Question of the week: is US TV over-rated?

The Wire

So a few (quite important) Brits have been poking at the US TV industry recently. Ben Stephenson at the BBC recently said that it was a "myth" that US television is better at making drama than its UK counterparts. So far, so almost uncontroversial. The best of British can hold its own at most levels compared with the US, exceed it in some areas, but be inferior in others, IMHO.

But now famed TV writer Jimmy McGovern (Cracker et al) has weighed in, saying that all US TV drama is over-rated.

"I couldn’t get into The Wire and everybody told me it was great. I was watching it and I thought Bugsy Malone – these guys are talking about things, but they never convinced me they had experienced the emotions they were describing. It was never authentic for me at all.

Huh. The Wire – not very good? Not sure I can agree with that. Cracker was good but The Wire good? Nope. And can anyone point to the current British TV shows that match The Wire, Mad Men, In Treatment et al in terms of drama?

But what do you think? Is US TV drama over-rated?

As always, leave a comment with your answer or a link to your answer on your own blog




  • bob

    US drama is the best in the world. I always feel that praise of British drama always comes with a patriotic bias when from Britons and a sense of “isn’t it quaint” when it comes from yanks. The only nation that seems to be able to produce drama of equal length and quality to the US seems to be New Zealand but that opinion is based on only two shows that I have seen. What the UK has to offer is a handful of incredibly short-lived shows or spotty ones that escape criticism just because they are fun and different.
    I think British tv excels in other areas. Just not in drama.
    And The Wire was awesome.

  • British television excels in fields other than drama, truely excellent British drama does exist, but it tends to be the exception.
    US leads the world in TV drama right now, that could change but a big part of it is down to the sheer investment in time, talent and (of course) money that has been invested over the past 20 odd years. They’re honing the craft to a fine point, we just dabble in it.

  • SK

    I’m getting a little tired of people pointing to The Wire… I mean, yes, it was great for the first four series, there’s no denying that, but there’s also no denying either that it lost its way in the last series or that it is but one series, and most American drama really is not of as consistently high quality as the first four series of The Wire: more usually what you get is a god idea stretched paper-thin over years and years and years, with many, many tedious filler episodes just so that they have something to draw in the eyes for the advertisers.
    The move to shorter series lengths has helped — it’s no coincidence, I think, that the best US dramas, like The Wire and Mad Men — produce only 13 episodes a year rather than 22-24. But even then, series like Mad Men tread water for episodes on end in the middle of series. Just imagine how great Mad Men series three might have been if they’d only made six episodes, cutting out all the filler!
    But basically, yes, US TV has produced a couple of great drama programmes over the last few years. But none of them has been consistently great — even The Wire has that reality-busting series five — and to focus on them as if they are the proof that US drama is the best in the world, ignoring The Vampire Diaries, Damages (fun and exciting but hardly great drama), Flashforward, Lost, Heroes and The Event, is like trying to claim that British drama is awful based on The Deep and Spooks, and ignoring Conviction, Bodies and State of Play.
    So, ‘truely excellent British drama does exist, but it tends to be the exception’? Well, I think you’ll find that truly excellent US drama is the exception too. What the US does well is churn out many, many hours of high-gloss (and I mean that in every sense from the production values to the writing — glossy, shiny, but lacking substance) watchable, entertaining, exciting, and generally high-quality fluff.
    But don’t let the quality of the fluff fool you into thinking it’s excellent drama, because you can make schedule-filling fluff to as high a standard as you want, but if you’re not saying anything — or if you’re just saying the same thing each of your other 20 episodes is saying — then it’s not drama. It’s just adding between adverts (or these days, more likely, it’s framing for some product placement).

  • Mark Carroll

    Thinking of the few shows and miniseries I really like, and the many somewhat-passable ones, I can’t say that American or British really dominates the other among them. Apart from Doctor Who, I think I’ve seen more reasonable science fiction over here in recent years, though, which is a particular like of mine; I’m not aware that the BBC even makes much in the way of Day of the Triffids or The Tripods or whatever any more, it seems there was more decades ago. The US is an enormous, rich country, of course, one’d expect they’d do fairly well. I think I see more originality in premises for British shows, and in the US I think drama improves a lot more once you include the premium channels like HBO and Showtime. I do enjoy things like Cracker but admittedly it tends to be non-drama things like HIGNFY that I actually miss. It still amuses me that L&O: SVU is positively light entertainment after Waking the Dead. So, eh, apples and oranges to some extent, but no obvious winner.

  • bob

    SK-
    ” there’s also no denying either that it lost its way in the last series ”
    I would deny it. I adored season 5. It lost its way in season 2 for me and then found it again in season 3 or 4. But whatever, my personal preferences don’t matter. Jimmy McGovern chose a rather strange target for his criticism that kind of marked him out as sounding stupid imo. Why not choose to criticise shows that actually were bad?
    “claim that British drama is awful based on The Deep and Spooks, and ignoring Conviction, Bodies and State of Play.”
    I don’t even know what these shows are. Why? Well two of them wikipedia says were only 6 episodes long. Egads. 6 episodes? That’s pitiful. British drama can never be great with such little commitment. To be great, drama requires time to develop. It’s the gift of television- to be able to track characters over long periods of time. For me, great drama needs to be long otherwise you simply cannot say that it has arced well in plot and characters and explored concepts fully. And without arcing and exploring, it cannot be great.
    “Well, I think you’ll find that truly excellent US drama is the exception too. What the US does well is churn out many, many hours of high-gloss ”
    But British tv drama also ranges in quality except its bad stuff lacks even the high-gloss. Comparing the best to the best, US wins for me. Comparing the worst to the worst… Well, I actually can’t think of anything on US tv as bad as Bonekickers. I tend to feel bored by lots of US drama but Bonekickers was painful.
    Rev/views-
    Agreed!

  • SK

    So, you’re criticising UK drama — without even bothering to find out about that which you are criticising?! Well, that’s lovely. And I expect you’d dismiss Edge of Darkness too, and Prime Suspect, and indeed everything Dennis Potter ever wrote?
    But the important thing is that British drama does explore its concepts fully. What it doesn’t do is re-explore them, with ten or fifteen episodes out of twenty-four a year just making the same point again and again. Conviction explores its premise perfectly, with not a moment wasted reiterating something that has already been said: in the US, spun out to five series of twenty-four episodes, it would have had many, many pointless episodes going over the same ground as each other.
    Indeed, if your concept takes more than ten episodes to explore fully, chances are that means it’s too fuzzy and ill-defined and you need to make it sharper. Better to have two perfectly-formed, separate six-episode serials that each explore properly a well-defined aspect of a concept, than a thirteen-episode series that messes around with a fuzzy and vague theme, with the promise of another series next year with the same characters that is just as vague.
    Yes, the glory of TV drama is that it can take more time than either a stage play or a feature film. But that doesn’t mean that more time is automatically better. There’s a perfect length for the exploring of a concept, where shorter leads to superficiality and longer leads to a confused mess, with extra elements thrown in just to make up time that dilute the concept, and many pointless episodes that go over the same ground (‘So this episode is about how our main character is insecure in his relationship? Great! Our audiences love episodes like that, that’s why we make ten of them a year!’).
    If we’re to make analogies to prose, a feature film or single TV play is a short story. A six-to-ten episode serial, with a beginning, middle and end, is a novel. And the US twenty-four episodes a series, no endings, spin it out as long as it makes money, model is one of those interminable fantasy series of a dozen brick-sized volumes in which the same characters chase different but oddly similar prophecies across a world that quickly becomes tedious.
    And, well, Nabokov never wrote a twelve-volume fantasy epic, did he?

  • SK

    Oh, and on the subject of ‘arcing’ — a relatively new concept in TV on either side of the Atlantic; was the word even used in that sense before the mid-nineties? — surely all that means is having a beginning, middle and end. It tends to be used to differentiate programmes where character and situations are static from those which include stories which have beginnings, middles and ends.
    So the classic example of a programme which doesn’t ‘arc’ (I’m uncomfortable with the use of the word as a verb, but I’ll follow your lead) would be, say, a series about some police constables who every episode solve a particular crime, but whose overall situation never changes (of course, each episode would ‘arc’ — the story in it would have a beginning, a middle and an end — but that’s no what we mean here). And the classic example of a programme which does ‘arc’ would be a soap opera, where at any one time there are several stories running, some of which are beginning, some of which are in the middle, and some of which are coming to an end.
    So on to your point about ‘arcing well’. Well, if ‘arcing’ is havign a beginnign, middle and end, then I don’t see how ‘arcing well’ can be what you tend to get in American programmes, where there is a beginning of a story, which sets up a situation which then remains static for a while… until there is an episode which moves it into the middle phase of the story, and sets up another situation which remains static for some filler episodes, and so on and so forth (so you might have a couple of characters in an unhappy marriage, one of whom is having an affair. For five or six episode this is the situation. then the adulterer’s spouse finds out about the affair, moving the story into the ‘middle’ phase… and then this persists for another five or fix filler episodes, until they reveal they know and ask for a divorce, at which point there are more filler episodes…)
    This is necessary because no story has twenty-four turning points, or deepening points, or points which move things along, so they are spread throughout the series (or even over multiple years) and padded out with filler episodes which just go over the same ground again and again (so in the filler episodes between the discovery of the affair and the asking for a divorce, we might get lots of meaningful scenes with subtext of lies and unfaithfulness etc — but fundamentally, all these scenes will be making the same point, and so dramatically, all but one are redundant).
    By contrast, in a six-to-ten-episode serial, the beginning, middle and end of the story will follow each other in a properly dramatic fashion, without the need to pad things out to reach twenty-four or more episodes. The affair can be discovered before the end of the first episode, the divorce proposed in the second, and the ramifications explored in the next — thus meaning the viewer gets the same amount of drama, but doesn’t have to sit through hour after tedious hours of repetition of the same points again and again (one of the flaws of the third series of Mad Men — they mistook ‘moving slowly’ for ‘moving in circles’. It’s good to see that series four has not made that mistake, and continues its leisurely pace but keeps moving forwards).
    Therefore I can’t see how, if you’re asking about ‘arcing better’, a serial which ‘arcs’ smoothly and efficiently from one step along the arc to the next, from beginning to middle to end, can be said t do anything but ‘arc better’ than a series which ‘arcs’ in fits and starts, drawing out the steps of its arcs by padding filler in between them, simply so that it can be on the air for longer in order to build up consumer loyalty so that people, who feel they know the characters and so tune in in to see how they are doing, can be presented with product placement.

  • MediumRob

    I think we’re getting a little off-topic, away from whether US drama is over-rated towards the old blog favourite of “Is US drama too long?” and “Is the serial better than the series?”
    However, here’s the thing. Almost by definition, fiction that decides to address a theme is mostly padding. Take Single Father. That was four episodes. Four hours of TV to point out what you can normally find out from a couple of non-fiction pamphlets from a bereavement counsellor.
    Edge of Darkness: six episodes. Six episodes of heavy padding, in fact, to point out that the nuclear industry in the UK during the 80s was quite powerful. You could have done it in half an hour on Panorama, tops.
    But it’s still brilliant television. So once we accept that any fiction is padded to a certain degree, it’s just the degree of padding and whether fiction should just address an idea or whether it’s about getting to know characters as well. The Iliad’s epically long (ho ho), but it’s only through its length that we get to know the characters and backgrounds of both the gods and mortals, the history of the war, etc. And so on.
    It’s horses for courses, I guess.

  • SK

    No, I don’t agree: it’s like a poem. If you can write out what the poem is saying in less words than the poem itself, it’s a bad poem. If you could write out what Edge of Darkness was saying — and it’s not just about the nuclear industry, it’s about grief and secrets, using the personal and the political levels to shed light on each other — then it would indeed be a trivial piece of work.
    If all Edge of Darkness did was point out that ‘the nuclear industry in the UK during the 80s was quite powerful’, it would not be great drama, it would be fluff. Possibly entertaining gripping fluff, but fluff nonetheless.
    Good point though. To get back on the topic of the question, is US drama over-rated? Yes. Yes, it is. Especially when the usual form s ‘US drama is so much better than UK drama.’ Some of it is brilliant, but most of it is rubbish. Exactly the same as the situation in the UK. Is The Wire (the first four series, anyway) great? Yes, it is. But so is Bodies. Which is better? I’m not going to call it.

  • MediumRob

    “No, I don’t agree: it’s like a poem. If you can write out what the poem is saying in less words than the poem itself, it’s a bad poem.”
    Really? I don’t think that’s going to stand up to much scrutiny. Pied Piper of Hamlin, any love sonnet you care to mention (I love you, I feel bad without, life is so much better with you, you’re great), and so on. The list of “poems longer than their summaries” would be enormous.
    But poems are about (mostly) mood. They’re designed to evoke feelings. They need the number of words they need to create those feelings. That’s where fiction differs from non-fiction. You’ll get the same facts from both. You just won’t get the feelings.
    “If you could write out what Edge of Darkness was saying — and it’s not just about the nuclear industry, it’s about grief and secrets, using the personal and the political levels to shed light on each other — then it would indeed be a trivial piece of work”
    Sounds unfocused. It needs to refine its themes, have fewer of them.
    Padding and its nature changes. Within-episode padding changes: what was considered brief and fast moving 40 years ago (Danger Man) is now considered slow, while US TV episodes are now ten minutes shorter than they were (comparing hour-long with hour-long – many US TV series were only half-hour shows back then).
    Within-season padding changes, whether in a serial or a series: 30-40 years ago, Doctor Who was 26 episodes a year, Blake’s 7 13, I Claudius 13, Secret Army 13/16. In fact 13 was pretty much the standard British series length for many years while in the US, Bonanza, Star Trek and shows of the time clocked in at anywhere up to 30 episodes per season.
    We’re faster moving now compared with 40 years, so maybe six episodes seems good here, although if the budgets, writers, et al were available, I’m sure the BBC would be going for 13 episodes as well. But even the US is moving down from 24 to 13 as the standard and other networks (Starz, TNT) are moving from 13 to 10. In 20 years time, maybe everyone will have standardised on eight episodes per season. Or not. The BBC appears to be standardising on five and even three episode series/serials now in quite a lot of cases.
    But I find six episodes have gone too quickly. I can’t honestly be bothered to make a hole in my schedule for six weeks to accommodate something I know is going to be of fixed length and probably only be watched by 4 million other people, and that won’t be really talked about anywhere offline or online. Which is one of the reasons why I love (good) US drama and don’t feel it’s over-rated – except by people over-rate things.
    There. Back on topic. Aces!

  • SK

    Any good love sonnet (‘Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day’, for example) is saying a lot more than just ‘I love you, I feel bad without, life is so much better with you, you’re great’. Just like ‘Daffodils’ can’t be summed up in ‘I saw some Daffodils’ or saying ‘Don’t give up on life’ doesn’t have the same effect as ‘Do not go Gentle into that Good Night’.
    I’ve been wondering, recently, about pacing. Why is it that Mad Men — which is obviously aping the pacing of sixties TV — moves so slowly, but is (when it’s on form) gripping, while other series are more like today’s pacing but are annoying and tedious?
    And I think it’s to not to do with the speed things happen, but with whether what’s happening is moving things on. If you have a seven-minutes scene which moves the story on, or exposes a hitherto-unseen aspect of a character, that’ll be gripping, but slow of pace.
    On the other hand, if you squeeze into those seven minutes eight lightning-quick scenes that do nothing to move the story on — as modern dramas are wont to do — that will be boring and tedious (well, except to the lowest common denominator of the audience who just like to be bombarded with changing images).
    Or if you have an entire episode where just one thing happens, but it happens very slowly, that’s great and gripping. But if you have an episode that is all fast cuts and action and quick scenes and pace, but ends up exactly where it started, so the whole thing was a big wastes of time, an extended capture-escape-recapture loop so beloved of seventies Doctor Who (where you could drop entire episodes out without affecting the story) — such as almost any episode from the middle of series one or series two of 24 — then that is dramatically unsatisfying and boring and tedious (again, unless you’re of the type who is just amused by action and explosions).
    Yes, these days stories move faster — so ideally what you do (if you don’t have a reason to be slow, like Mad Men does) is you put in those seven minutes eight scenes each of which moves the story forward, deepens character, or just basically does what drama is meant to do. The problem comes when — as is often the case — you don’t have enough story to do that but you want to look as if you do, so you either repeat bits, or you go off on pointless loops. Which (lunging back towards the topic) US TV does all too often (and British TV does too, but as the series are shorter, it has less opportunity to).
    Anyway, to get to your final point: scheduling is exactly how I come at this to, but I see things rather differently. My time is precious too, which is why I can make a hole in my schedule for something six episodes long which — I hope — will provide a fully-formed, satisfying dramatic punch, and enrich my life for having watched it.
    What I can’t be bothered to do is devote far more time to making a hole in my schedule for twenty-two weeks rather than six, for something which is most of the time going to be disposable filler. I mean, even if we’re generous and say that those twenty-two episodes contain twice as much good drama as six episodes of good drama, that’s still ten precious hours you’ve wasted watching filler.
    If it’s finding time in your schedule you care about, well, I’d rather be with the four million people who saw the good drama and didn’t waste their precious free time watching filler, than the umpteen million who vegged out in front of the TV for hours letting their eyes chew on filler gum.
    Unless the filler’s got a pretty girl in it. Obviously.

  • bob

    Great posts. I have enjoyed reading your posts, SK, even if I disagree. Building a world over time is a huge part of tv drama in my book. Condensing themes into the most succinct form is for films.
    So yeah, agreed with Rob’s post.
    To comment on “So, you’re criticising UK drama — without even bothering to find out about that which you are criticising?!” – I watch British dramas. Just haven’t come across these ones. I’ve looked at the summaries on wikipedia and they don’t seem all that interesting to me but I’ll add it to my amazon wishlist if multiple people recommend them… The descriptions sound pretty dull on wikipedia though. However… none of them are currently airing. What do we have at the moment to compete with the output of AMC, Showtime and HBO?

  • MediumRob

    “Any good love sonnet (‘Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day’, for example) is saying a lot more than just ‘I love you, I feel bad without, life is so much better with you, you’re great’. Just like ‘Daffodils’ can’t be summed up in ‘I saw some Daffodils’ or saying ‘Don’t give up on life’ doesn’t have the same effect as ‘Do not go Gentle into that Good Night’.”
    Exactly. It’s about effect. You can summarise most poems very simply in terms of what information they’re actually imparting. But poems – and drama – are about creating an emotional effect. So they need more words, which is mere padding. Unless we’re in haiku territory or Zen koine territory of course but then you’re asking the reader to do all the work there.
    “My time is precious too, which is why I can make a hole in my schedule for something six episodes long which — I hope — will provide a fully-formed, satisfying dramatic punch, and enrich my life for having watched it.”
    See, I’ve very rarely found any short-form dramas of late that do that. Generation Kill, yes; State of Play (although that’s not very recent), yes; Torchwood: CoE, almost. The trouble also is that you can very much judge most British dramas on the strength of their first episode. That’s going to be the best one. Everything after that (except potentially the last episode of the series) is going to be either the same in terms of quality or worse. There’s no room for variance, no improvement, no time to change things from audience reaction to make it better. That first episode is it. So once you take that on board, it gets to the point where even watching that first episode seems a bit pointless, like watching ITV. So by having only six episodes, a drama pretty much stops me from wanting to start it. I’ve got seven episodes of Downton Abbey queued up to watch and that’s just about on the cusp. If it were just six, I’d have deleted them by now. If it were eight, they’d be staying.
    “I mean, even if we’re generous and say that those twenty-two episodes contain twice as much good drama as six episodes of good drama, that’s still ten precious hours you’ve wasted watching filler.”
    That’s only generous if one assumes that a serial is intrinsically better than a series. I would rather watch 24 episodes of No Ordinary Family and gets 6 hours of pleasure out of it than watch four hours of say Single Father and get 10 minutes out of it (might be unfair since I’m only going by episode 1 of Single Father, which gave me about 2.5 minutes of pleasure).

  • SK

    You can only summarise poems very simply in terms of the information they are imparting if you think that the only information they are imparting is the surface meaning. But if the surface meaning is all the information a poem is imparting, it’s a crap poem. You can’t summarise them simply if you try to take into account all the subtextual information they are imparting, or the connotative meanings or cultural allusions they are imparting (because that’s all information too). Entire books have been written without exhausting the amount of information imparted by The Waste Land.
    And the words which create those subtexts, which impart those connotation meanings — they aren’t padding. Padding is when you put in words which either impart information which has already been imparted somewhere else in the poem, or where you put in words that don’t impart any information or subtext. Like, to pull this analogy back into the station, episodes which have exactly the same point as other episodes, or chase or capture/escape sections which have no subtext but just serve to fill up time in an exciting, glossy way.
    I’m not sure why being able to tell the quality from the first episode is a bad thing? After all, it stops you from wasting time on rubbish. Many’s the programme I’ve given up on after the first episode or two (Lost being a notable example: I was ahead of the curve there).
    More to the point,though, I don’t want programmes to be changed in reaction to audience opinion. I want to get what the writer wants to communicate. I don’t want stuff monkeyed around with to get a better reception, so that it runs longer, sells more advertising space (on ITV or a US network) or subscriptions (on HBO or Sky). I’d rather it be pure, with the risk that it fails, than that it be subject to all kinds of post-hoc tweaking to try to make it the kind of thing the audience wants to see.
    That’s the only way you’re going to get Edge of Darknesses and Potters and Ultraviolets and, yes, Generation Kills — there wasn’t any post-launch tweaking of that, was there? It was filmed before broadcast, and the first episode pretty much set the tone for the rest.
    The alternative, ‘keep tweaking it according to audience reactions’ strategy, well, that’s almost guaranteed to get you long-running but blanded out fluff, isn’t it? It’ll be entertaining, and you’ll probably get more pleasure out of it, yes, but pleasure’s not what drama’s about. For pleasure, you want to go to comedy or entertainment programmes (like Desperate Housewives, Burn Notice, 24, etc etc — none of which are even trying to be the same kind of thing as, say The Wire). Drama is about going rather deeper, about saying something. And you can’t say something if you’re constantly trying to adjust to take account of what people are wanting to hear, what gives them pleasure.
    And as a final point, even if you’re right about the proportions, you’d still have wasted 600 minutes of your life watching No Ordinary Family versus 230 watching Single Father (which you’ll notice I haven’t been using to defend British drama…) — frankly, can you live with yourself for watching either?

  • SK

    Bob: what do you mean by ‘currently airing’? Stuff that was on TV this week?
    The whole idea of ‘currently airing’ doesn’t really make sense in the UK, really, does it? There hasn’t been a new episode of Waking the Dead on this year (and there weren’t any in 2006), but the final series has still to be broadcast; does that count as ‘currently airing’ or not? What about State of Play, where I believe the promised sequel has never been officially cancelled (though of course the chances of it happening now are almost non-existent)?
    One of the nice things about UK TV is that we don’t have the US system where all the new programmes begin at the same time and run for the same period — we get new stuff to look forward to all the time (Accused next week, for example). It would be so, so boring if you could open the Radio Times one week in October and see the entire year’s TV laid out, and know that if you didn’t like any of them you were going to have to wait another year (or at least six months for ‘mid-season’ things) for anything different.
    (Of course, being in the UK is nice because we get the UK stuff and the best of the US stuff, or at least, the best of the US stuff that isn’t snapped up by a pay channel like Sky, Living or FX).

  • MediumRob

    “You can only summarise poems very simply in terms of the information they are imparting if you think that the only information they are imparting is the surface meaning. But if the surface meaning is all the information a poem is imparting, it’s a crap poem…”
    I think one needs to distinguish between facts, information and themes here. My point is that it’s easy to summarise the facts and themes imparted by a poem. Have a look at http://poetry.about.com/library/weekly/blshakespearesonnet18.htm
    Easy to summarise in terms of facts imparted, doesn’t have many themes and arguably a lot of padding. But obviously a lot of information and a brilliant poem nevertheless. Much better than a psychology textbook analysis of love.
    “I’m not sure why being able to tell the quality from the first episode is a bad thing? After all, it stops you from wasting time on rubbish. Many’s the programme I’ve given up on after the first episode or two (Lost being a notable example: I was ahead of the curve there).”
    It’s a rule that only applies to British TV though. US TV you need generally to watch three to five episodes of before you know how good the show is likely to be in the long-run. You missed out on a lot of good TV by ignoring Lost – which got good with episode five (whichever one was Walkabout, IIRC).
    But once you know that episode 1 is basically the show, as is the case in the UK, you start to think
    “More to the point,though, I don’t want programmes to be changed in reaction to audience opinion. I want to get what the writer wants to communicate.”
    I don’t. I want something good. The assumption that the writer is in fact going to give you something outstanding from the first moment and that the writer is the only source of good ideas and contributions to the show isn’t one I agree with. Most writers need time to get into gear, to understand what they’re doing. Then when the writing and actors combine it sometimes won’t work at all. Sometimes the actors make the characters come alive in ways that the writer never thought possible.
    I’d point to Big Bang Theory as an example, where Penny had crap all to do in the first few episodes and the show was absolute rubbish. It was only when the writers got to know the actress and saw what she could do that the series took off. Ditto Friends, The Good Wife, Battlestar Galactica, et al. Even in Britain, the Being Human pilot differed a lot from the series because Toby Whithouse changed his mind about the show between pilot and series, the parts got recast to take that into account, and the show went in a different direction. The Avengers had a long enough season run that they could ditch the characters they didn’t like in the second season when they liked Cathy Gale more than Venus Smith and Dr King; Emma Peel got recast after filming had already begun and they had to reshoot. But most shows don’t get that US luxury because they get the straight six straight off the block and have no room for change (Sherlock, of course, had about a year between pilot and a series and was able to reshoot the entire pilot to match, as a result, and what an improvement that was).
    Equally, your argument would preclude the option of shows actually getting better in later seasons as a result of seeing what worked. Southland was nearly perfect in its second season for me, whereas its first season stumbled a lot. Dexter season four is probably its best ever, as is Mad Men’s. 24 season 2 could kick season 1’s ass around the block.
    The simple fact is that writers are not perfect and expecting them to create perfection by themselves from the word go is amongst other things why we don’t have a lot of good TV writers. There are no 13-episode shows with teams of writers for them to learn their craft on (it’s no surprise that a large number of successful TV writers, including Russell T Davies and Paul Abbott, learnt their trade on soap operas, since that’s the only equivalent we now have to the US writers’ room). When we get a new writer of anything approaching quality, we give them six episodes to write by themselves, which they almost always can’t do. They then fail and never get given the chance again. Write a duff script on a 13-episode show and someone will polish it for you, and if that still doesn’t work, no one will really notice who wrote that crap one in season 3. Write an entirely duff TV series and everyone will take note.
    “That’s the only way you’re going to get Edge of Darknesses and Potters and Ultraviolets and, yes, Generation Kills — there wasn’t any post-launch tweaking of that, was there? It was filmed before broadcast, and the first episode pretty much set the tone for the rest.”
    No it’s not. And Generation Kill was an adaption of a book. It had already been tested with an audience and adapted accordingly. More so, episode 1 didn’t really set the tone, any more than episode 1 of The Wire. It was a taster, but you never got from that first episode what the show was truly about, never really saw what the true failings of the marines were going to be.
    “The alternative, ‘keep tweaking it according to audience reactions’ strategy, well, that’s almost guaranteed to get you long-running but blanded out fluff, isn’t it?”
    No. And realising that no one’s watching your show is typically an indicator you messed up, not that you’re a genius writer, unappreciated in your time.
    “It’ll be entertaining, and you’ll probably get more pleasure out of it, yes, but pleasure’s not what drama’s about. For pleasure, you want to go to comedy or entertainment programmes (like Desperate Housewives, Burn Notice, 24, etc etc — none of which are even trying to be the same kind of thing as, say The Wire). Drama is about going rather deeper, about saying something.”
    I think watching something should be enjoyable. It need not always be pleasant. But it should be enjoyable. The Sopranos, Touching Evil, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Oz and even Sex and the City all had a lot to say, weren’t always comfortable viewing, but were always enjoyable. And when they haven’t been, when they’ve felt like a chore, I’ve given up on them, even if they have been good (eg Breaking Bad).
    “And as a final point, even if you’re right about the proportions, you’d still have wasted 600 minutes of your life watching No Ordinary Family versus 230 watching Single Father (which you’ll notice I haven’t been using to defend British drama…) — frankly, can you live with yourself for watching either?”
    I’d rather have watched No Ordinary Family to get those four hours of good television than not at all, since at least it’s enjoyable. Even if I waste more of my life in terms of not getting good drama, I got enjoyment at the same time. With Single Father, I’d have got 25 minutes of good TV and wasted the rest on not enjoying myself.
    “What about State of Play, where I believe the promised sequel has never been officially cancelled ”
    Never officially ordered either. Paul Abbott and John Simm now deny a second series was ever in the pipeline.
    “One of the nice things about UK TV is that we don’t have the US system where all the new programmes begin at the same time and run for the same period — we get new stuff to look forward to all the time (Accused next week, for example). It would be so, so boring if you could open the Radio Times one week in October and see the entire year’s TV laid out, and know that if you didn’t like any of them you were going to have to wait another year (or at least six months for ‘mid-season’ things) for anything different.”
    Good job that’s not how the US TV system works then, isn’t it? You get a splatter of shows starting in September, mainly on Fox, but also on cable. The main bulk hit in October. Then come November/December, you’ll get a few new ones coming in, either as replacements or on cable networks like USA. December you get all the Christmas programming. Then come January/February, it’s the mid-season replacements. March you’ll get a few more come in, especially on cable. Then around June/July after the main bulk of shows has stopped, USA and the cable networks really kick in with the summer 13-episode shows, although ABC is now getting in on the act (eg The Gates, Scoundrels, Royal Pains, more Burn Notice – two half-seasons a year). This is also when mini-series, TV movies, shows that were cancelled, foreign imports, etc, also get aired.
    Some cable networks (eg Starz, HBO, FX) just seem to chuck stuff out willy nilly. I really can’t work out their programming schedules.

  • MediumRob

    Oops. My point about one episode and British TV seems half-finished (arguably…). If you know that episode 1 is it, that’s the extent of what the show is, then you don’t bother watching because suddenly it’s an hour repeated – how you regard US TV. You don’t even switch on in case it’s good, because now it’s a one-off, a TV movie of one hour’s duration with five repeats. What’s the point of tuning in for a one-off, one-hour special? Who cares about that?
    Which is why even with something I know is going to be good on British TV, I don’t bother watching. Perverse, huh?
    Sherlock I stayed for three episodes because it was three writers and it was an hour and a half long. That’s a proper movie, that is.

  • Mark Carroll

    State of Play was good, yes, that was one of the better British miniseries I had in mind. It took me a moment to place the dark-haired lady (I forget her name) from it when I watched Caprica. (Ha, and I now notice that Philip Glenister seems to have a bit of a habit of playing DCIs.) And, I liked Sherlock too, enough to not be doing something else too while it’s on.
    Devoting time to something is an issue for me, too. My time is expensive. For instance, while I mention I’ve been watching Dead Like Me, and will bother with the second season soon, if it had gone to five seasons I’d be less likely to be watching. A bit like with Rob’s point about “an hour repeated” is that I really don’t much bother with things like Law and Order any more. It gets old fast; many of the US police procedurals soon become easy to miss, unless someone particularly good has a cameo. (For instance, I liked Robin Williams’. I like most of these comedians much more when they’re not trying to be funny.)
    (I think maybe the US synchronization of seasons / releases / runs across channels was a bit more uniform a decade ago than it now is?)
    For these now-formulaic shows, that doesn’t mean the first hour wasn’t worth watching, though. It’s like with novelists. With quite a few, the first novel was worth reading, the second maybe so, but by the time they got to the fifth, they’re often short of new ideas and I’ve already kind of seen it, some of them are positively painfully similar to the earlier work. The new ideas were partly what enticed me.
    And, indeed, the novels I really like tend to be the novelist’s first, written because they actually had something to say rather than because they’re a professional writer and it’s their job.
    I think there’s some conflation going on here. I think SK has a real point about how much time it naturally takes to unwrap the idea. Those focused examples tend to be the more rare and different ones, though, intrinsically very worthwhile but simply not very extensible while remaining qualitatively unchanged. More normal shows, like, say, House and Big Bang Theory, I do find enjoyable, but, honestly, I think that an enjoyable thing that can be stretched out a long way is just a different kind of thing altogether and lends itself better to seasoned writers and audience feedback and the like in a way that suffocates much truly original vision. With things like Breaking Bad and Dexter, I suppose I did find them an interesting exploration of a concept at first, but over time they instead became to me just an entertaining way to pass the time, well-written and -acted but not remarkable. (Hmmm, as for being enjoyable, I’m not sure I exactly find Waking the Dead enjoyable, but I still watch it.) A lot of what I’d think of as greater art does start out as books or graphic novels, or off in independent film or something, where there’s more opportunity to experiment and see what sticks, and it’s that kind of thing that’s really worth the one-hour special, the kind of thing that sticks with you afterward and changes how you think.
    The more ongoing stuff fits nicely with Bob’s comment about building a world over time. For me, it’s like a kind of addictive escapism. I think that’s much of why I have a soft spot for science fiction, the wishful thinking that permits my mind an enjoyable respite from the real world. And that’s the kind of thing where I’m open to an hour repeated. Not too boringly, but in those cases I’m not looking to have my eyes opened or my horizons broadened, it’s not like going to a new continent, more like having old friends over and opening a bottle of wine. I may have done it plenty of times before but it still beats not doing it.
    I suppose, in a nutshell, I think there’s a difference here between television as the artistic expression of a compelling, original vision, and television that is skillfully crafted for entertainment, and I think the former usually has a natural often-not-enormous optimum length that the latter may not.

  • Sorry: belated response because I’ve been ill (hopes for sympathy).
    Is US drama better than UK drama? Well: there is an awful lot of US drama – I expect that even with the multiplicity of UK channels able to pick up stuff from the USA, we don’t see everything made in the US (not even within the narrowed down category of ‘drama’), though you Rob have a head start on many of us, as (obviously) would your US-based readers. Correspondingly, I suspect some of us here in the UK have the drop on US residents about the breadth of UK-created drama.
    But even allowing for the limitations of what each geographic cohort can see – an issue that is perhaps more irrelevant in an age of (illegal) downloading – I’m unsure what we’re meant to be comparing.
    Is it acting – style, actors, lack/presence of prettiness (and botox)? Is it narrative complexity – in which case all those debates about length of series/number of episodes become potentially more relevant than is easy to dismiss? Is it about longevity of the narrative – an echo of the above problem, covering everything from whether it is made up of 4 episodes, 6 episodes, or 8 episodes in a one-off series to whether it can sustain 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or more series of 13, 22 or 24 episodes?
    I’d possibly make an argument that the US can offer a climate of sustaining series (sometimes beyond their value or initial originality) but how different is this from the wallpaper effect of certain UK soap operas or ultra-long running series (Holby Casualty Taggart City – and The Bill R.I.P.)? Pulling/pulled in large enough audiences to keep going but not really going far — the CSI etcs of the UK market.
    There’s maybe a greater possibility in the UK for smaller-scale dramas: this doesn’t necessarily make them lesser or less interesting. Sometimes such more narrowly focused, even perhaps parochial stories, are also shorter but this can be because they’re meant to be, though sometimes because they don’t get picked up again. But they can still work. In the US, such things would be automatically identified as a mini-series and limited because of that. in the US, perhaps because the market is so much bigger, needs to be sold across a much greater geographic distance, broadcasting in several time zones, that no-one can afford to make stuff this small. It gets bigger because it HAS to draw a commitment from such a substantially bigger audience MARKET.
    Economy underpins everything in these instances, and so I think that the UK probably STILL punches above its weight.
    Better? Not necessarily. But undeniably DIFFERENT, working to different demands and expectations. I like what I can get from both markets and wouldn’t want to be without either. McGovern can talk crap sometimes, but I’d still want his contributions around for their acutely Britishness.
    Because apart from the odd exception, how much of US drama feels very inherently American? (I’d definitely say that The Wire was specifically American, and very located – but that’s probably an exception to my mind). That’s why formats can be reworked in other locations (with more or less sunlight) but interchangeable actors in similar roles.

  • Mark Carroll

    “how much of US drama feels very inherently American?”
    I had been trying and failing to think of an American analogue of “The Royle Family”.
    I wonder if something high-school-ish might count, given how culturally distinct the American high school experience is.