WHY IS CABLE TV SO MUCH COOLER THAN NETWORK AND BRITISH TV SO MUCH COOLER THAN EVERYTHING?
TV watchers have been saying for years that American network television, well, sucks. The good stuff, they say, is on cable. Mad Men. Breaking Bad. The Walking Dead, The Newsroom. Dexter. On and on.
Network? Well, they’ve got a whole litany of tired police procedurals – about ten for every “Big Bang Theory” or “Modern Family”. Even their most popular stuff like The Simpsons or Family Guy has been around a long time mostly because of their legendary status and not much more. They’re not exactly raking in the Emmys or topping any critic’s “best of the year” lists.
None of this is new. When there was no cable, everyone said TV was a vast wasteland anyway. When cable first came along, it was pretty lame. Then someone realized that not that many people were watching cable, so they could do pretty much what they wanted. So they experimented. At first, no one cared. But then people started catching on that cable was producing shows unlike the bland stuff on network. The Shield. The Wire. Deadwood. Shows that took risks; not just with language and sex, but with topics and characters. Does network have shows like these? No.
Just look at what shows scoop up accolades at award times.
And now there’s British TV. Okay, British TV has been around a long time, you know, in Great Britain. Sure, Benny Hill and Monty Python and Fawlty Towers made it across the pond, but those series are pretty old. But it seems like in the last few years, interest in British TV has taken off.
Should we thank Ricky Gervais for this? The original “The Office” was the first modern hit to cross the pond. Now British TV is all over American TV and streaming on our computers. Now some BBC shows are more popular here than American shows: Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, Luther, Orphan Black, Broadchurch, Sherlock.
Why? Is it the accents? Is it the thrill of seeing people drive on the left side of the road? Is it David Tennant? (Isn’t he dreamy? Yeah, I said it. Look at him and tell me I’m wrong.)
I don’t really know the answer. But I think it comes down to a passion for story that’s lacking from a lot of American TV. Over here, we’re good at fast-paced, big budget, laugh track-fueled events. Shows from Britain can do that too, but these that I mentioned sort of eschew (yay me for finally having a good excuse to use that word) the glittery trappings of TV shows that American productions, conversely, rely on too much.
Consider: there have been lots of workplace comedies in the last decade. Most of them were downsized in the ratings. But when Americans set about remaking “The Office” in the mold of the British original, it was a monster hit.
In 1996, an American network tried to reboot British Sci-FI institution Doctor Who and it crashed and burned. British writers and producers took on the challenge in 2005 and now Doctor Who is a global phenomenon.
So, American network TV, here’s what you need to do to have a ratings and critical hit: take a chance on a truly unique character. Not a detective with a whacky quirk. An original take on humanity like Walter White or Don Draper or The Doctor. Once you’ve got your character, give Him or her a real story to tell. Only once you’ve got that story down can you pile on the glitz and special effects and ONLY THEN if story demands.
Okay, now that we’ve fixed TV, get to work.