British TV vs American TV: Who does it better?

We live in the golden age of television – if the term ‘golden age’ can be applied to a medium that traditionally was considered to be film’s ugly cousin. TV – or ‘telly’ has obviously become the foremost medium within the visual arts, and many top Hollywood actors are doing something that would have seemed like madness twenty years ago – abandoning film for TV. The medium is at its peak, the only question to ask though is who does it best – the Americans or the British? I objectively evaluated the offerings of both countries by genre to find out.

Comedy (situational)

   seinfeld - TGJ.01

 The sitcom is as American as apple pie, but that does not mean Britain cannot hold its own when it comes to the genre. Blackadder, Only Fools and Horses and The Office were all brilliant shows and internationally acclaimed. When it comes to sitcoms though, there only can be one winner – Seinfeld alone would have swung this in the Americans’ favour and with Cheers, Friends and The Simpsons also being considered it becomes a walkover.

WINNER – AMERICA

Comedy (sketch and panel)

have i got - TGJ.01

If we can’t quite manage quite manage to compete with the Americans when it comes to sitcoms it may be because we’re concentrating on sketch and panel shows. We excel at ‘sketch’ and examples include The Fast Show, Little Britain and Harry and Paul. British panel shows are also of an extraordinary quality with Have I Got News for You, QI and the brilliant Eurotrash. Great examples of American panel or sketch shows include… Errrr… Um…

WINNER – BRITAIN

 Drama

breaking bad- TGJ.01

When people talk about the ascendancy of television, they refer to drama in the primetime slot; 8:00 ’til 11:00 pm. It’s hard to definitively identify when the primetime drama series became so good, but the mafia show The Sopranos which ran from 1999 until 2007 is considered to be the first of these ‘cerebral’, well written shows. The USA has produced countless drama serials – all of a very high quality. In the early 2000’s shows like The Wire, The Shield and The West Wing presented writing never seen before in television. Now in 2014 shows such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad are lauded – as films like Citizen Kane or The Godfather were all those years ago. The American drama series is giving the Hollywood film a run for its money. But what of British drama? The costume drama Downton Abbey is ridiculously popular and has won a multitude of awards in the states and the UK and Doctor Who also retains a cult following. We have also churned our such gems as the ever popular Sherlock and the M1-5 crime drama Spooks (please bring it back!), but in terms of overall writing and production, American drama is so far ahead of its British counterpart.

WINNER – AMERICA

Documentary

louis theroux - TGJ.01

The documentary is somewhat undervalued as a programme, no one obsessively watches them, or forms fan clubs based around them but if they were to disappear one day, people would be up in arms. Louis Theroux’s serious of documentaries are wonderfully made and are as watchable as any drama series, whilst David Attenborough is the preeminent naturalist on worldwide TV. It’s not really fair to make a comparison with American offerings as they tend to be made for the big screen – rather than for the small.

WINNER – BRITAIN

On paper over the four categories it’s two apiece, though in the main category; drama, the USA is way ahead of Britain. It’s strange, as British drama has been well received by audiences and critics alike. Personally I don’t feel it can hold a candle to what the Americans are producing. Yes, the preposterous Downton Abbey has been a critical and commercial success in America, but only because American’s are obsessed with hackneyed portrayals of what they think the English are like. The least said about the abysmal Doctor Who the better – but my most stinging criticism of British drama must be leveled at the terrible Broadchurch. This boring, turgid murder mystery was so lauded after its first episode that… well you’d have thought Mozart had just débuted Don Giovanni such was the hysteria. Why such bad writing is commended is a mystery, but maybe we in Britain have just got used to it. In other areas of television Britain is performing admirably, but until we get our equivalent of The Sopranos – British TV will be severely lacking.

By Guy de Vito            

Further Reading