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Thursday, 6 March 2008

British TV drama is languishing in mediocrity, dominated by cheaply-shot, cliche-ridden fare that looks, sounds and feels like a barely-elevated soap opera (The Bill, first broadcast in 1984, still shows twice a week and yet seems stuck somewhere in the mid-90s in terms of script and style).

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, TV just gets better and better. I'm thinking specifically of Damages, which is surely the darkest, cleverest serial since Twin Peaks interrogated American suburbia in the 90s. My only problem with Damages being shown on UK terrestrial (BBC1 on Monday nights) is that it spoils every other half-baked programme around.

In the States, it's just one of a super-league of serialized dramas, so good they're like 10 hour feature films that have been chopped into chewable, consistently compelling segments. HBO have led the field since they created the gold standard in television drama, The Sopranos in 1999; since then they've continued to trailblaze with Six Feet Under and most recently, The Wire (named best TV show ever by Time, The Guardian, Entertainment Weekly etc; so good that Slate magazine are publishing a weekly analysis of the final series).

HBO's success proved audiences would lap up drama that is original and provocative, and forged a path for some serious competition. Damages comes courtesy of FX Networks, a channel owned by News Corp's Fox Entertainment, while TV's newest darling, Mad Men, is the first TV drama produced by cable channel AMC; a good start for them, as it's already won 2 Golden Globes.

Even those American series that fit neatly into genre boxes - hospital-based series like ER, Grey's Anatomy, House; police procedurals like the CSI franchise and Without A Trace; political wranglings in Spin City and The West Wing - are still top quality stuff, with real attention (i.e. money) paid to cinematography, lighting and characterisation, the like of which is all too rare in the UK.

The only thing we can do reliably well is period-drama, as the recent Sense & Sensibility and Cranford testified. But surely there must be some TV-friendly British writers more contemporary than Austen and Gaskell? The best we've had recently is Spooks; Life on Mars was good, but not as good as its hype. I tried watching Holby City the other week until the appalling script (somewhere between a Hallmark card and a first aid manual) forced me to switch in exasperation to the far more entertaining BBC Parliament.

In 1879, Matthew Arnold lamented: "In England, we have no modern drama at all." He was talking about theatre but sadly I'd say the same about our TV programming today. In the 19th century we led the way in serialized drama but then the medium was novelistic: Dickens' Bleak House and The Mystery of Edwin Drood were devoured by readers in chapters every month. I'd argue that the best TV dramas coming out of the States right now can be compared to those Victorian novels in terms of inventiveness and sheer emotional power. Writers, to your pens. Programming directors, to your cheque books. We need a serious injection of original, imaginative, risk-taking writing here.


Anonymous said...

Where there's Jimmy McGovern and top-form Coronation Street (Seriously, when it's good, it's amazing) there's still hope. And not all the superslick superhyped US shows are all that - Studio 54 or whatever it was called was just one big smug wisecrack. But yeah, I pretty much agree. And Damages is ace.

m-a said...

It's bad enough that Brit TV is that dopey but it doesn't even show the best of the transatlantic series! BBC has been leading the way with Damages and now Mad Men (still only on BBC3 though) but The Wire has yet to be programmed in the UK, whether on terrestrial, digital or cable... They obviously don't know what they're missing!!