Quitting While You’re A Head

James Cary, the writer of innumerable BBC radio productions – including the smashing good Hut 33, about assorted goings-on at Bletchley Park in 1941 – wrote an interesting piece the other day about the “curiously British” tendency to quit an endeavour (in this case, sitcoms) at your, or its, peak, using an assortment of TV and radio programmes to illustrate the point.

He implies rather strongly that it’s just a cultural difference between creative types on opposing sides of the big salty wet thingy east of Canada, but I suspect that’s not quite the whole story.

For starters, it’s not just a British thing – the (utterly awesome) Canadian comedy Corner Gas ended when it did explicitly because the creators wanted to quite “at the top of their game”.

I suspect that it has more to do with the attitudes and cultural norms of mass-media industry insiders in the U.S., and everywhere else. In the U.S., clearly, actual talent is not in any way a prerequisite to work in television, either in front of or behind the cameras. (Consider, urgh, “reality television”, if you would, one of America’s greatest cultural exports since, erm… partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil?) It’s all who you know, or who knows you, or – on particularly shallow days – what you look like, that counts. (“Hey, isn’t that that chick from that one thing?” “Yeah, I think so. Wow, she has an awesome… inability to act.” “Yeah, dude, but she’s freaking HAWT!”)

I mean, you go read about all the sitcom pilots being pitched to the various television networks, and they all read about the same:

“Whirling Blades of Spinning Death” (working title) is an adventure comedy written by John Doe (Night of the Living Breadmaker, Return of the Revenge of Zombie Lassie, The Secret Parliamentarian) about the efforts of a teenage Kendo champion, played by Sum Yung Gai (Hu Nu, Hu Nu 2, the voice of Mung Ou in ‘Brazing Sandals’) to balance his personal and professional lives in the notoriously xenophobic neighborhoods of northeast Philadelphia. Co-produced by Brad Imir (Adventures of a 31st-Century Jacobite) and Jo King (Hot to Trot: The True Stories of Polo Players’ Wives), “Whirling Blades of Spinning Death” (working title) co-stars Yuri Mann (I Was a Teenage Apparatchik, ?то хребтова? жидко?ть) and is directed by Dick Wagget (CSI: Moose Jaw) for AB-Negative Productions.

Trading entirely on names and reputations, in other words.

Whereas if you look at the information for upcoming British sitcoms, they read rather more like this:

Somebody with no experience whatsoever is writing an as-yet unnamed hour-long comedy, to air Mondays at 9pm on ITV, about the humour of life at modern public colleges. Co-produced by his mum and newsagent, it stars some very funny rising stars who crashed his 18th birthday party last year, one of whom plays a promiscuous lager-loutish ladette and one of whom is an introverted but ASBO-prone Jamaico-British nudist with a charming geordie accent. Shot on a budget of just 500 pounds and six cases of “real ale” per episode, this sure-fire success premiers 1 April and runs through 8 Never.

Jokes aside, it seems like name recognition and “connections” are far less important in the UK than – gasp! – actual talent. (Though there are exceptions, to be fair, they aren’t actually the stations’ faults; apparently the EU Constitution requires every television station to air a brace of programmes featuring un-photogenic middle-aged white men with abrasive personalities and ginormous egos. Now you know!) This at least is what I infer from the generally high quality of programming produced by people who are essentially nobodies, starring people whose (prior) great claims to fame largely involved school theatrical productions. (The EU Constitution part I admit I worked out on my own – but it does explain Gordon Ramsay and the douche-y conceited bloke from all those lack-of-talent shows.) Money could be a factor, here, as well – I imagine ITV would, if not kill, at least commit a number of felonies to get the kind of budget that NBC or ABC have, or even to just get a sizable chunk of their programming syndicated widely outside the country on a regular basis. Perhaps low budgets means you have to gamble on relative nobodies with talent, rather than hoping inexplicably big-name celebutants with at best middling skills will turn a cookie-cutter script written by well-connected hacks into the Next Big Thing?

This, I posit, means that, assuming you got your current television show on the basis of talent, rather than simply by being a middle-aged curmudgeon with poor fashion sense, you can rather safely quit whatever it is you’re currently working on in the expectation that you’ll get work elsewhere before too unreasonably long, and the the fact that there are more fish in the sea, as it were, means the network won’t be so super-duper desperate to keep their one lone show with any viewers that they’ll try to make you “an offer you can’t refuse”, which seems to be one of the things that causes American television shows to go on way past their prime. “Oooh, you’re offering me blockbuster Hollywood movie pay to keep doing a television role I’m already tolerably good at? Where do I sign?”

I’ve also noticed a tendency for the British to become rather more attached to the shows, as opposed to the characters. Kill off a popular leading character, and replace him or her? No problem. Hell, to a country that’s put up with the endless parade of actors playing the titular character on Dr. Who, having the odd popular character or three on Spooks, or Coronation Street, or Eastenders, or Robin Hood depart is no big deal. In America, this tends not to go over so well – just look at the current season of Scrubs. (Though that might have more to do with the decision to replace a popular, comedic, and slightly naive character with a cynical, sarcastic ice queen, something the average, IQ 60 American television viewer seems unable to cope with.)

I don’t want to sound particularly unpatriotic, but U.S. mass media is really only good at one thing: churning out a nigh-endless parade of more of the same old thing, over and over and over again. Oh look, another present-day police procedural. Oh look, another show about well-off promiscuous women in the present day. Oh look, another present-day office dramedy.

I’ve been trying to figure out the last historical show – drama, comedy, whatever – that’s aired on network television here in the States, and I believe – though I could easily have overlooked something – that it was either the U.S. incarnation of Life on Mars or That ’70s Show, depending on how you view Life on Mars. Either way, it looks like That ’70s Show was the last broadcast network show set in the past to last longer than one season; it ended in 2006, and there’s been one historical show since then?

My, how creative.

The Brits might like to quit while they’re ahead… the American media industry, on the other hand, should just… quit.

Published in: 'D' for 'Dumb', Geekiness, General | on February 19th, 2010| Comments Off on Quitting While You’re A Head

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