Lessons British TV Needs to Learn from US TV

There is a dichotomy emerging in Western television. Unnoticed by parents loyal to the BBC, the Netflix generation, no longer tethered to terrestrial output, is migrating online to greener patures. Often attributed to a fascination with US culture particular to the current crop of British 20-somethings, the growing interest in American TV as a substitute for their own is not simply an idiosyncrasy of this demographic — it signifies of Britain’s failure to keep pace with the cultural market. The relative incompetence of home-produced programming becomes apparent in the context of the global marketplace — beyond the iPlayer horizon, Britain is punching well above its weight.

An episode of Louie most recently underlined the extent of British TV’s decline. Mad Men and Girls had already done most of the legwork, but this really nailed it. The serialised autobiography of stand-up veteran Louis C.K., while a significant achievement in its own right, is illustrative because it is by no means the cream of the US crop. Rather, it typifies a creative climate in which excellence is commonplace.

The 39th was an episode that ratified Louie‘s sitcom stock. With a handicap earned on the post-Seinfeld circuit, Mr. C.K. has taken Mr. Frost’s less-travelled road; lilted but melancholic and slithering into the surreal, his show exists and flourishes with no regard for comedic norms. Dropping reliance on long arcs, each episode is a 30-minute exposition of a single idea which may or may not have any bearing on the cumulative experience of a season. Meta-humour and reality are played with, but never truly delineated, and the customary wink-wink that usually comes with self-reference is bravely abandoned. The season wraps with a cryptic dream sequence which frees itself from the trappings of convention, just as the comedian escapes the lonely underbelly of New York for a jaunt in the Orient.

The Louie model is an exemplar in TV auteurism. Contrary to the teachings of the UK’s omniscient programming execs, monetary and artistic achievements needn’t be mutually exclusive, but an audience seasoned on monotony makes for a risky marketplace, and British shows are pitched accordingly. The American palate, by virtue of the past decade’s highly ambitious output is comfortably progressive and attuned to the value of an original. Both the art of TV and the broadcasting model itself were reimagined, with Netflix recording a seven percent increase in its US customer base in the fourth quarter of 2012. The British TV industry seems afraid when a new character arrives on Albert Square.

On the home front (that is, the UK), primetime is awash with garbage. A few notables, all of a dramatic breed identified by certain traits in common, are The Politician’s Husband, Last Tango in Halifax, The Fall and The Hour. Investment for such projects is channelled not into the sourcing of new talent, but into visual cheats perceived to lend a sense of contemporary cool. The art angles and sepia aesthetic are not only contrived but embarrassingly out of date — we’re just shipping in a look from last season’s collections. Casting, a process one takes to mean the random selection of civilians off the street, is secured from failure with the addition of a road-tested lead actor, usually picked from a cohort one can think of as the Drama Club (see: Benedict Cumberbatch, David Tennant, Olivia Colman). An absolute home run is achieved if Maggie Smith is available.

It would be unfair to suggest that there is absolutely nothing good on the box. This is almost literally the case, but for the anomalies inevitable in any sample. Shameless, the one real dramatic outlier, takes at least a swing at self-awareness and social comment; a lesser Tony Soprano, Frank Gallagher is as thought-provoking a paterfamilias as one could hope for to satirise the squalor and self-pity of Middle England. With a monster 11th season run, the lesson is: good TV sells.

Assertive observers like to cling to Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It as a life-raft against the inevitable. Its occasional belly-laughs and absence of pathological crassness are a seasonal lift for the literate viewer (typically the young professional whose disdain for small-screen fiction stops just short of a sneaky session of The Killing – N.B. if it’s Nordic it’s worthwhile). But The Thick of It is a hand-me-down with none of the original verve of, say, 30 Rock. Its borrowings include bureaucratic hysteria (The Office), voracious smackdown (Blackadder), and political lampoon (Yes, Minister, The Daily Show, Have I Got News For You), and it is less than the sum of its parts.

When desperation necessitates, the British import from overseas. Financially unworkable (R.I.P. Friends) and a patent admission of defeat, this kind of trading is usually destined for failure. Understandably unwilling to shoulder the risk of a major splash-out, bosses shop at the B-grade end of the market, and the result is an expensive string of lame ponies like Nashville and The New Normal which have no more success on British turf than their own. The detective drama, long considered a Brit stronghold, earned a positively biblical following with Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect. Given the sociopolitical operatics of The Wire and the raw exhilaration of Breaking Bad, its sacrosanctity looks a little limp in comparison, but, another casualty of provincial viewing, it continues to bless the nation with its spawn like so many white trash babies.

Auntie Beeb, bless her sclerotic heart, is responsible to an extent for the slipping of standards. The corporation, which takes around 30 percent of the primetime audience, is damaging to television in the same way that North Korean dictators are damaging to golf: no matter how many bogies, every round is a winner. The Beeb is the de facto curator of TV — not on merit, but owing to a brand equity which cushions any deviations in quality, and, bizarrely, it is its very Britishness which affords it the unwavering adoration of its public.

Britain is a brand which effects a cultural blind spot in all concerned, one which boosts the otherwise dreadful into the arms of fandom. The longevity of Doctor Who, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes are indebted to the Brit factor. The closet-classist Downton Abbey, which brings out the very worst in its audience and the very best in ITV’s market strategists, tapped into the bank of jingoism with astronomical success.

The artform that is TV is proving as protean and exciting as any other. It’s likely that the business of round-the-clock broadcasting will be totally subverted by innovative online models such as that of House of Cards. A genuine laissez-faire marketplace could arise in which talent is openly pooled and shows unrestricted in length or format would be acquired on demand. Without the need for distribution, a troublesome middle-man of the independent film market is erased.

The blossoming of Stateside television over the past decade has been as much a question of the viewer as of the executive. The evolution of audience taste has been slow but deliberate, catching up at last with the quality of supply with only a few cancellation casualties in the meantime. Unlike our noughties predecessors, to watch TV in 2013 is to be a couch connoisseur for whom only the best will do. The best, unfortunately, isn’t always easy to come by.

A great and conveniently-timed yardstick for said transformation is to be found in Arrested Development, the latest call-up to the front line of online broadcasting. Consigned to the network dumpster after three miserably underappreciated years, the wallflowering of a superlative show with every primetime opportunity seems, to today’s Generation HBO, baffling. A superhuman exercise in comic gymnastics and a loving lampoon of the McMansion set, the show had, under a masquerade of silliness, reimagined the capabilities of TV. It can, for the purposes of argument, be viewed as almost unequivocally sophisticated. Nevertheless, its audience — whose cultural development was in most cases aptly arrested — had switched over and moved on. But with a cult circulation largely spanning the current TV ‘Golden age’, the seven-year absence of Arrested Development from the listings has seen the disparity eroded. Not only has the current audience settled its collective beef with the show, but it (if delirious media coverage is a reliable measure) is positively gagging for its return. In a marketplace where it pays to be smart, the Bluths are golden.

Britain, like the United States, is living through a quiet and wonderful revolution of the social pecking order. What began with the postmodernist’s fondness for a little irony has turned into a concrete state of sociological topsy-turvy, in which the quarterback is out and the comic nerd is in. For all their faux-artistic shortcomings, hipsters are a force for good, because they validate a society, at least among the young, where booksmarts and an awkward demeanour are nothing to be ashamed of. TV, which is flexible, universal and rapidly becoming the water-cooler dialogue of choice, has been most receptive to the new environment, although a renewed interest in independent cinema and streaming of ‘Indiewood’ type pictures is a similar if latent offshoot in the movies.

We have, then, a rare circumstance of high demand for ‘good’ TV. Profitability is no longer such a barrier, and sophisticated writing needn’t be damped down for easy primetime consumption. The result, where broadcasters are willing to adapt, is a wave of new projects, each outcompeting the last on scope and complexity. When sophistication is the selling point, every show must be a game changer. The exponential development of TV can be plotted as two parallel tracks with a surge centred around the late 2000s: in comedy, upward mobility can be traced from Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm through to Arrested Development, and the super-progressive Girls. The trajectory of drama, albeit standing on the shoulders of The Sopranos, which first demonstrated the value of cable, has been similarly steep; two buses like Mad Men and Breaking Bad do not often come at once. Forever pushing for more, the audience and its medium are growing and learning together.

The new consumer is only of benefit if supply is upgraded accordingly. Back in the UK, the blaring box in the living room continues to sign its own death warrant, fulfilling its assumed role as an opiate for the unemployed and the bored. The stalemate of terrible TV goes on regardless, with don’t-ask-don’t-tell online bootlegging sustaining the disillusioned. Campaigns like ‘Take My Money, HBO’, which registered 160,000 unrequited offers to pay for legal streaming of top US shows, demonstrate the staggering extent of the consumer surplus left on the table and the nonplussed frustration of the Game of Thrones generation. Every year the US gains ground in a cultural race in which Britain is unwilling to compete. Without ambition, you are going nowhere, which is to say, relatively, backwards.