TV UK, 14 June

The Law had 'pilot' written all over it.

Dolan Cummings

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On The Simpsons (Sky One) last week, Bart told Homer that Steven Bochco (creator of NYPD Blue) could kick Shakespeare’s ass.

It is a bold claim, but however Buffy measures up to the Bard, it is probably fair to say that US television drama has established itself as the major artistic form of our time. The latest example to come to the UK is Six Feet Under (Channel 4, Mondays at 11.10pm).

Six Feet Under is quite reminiscent of The Sopranos. It too is essentially a family drama, and while the superficial glamour of mobsterdom is absent – this is a show about a family of undertakers – two of The Sopranos’ central themes, sex and death, are cleverly retained. Incidentally, the use of fantasy (imagined characters, voices and snippets of action) is no longer a quirk of Ally McBeal, but has become established as part of the form.

The opening episode of Six Feet Under, based around the family’s reunion for Christmas, established the two brothers, David and Nate, who seem to be diametrically opposed both temperamentally and philosophically. David is uptight and conventional, and feels responsible for the family business. While he put off his law degree to work with his father, his unshaven older brother Nate ran off to find himself, and now helps run some sort of health food company in Seattle.

Nate learned of his father’s death immediately after having sex with a strange (and neurotic) woman in a closet at the airport. Meanwhile, David’s homosexuality only gives him something else to be uptight about. Their mother’s revelation that she had been having an affair brought about a partial role reversal. David was horrified by his mother’s lack of decorum, and just wanted her to shut up, while Nate became the ‘good son’, offering a shoulder to cry on, and encouraging his mother to bawl like a Sicilian peasant at the funeral. It was a neat expression of changing assumptions about what it means to be a good person, a standard preoccupation of American TV drama.

All summer on the cable and satellite channel Hallmark (yes, from the made-up holiday greetings card company), there is an American cop triple bill every night from 8pm, with Law and Order, Homicide: Life on the Street and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. (No, I don’t have a girlfriend, as it happens. What made you ask?)

The Law (ITV last Wednesday) was clearly modelled on Law and Order, with the police investigation in the first half followed by prosecution in court in the second, with the Met standing in for the NYPD, and the CPS for the DA’s Office. This British contribution to the genre didn’t start well. In the first scene, we were introduced to a cardboard cutout grizzled DI and a cardboard cutout graduate fast-track DS. When the former growled at the latter, ‘I’m a policeman, not a ballerina’, I was reminded of Spooks, the BBC’s answer to 24, which is fast developing ‘so bad it’s good’ appeal. The story itself was not bad, though – a doctor was murdered, probably by his wife, but the cops went for a prostitute instead – it would have made a good Special Victims Unit episode.

While The Law had ‘pilot’ written all over it, the programme was billed as a one-off drama. The older detective clearly has something going on in his private life, but we never found out what, and perhaps never will. British networks seem reluctant to commit to drama in the way the Americans do. Shakespeare, like Steven Bochco, was a formidable businessman as well as an artist. Until British broadcasters are willing to invest time and money in drama, the Americans will continue to kick ass.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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