In the last couple of weeks Sky Atlantic have launched the latest HBO series of Game of Thrones and Mad Men, both of which have been extremely popular with their British fanbases. Morgan Spurlock (of Supersize Me fame) also launched his new show, New Britania, on the channel, which as you may have guessed is an exploration of the cultural differences between Britain and The United States of America. And this got us thinking… Often the question is asked “Which is better, British TV or American TV” and it is an argument that has never really been settled. Well, armed with passion, arrogance, and brains full of loosely formed argument, Jack, the Tellybrain editor, and his mate David (of Den of Geek) hope to settle this once and for all. Flying the flag for Britain tomorrow will be Jack, but first here is David with his pro-USA argument. Enjoy!
Why American TV is better than British TV by David Pallant
From watching The West Wing I know that any important debate can be won in one of two ways. The first is the positive campaign strategy where you focus on the issues at hand, and demonstrate the excellence of your point of view. Then there is the negative campaign. This debate strategy is based on the mantra “it doesn’t matter how bad you think we are; the other side is worse.”
The opinions I am going to express will be from the latter category, not because I don’t have confidence that American TV is better than British TV, but because I reckon it will infuriate Jack! I’m going to try and guess what he thinks the best things about British TV, and then explain why America still do it better.
I should add, as a disclaimer, I do not dislike British TV. There are some very fine examples out there of great British TV. However, I believe that for every one example of great British TV there are three examples of equally great American TV.
Jack would say that British TV is filled with talent…
He would be right. When you see Helen Mirren, Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais light up the little box in the corner of the room you know that the tiny island in the Atlantic is doing something right. Heck, when Monty Python went transatlantic decades ago, American TV was rife with cheaply-put-together imitations.
But right across the American TV networks at the moment you have over a dozen Oscar-winners working in-front and behind the camera. At this point the argument that British TV has talent becomes a little bit conceited. Martin Scorsese, Dustin Hoffman and Anna Paquin are just three I could name. The BAFTAs versus Oscars debate will rage eternal but it cannot be denied that when you line up the talent of the UK against the talent of the US it looks like Rotherham United versus Manchester United.
Jack would try and point out that British TV makes stories that are relevant to us…
Again, to some extent Jack would be right. Currently Titanic is beached on our TV screens receiving some praise (though not on this site!) and spinning a story that is relevant because of the ship’s centenary. Then you can look at shows like Hollyoaks and Casualty – the latter Jack worked on – that weave plotlines which are accurate commentaries on the UK’s social and economic climate.
Across the Atlantic, American TV also has socially-relevant programming. But they don’t work as well even in the USA; this is mainly because America is nearly twenty-times the size of Britain (give or take). What may make sense to a New Yorker could completely baffle a Californian.
Instead, America specialises in churning out (and in this scenario, the word is not meant negatively) dozens of viewer-friendly TV shows each month. Each one may sit nicely into a niche or genre, but they are designed and written to be accessible by every American. As a result they are accessible for us Brits too.
And when Jack says Doctor Who, I would answer Buffy, Lost and Fringe (Like I said it is a 1:3 ratio).
Finally Jack might try and land the knockout punch by talking about the unique brilliance of British comedy…
He would be absolutely correct. British comedy, when done well, is a feast for the ears, eyes and funny bone. However, the eagle-eyed readers may have noticed the clause in that previous sentence: when done well. We can all remember a side-splitting gag from BlackAdder, The Office or Only Fools and Horses. In fact, there are many creative minds out there that when you see them attached to a production you know it will be a guaranteed laughter-fest (I’m looking at you Steven Moffat). But how many comedies have fallen down at the first-series hurdle? Do The Royal Bodyguard, According to Bex and Sir Yellow sound familiar?
Then we look at the massive writer’s rooms of American Sitcoms. Britain has writing teams ranging from one all the way up to three or four. Any more than that and individual talent is stifled. That might be a fair point. But isn’t the bigger picture more important (or as Spock would say, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” – Star Trek, another American show) because as individuality dies, doesn’t the fruit of collaboration grows? Just think of Frasier, the most decorated sitcom ever. The more people involved, the more a comedy moment can potentially grow. That only benefits one person, you the viewer.
American TV is better. You can’t disagree with Jack’s logic.
On a side note, it should be acknowledged that this article has not made reference to Friends, Family Guy, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Angels of New York, Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Will and Grace, Saved By The Bell, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, The X Files, Gilmore Girls, 24, 30 Rock, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Dallas, Dukes of Hazard or Futurama, The OC, The Vampire Diaries, Battlestar Galactica, Cheers, Happy Days House M.D and Doogie Howser M.D. even once.
David Pallant loves film and TV almost as much as his pet tortoise, Monty. If you want to read some more of his opinions on TV, films, food and fine-living feel free to follow him on Twitter, @Twit_Pallant.
And you can check out Jack’s Pro-Britain argument tomorrow on tellybrain.com!