Saturday, 12 July 2008

Great American television that did not find, or has not yet found, an audience in the UK (Part 1)

For better or worse, British television screens are awash with American imports. But for every 24, Friends and Desperate Housewives there are many other shows that failed to establish an audience across the Atlantic, including many that garnered vociferous praise from critics and/or great popularity with American audiences.


By no means obscure, the fact remains that Seinfeld never found an audience in Britain. Just for the purposes of comparison, 76.3 million Americans watched the last ever episode of the show in 1998. That represented a 58% share of all television viewers, and even more staggeringly, 28% of the entire population of the country at the time. In its last four seasons only ER occasionally beat it in the ratings. In Britain however the scheduling for the show, initally on BBC2, was lethally erratic. As a result it never found a consistent audience, despite the reports from across the Atlantic of its growing success.

It has been regularly described as “a show about nothing” - a description which arose out of an episode in which two characters pitch a sitcom idea to NBC executives which is essentially their own version of Seinfeld (this use of a mise en abyme is rather characteristic of the show, the writers often toyed with postmodern touches and meta-humour). However this description does not really do the show justice, as it quite clearly has a strong focus – modern urban life, and inextricable frustrations that accompany it. In Seinfeld this extends from the grand narratives of romance, social mores and working life, to minutiae such as cinema queues, sandwich fillings and appropriate dinner party conversation.

Rather than constantly quipping, the characters actually hold conversations, talking about what real friends do – absolute nonsense. American audiences identified with this sense of realism, imbued by the real sounding dialogue and the ludicrous pastiche of moments which make up the oft-absurd, but utterly believable characters' lives. Certainly if it was not for the erratic scheduling Seinfeld would have undoubtedly recreated its American successes on this side of the Atlantic.

For me the real appeal of the show lies in the characters. It features what must be the finest sitcom character of all-time – George Costanza, played by Jason Alexander. Essentially a boiled-down, hyped-up version of writer Larry David (now known as the writer-star of Curb Your Enthusiasm, playing a near identical character to George), mired in neurosis and insecurity, George finds himself constantly at odds with modern life - for him, every situation has the potential to frustrate and confuse. He is in a way, quite a British sitcom archetype – a failure and an idiot, but wholly sympathetic at the same time.

The Colbert Report (2005-)

A spin-off of sorts from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (which is on weekdays at 8.30pm on More4, and also available on the official website to view for free), The Colbert Report satirises American personality-driven news shows that rely on narcissistic demagoguery over a fair, balanced account and discussion of the news. Anyone familiar with ridiculous Bill O’Reilly and his Fox News vehicle The O’Reilly Factor will know exactly the kind of show Colbert has in his sights.

The conceit of the show is simple – comedian Stephen Colbert plays a character of the same name which he describes as a “well-intentioned, poorly informed high-status idiot,” a vicious parody of the aforementioned right-wing commentator character, taken to absurd levels - rigid in his aversion to the facts, immovably right-wing and simultaneously idiotic and egomaniacal.

Four nights a week Colbert tears through the day’s news through the narrow prism of this brilliantly realised character to hilarious effect. A particular highlight are the combative interviews that end each show where he attempts to “nail” interviewees, accusing them, irrespective of their various leanings, backgrounds and occupations of not supporting the President, anti-Americanism or even worse, liberalism.

Given its parody of a very American media culture, and focus on American domestic affairs it is understandable that the show has had little appeal for British audiences. However the strength of Colbert’s character, and the excellent writing hold more than enough appeal for anyone with anything more than a fleeting interest in American politics. FX has just started to air the show in the UK, at 11.00 pm Tuesday – Friday. Incidentally, The Colbert Report, like its father show The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, is available to watch for free on the official site, which can be found here.

This is part 1 of 2.



jamie said...

'You've got shikksappeal.
jewish men love the idea of meeting a woman that's not like their mother.'

Classic Georgie boy.

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