March 29, 2013
Rule Britannia—Is British Television Good for Us?
By Seth Arenstein
British television is not your cup of tea? Are all those period dramas, Shakespearean plays and soapy “Downton Abbey” too much for you?
You’re entitled to your opinion, of course, but chances are you’ve watched a BBC property or a British-inspired show without knowing it. Have you seen “American Idol,” “America’s Got Talent,” “Dancing with the Stars” or “The Office?" How about the wonderful series “Shameless,” now in its second season on Showtime? Did you watch “House of Cards” on Netflix or “Skins” on MTV? Surely you’ve heard of “All in the Family” or the 70’s comedy “Sanford and Son.” If you answered yes to any of those questions you’ve watched, perhaps unknowingly, television based on British shows.
O.K., so maybe good ol’ American TV is more to your liking. You probably enjoy the rugged sheriff Rick Grimes on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” or Sgt. Nicholas Brody on Showtime’s hit “Homeland.” Perhaps you’re interested in dramas like “House,” starring Hugh Laurie, or you’ve recently checked into “Bates Motel” on A&E, with Freddie Highmore as a young Norman Bates. Again, if you have seen any of these talented men, you might not realize you’ve been watching British actors. Actually three of these four thespians, Andrew Lincoln, Damian Lewis and Laurie, have been featured on BBC America shows. And speaking of Lincoln, President Lincoln, did Spielberg get an American actor to play the part?
What’s behind the British invasion of shows and actors? Is it good for Hollywood to co-opt ideas and actors from Britain instead of coming up with its own concepts and talent? And why are Brits so adept at playing Americans? We asked a trio of leading American TV critics for their take.
A Healthy Diet
For “TV Guide” magazine’s Senior TV Critic Matt Roush, British television was like mother’s milk and he can barely withhold his enthusiasm for the TV of his youth. “Having grown up on a diet of great British TV—I even remember the original black & white broadcast of “The Forsyte Saga;” but I didn't really get hooked until the 70’s, with “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” and “Upstairs Downstairs”— I always figured that, for the most part, we were being exposed to the cream of the crop. And the popularity of these imports had a lot to do with the fact that we were seeing only the very best of British TV,” he says.
“Of course, that continued with brilliant programming including “I Claudius,” “The Jewel in the Crown,” “Brideshead Revisited” and others. I also came of age when some of the most significant U.S. comedies, most especially the groundbreaking “All in the Family,” were adapted from British formats, but given a distinctly American spin. And there was “Sanford and Son” and I'm sure others. Those adaptations,” he says, “were cultural dynamite, and it seemed we owed a great deal to our brothers across the pond for the inspiration.”
But there was a downside, Roush says. “The British originals tended to be relegated to the niche of public broadcasting – and later cable – as if they were somehow too good for us, on a higher plane. An exception, I suppose, were the original “The Avengers” and “The Prisoner,” which enjoyed broadcast network exposure but also felt exotic and ‘other.’”
Veteran critic Roger Catlin agrees with Roush. “There is a longstanding assumption of quality associated with British TV, primarily since only the best of it made it to the states through Masterpiece Theatre,” he says.
And while the influence of British TV in the reality genre can’t be denied, the comedies didn’t always work, he adds. “A certain kind of British deadpan humor became increasingly appreciated here, though only a few adaptations of U.K. comedies actually have worked here, “The Office” and “Shameless” among them,” Catlin says.
Another factor that made and makes British television so good is the brevity of its seasons. That’s key for critic Alan Sepinwall, author of “The Revolution Was Televised.” British television is made in a way even U.S. cable series can’t quite compete with, he says. “They not only have shorter seasons, but there’s no requirement that they just keep running and running. If you have a story that you only need six episodes to tell, or like “Sherlock,” that you only want to do three of per year, you can do that. Just tell the story in the best way possible, and walk away. David Brent never outstayed his welcome.”
The shorter seasons, Roush believes, “leave us wanting more. Unlike the U.S. adaptation of “The Office,” which NBC let drag on too long, because it couldn't afford to drop one of its few popular shows, the brilliant original is only 12 episodes, plus a special, much like “Fawlty Towers,” he says. “Every year, I field complaints from readers saying that “Downton Abbey” needs to have more episodes. But leaving us always wanting more is not a bad strategy for building buzz,” Roush says.
The Invasion: Hurt or Help?
Is the influx of British concepts for shows, and sometimes the shows themselves, good for American television? Should Hollywood develop its own shows and concepts or risk going soft? Not so, Roush says. “If the original concepts are strong enough, and if the adaptations live up to the original, which rarely happens, I don't see the influence of British shows on American TV to be a negative. If it's a strong-enough premise to work in one place, why not try it here? Sometimes with patience, you get [the U.S. version of] “The Office.”
Sepinwall and Catlin agree. For Sepinwall: “More good shows are more good shows.” Catlin blanches at the thought of American television without British imports. “How terrible would American television be without the influx of British talent?” he says. “No doubt it’s a two-way street, with U.S. entertainment leading the way in movies and television worldwide, but the influx of strong ideas and talented acting pools from Britain have improved U.S. programming immensely,” Catlin adds.
Roush and Catlin look at television from a cultural standpoint, arguing Americans could benefit from the originals. “Of course,” Roush argues, “it wouldn't hurt if the networks would lower their cultural shields and sometimes show the [British] originals on a wider platform. Did MTV, for instance, think it could improve on “Skins” and “The Inbetweeners”? It obviously failed miserably if that was the goal. But BBC America audiences were able to experience those series first, in all of their glory, albeit bleeped to the point that it sometimes felt like we were watching in Morse Code.”
Catlin adds, “It’s hardly necessary to “Americanize” shows where characters already are speaking English.”
Why Can’t The English Teach Their Children How to Speak?
Speaking of speaking English, why are Brits grabbing so many American roles and seem to have little trouble with the accent? It might be a numbers game. “I just think it's a case of expanding the acting pool,” Sepinwall says, “trying to find fresh faces who haven't been in a bunch of failed series already.”
But there are no guarantees, Sepinwall adds. “Some of the English imports turn out to be great actors, and great at doing the accent, like Hugh Laurie or Damian Lewis. And then others turn out to be just as forgettable as the American actor they got the job instead of.”
For Catlin, it’s expanding the pool and training. “There’s an assumption of stronger theatrical training there,” he says. “Producers always like to see fresh, new faces – and Brits and other actors abroad often long to break into the U.S. market – so it’s a pretty good fit. The career track for American actors increasingly comes from modeling or reality programming – as if drama training weren’t necessary. So it’s nice to bring people in who have the skills, and can nail the accents.”
Roush sees it another way. “It's almost as if the network casting departments have an inferiority complex and kneel before anyone from across the sea, as long as they're able to mask their accents,” he says. “It could be the training these stars get,” he concedes, “but it's also a fact that the potential of the American hit machine tends to be so much greater than in their countries of origin that just as we're exposed to the best British dramas on BBC America and PBS, and a few other choice outlets, the best and most charismatic British actors clamor to be cast in U.S. series,” Roush says.
We asked for a few of Roush’s favorites. “Hugh Dancy is terrific as the tormented FBI agent in the upcoming “Hannibal” [NBC] and young Freddie Highmore is a most convincing Norman Bates on “Bates Motel.” And nothing more needs to be said about Damian Lewis' breakout performance in “Homeland.” There are so many more…to be honest, we're lucky to have these talents.”
In conclusion, with digital technology and air travel, the world and the world of television seem to be smaller than ever. The flood of talent to and from the U.S. has become a fact and international syndication has become critical for programmers throughout the industry. Roush takes a wide view of the situation. “If British TV and the British and Australian talent pools help lift our game during a challenging time for the industry, improving the content and the execution along the way, so much the better for everyone.”