Welcome to today’s installment of TV Wars: British vs. US. Okay, so this is the only installment, and it takes place entirely inside my head…but welcome anyway.
I’ve been noticing something about myself lately, and I’m not sure what it means. Frankly, except for a few guilty pleasures, I like British TV a whole lot more than American TV. I don’t know why that is. More confusing, I rarely like the female lead characters on American TV shows, but the same thing is not true for British TV shows.
I wonder why this is.
It’s not an absolute rule, of course. There are a few female leads or major secondary characters in American TV shows that I like.
For instance, I really liked Mary Shannon, Mary McCormack’s lead character in In Plain Sight, a show that didn’t live nearly long enough to make me happy. She was gutsy and intelligent, just vulnerable enough to keep her real, and a no-nonsense kind of gal. Most importantly, I don’t remember her ever running for her life or kicking bad-guy butt while wearing stilettos (a personal pet peeve. Don’t get me started.)
I like Vic and Cady on Longmore, probably for many of the same reasons, which is further proof that I’m not anti-American actress, and I loved Margo Martindale’s portrayal of Mags Bennett on Justified. I liked Joelle Carter’s Ava Crowder, too. And Gabrielle Anwar’s Fiona Glennane on Burn Notice. See? Not prejudiced. At all.
I can’t say the same for The Mentalist‘s Teresa Lisbon (portrayed by Robin Tunney). I was never completely sold on Lisbon, not because of anything she did or didn’t do, though. And when it came down to the wire (spoiler alert!!!) I was happy to see her and Patrick end up together. He was emotionally safer with her than he would have been with anyone else, and I needed him to be emotionally safe. So while Lisbon never had my complete buy-in, I didn’t feel disdain for her, which is good.
I also had my moments with Stana Katic’s Beckett in Castle. Liked her for the most part, but there were times when she was a little too perfect for me. I don’t think she ever perspired, and her hair was almost never messy. Yeah, she had the occasional scratch or scrape after a rough-and-tumble takedown of the bad guy, but for the most part, the focus seemed to be more about making sure she always looked beautiful than about portraying an honest-to-God woman who might break a sweat while running five or six city blocks.
But these female characters are the exception. I could bore you to tears with the list of female characters I find annoying, irritating, and TSTL (too stupid to live.) The ones who pay lip-service to the idea of being an intelligent kick-ass heroine, but who fail to deliver.
By contrast, Hermoine Norris’s Ros Myers in MI-5 seems more realistic. When I look at her on the job, she looks like a woman on the job. I have no doubt the hair and makeup team spent their fair share of time getting her ready for every shot, but her hair is never perfectly tousled or impossibly shiny and makeup is always superbly understated. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so much as a wisp of lip gloss on her mouth. Ros kicks serious butt, but she’s also intelligent and gritty, with just a touch–a mere touch— of vulnerability.
This whole subject is in my mind because lately I’ve been binge-watching Britain’s MI-5 with my daughter. We began watching because recently she discovered Richard Armitage and now we’re watching shows just because he’s in them. You know how that goes.
MI-5 is a show about Britain’s domestic intelligence organization and, frankly, some of the episodes have left me breathless. We’re only up to series 6, and we have the benefit of IMDB to assure us that certain characters don’t die until later in the show when a particular episode has left us staring open-mouthed at the TV.
I find myself comparing this show to the US’s 24 at times–a show which we binge-watched long after the furor had died down with the rest of the world, and which kept us pretty interested until the final season. We’ve tried three or four times to watch that final installment, but just can’t stay interested. Watching Jack Bauer watch someone else do everything was hideously b.o.r.i.n.g.
But I digress. MI-5 has its share of implausible moments, to be sure, but I far prefer it to 24, and I’m not sure why. Yes, I occasionally give an eye-roll when the Americans once again turn out to be the bad guys. (It’s been over 200 years, guys. Let it go.) But the show frequently has me on the edge of my seat, while American TV rarely does.
I’m trying to decide if, besides the female characters must be beautiful at all times requirement, American TV is just more obvious and less subtle than British TV. We Americans have a tendency to want everything spelled out for us. We seem to want more sex and violence, and we want to see it all played out in dramatic detail on the screen. I use the term “we” loosely here because I find that I’m quite the opposite. It’s the British tendency to fade to black at key moments that keeps me riveted. I could be wrong, of course, but it seems to me they leave more to my imagination, and that appeals to me.
When one character was hanged in an episode we watched recently, we watched the bad guys (not Americans, if I remember correctly) put the noose around his neck and then we faded to black. I gasped. Aloud. Literally. Later, we saw a shot of the character hanging, obviously dead, but we didn’t watch every tortured moment as the guy died like we probably would have on an American version.
What does all of this have to do with anything? Nothing, really. Although, I have noticed as I write this that I’m using a lot of words I used to use to describe the books I liked to read–back in the olden days, before I started learning about writing and started using writing jargon. I’ve always liked the subtle, the understated, the not-so-obvious. I’ve always preferred to read writers who “talk” to me as if they assume I’m a reasonably intelligent human being over those who write as if I must have everything explained to me.
Somehow that feels like an important thing to know about myself.