If I think seriously about what I’m watching these days, much of it is produced in Britain. It got me to thinking about why such a small country produces so much good TV. It’s not just Doctor Who and Torchwood, I also enjoy many of their other dramas and comedies like Life on Mars, Spooks, Shirlock Holmes, Being Human and Shameless. All of these series are recent, too.
Since I’m a fairly committed anglophile, I’m not by any means impartial, but when I try to distill what I enjoy in a television show; things like story arcs that last longer than one show and romances dealt with in a non-adolescent manner (among many other things); they aren’t things that Hollywood can’t do, they’re just things that Hollywood generally doesn’t do.
One stark difference between standard North American TV and British TV is the number of episodes per season (or “series”). The gold standard on this side of the Atlantic seems to be 24 episodes per season whereas most British series are more commonly 6 to 12 episodes.
It strikes me that 24 episodes per season pretty much requires multiple directors, producers and writers and a punishing schedule for the actors and crew. This leads naturally to less overall consistency in the show. Am I getting too technical?
There are some mainstream American TV shows that I will watch, but the only ones that I would recommend to anyone come from “cable” (being roughly defined as shows produced outside of Hollywood proper and/or produced for non-broadcast (cable) television). Some of these cable shows approach the quality of British TV like Fringe, Episodes and Being Human. Ironically, one of those shows (Episodes) is about a British TV show being ported to American TV and one of those shows (Being Human) is a show ported to American TV. Fringe is from FOX and isn’t non-broadcast TV, but it’s also being shot in Vancouver and set in Boston/New York — all non-Hollywood locations.
The American TV that I would recommend, then, seems to only share one thing with the British TV I would recommend and that is a much shorter season (with Fringe giving us the longest seasons… again the exception). As best I can express it, there seems to be a limit on the number of hours of drama that one team can produce in one go.
Traditional TV suffers badly from the Gilligan’s Island Syndrome: where the start and end of a show found all the characters in the same place… nothing ever changed. Slowly, television evolved such that from season to season the show and it’s characters slowly changed. Throughout this era of older television the basic assumption was that a viewer could enjoy any television show in any order and not be confused. Each episode of each show was self contained.
What this didn’t allow for was character development (among other things) that couldn’t be done in 43 minutes (the amount of time left in a television hour after you subtract the commercials). The fear in television is that viewers that miss a show feel left behind and therefore stop watching the show; and given the cost of creating television shows, cancellation follows shortly thereafter.
The success of television that tells longer stories may require different series/season lengths but it lives on the changes in how we watch TV; that we download it, PVR it and generally watch it when our schedule allows, not when the network chooses to play it.
It makes me wonder what video drama will look like when we don’t have to fill a number of hours of dead air in a day, but simply publish the works that are worthy.