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.