Archive for damian lewis

No Sets Please, We’re British

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, TV Acting, TV advertising with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2013 by Tom Steward

There are endless reasons why I’m happy to be with G but I’ve always been especially grateful that she’s not an Anglophile or fangirl of British pop culture. I find G’s nonplussed reaction to most things British, including accents and the sights of London, oddly comforting.  I suppose it’s just reassuring to know that it’s me she interested in not my country of origin. I say this because you Americans are obsessed with us Brits. Actually, it’s truer to say you’re obsessed with what you think we are. American television is fanning the fires of this fascination like a Pudding Lane bake-off…and you can’t get more British than that!

There’s not a show I’ve seen on American TV that doesn’t either have in it a British performer or someone pretending to be British, often both given the lax standards of background research for writing British characters. It doesn’t even have to be a show. Various American companies have British spokespeople and mascots in their TV advertising. Why am I not flattered? Because the fascination somehow never extends to actually finding out what the diverse and varied life and culture of Britain is like. Instead it’s an incredibly narrow, dated and ignorant version of our national culture (royalty, the swinging sixties, Victorian cockneys) that is continually reproduced across American television.

A Cockney lizard is the Geico mascot…for some season!

I’m sure all non-Americans (even ethnic-Americans) and American minorities have much the same beef and I’m not saying the British have any special claim to reductive racial stereotyping on TV. It’s the inverse relationship between the interest taken and the research done that makes American TV’s obsession with the British so bemusing to me. Why go to the trouble of inorganically adding a British person to the cast of an American-set show or concept and then not do the requisite due diligence to give them a chance of convincing at what they’re supposed to be?

A cynical answer would be that Americans know so little about Britain that TV viewers wouldn’t know the difference. But why then are Brits so prominently placed in American television as leads or major supporting characters, presenters and stars, and commercial representatives? Why are we not marginalised like so many other nationalities that American TV knows next to nothing about?

‘You make one more crack about pocket-rocket and I’ll paddle you!’

There are doubtless innumerable political and historical reasons for this (the need to keep us arcane and aristocratic seems pretty closely related to an age-old American view of the British as colonisers from the old world) but in the superficial now I think it has a lot to do with Britain being a major producer and exporter of TV to an extent not seen before. The US, traditionally a powerhouse of global TV distribution, has to find methods of coping with this new threat and slotting British actors and characters into TV shows (often for no good story reason) seems as good a way of joining the competition as any.

There’s also something about always having to laugh at or undermine British people appearing on TV that means however high up in the pecking order they are, their one-dimensionality will always be more important than their function. Think about how many American shows sacrifice character development for a couple of cheap shots at cross-cultural misidentification or excuses for vicarious swearing (the British obscenity ‘wanker’ frequently passes Broadcasting Standards unnoticed). On Dancing with the Stars, Len Goodman has been hired to impart his technical opinion on dancing, drum up the crowd and occasionally play the pantomime villain. Increasingly, however, he’s been there to provide British slang for the other presenters to mock.

The British wing of the CIA.

There’s a quieter British invasion going on (we don’t like to make a fuss) in TV casting. Most of your favourite American TV shows will boast British cast members, many or all passing as natives. I’ve never quite got over Mancunian Egg from This Life as an Atlantan sheriff’s deputy in The Walking Dead or Homeland’s marine double-agent Brody being as British as the head of the CIA. Often producers are calling on past prejudices about British actors to inject a note of taste but it’s also about an Anglicisation of the American acting workforce taking root over recent years.

All the way from Ian Fleming to yours truly, Brits have recognised that keeping your accent quiet is how to be taken seriously in America. British actors playing Americans may have blended in to TV without a trace but those who chose to wear Britishness on their sleeves will remain the rodeo clowns of television.

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Serial Killers

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2013 by Tom Steward

It’s tempting to think that we live in an age of serial television, since virtually every programme we see features some kind of story development designed to keep viewers coming back week after week. Nowhere is this more evident than US TV drama. Critics have been telling us for years now that what distinguishes dramatic American TV from its British equivalents and cinematic competitors is the ability to tell stories over time. Yet very few US TV drama series have sustainable premises and even fewer have enough story arcs to outlast a shelf life of one season on the air.

This struck me while watching the early episodes of Season Three of Showtime’s Homeland, patiently waiting for the show to justify its continued existence. The series had the requisite twists and turns for a season of thrills and jolts and spent its second treading water by flipping the premise like a trick coin so that viewers basically watched the first season again in reverse. The third season has already drowned in its own uncertainty over the future trajectory of the show. I’m not at all averse to long-running programmes changing what they are, as long as they change into something!

Damian Lewis tries to hide from disgruntled Homeland viewers…

Homeland is a glorified mini-series but so are many of the contemporary dramas we treasure as serial television. Damages and 24 never deserved to get beyond a single season. The plausibility and novelty of both series is dependent on the events in the fictional world of the show never being repeated. Even TV dramas celebrated for their narrative complexity such as The Sopranos and The Wire barely made it past their first seasons. Both shows came to a story impasse at the end of their pilot runs and had to work hard at finding new characters and concerns to explore.

Let’s get some historical perspective here. The trend towards serial storytelling in US TV drama over the last thirty years didn’t arise from a need to tell stories more complexly and truthfully. As soap operas went primetime in the late ‘70s with Dallas and Dynasty, network executives and advertisers alike recognised that cliffhangers and continuing stories could be a valuable commodity in finding and keeping viewers. I’m not saying this didn’t lead to more complex television storytelling (and often the viewers who liked this most were those targeted by sponsors) but serial television had to be sellable to stay prevalent.

Serial storytelling in US primetime!

Serial storytelling is a neat way to illustrate television’s differences from books and movies (at least those that aren’t series). But the truth is for much of its history, dramatic storytelling in US TV was delivered in self-contained episodic form along a more generous, less competitive principle of not alienating viewers who might miss a week occasionally. The legacy of episodic storytelling is still discernible in American TV today. The successful CSI and Law & Order franchises paid only lip service to serial form and the best show currently on the air, FX’s Justified, is based principally around episode-specific stories.

Most contemporary US TV dramas are better described as walking a tightrope between episodic and serial storytelling. In order to attract casual viewers and get syndicated, TV series must have a loose enough storyline to be broken up and watched out of sequence without too much loss. But as the options for TV viewing multiply exponentially and the landscape of dramatic entertainment become ever more fragmented, stories that run across episodes and seasons remain a tried and trusted technique for encouraging repeated viewing and customer loyalty. A step too far each way takes you into daytime or days gone by.

Justified, the last outpost of episodic TV!

AMC currently holds a reputation for producing television that showcases the best of American serial drama, something alluded to in their last two slogans ‘story matters here’ and ‘something more’. But let’s look at the facts. The recently-completed Breaking Bad is a fallacy of serial storytelling, compacting six years of television into two years of onscreen time. Mad Men produces an occasional episodic masterpiece but watching the series continuously quickly gets tiresome, making it preferable to cherry-pick instalments from digitised series archives. The Walking Dead escaped Stephen King mini-series status by the skin of its teeth (pun very much intended!).

A television drama that is genuinely serialised runs counter to so many of the qualities of US TV we hold dear, like individually crafted episodes and storyline resolution. There’s also a lot of lame ducks out there with nowhere to go and no story to advance dodging cancellation each year. 

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