British vs. American Television: Is One Really Better?

sherlock promo

Both in person and across the Internet I’ve heard a common complaint, rant, or lament: British television is so much smarter and/or higher quality than American.  I’ve even seen the latter in graphic form, with pictures of fantastic British shows like Doctor Who or Sherlock displayed beside reality television dreck like Keeping Up With the Kardashians or The Bachelorette.  “Why can’t we live in the U.K.?” people moan. “All British television is great!”

While I feel the first half of that statement deep in my bones (I am an Anglophile, after all), there are some things wrong with that general idea.  Maybe I’ve got a bit of patriotism buried deep somewhere that decided to stir itself for the sake of television, of all things, or maybe it’s the media analysis nerd in me that just can’t let partially mistaken assumptions go.  British television is not necessarily smarter, or at least better, than American television.  In some cases when it is, it’s due to the differences in how their television production system works.

life on mars

“Hello, America? Our show title? It was a metaphor!”

What needs addressing first is the completely skewed comparison between our terrible reality television and the best that the BBC has to offer.  Most of the British media we receive over here is going to be the top, because that’s what American companies import.  Thus “all” British TV is going to seem great, because only the cream of the crop is given wide distribution in America.  We can’t compare our worst shows to the best from across the pond.

Yes, there are bad American takes on good British television; The Office may be (or have once been) an exception, but there’s also Being Human, Life on Mars, and the attempt at an ill-advised and universally reviled Spaced remake.  However, we don’t just get or ruin the good stuff here.  We also owe a lot of our reality television to the British: think of Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan, and Gordon Ramsay (all from the U.K. and all got their television start there).

In addition to shows launched by the “personalities” above, Wife Swap, Undercover Boss, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?  were all originally British.  The U.S. and the U.K. have a cyclical relationship when it comes to (mostly awful) “reality” programming; we trade ideas back and forth.   As one of my English friends said: “We have Big Brother here too!”  We gave The Bachelor and other similar programs to the U.K., so it evens out.  There are bad shows on both American and British television.  We just know less about that because they’re either not imported as often, or remade without us realizing it.

I can think of a lot of “smart” American television, if we’re defining smart as: deft writing that doesn’t spell out everything for the audience, cinematic quality, and plots and characters with consistency and depth.  However, we have to concede that many of those shows are available to a more limited audience here.  Much of our lauded programming (Game of Thrones, Deadwood, Rome, Boardwalk Empire, Spartacus) is on channels at the back of the digital cable catalog.  We have to pay around $100/month to get them.

battlestar galacticaYet, not all of our best programming lives on the outer reaches of our channel listings.  Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Suits, Warehouse 13: these shows are all on channels that, depending on your cable provider, drop in price to $20-$60/month.  We definitely can’t argue their quality; who watched Battlestar, for example, without getting totally sucked in?  The cast was even invited to host a discussion on war ethics at the United Nations.  If that’s not a sign of excellence in television, I don’t know what is.  But getting it costs quite a chunk of change.

Yet, we shouldn’t sniff at network (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC) programming: the stuff we can get for free.  Not all of it is dumb.  Sure, most of the greats (Arrested DevelopmentFringeCommunityFirefly, Pushing Daisies) were cancelled too soon, or are facing it now.  But others weren’t, like Lost or The X-Files.  We have plenty of smart, fantastic television in America too, and some of it we don’t even have to pay for.

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