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British TV: A National Embarrassment?

09/06/2013 23:22 BST | Updated 09/08/2013 10:12 BST

There is, I believe, a dichotomy emerging in Western television. Unnoticed by parents loyal to the BBC, the Netflix generation, no longer tethered to terrestrial output, is migrating online to pastures greener. Often attributed to a fascination with US culture particular to the current crop of British twentysomethings, the growing interest in American TV as a substitute for our own is not simply an idiosyncrasy of this demographic, it signifies of Britain's failure to keep pace with the cultural market. The relative incompetence of home-produced programming becomes apparent in the context of the global marketplace - beyond the iPlayer horizon, Britain is punching well above its weight.

It was an episode of Louie that really crucified British TV for me - Mad Men and Girls had already done most of the legwork, but this really nailed it. The serialised autobiography of stand-up veteran Louis CK, while a significant achievement in its own right, is illustrative because it is by no means the cream of the US crop - it typifies a creative climate in which excellence is commonplace.

The 39th was an episode that ratified Louie's sitcom stock. With a handicap earned on the post-Seinfeld circuit, Mr CK has taken Mr Frost's less-travelled road; lilted but melancholic and slithering into the surreal, his show exists and flourishes with no regard for comedic norms. Dropping reliance on long arcs, each episode is a 30-minute exposition of a single idea which may or may not have any bearing on the cumulative experience of a season. Meta-humour and reality are played with but never truly delineated, and the customary wink-wink that usually comes with self-reference is bravely abandoned. The season wraps with a cryptic dream sequence which frees itself from the trappings of convention just as the comedian escapes the lonely underbelly of New York for a jaunt in the Orient.

The Louie model is an exemplar in TV auteurism. Contrary to the teachings of our omniscient programming execs, monetary and artistic achievements needn't be mutually exclusive, but an audience seasoned on monotony makes for a risky marketplace - our shows are pitched accordingly. The American palate, by virtue of the past decade's highly ambitious output, (both the art of TV and the broadcasting model itself were reimagined, with Netflix recording a 7% increase in its US customer base in the fourth quarter of 2012), is comfortably progressive and attuned to the value of an original. The British are afraid when a new character arrives on Albert Square.

On the home front, primetime is awash with garbage. With so much to choose from I'll cite a shortlist of recent favourites, all of a dramatic breed identified by certain traits in common: The Politician's Husband, Last Tango in Halifax, The Fall and The Hour. Investment is channelled not into the sourcing of new talent, but into visual cheats perceived to lend a sense of contemporary cool. The art angles and sepia aesthetic are not only contrived but embarrassingly out of date - we are just shipping in a look from last season's collections. Casting, a process one takes to mean the random selection of civilians off the street, is secured from failure with the addition of a road-tested lead actor, usually picked from a cohort I think of as the Drama Club (see: Benedict Cumberbatch, David Tennant, Olivia Colman). An absolute home run is achieved if Maggie Smith is available.

It would be unfair to suggest that there is absolutely nothing good on the box. This is almost literally the case, but for the anomalies inevitable in any sample. Shameless, the one real dramatic outlier, takes at least a swing at self-awareness and social comment; a lesser Tony Soprano, Frank Gallagher is as thought-provoking a paterfamilias as one could hope for to satirise the squalor and self-pity of Middle England. With a monster 11-season run, the lesson is: good TV sells.

Assertive observers like to cling to Armando Iannucci's The Thick of It as a life-raft against the inevitable. Its occasional belly-laughs and absence of pathological crassness are a seasonal lift for the literate viewer (typically the young professional whose disdain for small-screen fiction stops just short of a sneaky session of The Killing - N.B. if it's Nordic it's worthwhile). But The Thick of It is a hand-me-down with none of the original verve of, say, 30 Rock. Its borrowings include bureaucratic hysteria (The Office), voracious smackdown (Blackadder), and political lampoon (Yes, Minister, The Daily Show, Have I Got News for You), and it is less than the sum of its parts.

When desperation necessitates, we import from overseas. Financially unworkable (R.I.P. Friends) and a patent admission of defeat, this kind of trading is usually destined for failure. Understandably unwilling to shoulder the risk of a major splash-out, bosses shop at the B-grade end of the market, and the result is an expensive string of lame ponies like Nashville and The New Normal which have no more success on our turf than their own. The detective drama, long considered a Brit stronghold, earned a positively biblical following with Helen Mirren's Prime Suspect. Given the sociopolitical operatics of The Wire and the raw exhilaration of Breaking Bad, its sacrosanctity looks a little limp in comparison, but, another casualty of provincial viewing, it continues to bless us with its spawn like so many white trash babies.

Auntie Beeb, bless her sclerotic heart, is responsible to an extent for the slipping of standards. The corporation, which takes around 30% of the primetime audience, is damaging to television in the same way that Korean dictators are damaging to golf: no matter how many bogies, every round is a winner. The Beeb is the de facto curator of TV - not on merit, but owing to a brand equity which cushions any deviations in quality, and bizarrely, it is its very Britishness which affords it the unwavering adoration of its public. Britain is a brand which effects a cultural blind spot in the best of us, one which boosts the otherwise dreadful into the arms of fandom. The longevity of Dr Who, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes are indebted to the Brit factor. The closet-classist Downton Abbey, which brings out the very worst in its audience and the very best in ITV's market strategists, tapped into the bank of jingoism with astronomical success.

TV, an artform in its infancy, is proving as protean and exciting as any other. It is likely that the business of round-the-clock broadcasting will be totally subverted by innovative online models such as those of House of Cards, and now Arrested Development. A genuine laissez-faire marketplace could arise in which talent is openly pooled and shows unrestricted in length or format would be acquired on demand. Without the need for distribution, a troublesome middle-man of the independent film market is erased.

Back on Blighty, however, the blaring box in the living room continues to sign its own death warrant, fulfilling its assumed role as an opiate for the unemployed and the bored. The stalemate of terrible TV goes on regardless, with don't-ask-don't-tell online bootlegging sustaining the disillusioned. Campaigns like 'Take My Money, HBO', which registered 160,000 unrequited offers to pay for legal streaming of top US shows, demonstrate the staggering extent of the consumer surplus left on the table and the nonplussed frustration of the Game of Thrones generation. Every year the U.S. gains ground in a cultural race in which we are unwilling to compete. Without ambition, you are going nowhere, which is to say, relatively, backwards.