Cathode Ray Colonialism

–Scott Stalcup

Critics like Alan Sepinwall and Brett Martin champion the current productions that constitute the developing Third Golden Age of Television.  Existing predominantly on cable and pay cable channels, the programs were less subjected, or not subjected at all, to FCC regulations regarding obscenity.  Nor were they subjected to pandering to advertisers.  Thus, by having limited-to-zero commercial interruptions, seasons on cable had a shorter length.  As a result, “it meant tighter, more focused serial stories [and] less financial risk on the part of the network, which translated into more creative risk on screen” (Martin 6).  This, in turn, shifted storytelling from “bottle” episodes to “the equivalent of countless movies” and at the production level thereof (6).  Fantastic though it all sounds, the mother country got there first.

For previous generations of television viewers, names like David Tennant, Jeremy Clarkson and Ricky Gervais may have been greeted with a response of “Didn’t they run in the Indy 500 last year?”  Similarly, the list of UK programs recognized by US audiences was as short as British comedian Ronnie Corbett.  Both Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Benny Hill Show were arguably givens.  One may have also seen the Tom Baker-era Doctor Who, Are You Being Served? and the various crime dramas on Mystery!, depending on one’s PBS station.  If one had MTV and Nickelodeon as part of the cable package in the 1980s, perhaps s/he also saw The Young Ones and/or the Thames TV-produced cartoons Danger Mouse and Count Duckula.  Technology has gone a long way toward rectifying this, allowing those outside of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland to view recent programs like Top Gear or archive programs like Top of the Pops (Sepinwall 5).

Martin states, “With the simultaneous rise of the Internet, a new breed of fan-cum-critic was born” (16).  Was it born or was it assimilated?  In the period prior to BBC America’s appearance on cable and the Internet’s proliferation bringing access to programs through ethical means (BBC’s iPlayer) and far less ethical means (file sharing sites), those making up the subculture of UK television fans fell into the category of pimply teenaged outcasts or snooty aesthetes, with one aging into the other in some cases, getting their fix through the aforementioned PBS station or for the truly dedicated, via VCRs/DVD players capable of playing PAL format media.  Their online synchronous/asynchronous chat rooms of the mid-1990s were there first.  These fans represent Dick Hebdige’s concept of the subculture being reintegrated into the mass culture (94).

The history of adapting/importing from the UK stretches back the length of television history, practically.  The 7 March 1969 segment of “The Glass Teat,” Harlan Ellison’s column for the Los Angeles Free Press,  recounted Ellison’s viewing at ABC for a Norman Lear/Bud Yorkin series pilot called Those Were the Days, an adaptation of Johnny Speight’s ‘Til Death Us Do Part.  The show featured Carroll O’ Connor as Archie Justice, the yank version of his bigoted limey doppelganger Alf Garnett (83-84).  If an eyebrow is arched, that is understandable, considering the program changed networks, its title, and the lead’s surname when CBS, mustering the courage ABC lacked, finally aired it as All in the Family.  At other times, the influence of the Mother Country is less direct.  According to Python alum John Cleese, “Jimmy Burrows told me that Fawlty Towers was in the front of their minds when they created Cheers [ . . . ] [b]ut instead of confining the action to a hotel, they decided to focus the show down even further, to the equivalent of a hotel’s bar” (Johnson 218).

If one examines the conventions of long-form television as outlined by Martin and Sepinwall in comparison with television in the UK, it becomes impossible to ignore the manifold shared affinities between them. As James Whitbrook points out, due to the payment of TV licenses, public television in the UK is pay television.  To paraphrase HBO’s old tagline, “It’s not PBS.  It’s HBO.”  Those channels that do not receive public funding, find themselves in competition with the BBC, leading to a tighter focus on quality instead of profit.  The shorter series of UK programs parallels the shorter seasons on cable with the same inherent focus on storytelling.  Huge gaps between seasons due to no need to sell airtime for advertisements means more programs may be aired.  Lastly, UK television also has comparatively lax obscenity standards so any given stream of profanity shouted by Gordon Ramsay airs without sounding like someone sending Morse code.

According to Alan Sepinwall, Dennis Franz’s NYPD Blue character Andy Sipowicz constitutes the archetype for the anti-hero that typifies television’s Third Golden Age.  He writes, “in an earlier age, [he] would have been the villain, but instead was portrayed with such [ . . . ] depth [ . . . ] that we began rooting for him” (15).  Brett Martin corroborates, writing, “These were characters whom, conventional wisdom had once insisted, Americans would never allow into their living rooms: unhappy, morally compromised, complicated, deeply human” (5).  While this may have been true for American audiences, in bestowing credit to Sipowicz for begetting the likes of Walter White, Vic Mackey, and Don Draper, Sepinwall’s kick is too wide of the net.

For those only familiar with the Pop Art and loud colors of the Diana Rigg era of The Avengers rather than the noir-ish seasons preceding it with Honor Blackman or Ian Hendry, it is difficult to keep in mind that for all his bowler-and-brolly “English Dandy” charm, Patrick MacNee’s John Steed was a killer.  Closer chronologically to Sipowicz, one finds Dave Lister, the secondary chicken soup machine repairman aboard the Jupiter Mining Colony deep space vessel Red Dwarf in Grant/Naylor’s long-running science fiction series Red Dwarf.  Performance poet Craig Charles portrays Lister as a curry-scarfing, lager-swilling slob who is not only a Scouser, thereby reinforcing regional prejudices between the North and South, but also a minority.  That he was the last of the human race doubtlessly rankled many a right-wing extremist who still long for the good old days of Enoch Powell and Oswald Moseley (Launching Red Dwarf).

Red Dwarf  demonstrates the failure of US television on multiple fronts.  When an adaptation was attempted, producers cast Craig Bierko, a conventionally handsome white actor in the role of Lister.  Two pilots later, the adaptation was abandoned (Dwarfing USA).  Strangely while the program has sustained ten seasons and counting, a US program such as Gang Related with a minority actor as its anti-hero, did not make it past its season as a summer replacement on Fox (Andreeva).

To use a case study of a program that aired in its original form, and experienced an adaptation for American audiences, attention turns to The Thick of It.  Its creator, Armando Ianucci, with his background as a Milton scholar and former scribe for Gramaphone does not fit into the canon of Martin’s Difficult Men.  Beginning his career at the BBC in 1991, he produced the radio program On the Hour, which gave birth to another anti-hero, the Steve Coogan character Alan Partridge.  In 2004, Ianucci wanted to update the program Yes, Minister but shift focus to the advisors and spin doctors embodied by Tony Blair’s spokesman, Alastair Campbell.  Campbell’s foul-mouthed doppelganger Malcolm Tucker was played by current Doctor Who lead, Oscar winner Peter Capaldi.  Eyes bulging at every utterance of “fuck,” which was every other word, stick-thin Tucker represented the latest anti-hero to come out of UK television, working for the good of his political party at the expense of others, shouting down all who dare cross him with the exception of his second-in-command Jamie Macdonald and his assistant Sam (Parker).  Ianucci found himself highly ill at ease with Tucker’s hero status, saying, “Malcolm is representative of all that is poisonous and has caused so much disrespect for politics and politicians in the past [fifteen] or [twenty] years” (qtd. in Chorley).  Airing for four seasons, The Thick of It’s  popularity would lead to a big-screen spin-off In the Loop where Tucker squared off with Lieutenant General George Miller, played by Tony Soprano’s portrayer, the late James Gandolfini.

After an ABC pilot directed by Christopher Guest, but lacking Ianucci’s involvement, failed, a second attempt was mounted in the form of Veep, starring Seinfeld/SNL alum Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  The series was shot in Baltimore on the same space The Wire occupied previously.  Though having just wrapped its third series, hopes were not high for the series initally.  Its network predecessors, the Steven Soderbergh/George Clooney production K Street folded after one season and Sarah Jessica Parker’s Washingtonienne never made it past the pilot stage (Parker).  Though its focus shifted back to the administration a la Yes, Minister, Veep retained the all male British writing staff and scripts peppered with profanity, courtesy of “swearing consultant” Ian Martin.  Though not at the level of The Thick of It, Veep still used  “fuck” in its manifold forms, almost 250 times across its first eight episodes (Parker).

Certainly an equal or greater amount of dreck has also made its way across the Atlantic, sadly not dying during the voyage.  Strictly Come Dancing loses its accent as Dancing With the Stars.  There are Simon Cowell’s national karaoke competitions American Idol (Pop Idol) and X Factor.  Deal or No Deal swapped Noel Edmonds for Howie Mandel, though curiously with his shaved pate, Mandel resembles Noel’s former sidekick, Mr. Blobby.  The high levels of imports  and adaptations from the United Kingdom constitute a form of media-based colonialism or if not, reinforces the notion that though the United States moved out of the parents’ house over two centuries ago, it still calls home when lacking for ideas.


One comment

  1. Just a bit of clarification if anyone was wondering. My leaving Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom was not in error. 26+6=1. Tiocfaidh ar la. ‘Til a Nation Once Again!


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