overthinking the idiot box

April 4th, 2005

Bonafide British Person C.J. Quinn covers the strange intersections between British television and American television in

London Calling
Desperate Housewives: Lost In Translation
by C.J. Quinn

Ah, America. I want so much to believe, dear readers, that my country and yours are separated only by a common language and 3000 miles or so of ocean. Want so much to believe it, in fact, that I long-distance dated a Yank for a good nine months or so. But you know, he and I never really could get over the culture gap, and sometimes I worry that the same problem lurks below the surface of my other great love affair with an American. Oh, American telly! You and all your double-mocha-skinny-frappucino big talk, and your weird inability to fit in time-slots on the BBC, where there are no ad breaks every fifteen seconds! I try to deny the power you have over me, but I still find myself filtering potential boyfriends by whether or not they share my love of The O.C., still find myself hoping to discover corners of London that are forever Central Perk. You brazen seducer, youžit could be sweet, but I wonder, are you and I really culturally compatible?

That bird from New Adventures of Superman
I first started worrying about this when Desperate Housewives debuted on Channel 4 here last month (we only have five TV channels here - I know, I know, we're so quaint you could just die). I had such high hopes. London came out in a rash of juicily colourful billboards with, um, that bird off of New Adventures of Superman and some other women in racy dresses and basques, provocative pouts livening up the rain and the gloom of an English February. Everyone was talking about how this was going to be the next big hit for Channel 4, a channel which specialises in importing glossy, intelligent hit American series like Sex and the City and The West Wing. They were even scheduling it on my favourite TV night of the week, Wednesdays, a day when I have to clear the decks by 8pm without fail so as to be able to settle down in front of vicious, decadent zeitgeist-on-the-turn makeover shows. All signs were pointing to 'Yes'.

I settled in to meet the Housewives for the first time, full of anticipation. Was this going to be my new SATC? Um... no. I knew Sex and the City. I loved Sex and the City. And you, Susan, are no Carrie Bradshaw.

Idiot Ex, who has never seen SATC, loved it, and texted me multiple times to say so, but I felt like I was watching some minger parade around in my mate's best clothes, and wearing them all wrong, without an ounce of style. The show felt flat, over-egged and over-done. The knowing voice-over, so 1999; the dark rot beneath the surface of wealthy suburbia, so Sopranos season one. I could practically hear the script-writers cackling to themselves about how deliciously po-mo and ironic their show was.

Disenchanted, disappointed, I started thinking about suburbia, and about cultural relevance and dominance. I'm not quite sure where the British Wisteria Avenue would be located on the map (suggestions, British readers?). For starters, well-off British suburbanites do not talk to their neighbours. We just don't. We may spy on them from behind the net curtains, so that we can mutter about them disparagingly at the next church jumble sale, but we don't pop round all the time with dishes of macaroni cheese, and we really don't do picket fences. Instead we have bloody great impenetrable hedges of this evergreen shrub called Leylandii, which grows like buggery and leads to lawsuits when people grow it 12 feet high and block out the sun coming into their neighbour's house. And why do we do that? Because an Englishman's home is his castle, and we really don't like talking to the people across the moat.

The thing is, we've got our desperate housewives already, thanks. They're called Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced "bouquet", please, darlings) and Sybil Fawlty, and their brand of suburban desperation and disenchantment is far less glossy and manicured, far more about tepid cups of tea and thin-lipped, false smiles over the Eccles cakes. Maybe this is why Desperate Housewives doesn't work for me and SATC did — sex is pretty much always sex, wherever in the world you come from, but suburbia is subtly different.

Just how easily do our two cultures submit to translation? More to the point, why is it always my bloody culture that gets lost in translation? The day I sat down to write this column, I read a review of NBC's American version of The Office in my morning paper. It sounds like NBC have made an okay fist of it, but I can't help wondering why on earth they didn't learn their lesson from the way they mangled Coupling and just buy the Ricky Gervais originals from BBC America. Is American cube-farm culture really that different to the British workplace? Does the American entertainment industry think that Americans are too stupid and to get foreign jokes, that funny only speaks with an American accent? NBC viewers will have to decide for themselves, but if you want to know what you might be missing, subscribe to BBC America, and ask yourself whether any remake can ever really hope to attain the dizzy comic heights of The Dance?

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