Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why Is British Dramatic Television (At Its Best) Better Than American Dramatic Television (At Its Best)?

I've been watching a lot of British drama recently, and loving so much of it: Cracker, Prime Suspect, Spooks (MI-5 in the U.S.), Wire in the Blood, Inspector Morse. I have loved much American drama as well, like CSI, Criminal Minds, 24 and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, but when I stack the Brits against the Yanks, the Brits win for quality. In fact, MI-5 might be the best show I have ever watched for quality over time. I've watched the first seven seasons and loved each one (thank you Harry Pearce). For a short series, I still love the Prisoner - another British show. What makes British drama so much better at the top tier?

I'm guessing it has something to do with the number of shows they are expected to produce each season. MI-5, for example, has only had 10 shows in its busiest seasons. Some of the British shows have a pre-planned limited run. The Prisoner had 17 episodes, and there were never more expected. In the States, we see shows with 22-26 episodes a year. This allows and forces the UK producers to use their resources wisely.

Another factor is the risks they take in the UK. In MI-5, there is no guarantee that the character you love will be around in the next episode - even in the middle of the season. The Prisoner is one big "risk."

Finally, British shows combine character and plot in a way the US never seems to even attempt. Cracker has great plot, and a lead who is an obnoxious alcoholic. In Wire in the Blood, one of the leads identifies more with serial killers than his colleagues. In the U.S., producers seem to choose either character or plot. Law & Order survived so long because it would replace a character with another without caring about the inner-personalities of either. When Sam Watterston came on board, he was introduced as a womanizer, but that didn't really go anywhere. What made Criminal Intent so good was D'Onofrio's character together with good plotting. But even there, the personal lives of the characters were of very little interest to the writers.

Now comedy - that's a whole different story.