Saturday, August 4, 2012

My British TV Invasion

 In March of 2011, I started streaming episodes of the revamped and updated version of Doctor Who.  The original series was never that appealing.  I realize like all things this old that purists will profess that the original run, especially when the portrayal of The Doctor was Tom Baker, was better in some way.  Well, good for them.  My few glimpses of the old show when I was a kid left no pleasant memories.  The show was cramped and dark and cheap to an American kid weaned on Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
So many good things were said about the new Who I wanted to give it a go.  I really enjoyed it.  I was a fan of 9th, 10th and 11th doctors, but we all know that the Tenth was the best.  David Tennant, dressed in a casual suit and sneakers like an early eighties new wave guitarist, ripped through space and time with intelligence, humor and well-written dialogue.  The old villains were alive to placate the purists, but the story arcs and time-travel twists and turns were so modern in pace and reverence for solid sci-fi. My daughter, eleven at the time, hopped on board as we watched five series in a month or so. 
It is my responsibility in an essay like this to relay why I was so drawn to this mainstay of British television.  It’s still unclear.  I know there was this feeling of it being wholly different.   Themes and pace are so outside most of American TV.  There was no sense of repetition or blatant pandering to the slower members of the audience.  You have to keep up.  In fact it has a lot in common with the best of American TV like The West Wing, Deadwood, Lost, and deal old Firefly. Imaginative and quick.
My wife, an experienced chef, was also diving deep into the 3,000 or so programs by Gordon Ramsay, specifically the ones for the BBC.  Ramsay has many American shows and he’s well known, but something about the British shows was a little more interesting.  I’m not a person who things that just because we revere some British accents as eloquent and elevated that the Brits are automatically smarter than Americans.  (Have you seen the depths of bad British sitcoms?  Somebody’s watching those.) But there are nuances.  There are less safety restraints.  Like The Doctor was allowed monologues about crumbling civilizations or the quasi-technical feats of the Tardis, Ramsay is allowed to be honest. When he is screaming about a chef who is too lazy at his job, you agree that it’s the chef’s fault and he deserves the tirade. You aren’t coddled by British TV.  You are responsible for your own emotional reaction and acceptance of the material.
I sampled Spaced.  I was not as enamored by the show as much as the movies Pegg and Frost have put out.  There was the British Office, and I know I’m in the minority, but I enjoyed the American version better.  I also loved Extras, which was technically an American show.
Recently my wife and I caved and sought out Downton Abbey to see what the fuss was about.  American drama is entering a new age with shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Dexter and Boardwalk Empire among others.  These are well-written artistic serial dramas of movie quality in a time of reality TV. I wanted to see this PBS show that was nominated for awards alongside of them.
Never in my life would I have imagined that a TV show about the class struggles of servants and the noble family they serve in a giant estate in World War I-era Britain would keep my interest.  But we are into it.  It’s right up there with the meth-cooking cancerous high school teacher and the serial killer blood expert. 
Again, it is what the show isn’t that pulled me in.  The pace was slow.  The accents took time to get used to.  The plots weren’t dire. The world might as well been a Japanese colony on Mars. I had nothing with which to relate.  As the episodes go, you felt for the characters, you invested in all of the mini-plots and you learned to truly despise Mrs. O’Brien.  It is an entire village of characters completely constrained by antiquated social mores and you feel even better to live in a freer time and a freer country.  (At least I do.)
In Downton Abbey, there are servants wanting to break free of the shackles of thankless labor, and rich, privileged elite looking for purpose.  Everyone longs for something and nearly everyone waits an eternity for a chance to have sex.  I’ve never seen this sheer amount of sexual repression in one show.  It’s brutal.
Okay, but why am I now watching Top Gear?  I don’t care about cars.  I don’t even like cars.  I think of them like dishwashers; loud, wasteful, just a means to an end.  But I watched an episode a scant three weeks ago, and now I’m digging deep into eleven seasons of a car appreciation show.  If I take a step back, I think I know why.
Like Ramsay, the hosts are honest.  They are encouraged and expected to review these cars and crap on the ones they despise.  They argue, and they assume the audience is on board.  I’ll never drive 99% of these cars and I’ve only seen a handful in real life, but I’m vested in what happens on the show.  And so is my daughter!  Why?  She’s twelve now, and about as interested in automotive technology as Katy Perry is in a grey pantsuit.
We’re fans.  Not sure how, but we are. 
If you haven’t sampled what England has to offer for any reason, ignore your prejudices.  Just sample something.  They aren’t all hit shows, but I guarantee you will be surprised. I don’t want to say that if you want sophistication you’re only option is British TV.  That’s not true.  But they have different flavors.  Just like food, it’s important to refresh the palette and be adventurous.  Even if you’re just watching some TV.


  1. Downton Abbey is in my queue. Did you ever watch Absolutely Fabulous? That was probably my first introduction to modern British TV (I mean, don't forget Monty Python). I know that I'm not getting some of the cultural context in any of the foreign shows, but I do enjoy them.

  2. I did watch AbFab. That show was so unfit for CBS primetime. That's why it was good!