Thursday, August 02, 2012

Culture Shock 08.02.12: The British are here, and they brought their telly with them

Even as the rest of the world descends upon Great Britain for the 2012 Olympics, The U.K.'s most visible export is reaching new heights of popularity in the United States.

Nowhere is that more obvious than this week's cover of America's most prominent entertainment magazine, Entertainment Weekly, which for the first time ever is given over to a British television show. And not just any British television show, but the long-running sci-fi series "Doctor Who," which is rapidly approaching its 50th anniversary.

Long a staple of British Saturday-evening viewing, "Doctor Who" has, in the past few years, grown beyond its American cult following to become mainstream viewing. It's BBC America's No. 1 show.

"Doctor Who" previously aired in America on Syfy, which seemed embarrassed by the show and didn't know what to do with it. Syfy also ran episodes a year after they aired in the U.K., and by then all the most tech-savvy "Doctor Who" fans had downloaded the series online.

BBC America, however, made "Doctor Who" the centerpiece of its schedule and began airing episodes the same day they aired in Britain.

That's faster turnaround in some cases than NBC can manage for its tape-delayed coverage of the London Olympics.

Then there's the personal touch. The cast of "Doctor Who" has become a regular fixture in the U.S., speaking to packed convention halls at San Diego's annual Comic-Con International.

Add to that the fact BBC America exists in the first place — an American television channel devoted to British television — and it's Paul Revere's worst nightmare.

The British aren't just coming, they're already here, neither by land nor by sea but by the air.

PBS has for decades relied on British television for many of its most acclaimed shows, but now it has certified hits in the form of two British imports, the BBC's "Sherlock" and ITV's "Downton Abbey," which netted 19 Emmy nominations between them, including Best Drama for the latter.

We've come a long way from late-night reruns of "Benny Hill" and "Are You Being Served?" No doubt much of this is a matter of necessity.

Cable and satellite services have more channels than they can fill with programming, and apparently there is actually a limit to how many hours of "Law & Order" marathons you can expect viewers to tolerate.

The U.K., meanwhile, is a reliable source of programming — much of it very good — in a language vaguely similar to the one most Americans speak.

And nowhere is the demand for programming more acute than online, where video-streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are looking for their own must-see TV.

Hulu, for instance, just picked up the exclusive U.S. rights to seasons 1, 2 and 3 of the blistering political satire "The Thick of It," which stars the brilliant Peter Capaldi as the prime minister's vicious enforcer Malcolm Tucker, who, as the late Jean Shepherd would say, works in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay.

Hulu will also stream the upcoming fourth season this fall, providing a welcome change from what passes for political TV in the U.S. — the sanctimonious, hackwork fantasies of Aaron Sorkin.

Netflix, for its part, has built an impressive library of British television for its on-demand offerings, from the geeky comedy "The IT Crowd," to the superb spy drama "MI-5" to classics like "Doctor Who" (new and original) and "Blackadder," and finally to sleeper gems like "The Last Detective" starring Peter Davison.

Still, as long as Matt Lauer doesn't know who Mr. Bean is, there is work for this British invasion yet to do.

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