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10 On TV Drama: UK versus US


Many thanks to the one person a week average who has emailed me over the last couple of months, telling me that my “10 on TV Drama” series has only 9 articles. I had noticed, ta: it was all part of a deliberate plan. Honest. Basically I wanted to see how the latest series of CSI and Waking The Dead would pan out before concluding this series in the hope that it would help me decide, once and for all, how I feel about the state of UK drama versus the US model.

It’s been discussed many times in The Blogosphere and the general consensus of opinion *seems* to be (at least in the blogs I hang out on regularly) that the US do it better. I’ve read that Bloggers feel the UK have too few writers writing too many programmes; that we’re choking in admin; that we should have a US-style writers’ room system; that UK drama is underwritten; that we don’t spend enough money on adult UK drama; that series runs should be longer; that initiatives like The BBC Writers’ Academy is keeping new people out and doing veteran writers out of jobs; that we don’t celebrate diversity or new writers enough; even that most drama in the UK is just plain drivel.

I am not a professional television writer, so I do not feel I can comment on the politics of television drama because I have not experienced them first hand nor had them impact my writing. However I have watched thousands of hours of television and responded to them as a both an audience member AND a writer, so I will talk about that instead with reference to CSI and Waking The Dead.

So, Warrick is dead. I actually already knew that thanks to the 40 people a day surfing in here over the last couple of weeks via Google looking for “Warrick’s death spoilers” or variant. Thanks for that. However, it was inevitable: I’d already figured that Gary Dourdan’s real life arrest for drugs surely meant his days were numbered. CSI and its offshoots have a long history of putting its characters in jeopardy for the end series finale (Sara in the last one courtesy of The Dollshouse Killer; Nick in the one before that, buried alive; Mac and his friends in CSI:NY taken over by terrorists; Horatio’s revenge in Miami are just a few examples). Yet I’m struggling to think of one that’s actually died, so it made a welcome change that SOMEONE in the team finally bought it. How paradoxically unlucky AND lucky are these guys??

And that’s just it: Warrick is TOO lucky I think. From the offset, he has behaved as “recklessly and self destructive” as the interrogating police officer points out during the episode, yet he never comes to book for it. When he succeeded in getting Holly killed, right at the beginning of CSI, Grissom is told to get rid of Warrick, terminate his contract. He says no. Why? “He’s a good CSI.” That’s lovely, but he’s also “reckless and self destructive” and even a rogue as it turns out, going behind the department’s back by hiring the PI as we discovered in last night’s episode. And guess what: this behaviour continues. Not once but TWICE this series just past Warrick has been framed for murder, yet his buddies in CSI have come to the rescue.

You know how much I love CSI and Warrick was a good character. THAT’S why I wanted his exit to have more “bite”. When Grissom became convinced that Warrick had been framed, I turned to my husband and said, “Yeah, but that’s what happened when Joanna was killed, so the twist will be this time he’s actually guilty.” I was so convinced of this, that when Grissom came in and told Warrick about the evidence and how it was all set up and Warrick hugged Grissom, crying, I was waiting for him to pull back and say something like: “Thanks for believing in me…Again. You’ve been like a father to me, (blah blah – come on they like their schmaltzy stuff in CSI don’t they??)…But it’s true. I killed Gedda.” Can you imagine? How cool would that be! One of their own ranks, a self confessed murderer! How would each of them deal with THAT bombshell??

Except it wasn’t like that. Warrick got off again, thanks to his mates (again) and whilst it was a nice touch that it was the under sherriff (we think?) who kills Warrick and not the other supposed rogue cop, it all fell rather flat for me. It sets up the next series rather inevitably too, for that will undoubtedly be its serial element – find Warrick’s killer and Gedda’s mole, but more importantly, WHY the mole turned killer to the point that poor Warrick was implicated.

And that’s a recurring problem for me with US TV characterisation: it’s like they don’t want to think badly of their characters; no matter how badly a character behaves – and Warrick really has over the years – we’re asked to understand, no matter what. It’s like the parents of the obnoxious child: “We don’t want to stifle him.” In lots of ways, it can really work; Grissom’s favouritism over Warrick in the early years in particular caused some major conflicts, especially with Catherine, yet recently that seems to have faded away – just as Warrick really steps up with his errant behaviour. Quite a few things seem to have gone the same way this series: what’s happened to Grissom’s deafness by the way? Did he have some kind of miracle cure in an episode I missed somewhere?

What I admire then about UK TV Drama is it’s not afraid to give its characters unlikable character traits. Whilst Grissom is an interesting character and team leader, ultimately it’s Trevor Eve’s character DSI Boyd as the leader of the Cold Case Team (the UK’s CSI equivalent, in effect) who really captures my attention. Why? Well, in comparison to Grissom’s geeky boyish charm, Boyd is irascible, even downright nasty sometimes. He will shout and swear, he will humiliate his staff, he will dismiss their observations, the works. As he says in Adrian Mead’s episode I think it was: “Thanks but that is not even remotely helpful.” He is, I think, THE BOSS FROM HELL. If it were real life, his staff turnover would be high on sick leave from the stress alone. In lots of ways, Boyd reminds me of Fitz, the similarly irascible and enigmatic psychologist from Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker.

Yet Boyd’s unlikable character traits are not apologised for: we’re not asked to excuse him because of any tragedy in his life (and he’s had plenty), he is just a git. But those horrible traits are contrasted against an array of other qualities and attributes. His good ones include a concern for others and fearsome bravery, rushing in to help in rescues, particularly that of women and children. But more importantly, those grey areas are included too, like his impetuous nature: his notion of “protecting” his junkie rent boy son Luke was by hanging a punter out the window for example. He can’t talk about his feelings, even to the only woman who really understands him – Grace Foley: she had to hear about Luke’s death from the team’s pathologist, a woman as cold as she is efficient.

I love many things about CSI, including Warrick, and as a character study of the whole team I think it’s brilliant as you know from this post. However, it has never involved me in the same way as Waking The Dead. It’s like characters in US TV have to be heroes, even when then they’re doing bad things – and when they can’t get themselves out of it, their best bud will. If a a character is an antagonist in US TV, then they are that from the offset it seems…Here it seems to me we have more a yin/yang thing going on, with characters evolving into antagonists, or antagonists and protagonists at the same time (like Boyd) and even back again sometimes (like Adam in Spooks).

Funnily enough, I don’t always like the stories in Waking The Dead (whereas I generally do in CSI); I can find WtD’s a bit *too* covoluted sometimes, with MacGuffins aplenty, yet the characters and their stories – usually the “smaller” serial elements – have more impact for me. This last episode of Waking the Dead, with Boyd confronted with Luke’s body at the morgue was a case in point: I cried. Like a baby. Now some of that was obviously Trevor Eve’s excellent acting – he’s always brilliant – but more than half of it was the investment in his character in the series. I BELIEVED this strong character, this guy who cannot express his feelings (unless they are irritation or anger) would be reduced to a blubbering wreck, for Luke’s death WAS his fault. Had Boyd not been so busy saving everyone else, he could have saved Luke… Yet crucially that was left unsaid.

So – which do you prefer: US or UK TV drama? Why? Just because I prefer UK Drama doesn’t mean you have to btw, all opinions welcome! Over to you…

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23 thoughts on “10 On TV Drama: UK versus US”

  1. You cow!

    You know I had CSI taped and ready for tonight cos I was on shift last night.

    Though you did post a spoilers alert that’s hardly the point, you know I cannot resist reading your alluring words.

  2. Nice try Evil, but I watched Waking The Dead on Tues and it was the REPEAT on 5 US of CSI I watched last night! You must have watched it already by now…

  3. I’ve got to vote for US drama. When they touch me they do so more deeply than UK dramas on the whole.
    I don’t watch CSI so can’t comment on that and only watch WtheD occasionally. But I can think of at least three US dramas that have moved me to cry-baby tears; House, Dexter and Battlestar Gallactica. And it’s *because* of the ruthless way in which the writers of these treat their characters. House is downright unlikeable – he has all the character traits I despise in a person (arrogance, self-obsession, rudeness, sexism/mysogyny) and yet I can’t help caring about what happens to him. And there are almost no limits on where his character gets taken – taboos broken all the time. And that’s why it’s so moving when the emotional punch comes.
    Likewise BSG – all the main characters, especially the ones we love, are deeply flawed and do some terrible, terrible things. Dammit, we even cry when the Cylons (mass-murdering non-human baddies for those who don’t watch) get mistreated and/or killed. And I care so much more about any of these characters than I do about any current UK drama (eek!).

    So that’s what I think 🙂

  4. I don’t think I have a preference one way or another. I never got into CSI and the few I’ve watched of the spin-offs (particularly Miami) have made me less inclined to do so on account of being crap. Waking the Dead I’ve always liked because of Boyd’s anger management issues, because they killed of Mel and because of the characters.

    That being said, the shows Caroline mentioned – particularly Dexter which is absolutely fantastic and I’m very much looking forward to series 2 – are excellent. Generally it would seem that US dramas have the edge: Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, The Wire, 24, Carnivale… all very good but that would be unfair to UK dramas which can also sometimes be very good (although they mostly seem to be crime dramas – Cracker, Prime Suspect, Silent Witness etc or period pieces).

    Just to put the cat amongs the pigeons, how about Band of Brothers and Rome? Collaborative UK/US dramas? They were pretty good!

    On a side note – when it comes to sitcoms and sci-fi, the US is generally so much better!

  5. Caroline – I really enjoy House and never miss it, but the characters have no resonance for me. House is so ridiculous and far fetched, he’s more spectacle for me.

    Tom – I LOVED Rome as you know and funnily enough all the UK TV dramas I really love are crime dramas too though I am very fond of Holby City (much more than Casualty). I thought this week’s ep was great, especially the echoing of Kyla’s line “I wasn’t even supposed to be in today.” And Mel’s death in WtD was an exit I’ve not seen rivalled anywhere, it was fantastic.

    As for UK/US collaboration – I think we should have more of them.

  6. UK drama or US drama? It’s easy to say US drama, because it really is better, I’m sorry to say. The money issue aside – which is what people trying to defend the crap that appears on out screens always bring up – the US shows are just better paced in terms of story. Also, I think there characters are more dynamic.

    But in its defence, this country does make two stonkingly brilliant dramas. They are of course Spooks and Waking the Dead. Of the two, the latter wins by a country mile.

    It may have started out rather formulaic, but the turnaround came when it began to concentrate on Boyd against the world. With him as The Met’s Howard Beale the show really sprang to life. So much so that in fact that I don’t even miss Claire Goose’s impressive rack being squeezed toward camera any more.

    Yes, the stories are sometimes too darn convoluted for their own good. Certainly, there have been times this series where I’ve lost track of what the hell is going on. But it just means that Boyd has another opportunity to scream and shout at his team as well as repeatedly hector the suspects. I think you’re right that the quote came from Adrian Mead’s story, which was one of Boyd’s many withering putdowns.

    This series has been even better by introducing Luke. That was just genius. I must have left a window open somewhere because that final scene appeared on the box just as I got a massive amount of dust and grit in my eye. Honest. I can’t wait to see where it leads next year.

    Coupled with his spectacular turn playing Hughie Green over on BBC4 recently, Trevor Eve is probably the best British actor or British television we have.

    As for CSI – which was the only one of the franchise that I watched – I don’t know what happened but I sort of stopped watching it regularly before the end of last season’s finale. Odd that.

  7. I hope it was the Writers’ Strike that put paid to CSI this season – apparently it was pencils down halfway through the actual writing – and I got the impression that it was floundering a bit in terms of content.

    Do you think a Boyd-style character could make it on to US screens then GD? I’m unconvinced – the US version of Cracker, FITZ, didn’t work at all I thought because everything that made him enigmatic – the biting sarcasm, the wit, the monstrous ego etc – was diluted in favour of his more favourable attributes.

  8. CSI got eleven of their seventeen episodes in before the strike shut things down.

    The US version of Cracker was in 1997. A whole lot has changed since then. Maybe the closest to biting sarcasm, wit and monstrous ego is Greg House.

    If it’s simply characters with unlikeable character traits you’ve got to start with Milch’s Detective Andy Sipowicz, brilliantly played by Dennis Franz in NYPD Blue. Actually, we could go back to David Clennon’s Machiavellian Miles Drentell in thirtysomething, but he was only a supporting character. (God, I miss that show!)

    Who else… Oh, Andre Braugher’s Frank Pembleton in Homicide: Life on the Street. Jimmy McNulty in The Wire is a complete arsehole, but we love him for it.

    Take your pick of the characters from Deadwood, but McShane’s Al Swearengen stands head and shoulders above all them marvellous cocksuckers. Then we’ve got Tony Soprano and Paulie Walnuts, Vic Mackey, Butchie Yost and Cissy Yost, while Duchovny’s Hank Moody in Calfornication practically redefined what being a complete and utter dick is. And then the Mad Men in Mad Men.

    In terms of comedy there was always Larry, Hank and Artie in The Larry Sanders Show, Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine in Seinfeld, and currrently Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

    The most interesting character to emerge from US television last year was probably Charlie Crews in Life. That’s why I stressed that Trevor Eve is probably the best British actor on British television, because Damian Lewis’ performance is just remarkable. Only eleven episodes got made before everything was shut down. Thankfully it was renewed for a second year.

  9. Interesting isn’t it that many of those American characters are played by Brit actors.

    House for me has nothing in common with Boyd though. There’s no getting away from it, House is a complete arsehole. He’s funny, cutting and speaks often nothing but truth, but I can’t empathise with him. Having said that, no apologies are made for him on the basis of his disability and that’s good. But I don’t feel like I know him or why he’s such an arsehole.

    And thanks for the link GD – I thought the American Life on Mars trailer did a better job of selling the concept to me than the Brit one now you come to mention it… Does that make me a bad person??

  10. Hmmmm. I’m detecting a pattern here…

    Have you noticed Lucy you have a tendency to want to rewrite CSI Finales? You were wanting to do the same in this post on finale of CSI:NY. Not to mention you didn’t like the pretend-kill-Grissom thing in Dollshouse one too as you point out in the CSI character post?

    Could it be that you just don’t like CSI finales?

    [Guess who is on a psych rotation, lol – it’s Mike also, not Daz]

  11. Boyd is this fantastic, unstoppable force of nature. House is… well, Sherlock Holmes with a stethoscope and, as you rightly say, a complete arsehole. That’s brilliant.

    Yeah, the US trailer for Life on Mars really explains everything, perhaps too much, but they need the audience to get it and watch it. Will they take to it?

    The drama was conceived over here by writers that wished they had been able to write for The Sweeney. That’s it really. What would be the comparable America drama? The Streets of San Francisco?

    Oddly enough, Last of the Ninth, the new drama Milch and Bill Clark are writing for HBO, is set in New York in 1972 around the time the Knapp Commission was investigating allegations of systemic police corruption.

  12. Your second paragraph neatly sums up my feelings on the issue, Lucy.

    There are twenty different reasons why US shows are superior, but purely from a writing perspective, the UK model of hiring a couple of enthusiastic amateurs, paying them less that the on-set caterers and then hoping for a miracle is not a formula that works.

    The result, typically, is material that’s rushed and underwritten.

    Within a series, it also leads to huge inconsistencies from episode to episode as the work is farmed out to a succession of desperate freelancers (will you get cross if I mention Torchwood again?).

    And on those rare occasions when lightning strikes, the writers are stretched so thin that they quickly run out of ideas.

    Take the example of The Office.

    In the UK, a production trainee and a DJ get lucky and create a genuine hit. But two guys in a bedsit can only produce so much decent material. They’re out of ideas almost immediately and the BBC’s biggest comedy hit in a decade extends to precisely 12 episodes and a Christmas special.

    Meanwhile the format sells to NBC, they hire a proper writing team of maybe a dozen people, the show becomes a big primetime success and it’s still going strong after 70 episodes.

    If UK broadcasters want to compete with the best imports, they have to start making a similar level of investment in writing. But there’s not much sign of it happening.

  13. Too many typos in that one, here you go again!
    I was wondering when you were going to join the party J&C, you’re late!

    As I always say, there’s always another interpretation: I happen to think the Office will go down in history BECAUSE there weren’t so many episodes – just like Fawlty Towers etc. Less is more and all that. I think Brit broadcasters realise that you CAN have too much of a good thing (perhaps only as an afterthought, end result is still the same).

    As for rivalling imports, we can still do that and I think we do. Whilst there’s loads on telly I don’t like or simply wouldn’t watch, I’ve always thought of TV as like fishing: you may get hooked – or not. Just cos you don’t like a programme doesn’t necessarily mean it’s crap, but even if it IS drivel, if it gets 9m viewers it has to be doing something right – 9 million people are getting *something* out of it. How can that be bad?

    Dr Who and Torchwood come under fire frequently it seems and I’m not either show’s number 1 fan as everyone knows, but adults, kids and families love it and an episode like Blink has got a BAFTA even. If that means TV is in a sorry state audience-appreciation-wise, I don’t get why.

    And I would hardly call the likes of James Moran, Chris Chibnall or Catherine Tregenna “desperate freelancers”. I think every one of them (and the others) did an excellent job on Torchwood and deserve their success – and they’re hardly scrabbling about looking for work now, as James’ blog shows – damn him, gouge out his eyes!*

    The politics of behind-the-scenes TV may suck – the politics of anything generally do. But we’re in an age of TV I think where broadcasters are FINALLY beginning to take a few risks: would we have had ASHES TO ASHES etc ten years ago? I don’t think so – it was all gritty realist kitchen sink drama or crime.

    Just my 2p’s worth, anyway! : )

    *No really, we can take him!

  14. My opinion hasn’t changed: UK drama, when it’s good. US dramas have too many episodes per series, all the episodes feel the same like they’ve come out of some sort of drama blander, and they don’t end but are driven into the ground: I watched Without a Trace for a series and a half before stopping because why do I want to watch the same story again and again and again every week?

    In the US, it’s all about the formula; in the UK, there’s at least the chance to do something different, and sometimes that produces gold (like Conviction), sometimes has mixed results (Five Days) and sometimes, yes, it’s awful, but at least if it’s awful it’s over in six to eight weeks and the next one’s along. A US series takes up twenty-two episodes every year for possibly ten years of completely indistinguishable formula. And because they (the good ones anyway) are usually written by one person, they don’t have to smooth all the edges off in order to allow interchangable writing teams.

    SO: UK all the way. Say no to writing teams and ‘showrunners’, yes to just commissioning a good writer for five to ten episode, letting them get on with it, and then ending it rather than milking it dry.

  15. I’ll second that SK, I’m highly dubious of the benefits of team writing to the UK. I should stress I’m not 100% against it, I’m just not sure we need it. It works in the US and that’s great, but that doesn’t mean it would transfer across her easily. I’m also not a big fan of the 22 ep run, 10-12 is enough for me and I think it is for a lot of people: better to end a series with a fan wanting more. So why have a team?

  16. Does it ‘work’ in the US, though? For comedy, okay, maybe. But think of any US drama programme, take one series and I’ll bet that out of twenty-two or so episodes there’s five or six that you’ll remember. The rest is just filler, product that is exuded from the writing room just to keep people watching.

    People talk about them taking that time to ‘build characters’, but they don’t. The characters just do the same things week after week after week: House is sarcastic, week in, week out. Lex Luthor is devious. Horatio Caine cares deeply. Maybe half a dozen times a series, if that, they delve deeper into a character. The rest is just reiterating what we’ve already seen: drumming it into our heads so that it takes up brainspace, so that we think these characters are our friends, so that it wins mindshare so that, ultimately, we watch the ads and buy the DVDs.

    Which is proved when you consider that the US doesn’t do the best sci-fi. The best modern sci-fi series was Ultraviolet, and it was a perfect six episodes long. Six episodes, each one of which explored a different aspect of the premise and the team, and which ended when it had gone as far as it could go. If it had been a US series it would have been dragged out two twenty-two episodes going over the same ground as those six, and then a second series would have been made despite there being nowhere to go… and then a third, and a fourth, and so on until it was finally put out of its misery.

  17. I think familiarity can breed contempt too, SK. It’s no accident that over the years I’ve fallen in love with various shows – ER’s a case in point, I LOVED that show! – only to lose interest a few seasons later. Perhaps the same is happening to me now re: CSI.

    But I don’t think we can US TV so easily. They are excellent what they do; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t sell their series all over the world. It’s what the people want.

    But I do think the UK do it better. It’s less formulaic, it’s more complicated – and because the writer charged with the episode is given more of a personal rein on the idea behind it often, they actually CARE how it turns out and is received. Even soap opera writers are encouraged to put their stamp on storylines I’m told. Writers Room guys doing the same? I’m not so convinced.

  18. Oh, yes, they are excellent at what they do. But what they do is produce product to either be sold itself, or to sell adverts to punters.

    To do that, they do produce good drama; but the good drama is a means to an end. The good drama is the ‘hook’ that reels viewers in; then they are immersed in sheer amount of product, so it worms its way into their lives.

    They know what they are trying to do and, often, they hit their target with laser-guided precision; but what they are trying to do is sell AA batteries, electricity that’s been bottled into a form that is safe, managed, predictable, long-lasting. Whereas I want my drama to be lightning: dangerous, unpredictable, short-lived and as likely to strike in the wrong place as the right. But beautiful, natural and meaningful rather than manufactured to tolerances on an assembly line.

  19. Interesting post but I’m not convinced any fan of US drama would choose CSI as the best representative? It wouldn’t even be on my substitutes bench. For network TV it would be Life or House.

    In every US showrunner interview I’ve read, they also emphasise the importance of getting people with unique voices and you can tell those voices apart if you pay attention.

    I honestly can’t see “less formulaic” and “more complicated” as virtues. They’re both euphemisms for not being able to tell a story.

    What is often considered formula is actually structure. People often call House formulaic because every week he gets a case and tries to solve it, think he has but fails but then ends up solving it. But there are so many story variations in that because of the characters and specifics of the mystery.

    Several years after it’s started it’s still fresh because of the strong regular characters and their relationships and the fresh guest stories.

    House is in constant pain which explains his personality. I think everyone should watch the amazing two part season finale.

    I don’t care what the overall quality of Waking the Dead is like in comparison with other UK drama but if intelligent people find it hard to follow then that is simply self-indulgent bad storytelling.

    Complex characters are hard, complicated plots are easy.

  20. “I honestly can’t see “less formulaic” and “more complicated” as virtues. They’re both euphemisms for not being able to tell a story.”

    Or, from another angle, they could mean that they’re not just EXACTLY THE SAME every week like US TV?

    That’s defo food for thought Robino
    and I’ve never watched Life but House is beginning to pall for me big style. There is a limit to how many times I want to watch House do the same stuff, sure, but equally I’m getting sick of HIM. What do we really know about him, other than he’s a tortured genius in terrible pain who says what he wants to whenever he wants to no matter the consequences… When actually, oh no: there are NO consequences because he’s a genius and everyone worships him even when they say they hate him?

    Complicated plots are easy, being simple is hard, defo agree with you there; trying to get writers to write simple is something I deal with constantly. And maybe UK TV is not simple enough. But I think US TV is waaaaaaaaaaaaay too simple.

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