I often forget that not everyone watches as much British TV as I do, causing me to reference it in casual conversation as if it’s as common knowledge as The Beatles. “Did you see Graham Norton last night? Dear God, Mark Wahlberg was so drunk he was trying to give Graham titty-twisters!”
People then generally look at me strangely and ask, “Who is Graham Norton?” To which I respond, “Um, only the best talk show host, EVER.” The blinking continues, and I throw out another option: “Well I’m sure you’ve seen “Ripper Street?” “Call the Midwife?” “Parade’s End?” For God’s sake, at least “Doctor Who? EVERYONE watches ‘Doctor Who” The unbearably awkward situation typically continues until I shout, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN ‘SHERLOCK’?!”
At this point both parties think the other crazier than what the Daily Mail tries to pass off as news.
To be fair to my fellow Americans they are typically familiar with “Downton Abbey.” It lends itself to bridging the gap due to it being so popular on both sides of the Atlantic that the Washington Post emailed all subscribers the day after it aired in the UK (months prior to it making its way to PBS in the US) an uncut spoiler so huge that many neglected to tune in when it did finally air here. “Downton” however, hits a comfort spot for US viewers; it personifies what we still think England is today- a land of aristocracy and servants where people dress for dinner, marry their cousins, and drink copious amounts of tea. It’s much the same way as when I studied abroad there years back and one of the first five questions locals asked was, “Do you have a gun?” It’s perfect for the continued promulgation of Anglo-American stereotypes. The fact that it balances beautiful sets, First World War era fashion, back stabbing, and witty banter overlaid with a veneer of day-time soap opera plots, gives it a prime recipe to resonate here and abroad.
“Downton” it is but a drop in the bucket of the gems of British TV. Although I do have to put a resounding caveat here – while some British TV is the stuff of genius -is so far and away better than anything on air in the States that it is shameful- the rest of it however, is some of the biggest crap you’ll ever watch. Try channel surfing in the UK when your favorite shows are on hiatus, and all you’ll find is a never-ending supply of “Family Guy,” “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” football, and bizarre “Sims”-esque children’s cartoons entirely in Welsh. Some days the biggest highlight is a live-stream from the floor of Parliament.
When it is good though, it’s simply brilliant. “Top Gear” a show that at a later date I will write sonnets to, is one of the best shows on TV, hands down. It takes grumpy middle-aged men, hands them super cars and let’s them do whatever the fuck they want. Sometimes you get useful information about cars (or rants about flappy-paddle gear boxes), and you sure as hell get a look at their limitations, but more often than not it’s a comedy of the absurd. Turn a caravan into a Zepplin? Sure. Race a fighter plane against a Bugatti Veyron? Check. Play hatchback rugby on the pitch at Twickenham stadium? Why not. Plastering “Eat English Muff” on a train in India? Launching a Rocket propelled Reliant Red Robin? You name it, they’ve done it, and through a clever use of complete ineptitude, stupefyingly dry wit, incredible cars, and the combination of teenage boy impropriety and old-man stodginess, created the most watched show in the world.
While a debate on the merits of Stephen Moffat verses Russel T. Davies’ “Doctor Who” (current and former head “Who” honchos) must be saved for another day, it cannot be argued that Moffat’s modern adaptation of “Sherlock,” with fellow Doyle nerd Mark Gatiss, has redefined what it means to produce quality programming (even if it only has three episodes per series, once every eighteen months). For one, it’s clever. With Sherlock’s lightning fast deductions, rapier tongue, and often obscure reference, the show revels in not only boggling, but actively confusing its audience. It operates from the perspective that if you’re not smart enough to keep up, well, that’s your problem.
As Irene Adler (played by the deliciously flirty Lara Pulver) says to Sherlock in “A Scandal in Belgravia,” “Brainy is the new sexy,” and nothing personifies that better than Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock. The cutting public school tenor of his voice, the forty page monologue deductions delivered faster than most can say their name, and the absurd facial expressions capturing fifteen different emotions that can only fully be appreciate via. gifs, result in an entire performance of him literally and figuratively utterly blowing you away, and after having the main character insult you for not keeping up, you’re begging for more and ejaculating “Fantastic!” even more than John Watson.
Yes, there is “Elementary,” another modern adaptation of Holmes and Watson, which debuted in the States last fall changing fantastic deductive reasoning into your average (and dull) New York crime show. I tried to put my “every show stolen from the UK and re-made in the US is terrible” prejudices aside, but within 15 minutes I was so offended by how obvious everything was, so abhorred by how much the writing was “dumbed down” for American audiences, and so absurdly bored that I never went back.
The fact is, I desperately want to be challenged when I watch TV. I want a program that doesn’t assume I’m an idiot and therefore lowers itself to the lowest common denominator. That’s not to say that there isn’t a purpose to trashy television, bad teen dramas, or that my personal taste in movies doesn’t lend more toward the loud, violent, and action-packed. The difference is, I can play on the Internet, read a book, write a paper, and carry-on a conversation while those play in the background. But when any of my favorite British shows are queued up on Netflix or BBC America, I can’t look away. From Graham Norton’s chat show which takes such little bullshit from anyone that with a shrug of his shoulders and bitchy remark, Norton can make even the most hardened of Hollywood douche bags look like socially awkward children; to the poignancy and heartache of “Call the Midwife” looking at 1950s childbirth in the East End of London, I’m riveted. I’m intrigued. I can’t, and won’t, multitask because unlike most shows in the States, I’m engaged.
In the coming weeks I’ll be writing about some of my favorite British shows, from those off the air like “Coupling” and “Monarch of the Glenn” to ongoing series such as my beloved “Top Gear” and “Doctor Who.” So for my fellow Anglophiles, keep checking-in, for the rest of you, well, everyone always needs a new Netflix show to marathon…