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House of Cards

American telly: overrated?

Time Out dares to think the unthinkable about US television

By Phil Harrison

‘Being Human’. ‘Shameless’. ‘The Office’. ‘House of Cards’. ‘Cracker’. What do these, and countless other shows, have in common? They’re all British TV hits which have been remade for a US audience. BBC2’s new documentary series ‘America in Primetime’ highlights the fact that this is a long-standing tradition – proto-Tea Party icon Archie Bunker was Americanising Alf Garnett’s comedy bigotry as long ago as 1971.

So why do we genuflect before American TV? Once, it was the exoticism of the unfamiliar. Daisy Duke’s Daisy Dukes. James Crockett’s white suit and slip-ons. The unearthly poise and charisma of Arthur Fonzarelli – although if the Fonz was really that cool, what on earth he was doing hanging out with losers like Ralph Malph?

Still, if Fonzie proved anything, it was that all heroes find a shark to launch themselves over in the end. During the ’90s, UK TV entered a mini golden age while America stood still. But it turned out that the Yanks were just clearing their collective throat – because the following decade produced the most obvious immediate sources of our apparent inferiority complex.

However, this century’s small screen US gamechangers (‘The Sopranos’, ‘The Wire’ et al) came about as a result of a single company’s hot streak and others following in its wake. For HBO, now read DR in Denmark – it needn’t say anything about a nation’s overall output when one channel or organisation gets on a creative roll. These days, we’re as familiar with American culture as we are with our own. We see more American TV than ever. And we generally assume that it will be better than ours.

But it hardly ever is. Take documentaries. Exposure to the current multitude of digital channels reveals that US docs can be divided into two types: the overblown, impossibly-pleased-with-its-own-significance school as seen on the History or Discovery channels; or the painstakingly high-minded PBS model which lasts for five hours and suggests that everyone involved has a PhD and is hellbent on using it. Sitcoms? Well, for every ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, there are numerous ‘Two and a Half Men’ – bewilderingly successful exercises in mediocrity. The current affairs output? Let’s not even go there.

British TV has, for several years now, been cowed – awed, even – by the HBO model. And why not? A wake-up call never hurts. But what Alan Yentob’s ‘America in Primetime’ documentary series really brings home is that HBO and the companies it inspired are the exceptions rather than the rule. For the most part, the UK makes the TV weather. Just as it always has.

America in Primetime’ begins Saturday April 20, 10.15pm.

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