Monday, May 28, 2007

UK TV = cops & docs. US TV = cop, docs & more

American scribe Clark Perry has a fascinating series of posts on his blog from a TV writing seminar in Los Angeles called Breaking Into the Box. I highly recommend giving them a read if you've any enthuiasm for TV drama [particularly American TV drama, the entries are full of illuminating thoughts from key players on the best US shows. One particular comment leapt out at me. It was made by Lucia Cottone, vice president for series development and current programming at Lifetime TV.
You've traditionally got four show templates: cop, doctor, lawyer, and family shows. It's getting harder to come up with a new take on them. Nets are looking for shows with close-ended storylines and somewhat heroic characters.
In the UK, there are two precincts that dominate British drama series - cops and docs. I've always through the situation was much the same across the Atlantic; certainly some of the best and/or most popular American dramas fall in either of those categories. For docs, see Grey's Anatomy, House, ER and many others. Cops is even more dominant at present: CSI, The Shield, Law & Order, The Wire and many others. You could argue that lawyer-based dramas are an extension of the cops precinct, but they tend to have their own, unique tropes and tales to tell. British TV has its lawyer-based drama series [e.g. New Street Law], but it's not much in vogue.

It's the family drama that particularly separates US and UK TV. I'm not talking about dramas that can attract the whole family for a shared viewing experience [like Doctor Who now does], but returning drama series about families. Families are more often the precinct for sitcoms than drama in Britain. UK family dramas do exist: witness the success of Wild at Heart [one of 2006's highest rated series and soon to be launched in an American incarnation]; other recent examples include Down to Earth; At Home With the Braithwaites; and, arguable, The Chase.

Come to think of it [you can tell I'm thinking this through as I type, can't you?], the family is a distinct British drama precinct - but the results are most often written by women and aimed at a predominantly female audience. Look at series created by Kay Mellor: The Chase, Fat Friends, Playing the Field - all based around families, be they literal, biological families, or the broader families we create in our daily lives. What about series created by Sally Wainwright? The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, At Home With the Braithwaites - ordinary families put under pressure by extraordinary circumstances.

Now, those shows may not be your bag, but they've all earned a devoted audience and all [bar Mrs Pritchard, to date] had multiple series commissioned. Is British television guilty of labelling family drama as women's drama? Ashley Pharoah may be best known right now for co-creating Life on Mars, but he's devised a long list of successful family dramas: Wild at Heart, Down to Earth, Paradise Heights. [He also devised the long-running family/docs hybrid, Where the Heart Is.] These series don't win many awards or a lot of critical kudos, but they've often much loved by audiences.

Just because a show is a family drama, it doesn't have to be cosy, comfortable viewing. One of the best TV series of the past ten years is The Sopranos, and that's all about family - Tony Soprano's biological family and his other Family - the mob. It's the family as metaphor. Wouldn't we all like to see more TV series as good as The Sopranos? I certainly would. Instead of developing the next iteration of cops and docs, perhaps creating a crackling family drama is a better path to success.

All of that's just me typing out loud, asembling my thoughts. I'll be back tomorrow, trying to wrap my head round a concept someone explained to me recently - returning drama series as metaphor.

1 comment:

Lucy said...

I got a digital TV set top box for Xmas. I didn't even plug it in at first, I thought there wouldn't be that much I wanted to watch.

I was wrong. I totally LOVE CSI. I'm not big on American drama - not because it's not good, but I prefer my drama to reflect the mores and values of the society I actually live in. Philosophically speaking, the British and American ways of life are completely different; this notion that Britain is a total victim of media imperialism I find quite laughable.

However, what I like about CSI that I don't think is quite as interesting as in say, something like SILENT WITNESS, is its attention to character. CSI: Vegas is my favourite as Grisham is a real father figure to the team and the ins and outs of their interraction reads like a family, despite us never really seeing them at home (of the episodes I've watched anyway). CSI: NY is great and I think Gary Sinise's character is particularly interesting, especially his feelings and recollections re: 9/11. When he went to Ground Zero, that was a particularly touching moment.

However, CSI: Miami does not work for me; I feel Horatio Cain would be a better character on the page than he actually comes across on screen. He's such an enigma, I find it hard to empathise with him. Also, I just don't feel the scripts (or maybe the acting? Both?) are as good. Or perhaps it's because Miami to me, as a non-american who knows absolutely nothing about the country, *FEELS* like it's more privileged and has less of a "dark side" than NY or Vegas maybe? Arena can go a long way - even if the perception is wrong (which it most likely is).