The US: ‘smarting up’ popular culture

The plane-crash tropical island show Lost might be over, but US drama is still taking off – and the UK should take heed.

David Bowden

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There’s been an odd air of fin de siècle for US television drama in the past few weeks. Some of the previous decade’s big TV phenomena have joined The Wire and The Sopranos in the great DVD box set in the sky.

Amongst them was the tropical island mystery Lost, which aired for a final time last week. While hardcore fans looking for an answer to the show’s many enigmas were bursting with excitement, the larger bulk of the viewing public had long since got bored by Lost’s endlessly tantalising plot twists. Those who tuned in for the finale discovered that nothing was really explained at all.

Meanwhile, Sunday will see the UK-showing of the final episode of high-octane drama 24, after eight series of maverick CIA agent Jack Bauer fighting off various threats to American security whilst never needing the loo. Time has also been called on slightly less successful, but much-loved, shows such as Heroes and time-travel thriller FlashForward.

Nothing has confounded cultural critics over the past few years as much as the good old idiot box. At the turn of the millennium, television was still held as the vanguard of the vulgarisation of culture: the masses seemed hell-bent on a trajectory of asinine reality shows, Friends rip-offs and the sugar-rush inanities of MTV. For UK viewers, the launch of a fifth terrestrial network, Five, in 1997 – which its controller once self-knowingly described as built on a bedrock of ‘films, football and fucking’ – seemed to summarise the pessimism which surrounded television. The success of Big Brother only seemed to confirm the entrenchment of dumbed-down culture.

While it would be unwise to labour the point – one reviewer has noted that the top-rated shows of the decade confirm many of these prejudices – there is no denying the fightback of serious US drama. Can you remember much great American drama from the Nineties? There was Twin Peaks, which premiered in 1990, and The X-Files. But America didn’t seem to take the world very seriously in those heady end-of-history times: its greatest cultural successes were comedies such as The Simpsons and Seinfeld (and let’s not forget how much early episodes of Friends imitated the smart, sophisticated humour of great Manhattanite comedy) or wry, ironic takes on familiar formats, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

While the traditional high arts were left floundering as they endlessly sought audiences through dumbing down and trying to be ‘relevant’, TV – the most frivolous and relevant format of them all – faced the threat of DVD and multi-channel programming by embracing that old-fashioned concept of complexity. The rebirth of American drama cannot simply be dismissed by insisting that 9/11 changed everything: The Sopranos and Six Feet Under began life by the turn of the decade, while David Simon’s underrated precursor to The Wire – the more straightforward, traditional Homicide: Life On The Street – premiered in 1993.

UK drama, it is frequently noted, has been left floundering. Despite its phenomenally rich heritage of innovative TV dramatists – Dennis Potter, Alan Bleasdale and the like – there remains a refusal to invest properly in thoughtful and engaging drama. While many point out that this is because programmes like Lost have incredibly high production values, others would, not unreasonably, counter that Britain has successfully exported comedy shows such as The Office. And intelligent dialogue and characterisation does not necessarily come with a higher price tag than laughter.

More pertinently, British TV producers only seem to be able to do serious dramas with extreme self-awareness. While Stephen Poliakoff produced the excellent Shooting The Past, for example, it seems unlikely the budget would’ve been given to his later insipid, navel-gazing work by anyone other than the worthy BBC. When you consider that the most successful dramatist of the decade – Paul State of Play Abbott – cut his teeth on shows such as Cracker, you are reminded that ‘challenging’ and ‘popular’ were not always mutually exclusive terms.

That a large audience may respond well to intelligent drama is not lost on the makers of American shows such as Deadwood or True Blood, for example. Appropriately enough, it is Five USA, a digital offshoot of Five, which is screening the latest promising US import, Sons of Anarchy, which premiered on Thursday. It follows a Hells Angels-style biker gang as they fight for control of their backwater town against rival immigrant and white supremacist gangs.

From the makers of the underrated cop procedural The Shield, Sons of Anarchy offers a violent but ambiguous portrayal of redneck dinosaurs fighting for their way of life in the face of uncertainty over their own future and growing menace from their rivals. Queer As Folk‘s Charlie Hunnam even manages a passable accent as our chief anti-hero, compared to his legendarily preposterous version of a West Ham hooligan in Brit shocka Green Street.

Whether Sons of Anarchy is the next Wire remains to be seen. But whether it achieves critical acclaim or early cancellation, it is difficult to imagine UK drama attempting that level of ambition, or being prepared to challenge the audience with such a conceit. Lost may be over, but great US drama is only hitting its stride.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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