Friday, January 3, 2014

Why British television is better than American television

When it comes to television, the British really do produce better shows.

That’s a broad statement, yes, but if you hold up the whole of American-produced television and compare it to the whole of British-produced television you really can’t say that we do it better.

Sure, there are great American television shows, like The Walking Dead, The Americans and Justified, among a bevy of others. The problem is, it's American television that has given us stuff like Keeping Up With the Kardashians and the glut of procedurals that litter our airwaves.
Now, I’m not going to lie, I came to two British imports that have gained a lot of notoriety in recent years late. Those would be Downton Abbey and Sherlock.

It’s not that I didn’t want to watch them, I just didn’t have the time.

In the past few weeks, though, I’ve caught up on both shows and I can say that I’m looking forward to new seasons of both.

Up first is Downton Abbey, which debuts its third season on PBS Sunday night. One benefit of binge
watching is that I managed to shove all three first seasons of the show into about one week of viewing – so I wasn’t limited by long waits between seasons like others.

While I love the feel of the show and am enamored with most of the characters and actors playing them, I did noticed a decided tonal shift between seasons three and four. While the big deaths were supposed to be shocking, I think you could see Sybil’s coming a mile away since the actress was almost completely missing from the early episodes of the third season.

Ironically, since Sybil was my favorite character over the first two seasons, you would think I’d be crushed by her death. Since her character in the third season didn’t even resemble the woman we’d been introduced to previously, though, I didn’t mind it.

It gave Sybil’s husband, Branson, a chance to come front and center late in season three and he proved to be more than up to the challenge.

While I like Downton Abbey a great deal, I do think certain time aspects are glossed over. For example, in the second season, it seemed like an entire war was fought in about two months – and that can sometimes give viewers whiplash.

With the way British television contracts run as well (usually three years instead of the standard seven in America) there is usually high turnover on British television shows. So viewers have said early goodbyes to Sybil, Matthew and O’Brien.

I think losing all three characters is a blow to the show – although I’m not near giving up on it yet, and probably won’t as long as Bates, Branson, Anna and Violet are around. The new substitute niece, though, was already on my last nerve at the end of the third season and, while I’m excited to see the show take on race and the changing times, I’m worried the cast upheavals will hurt the creativity of the show.

The second British show I came to the party late for was Sherlock.

Sherlock is set up much different than Downtown Abbey. Each season has three “episodes,” but the episodes are really mini movies. Each 90-minute episode takes on an important Sherlock Holmes story.

The real brilliance of Sherlock – in addition to moving it to modern times – is in the casting. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are simply fabulous to watch as Holmes and Watson. They have a fun and charming chemistry that transcends the television screen – and that’s not something that you can always say.

What the writers of Sherlock have done (and brilliantly) is to create a character that is two parts Sheldon Cooper and one part Han Solo. Essentially, he’s a fantabulous nerd with a heroic side. It’s Freeman’s straight man, Watson, though, that really sells the show. While Cumberbatch gets the flashier role, Freeman anchors the entire show with his droll humor.

Sherlock returns for another three-episode stint on Jan. 19, also on PBS. Since Sherlock “died” at the end of season three to save his friends – but viewers caught a glimpse of him watching Watson at his grave – I have no idea how they will resurrect Sherlock.

I know I can’t wait to find out, though.

What do you think? Do you like British television better than American television?


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