Watching The Fish-Slapping Dance: An Unbiased Examination of British TV in America by an Anglophile

Brit tv 

I was the smug little kid who was laughing about the “fish-slapping dance” before anyone in my class had even heard of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I was 11, and I was hooked by the crazy, absurd imagination in that show, by the accents, and of course, by the fact that no one else had heard of them. I watched The Benny Hill Show, but everyone had heard of that, so I stuck my nose up and moved on to The Young Ones.  In college, it was Doctor Who.  Now, I smugly gear up to watch the first episode of Broadchurch. 

Yes, it’s true.  I’m an anglophile.  There, I said it.  well, I wrote it.  It’s out there now, and I can’t take it back.  Pshew!  what a relief.  Whatever, I was a kid from suburban Philadelphia raised on British TV.  Even as I watch TV as an adult, after years of anglo-reversal therapy and medication, I am still astounded at the influence their television has had on ours…and on me. 

Did you know the groundbreaking TV sitcom All in the Family was based on a British series called Till Death Do Us Part?

Brit ArchieThe British version of Archie Bunker

ArchieThe American version of Alf Garnett

Too Close for Comfort was the American version of Keep it in the Family. In the UK, what became Three’s Company was originally Man About the House. Sanford and Son: Steptoe and Son.  Ok, let’s play a match game: I’ll throw out some American tv shows in one column, British shows in the other, and you see if you can draw a line between the American shows and their British ancestors?

          American Show                               British Shows

             The Office                                      The Office

             Coupling                                         Coupling

            Being Human                                Being Human

           House of Cards                              House of Cards

            Life on Mars                                     Life on Mars

         Who wants to be a                          Who wants to be a

              Millionaire                                        Millionaire

            Queer as Folk                                  Queer as Folk

Offices

How did you do? Maybe I don’t have the hang of this “match game” thing. The point is, American tv producers have often looked to the UK for inspiration, and at times, for outright theft. It goes in reverse on occasion: Law and Order: UK, for example, which has the same “kong kong” as the Yank versions. There has been some great, daring American television, no doubt. What dramas ever were better than Breaking Bad or The Wire? Overall, though, it has seemed for decades that British TV has often been more imaginative, and at times more artistically daring, than American TV. Find one comedian working today under the age of 50 who was never really into Monty Python. And the list of American Shows based on British shows goes on. I’m sure you can imagine that American Idol was not called “American Idol” when it aired first in England.

 So, why is American television so dependent on its British counterparts?  Here as some possible reasons:

     a.          The Shorter Season minimizes filler.

being human
I’m currently watching a British show I love called Being Human on BBC America. Next week airs the sixth episode of the fifth season, the season (and series) finale. I’ll be there next Saturday night, but I’ll be frustrated afterwards. I was born in the US, and our motto is, “I want more.”

The British season is generally 6 episodes long. The show Spaced got 7, but it’s usually 6. When you watch great shows like Luther and Downton Abbey, you’ll notice that only a couple weeks after the show started, during the “scenes from next week,” you hear the phrase, “only two more episodes.” This short seasons allow for the following: a) more pivotal, dramatic events occur per episode; b) you’re left wanting more very soon after the series begins; c) there’s no filler, no pet monkey episodes to buy time for the next important event; and d) Fonzie never goes to the beach to take up surfing.

Consider the US cable trend towards shorter seasons. The Sopranos and The Wire had twelve episodes per season, Breaking Bad around that same amount. Now, name the three best American tv shows ever. See a pattern? There’s an old Jack Bauer joke for 24 fans: if everyone on the show listened to Jack Bauer, the show would be called “12.” How many times did you watch a season of that show and say to yourself, “it could have been “8?”

     b.     Duh, the best shows are imported, so we don’t see a fair representation of British television.

That’s a good point: let me congratulate myself for bringing it up. British tv watchers have seen Dallas, Friends and The X-Files (which was a great show, by the way, and not to be compared to those other two), but most of us have not seen the average British sitcom. Of course, the best shows make it over the ocean, the worst do not, but consider the shows that make it. Whether it’s the issues of class-tension and the decay of turn of the twentieth century society of Downton Abbey, the iconoclasm and, again, class tension of Monty Python or the mind-bendy sci-fi like Doctor Who or Life on Mars, British TV has often seemed a bit more substantial.

downton

By the way, if you don’t think Monty Python dealt with class tension, go back and watch “The Upper-Class Twit of the Year” skit, or all the pompous men on the street played by Graham Chapman and John Cleese.  

     c.          It’s all about the audience, and people want reality shows and vapid singers singing show-tunes;

American tv producers do a lot of pandering. They have a lot of people to please, a lot more to avoid upsetting. This is why you don’t see Barbara Eden’s navel in I Dream of Jeanie. Haven’t we all fantasized about Barbara Eden’s navel? Haven’t we?  Show of hands…Remember Rob and Mary and their twin beds in The Dick Van Dyke Show? In the US, the numbers will kill you: you have to capture a wide audience to survive and avoid irritating the vocal minority. You cannot waste time listening to a silly pitch about an alien who saves the world while time-and-space traveling in a telephone booth.

It could very well be that British tv producers may have that pressure equally, but given the results, it doesn’t seem likely. Either niche audiences are more sought after, or what would be considered a niche audience here is the majority there.  I heard Simon Pegg on WTF this morning remind me that Doctor Who (about that same world-saving, time-and-space traveling alien) was a mainstream show over there. It will soon be celebrating its 50th anniversary. Could you imagine a show like that on a major channel at 9 pm after The Big Bang Theory?

tardisThe Doctor’s ride

Of course, I expect some of you will disagree with me. In fact, I expect all of you will disagree with me. Being free to express my opinion is one of the reasons it’s wonderful to live in this great country, the USA, where there are so many great British TV shows to watch.

About Robert Phillips

Robert Phillips is a Miami lawyer still deciding what he wants to do for a living. Once a lover of Pynchon, Pinter, and any other artist whose work he barely understood, he has since "come home" to genre fiction and fandom, where he truly belongs. He focuses most of his fan-attention on his wife Elena and his three little girls, who will one day be a female president, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and a supermodel/astrophysicist. (He's not sure which one will be which yet.)
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