As with so many trends, the increasing prevalence of transnational television is either a building block in a utopian post-national society enabled by the democratising power of new media, or the inevitable by-product of the audience fragmentation and personal atomisation occasioned by new media.
With the finalé of the Showtime/BBC series Episodes having been broadcast at the end of February (20th in America, 21st in the UK), a few words about transnational television seem appropriate. Media sales across national boundaries have long been a part of broadcasting culture. ITV’s imports of American series drew both criticism and ratings during the '60s, and the syndication of American shows remains an important part of Channel 4’s platform. Likewise, British shows like Dr Who have found regular homes on The Sci-Fi Channel in the US, and telenovelas, produced in Central and South America, have increasingly gained popularity with the Hispanic diaspora around the world.
While these imports and exports laid the groundwork for television’s transnational economy, they are increasingly being superseded by new programmes, jointly funded by companies based in different nations, expressly designed to appeal to audiences across national boundaries, and simultaneously broadcast in several countries at once. These range from glocalized franchise shows like Who Wants to Be A Millionaire and Big Brother, which replicate the same format with different casts, crews and contestants in different nations around the world, to prestigious, big budget drama spectaculars like Rome. Of course, as with so many trends in contemporary media, the increasing prevalence of transnational television is either a building block in a utopian post-national society enabled by the democratising power of new media, or the inevitable by-product of the audience fragmentation and personal atomisation occasioned by (again) new media, depending on your own degree of technological optimism or pessimism.
As an example of transnationally produced and distributed television drama, Episodes is typical of other recent Anglo-American co-productions like the BBC/Masterpiece collaboration, Sherlock. These shows aim for the high end of the television market with glossy production values and star performers, but hedge their costs in comparison to the earlier generation of block (and budget) busting co-productions like Rome (reported cost: £5,000,000 / episode). With a limited run of seven episodes and a cost per episode of a mere £700,000, the whole first series of Episodes cost less to produce than single installment of Rome. Yet it still benefits from a far more generous budget than would ordinarily be allowed for a British prime-time comedy, and the money shows in its cast, which combines the presumably still pricey star power of Matt LeBlanc with some of the best recent British comedy talent in Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig.
However, the transnationalism of Episodes runs deeper than casting. Indeed, it's written into the show’s story of successful British sitcom writers Shawn (Mangan) and Beverley (Greig) Lincoln, who are brought to Hollywood in order to remake their hit show for an American audience. As such, Episodes is aimed at the kind of casual pop-culture snobs who bore their friends about how the American Office doesn’t measure up to the original, and much of the humour comes from meta-reflexive comments on the effects of the highly commercialised (i.e., American) production environment on the idiosyncratic, artistic (i.e., British) writers and their show. If this flatters the sensibilities of British viewers, and suits Showtime’s corporate brand by emphasising the subscription channel’s difference from the ordinary network television which Episodes critiques, it is also occasionally crass and reductive. To its credit, Episodes at least seems to be aware of this, and after the first few instalments, dispatches with one-joke yank-bashing characters like the executive in charge of comedy who is incapable of laughing.
Once the force of the cross-cultural commentary is spent, what’s left is a more human story which begins to resemble exactly the kind of television show which Episodes critiques. Love-hate relationship consummated in a moment of irresistible attraction? Check. Ironically distanced, but still exploitative T&A? Check. Jokes about Matt LeBlanc’s insanely huge penis? Check. (Anyone tempted to see LeBlanc’s performance as self-deprecating and subtle need look no further than this to see how much of a bullet he’s not taking.)
Ultimately, the whole thing comes across as a grudging testament to the homogenising power of Hollywood, as the plucky little British series is overwhelmed by the crass cultural desert of LA, and transformed from the erudite Lyman’s Boys into the cookie-cutter televisual mediocrity of Pucks. Although this is the most pessimistic assessment of the effects of transnational television yet seen on screen, it disappears beneath the human layers of the story: the trouble in Shawn and Beverley’s marriage, and burgeoning romances and fading affairs between various cast, crew and executives. If this makes for a satisfying ending to the series, it hasn’t left the next season (already purchased by Showtime) with much more to say. Nevertheless, with Pucks picked up after a successful test screening, and Shawn and Beverley likely to stay in America to run it, we can be sure that we’ll soon be seeing more Episodes on our screens.