Sunday, May 4, 2014

Television: Brits do it better

by Germar Derron

Americans flock to British television shows, like flies to sugar. This may not be a totally novel movement, but thanks to Hulu, Netflix, and malware-ridden sites we don’t speak of, it’s easier than ever to be an almost real-time fan of fish and chip accented shows. Some of the shows—The Office, House of Cards, Being Human, Skins, and The Inbetweeners—were cloned for American audiences, with varying degrees of success. Other shows—Misfits, Pramface, Dr. Who, and Sherlock—probably have no plausible ‘Murican translations. Notwithstanding the differences in these titles, fans agree that the common platinum-plated thread is reality.
Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Realism, as a style, dominates our arts culture. But after 200 years or so, Americans still produce content that depicts a reality that rarely matches actual reality. Recently, on the two brown girls podcast, the hosts complained that My Mad Fat Diary could never work here, in part, because the fat girl wouldn't be fat at all. 

Women regularly complain that female stars, of American television, look the same, regardless of the role.  Typically, they are blonde or brunette and thin, which also means white. The nerdy girls look nothing like nerdy girls.  They wear lots of makeup.  Their hair exists in some plane of reality without split-ends, or humidity.  The rare zit seems out-of-place as opposed to commonplace.  In fact, U.S. TV series often devote entire episodes to “a pimple on prom night.”

In many ways, the United States may be the world’s most diverse country. Television rarely reflects that.  When television does depict the diversity of a high school, in a large city, it’s often through the “us vs. them” lens that dominates pop culture.  One group wears braces and pocket protectors.  Another group wears Letterman jackets.  But at large high schools, 65 guys play varsity football.  Sometimes, an additional 20 boys run track.  There are basketball teams, baseball teams, lacrosse teams, and soccer teams. Ostensibly, most guys could wear the jacket.  And guess what?  They aren't all bullies, or stupid. This dumbing down of stories and characters leads to predictable and shallow plots.

The Inbetweeners set a new standard for teen-based television shows. The characters fill familiar roles: pretty girl, geeky guy, bully, and pervert. But they all look like people that might actually be in a high school.  The pretty girl looks like the awkward girl next door that teens freak out over. She doesn't look like a 
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24 year-old super model that teens freak out over. The four fellows that act as protagonists include a tall lanky dancing simpleton, a private school-raised A- do-gooder, a regular shy guy, and a bravado wielding compulsive lying foul-mouthed pervert.  In other words, they are every group of four guys that have ever existed.

The writing is similarly anti-formulaic. The dialogue in American television is very “How to Write for TV: Tropes, Contrivances, and Clich├ęs.”  In the Inbetweeners, characters deliver catch phrases like “brilliant,” or “she’s fit.”  But the writers never string together an entire episode using just clever expressions and witty retorts.  The characters actually converse, with reactions, interruptions, and warranted disbelief.  This sounds nit-picky, but these nuances establish an air of normalcy.  Viewers more easily experience the show vicariously because the characters swear, sweat, win and lose much like a real-world acquaintance might.

The Inbetweeners in five words is: the show about everyone else.  According to the Urban Dictionary, Inbetweeners are “A teenage Sub-Group, ie. People who are not cool enough to be popular but are not nerdy enough to be geeks.”  This “subgroup” describes the majority.  The average high school experience does not include winning the state championship OR being stuffed in a locker.  This show exemplifies the better Brit approach to television.  Americans produce stories of our dreams and nightmares.  The British shows depict our everyday lives.
British beauty becomes American fat nerd.
Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Somehow, the MTV produced, U.S.-based, Inbetweeners flopped, even though they followed the British story line for line and shot for shot. The American inbetweeners look like Americans, if Americans are all models. The angsty insecure abused Brit teen translated to funny fat guy Superbad Edition, for U.S. audiences. We must love that character.

Television plots should be structured like a good joke. The punchline must be something we relate to, set in a world we understand.  It’s often something the audience knows already, but wouldn't say aloud or never explored in depth.  Sometimes the punchline is known, but thought to be uncommon.  Then, when we laugh together, we realize that this is a shared experience.  British television simply shares that experience.

Writers and directors tell stories. Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends.  Much of American television stalls in an unrestricted middle, where the public, ratings, and advertisers can be milked ad infinitum.  The British shows have shorter seasons, and shorter runs. When a series wins the argument, or makes its point, the story ends.
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