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When it comes to Brit television, you don’t know what you’re missing

By Bert Ehrmann

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Fort Wayne Reader

2005-02-21


When you watch as much television as I do, you sort of come to the realization that the current American television schedule isn't enough. It's not that American shows are boring or uninteresting, it's just that in a given week there's not nearly enough good shows to fill a viewers’ busy schedule. Of course, if you're into shows like The Apprentice, Celebrity Dog Makeover or Celebrity Dog Apprentice then maybe there is enough television for you. But if you're like me and shun reality TV, then you may be lacking things to watch.

But don’t fret; I think I've found a solution to the massive television shortage dilemma – Great Britain. With satellite television available nationwide, as well as seemingly every television show known to man being released onto DVD, hidden gems from our tea-bag brothers and sisters can now be enjoyed by millions on this side of the pond.

But be aware, Brit shows differ from American ones in that their seasons are incredibly short when compared to American ones. American dramas have up to twenty-four episodes in a single season. In Great Britain, seasons are sometimes measured in as little as four or six episodes. If you do the math the entire run of a show like Friends (I feel dirty for even mentioning that word) had more than 230 episodes over ten seasons whereas a Brit show run might only be sixteen or twenty episodes over four seasons.

But the question that begs to be asked is which shows are the best of the best?

(Intentionally left off the list are classics like Doctor Who, Monty Python and Red Dwarf. There's a reason these shows are considered "classics".)

First up, watch The Office (covered in many, many issues of the Fort Wayne Reader), airing sometimes on BBC America with all three seasons available on DVD. Also airing on BBC America and available on DVD is the comedy classic Coupling. Coupling follows six single Londoners who's paths cross at a bar one night uniting them as friends. Each episode of Coupling deals with the more humorous aspects of life and dating with a skewed sense of humor, and follows the Seinfeld formula for comedic success; whatever can go wrong does.

Last television season NBC tried unsuccessfully to translate Coupling's unique brand of sexual humor to American audiences and failed miserably. Whereas the stories told within the Brit version of Coupling played out in a more natural way over thirty minutes, here these same stories were compressed into an unimaginably short nineteen minutes. Stories felt compressed and whole jokes and sub-plots were cut out of the American version leading to a non-funny hodgepodge of boring storylines.

On a related note, NBC is planning on translating The Office into their own American version entitled The Office: An American Workplace set to hit television screens this March.

Also sometimes airing on BBC America is the drama State of Play. State of Play focuses on a newspaper reporter in London who might have just stumbled across the story of his life. This reporter is able to connect two seemingly unrelated deaths together. And these deaths just might be linked to his friend and former boss, a politician working at the highest levels of the government. (Think All the President’s Men but with a 21st century sensibility.)

State of Play is one of those neat shows that has the viewer guessing "who done it" right up until the end. I found myself unable to figure out the direction State of Play was headed and was awestruck as to the brilliance of the ending.

Once again in an attempt to improve on perfection, this time it’s American movie producers eyeing to State of Play for “the big screen”.

One of the early Brit shows that initially got me interested in other country’s television programs was Traffik. I became interested in Traffik after watching the feature film Traffic (2000), which I leaned, was a remake of the Brit Traffik. (Whew, that’s a lot of Traffic, “Dear Mr. Fantasy” anyone?)

Traffik follows the flow of illegal drugs, here heroin, from Pakistan and Afghanistan to mainland Europe and Great Britain. The story of Traffik is told from many different points of view, from anti-drug cops operating in Germany, to drug producers in the Middle East and even to a heroin addicted daughter of a politician living in London. Here, the web of the drug problem is revealed, how the poppy fields of Pakistan are linked all the way to the North Sea.

The American remake Traffic was very good, taking the multiple perspectives of drug trafficking and applying them to the Americas. Here, Mexico stands in for Pakistan and the suburban streets of Pennsylvania fill in for London. Traffic/Traffik offer up no easy solutions to the drug problem and raise more questions than they answer.

Probably my all-time favorite Brit show is The Sandbaggers, a sort of anti-James Bond spy-drama set in late 1970’s/early 1980’s Britain. The Sandbaggers are a specialized agency working for the Brit government, tasked with operating overseas at the height of the Cold War. Sandbagger missions vary from picking up papers from allies operating behind the Iron Curtin to assassinating one of their own when it appears they might want to go over to “the other side.” Anything’s possible.

Violence in the show is told in a realistic manner. Gunfights occur over the span of a few seconds and death is never expected. In one instance, a Sandbagger is shot in the stomach during a “lift” in Bulgaria only to face the prospect of painfully bleeding to death in a safe house when it becomes impossible to rescue him. It’s like real life; sometimes there’s no rescue and you die all alone.

The Sandbaggers is HBO good; I don’t know what better I can say about the show. All three seasons of The Sandbaggers are available on DVD.

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