By Liz Stark
While the TV world spent this week salivating over smoke monsters and temples, my anxiety about the status of my Oxford application manifested itself in a return to British telly programming. A few hours of “Skins” and “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” later, I had to ask myself: why is British TV so freaking awesome?
Admittedly, I’m not at all familiar with what is probably Britain’s most significant contribution to the television universe, “Doctor Who” and its innumerable spinoffs. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for British forays into TV dramedy. Everyone knows that NBC’s “The Office” is a pretty people’s adaptation of the “British Office” and that Ricky Gervais brought “Extras” and troves of celebrity guest stars to America. But what is there to see on British TV besides Ricky and sci-fi? I’m glad you asked.
First there is “Skins,” now in its fourth season. “Skins” tells the story of a group of teenagers in a London public school (in England, the word public actually means private school, but for this article I’ll work off of the American usage). Each episode focuses on a different character, showing us his or her home life as well as his or her interactions with the rest of the ensemble cast. Highlights of the cast include low self-esteem Michelle, clarinetist Jal, crazy Chris and anorexic Cassie.
The forward motion of the plot coexists with examination of character, resulting in one of the most well-constructed television narrative concepts I’ve seen. Having nine main characters enables the writers to change up couples and friendships without upsetting the balance of the show or frustrating the fan base (I’m looking at you, “Gossip Girl”). The first season is by far the strongest, in part because the second season has to address the ramifications of the first season cliffhanger and has to show the gang preparing for university. In the third season, we meet the “new generation,” which centers on Effy, the younger sister of Tony, who was at the center of the first two seasons. Effy is the strong silent type, and the spontaneity that defined her guest appearances in the first generation casts her as the leader of the new crew. For example, the love triangle between Effy, Freddie and Cook in Season Three is much more believable than that of Tony, Michelle and Sid in earlier seasons. The fourth season began just last week, but it’s already off to an intense start.
One strength of the British programs is their ability to incorporate issues like drugs, sex and psychological disorders without being overwrought or separating them from the normal pace of the show. So often in American TV, drugs and sex suffer from the dreaded montage, and characters with mental issues are not trusted to carry an episode, let alone a show itself. Maybe the British equivalent of the FCC is less strict, or the small size of the island and centrality of London make these subjects less taboo than in America.
Another example of this is “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” the title of which is pretty self-explanatory. “Call Girl” is rebroadcast on Showtime in America, but in England, it is an original program on a channel that broadcasts “American Idol,” “Gossip Girl” and “The Vampire Diaries.” You would never see Showtime programming on Fox or the CW alongside these shows, particularly “Call Girl.” I respect “Call Girl” for its presentation of nudity and sex from a female perspective, not unlike “Sex and the City,” and for its ability to have a sexually emboldened female protagonist who isn’t as grating as any of the “SATC” women. The pitfall of making Belle, the call girl in question, so intriguing and likeable in her call girl life is that Hannah, her real life identity, and her subplots about straddling (zing!) the two worlds are inherently dull. The set up of the guy friend who could be a boyfriend, the madame and the uninformed family is a little hackneyed, but I’m always so impressed with the performance of Billie Piper as Belle and the show’s subtlety in dialogue and design.
My sunny portrait of British TV may be a product of “the grass is always greener” syndrome, but the popularity of these two programs in particular suggests to me that the British can afford to take creative risks with the content of their shows. When you add to this the fact that the British gave us “American Idol” and will be responsible for its demise when Simon leaves “AI” to work on another British import, how can you not fall a little more in love with the British accents and the TV shows that showcase them?