Monday, March 19, 2007

What can British TV drama learn from the US?

The website for UK TV weekly Broadcast has an interesting article from freelance director Jon Sen analysing what British drama series can learn from their counterparts across the Atlantic. [Most content on the website is subscriber-only, but not this.] Here's how Sen opens his piece:
British TV drama seems to be feeling pretty chuffed with itself at the moment and rightly so. In the last few years there's been a string of notable successes. Shameless, Bodies, Bleak House, Life On Mars to name but a few. But why is it then that, when the viewing public are asked about what drama they like best, they plump for an American drama series? Why does the best of US television inspire such evangelical appointment-to-view loyalty?


Good Dog said...

'they've got more writers and they shoot on 35mm film'

Oh, that's just excellent. Who did they send over, Prescott or Tessa Jowell?

I think he's right about just about everything, especially with the charcters.

I've started to catch the odd episodes of dramas which have pretty routine plots but the way the characters play off each other is just beautiful.

SK said...

Because UK drama is (in general) made to be good, while US drama is (in general) made to be addictive, with 'good' as a secondary consideration at best. It's, at heart, a different idea of what TV is for.

To make it simple and punchy, the difference can be summarised like this: the aim of a British series (in theory...) is to make the best television, the aim of a US series is to inveigle its way into your life, so that you keep coming back to watch it (and the commercials) again and again.

So Britain produces things like Ultraviolet, Conviction and Bodies: excellent serials and series that take an idea, character, or, yes, plot, explore it form all the angles in a few crafted episodes, and then end -- rather than going over the same ground again and again and again, for as long as peopel keep watching.

As a result of that, they are never going to appear on people's lists of 'what is the best drama at the moment?'. But if you ask people 'what was the best drama?'... what does the US have to compete with the old or new UK classics?

Whereas US series work their way into your head by serving up the same thing every week, going over and over the same ground again and again, and eventually wearing you down by sheer repetition. But if you actually look at them, few episodes are actualy that good.

The article writer mentions Bartlett's heroic statemanship. But there's, what, one or two really outstanding instances of that per season? And if 'The West Wing' had been cut back to only show the best -- been a six or even a four-parter -- it would probably have been of a higher quality -- at least, the quality wouldn't have been so spread out -- but it wouldnt' have made half such an impact on people's lifes. They wouldn't have feel they had lived with the characters through six months of every year.

But they would have seen better drama.

So: we shouldn't expect UK shows to inspire fanatical loyalty, or to be as off-the-top-of-the-head memorable as being 'current', because that's not what they're about.

Well, in the main: there is one class of British programme that does try to do the same thing as the Americans, to become a part of people's lives, to have the characters become friends rather than just characters.

It's soaps, of course. And it proves that when UK programme-makers do put their minds to doing that, they can succeed at least as well as the Americans.

So I don't think there's any need for an inferiority complex. We could do what they do. We chose not to. And what we do instead, is better.