Sunday, October 9, 2011

Top Five Reasons Why Brtish TV is Better Than American TV

It is no secret that I enjoy British TV and find it much more satisfying than the fare offered in the U.S.. Which is not to say that I don't like any American programs at all, but my impression of it is the reverse of British TV. In short: with American TV it is the rare program that I like and with British it is the rare program that I don't. Why is it so much better over there? I'll tell you, with my Top Five Reasons Why British TV is Better Than American.

1. Women are Routinely Portrayed as Rich Multi-Dimensional Characters.

  British TV shows portray women in a much fuller deeper light than American shows do. Even in shows like Spooks where the women are all gorgeous . . . they're not objectified the way American women are, focusing heavily on their beauty and sex appeal. They aern't strutting around in flashy clothes and primping as if their "look" is what they are all about. They are real - dressed in reasonable clothes, with flaws showing, with figures that are not perfect, and with no problem in showing that. They get to be fully developed characters who are interesting, inspiring, powerful, and multi-faceted.

And almost cooler still, though flawed and imperfect, these women are treated and viewed by other characters on their shows as if they are beautiful and attractive! So refreshing and so unlike American screen characters where the less-than-perfect women are viewed by the other characters as "plain" or relegated to the role of "fat friend" or "funny sidekick". British women on TV get to be real AND beautiful. They get to be interesting, intelligent AND desired.

2. Grown-ups (and Retirees) are People Too.

Most Amercian shows cant manage to show mature people in a sympathetic interesting light without it feeling condescending. But in British TV, middle-aged+ characters get to have a full array of interests and feelings -- including romantic feelings that are not just based on lusting after their youth and what young people have. They're not just doddering old fools and points of humor - at least no more so than the younger ones are.

Astonishingly, this British approach to maturity holds for women as well as men. And it is amazing to see someone like Auntie Joan running her farm with a full and happy life, having friendships, personal struggles and even romance. And its all just done as a matter of course, not as a "touching story of the week" approach that we get in America so everyone can sigh and feel good about the old people before getting back to business as usual.

3. In Casting, Acting Talent Takes Precedence Over Beauty.

No intent to cast aspersions on the attractiveness of British actors, but rather to praise their talent.
The way the Brits rank talent above beauty when casting parts for TV and film seems more like what we do here with stage productions. On the stage, Americans' accept less than perfect people in title roles, because on stage you have to be able to sing and dance -- so talent wins out over anything else. But on screen, American casting directors seem to be searching for that balance of talent/looks that favors attractiveness and body above all else. In British shows, the balance seems to fall on the talent side.

The British actors are also good looking most of the time -- its just that "good looking" takes in a broader range of physical attributes than it does here and won't be sought above basic acting skill. Recently listening to commentary on a Spooks dvd, I was struck by one of the director's comments about Adam and Fiona: "that they just look so good." What he meant and went on to explain was that they were interesting, engaging to look at. Its a subtle difference from what looking "good" means here, but an important one. It means having something in the character or structure of the face that is interesting to look at. Obviously the two qualities often overlap (as in the case of Adam and Fiona who are both very pretty). But I liked the idea that looks were spoken of in a subtler deeper way than I'm used to hearing.

To look "good" in British TV, a face has to have the capacity to express ideas and emotions, to convey deep meaning and serve the story. ...not just to look pretty while reading ones' lines.

4. The Fact that Often Fewer Than 10 Episodes Comprise a "Series" (What we Call a "Season").

So much less of a committment. One of the reasons I stopped watching American shows was that it was just too much of a committment to find an hour a week for 20 or so weeks. I could just never do it. :)

With a much shorter run of shows in a season, there's so much more flexibility to try out different shows or to catch up with a show you've never seen before its current run starts.

And, I think a byproduct of making fewer episodes is that the episodes that are made can have more resources directed at each so the production dollar per episode is higher overall. ...though maybe not higher than in America where we have the deep pockets of the advertising dollar to throw at our inane TV shows.

5. A Self-Depreciating Self-Awareness and Subtlety.
The Brits seem to be so sweetly in tune with what makes them British. Although not an emotional people, they seem to be an introspective people. I like that.

They are not unemotional out of lack of understanding, but more or less by choice. Their shows are touching, if lacking in crying and ranting. There are plenty of moments with an emotional punch, but they are also intellectual moments. Although maybe not effusive, flailing around in anger or in hugs, these shows demonstrate fully human characters attentive to each other and the reality around them. Characters can be hurt but are more likely than not to suck it up and move on.

I am now realizing that this emotional subtlety may be at the core of why the acting coming out of Britain, seems so good. From a restrained people, the power of a lifted eyebrow or a tensing of the mouth can be amazing.


  1. Hi Amy,

    I can't entirely agree with your view of the quality British TV dramas and shows. We make a large amount of rubbish for the few gems you might see. The big budget TV shows such as 'Downton Abbey' are the exceptions rather than the rule.

    We can make 'kitchen sink dramas' which is certainly where 'Acting Talent Takes Precedence Over Beauty', but that's less the case in glossy historical dramas.

    The US in contrast makes shows like the 'West Wing', and medical and police dramas that make ours look parochial in the extreme. We can do the odd detective drama's based in unreal English villages such as 'MidSomer Murders' but in the main, they are rather cup of tea, rather than Cafe Latte.

    Now I freely admit that I don't actually watch the shows you talk about, being more of a science/art/historical documentary kinda guy, but I suspect that this is actually a case of the 'grass looking greener' to each of us on the other side of the Atlantic.

    We each really only see the best of each others TV, with the 75% dross remaining only for domestic audiences.

  2. Thank you so much for your great comment Andy! --which gives me some food for thought. I'm sure you're right that the British shows that Americans tend to be familiar with are the cream of the crop. I hadn't thought about that. Of course American shows like the West Wing are absolutely top notch too, but are by no means common on the airwaves over here.

    I don't doubt that both of our countries produce large amounts of duds, but I do have a hard time believing your side of the Atlantic is capable of inane monstrosities as bad as The Kardashians! My impression is that the British duds are just poorly made or generally weak, but not actively appalling in values, taste and intelligence like ours are. But if I'm wrong on that, I will gladly defer to your greater knowledge of the state of the telly :)

    And I'll also gladly admit to being truly unfamiliar with great masses of TV that the great masses of people watch over here; I just know that most of the time when I turn on the TV, I have to turn it right back off again. But, I have a backlog of British shows for watching on Netflix or dvd (Life on Mars, Doc Martin, State of Play, Inspector Lewis, New Tricks, etc.) that should keep me busy for a long long time :)

    Here's to the greener grass!

  3. Hi Amy,

    Sadly the need to fill hours of free satellite channels (ignoring the sky/fox or Virgin pay satellite channels) mean that I suspect that we can equal or even surpass 'The Kardashians'!

    We have two nonentities called Katie Price (aka 'Jordan' ... a boob model who has made millions), and her now ex-husband 'Peter Andre (one hit wonder 'material girl') who both have reality shows.

    We also render up to the god of the lowest denominator such gems as 'Geordie Shores' (That could be 'whores') and 'Made in Essex' .... these could be masterpieces of poorly made, lazily thought out TV.

    Although they face strong competition from the regular Channel 4 offerings about freak humans, such as 'Britain's Fattest Man' or 'Should I get my Boobs enhanced/reduced' ... LOL

    Heartily agree with your statement about turning on the TV, only to have to turn it right back off again ... fortunately we still have very strong radio values on the BBC, so I can listen to discussion shows, plays, drama and comedy on Radio's 4, 5, The world service and 4 extra, while doing other things (Bliss!) ... just paying occasional homage to the great god TV in the corner!

  4. This is an epic article, and its all so true. The brits use subtlety and visial suggestion to get messages across whereas in the us they usually have the characters spell out the situation for the viewer. No wonder they call british television 'intelligent' television, because the shows trust the viewer to have the rain capacity to comprehend visual suggestions unlike pandering american tv.

  5. You make a very great argument for this article, except in your 4th point which if I'm to be completely honest I find a bit ridiculous. The way I see things (mind you, I by no means believe this to be the only correct point of view, yours is equally as valid, I just disagree), if a show is truly wonderful, there SHOULD be something to commit to, because if there isn't I just thirst for more and more, and I'm not going to get more. Now the last paragraph of your 4th point completely contradicts the intent of this article, this article is supposed to be about how British TV is better than American, then you go on to say that having fewer episodes per series/season allows for higher production value EXCEPT in comparison to American television shows. On one final note, in today's world, with the internet literally at our fingertips, there really isn't any extra flexibility given by shorter series/seasons, if I really need to try out, or catch up on a show, I can do it literally any time of the day or night.
    Other than that, great job on this and while I disagree with the concept that one nations television can be considered "better" entirely due to the fact that it's a matter of opinion, you make an extremely compelling argument. Kudos.

  6. Dead on. I agree 100%

  7. Hello Amy,
    My husband and I were born and raised in the Midwest United States. Now in our middle years, we find more and more we turn to British television to avoid "Jeff Dunham" style monosyllabic moronic humor, Superbowl slurring, two dimensional vapid CW characters, and fourth grade reading level discourse. There are but a handful of American made programs we can tolerate. From the old and new Sherlock series, Waiting for God, Doc Martin, and Top Gear, we hardly ever watch American television anymore. Thank you for your comments.

  8. You forgot the never ending drama in American shows. Ego and guilt have such big part in the writing, and it often makes for some long winded and pointless dialogues that often get in the way of the story. Such a huge turn off for me. I have no idea why American writers insist in burdening us with self-righteous, overly sensitive, and judgemental characters, prone to tantrums for the stupidest reasons. Watching a typical American show is 2 things: people looking for ways to feel guilty about something, and people looking for ways to make other people feel guilty.

  9. I echo what Kristin stated wholeheartedly, and then some! I find U.S. television moronic, shallow, and vapid, and it's only getting worse. I went on a 7 year TV hiatus, and was appalled at what I saw when I got 'reconnected.' It's the reduction to the lowest common denominator of intelligence, and sadly, those types of programs always seem to be the most popular. The ones that DON'T make you think - it's the ultimate insult to my brain (ever seen the movie 'Idiocracy'? It's where we are fast heading). While I'm thankful that I grew up with PBS (at least!), which honed my love of intelligent TV by way of various Britcoms, Black Adder, Jeeves & Wooster, and the like, it's shows like Dr. Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, etc. that really got me going. Such intelligent writing, acting, and programming has become quite a turn-on for me (in all ways), so I find it difficult, if not impossible, to go back. Not that I want to. :)

  10. I find all of this talk about British vs. American TV to be disturbing to say the least. Particularly when nobody bothered to bring up the quality of Nimibian TV.

  11. I find british shows far more entertaining thanot American shows oh wait I don't even bother watching American shows because most of the time they rip off the britsh like shameless I love the british version but the American version is just stupid and the inbetweeners they tried to copy that but it got cancelled after the first season lol and now they arwant trying to remake doc martin which if you ask me will no kick off as it won't be funny without martin clunes in it and it won't be the same out of portwenn I mean what shows have the british took off the americans oh wait I can't even think of one I can think of loads that the americans have took off the british I mean why can't the americans think of there own show ideas instead of stealing them off the british.

  12. US TV is good for when you just don't feel like thinking though, it's quite relaxing, almost no attention required and you still won't miss anything.