Thick of It and The Inbetweeners is to us. We’re able to recognise the grotty estates of Shameless and the David Brents in the offices. Maybe it works a little better that there’s no definitive name headlining the shows. They don’t seem to be struggling without one. Yes, there could be more risk but, at the same time, British television has been branching out and trying new things, like the impeccable mini-series Red Riding. At the same time homeliness and simplicity can be perfection too. Who says you need money to have a good time? As always, Britain seems to be doing it its own way, in its own time.

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