More on British and American TV

As you can probably tell, I haven’t been finding much to write about lately. However, I recently read something in the April 25th issue of The New Yorker magazine, which is “The Entertainment Issue,” that I felt was worth mentioning.

The article I was reading is about the British writer/actor Sharon Horgan and her comedy “Catastrophe” whose second season just began streaming on Amazon. It’s about an Irish woman played by Horgan and an American man played by Rob Delaney. They have “a six-night stand in London, accidentally conceive a child, and then try to make a life together.” Horgan sounds like a dynamo who is filled with ideas and has written several TV shows. Sarah Jessica Parker chose Horgan to write a show for her because she has an “‘affection for the dark, sad, and ridiculous that reveals itself in painful circumstances.'” Apparently Horgan believes funny and grim describes all her work. (Brits prefer the word grim to dark.)

But the part that especially interested me because of the constant debating about whether British TV is better than American TV (especially on Facebook) is when the article gets into the regular exchange of shows between our two countries. To quote the article:

There’s another way to understand what has happened to American comedy in recent years: it has become more British. The hallmark of the British sitcom is a quasi-unbearable protagonist who is an Everyman, only insofar as every man can laugh at him. The unrepentant snob Basil Fawlty, the beastly glamour-pusses Edina and Patsy, the fatuous narcissist Alan Partridge, and the thirsty buffoon David Brent: these classic British characters are all flawed in the unapologetic manner of contemporary edgy American comedies.
U.K. sitcoms tend to be darker than American ones, encouraged by a powerful public broadcasting system whose aim is to serve the varying tastes of taxpayers, not the upbeat preferences of advertisers, and by a national psyche fixated on the immutability of the class system, not on a dream of self-improvement. Americans believe that things will get better. Brits laugh at how things stay the same. To become a hit in the United States, “The Office” not only had to transform the tragic, grating boss into a less tragic, less grating, more well-meaning boss; it had to cast off the message, central to the British original, that work is where you go to waste your life.
Still, trade moves in both directions across the Atlantic. American series frequently air in the U.K. Four years ago, Phil Clarke, the head of Channel 4’s comedy department, felt inspired by the dramatic elements of American series like “Louie” and “Girls,” and set out to commission similarly sophisticated narrative sitcoms. To Clarke, “Catastrophe” is a kind of hybrid, “aping what you did in the States” in terms of mixing drama, comedy, and season-long story lines, “but also plundering some British comedy traditions, mostly of hatred, self-loathing, and repression.”
Horgan’s career reflects the increasingly porous nature of these national styles. “Pulling” is the epitome of the grim British comedy. Two attempts to adapt it for American television failed. “Catastrophe” is a series about two likable characters who do not quite seem so on paper. Based only on a script, it is possible to imagine an interpretation of “Catastrophe” that veers dangerously close to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In the final episode of the new season, Sharon enthusiastically lectures Rob, “Not everyone has to like you. You’re not a puppy. You’re an adult man with a wife. Honest people who tell people how they feel when they feel it have people not like them. O.K.? That’s what I do. I have earned the right to have people dislike me. I am very happy to have people not like me!” (“No shit,” Rob replies.)

“Catastrophe” is a true hybrid with both American and British actors and attests to the fact that TV producers/writers/actors believe both countries make valuable contributions to the medium. The quality works both ways and how the channels operate plays a part in what succeeds. It’s time to stop thinking one is better than the other; they are synergistic.

Originally posted 2016-04-20 18:17:42.

19 thoughts on “More on British and American TV

  1. Linda D.

    I think that British shows appeal to me more because they are more believable, and frankly more subtly humourous. You were spot on when you say they contain almost always contain a protagonist who appeals in some odd way to viewers. American shows are really “in your face” and frankly often just so stupid or unrealistic that I prefer to read rather than watch them. Even so called “comedies” produced on this side of pond are often so silly, it is an insult to watch them. As for “darkness”, there is no shortage of that! What is with all the zombie, werewolf, apocalyptic garbage that seems to get air time in American and Canadian television? Someone must like it I suppose and may be it’s an age thing that I don’t like it, but I NEVER did watch things like that. To each his own I suppose! We all have different tastes but right now, I am enjoying British mysteries, period dramas, and comedies. I’m glad you are writing again Karen. I was beginning to worry that you were not well.

  2. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Hi, Linda. It’s nice to hear from you, but you kinda missed my point. From the article and from my own point of view there is a great deal of overlap between British and American TV. They watch and appreciate many of our shows, learn from them and apply what they see to their own TV development, while we enjoy some of their shows and modify them at times to suit our tastes. There is also a lot of sharing of talent across the board from actors to writers to directors and producers. I find much to like emanating from both countries and am very opposed to castigating one as inferior to the other.

    I am well but very busy this month. I am also truly running out of ideas to write about!

  3. Stephen Corrsin

    You refer to not finding much to write about. Perhaps that’s linked to the show; with the end of series 7, there isn’t a whole lot left to say. The Doc-Louisa relationship has driven the show for years and that is, except for details, settled. I find it hard to imagine that anything interesting remains, anything that isn’t fundamentally a repeat of past stories. I think it may be unfortunate that the show is continuing.

  4. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Absolutely, Steve. There are many factors in looking for topics to write about, but one is that I think all of us on this blog have done an incredible job of interrogating all sorts of interesting issues that were instigated by watching the show and we’ve pretty much exhausted what there is to write about. That may still be my opinion once they film S8. There seems to be a continuing interest by some in watching more scenes of ME and LE managing their marriage, but, like you, I am not sure if that will stimulate much discussion.

    I have been thinking about some final comments to make, but I’m also considering whether it’s time to give up the ghost, bite the dust, kick the bucket, buy the farm, etc. I’ll let you all know…

  5. Linda

    Please don’t give it up! You may have to wait for inspiration as you say, because you’ve exhausted so many GREAT discussion ideas. You do, however, find those great articles and when you find something relevant, discussion flourishes. Perhaps it is time for others to suggest directions to go? We have some other (not me) savvy commentators who have had some really good thoughts and ideas!

  6. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Thank you Linda for your vote of support and for your comments about what could be in store for the show in the future. Although there are always potential stories arising from the various conditions the characters are in, the question becomes how viable pursuing them is. Life always goes on, but novels and TV shows are not nearly as enduring. Even the ones with many sequels eventually come to an end. The challenge is to know when to write the final chapter and let the readers/viewers arrive at their own deductions for what happens next. All the kids in the Walton family grew up, the grandparents died, the Depression ended…the show needed to also.

    As you probably remember, I consider great novels and shows to be artistic creations that should be admired for their self-contained excellence. Just as we don’t want to know all the minutiae about the lives of the characters in each form, we also want to preserve the magic of drawing the stories to a close at the best moment and not be dragged through all the trials that might take place along the way. Then we sit enjoying the experience and savoring the final act. It’s not life; it’s fiction!

    I’m not quite ready to end the blog yet, but I’m approaching zero hour!!

  7. Santa

    I agree that the main dramatic arc has (more than) run its course. It’s not inconceivable that the next series could develop a new and compelling story line, but very unlikely, I think. So I understand your suspicion that there may not be much to write about in the next series. But I do hope that the blog will continue open. As new commenters appear on previous posts, they often add a new and interesting perspective.

  8. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    The fact that occasionally there are new readers who find the blog and bring fresh ideas to our attention is a reason to hesitate. I have grown so accustomed to checking for comments that my day might feel peculiar without that! I’m going to have to think on it some more.

  9. mmarshall

    I really enjoyed this description of British and American tendencies in television. The explanation that Brit tv shows illustrate “… a national psyche fixated on the immutability of the class system, not on a dream of self-improvement. Americans believe that things will get better. Brits laugh at how things stay the same.” is enlightening to the way I watch British tv. And of course that may explain why Americans wanted a happier ending to our Doc and Louisa story.

    As for more to talk about our story… I don’t know if this has been discussed previously, but I’m intrigued by the number of times someone (usually the Doc) has been held at gunpoint in this series. I haven’t figured out what I think about the repetition of this dramatic element, whether it is just a good way to hold suspense and tension in story, or if it says something about the British gun culture, which I understand is markedly different than that of the US, or if the guns illustrate the rural nature of many of the characters, or if there is more intended — a “life and death” intensity which may shadow the intensity of the Doc’s emotional survival…?? Or Louisa “holding the Doc at gunpoint” to make him change?? I wondered if any had thoughts along these lines?

    The incidents I can remember include…
    Doc being held “hostage” and by Stewart, the Squirrel-seeing man who fires a shot in his direction;
    Bird protector guarding the rare birds with a gun.
    Doc accidentally shooting Aunt Joan in the leg with the bird watchers gun.
    Penhale accidentally shooting himself in the foot while out on wilderness survival training.
    Doc looked for Mark Mylow and Al out in the woods and took Stewart who brings his gun and wields it wrecklessly.
    Doc, Louisa and Pauline held hostage in the surgery at gunpoint by L’s father’s bipolar business partner.
    Episode entitled “Born with a Gun” Aunt Ruth is accosted at gun point by neighbor Michael Dunwich and he takes hostage Ruth, Doc and PC Penhale.
    On their honeymoon, the Doc and Louisa are held at gunpoint by the farmer who wants them to fix the chicken coop.
    And of course our finale when Doc is AGAIN held hostage, this time by Mrs. Winton. (I thought this episode mirrored S5E8 when Mrs. TIshell held James Henry hostage, though then no guns were used — both brought L and M together and to a better understanding of their love, both involved a “treasure hunt” of sorts with clues to follow, PC Penhale present, though ineffective, first was in fancy castle, second was in a dumpy farmhouse, etc…)
    The policemen, whom I would expect to carry guns, don’t, but sometimes wield tasers (perhaps a British law enforcement thing?).

    Perhaps I’ve missed some gun references. There are just so many for an otherwise pastoral style of show that I find it interesting.

  10. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Thank you for your great observations. We haven’t really had a discussion per se on the number of times people have been held at gunpoint; however, I believe we have said something about the fact that rifles tend to be the type of gun used, and possibly the same rifle every time. It is curious considering Brits are generally gun averse. On the other hand, rifles might be the choice because of the rural nature of the setting, as you note. If anyone has anything to add, bring it on!

    I really think your comparison of the final scenes of both S5 and S7 is important. In both cases it would not be hard to imagine the show concluding without much difficulty. Makes you wonder…

  11. Amy Cohen

    I guess this must have been right before I started commenting. Glad I got to the blog before you shut it down!

    I haven’t watched enough English television to comment on the substance of the post, but the little that I have watched in recent times besides DM (Downton, Call the Midwife, Grantchester) does seem more literate, less violent, more subtle. But then maybe it’s those darn English accents that make everyone seem so sophisticated—even the Cornish accents! It also could be the shows I pick to watch. Maybe the regular British tv is pretty much the same as US tv—except for the accents.

    One other show that I recall had its origins in a British show as All in the Family—I’d love to see how an English Archie Bunker behaved!

    I thought mmarshall’s comment about the frequent use of guns (rifles) was interesting because I also thought guns were a rarity in the UK. Is that US influence on an British show?

  12. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    You know I can’t let this one go without a comment! My hope in writing this post was to attempt to cut off what I consider the silly argument over which country has better TV shows. You don’t have to look far to find British TV that is pretty gory–I watched Happy Valley recently and really liked it, but it had plenty of blood and guts. As for the accents…there are times when I have trouble understanding what the British characters are saying and that has nothing to do with the volume or the speed; their accents can be just as unsophisticated as ours.

    My main point is that both countries borrow from each other and enjoy exchanging ideas with one another. It’s also a helluva lot easier to write 6-8 strong episodes than it is to write 18-22 of them. The one thing I’ve noticed as a meaningful difference for me is that I find the British characters stick with me longer. Maybe America needs to do more character development. When we do, e.g. Breaking Bad or House, the shows are better.

    (CNN recently had a show that looked back on American TV sit-coms of the Eighties and I was very impressed with all the great shows we had then. I would love to see more of those kinds return.)

  13. Amy Cohen

    As I admitted, my exposure to British tv is rather limited and it’s all what is shown on PBS. On the other hand, I’ve been watching US tv indiscriminately my whole life and have watched and still watch a lot of stupid shows. So I know I can’t make a real comparison.

    Certainly British humor can be just as vulgar as US humor, and I’ve no doubt there’s plenty of violence. After all, they’ve experienced a lot more blood and gore historically than we have. So I’ve no basis (and no desire) to disagree with what you said. 🙂

  14. Amy Cohen

    Oh, and my comment about the accents was meant to be funny, but I also think that when we Americans hear English spoken with a foreign accent, everything seems much more exotic and thus perhaps higher class—whether it’s English, Australian, South African.

  15. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Yes, I find I am now disabusing myself of this tendency because I think we just all have our own expressions and accents. I have lived in the South for many years now, yet I do not speak like a Southerner. But let me tell you that anyone who thinks the accent and word usage is a sign of ignorance is making a mistake. We have some mighty smart people down here who can make fools out of Northerners who fall into that trap!

    I wonder how we Americans came to think that British English is more appealing. Your joke has some truth to it!

  16. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Just want to mention that what we get on PBS or even on AcornTV is the “best” of British TV. They have lots of schlock too.

  17. Amy Cohen

    Since two of my closest friend since college were originally from the South, I was disabused of that stereotype long ago.

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