10 American TV Shows That Were Huge in Britain

Happy Days

Happy Days

Last week, we were talking about unlikely American TV shows that are not only shown in the UK, but actually have something of a fanbase. By way of balance, it’s important to state that none of those shows – not even Man Vs Food – is as popular as the contents of this list. This is a list you can be truly proud of, it’s just that these ten shows are probably less of a surprise.

Some represent the very best that American TV has to offer, some represent a phenomenon that has less to do with quality and more to do with finding your target audience and hitting them with treats, come what may. But let’s not preamble too much, it’s all fairly self-explanatory and, as always, there’s a space to ask questions at the end.

Friends
As with any hugely popular TV  show, the carping started as soon as the ratings hit ‘HUGE.’ But despite the lack of verisimilitude to the lives of, well, most low-income Manhattan residents (they always got the sofa in the coffee shop! Did one of them wee on it, like the wolves do?), the things that won the Brits over were the set-pieces, the chemistry and the gags. Friends didn’t get as much credit for being funny as some shows, but the gags were good enough to influence language (“going commando,” “oh, my God!” could the writers BE any better at getting words into our brains?) and the haircuts were as ubiquitous here as they were over there.

Happy Days
This is an odd one, in retrospect. Happy Days is a show that pines for the innocence and lost youth of the ’50s, a time of leather jackets, sodas, fries, and making jukeboxes work by hitting them. Being financially devastated by the war, Britain did not experience the ’50s in quite the same way, only filling in the gaps on what American youth had been up to some years later. So we weren’t watching and wishing life could be like that again, we were watching and wishing life could ever have been like that. Or at least we did until Fonzie mounted that fateful jetski.

Dallas
So big that when JR was shot and no one knew who did it, it appeared on the BBC national news.

Starsky & Hutch
For years I wanted a magnetic flashing light to put on top of my dad’s car when we gave chase to bad guys. He pointed out that we never gave chase, to anyone, but I still wanted it. And everyone my age drew Starsky’s red and white car when doodling, because we knew we would have that car when we were older…

The A-Team
…and we would park it next to our A-Team van. There were A-Team fully poseable action figurines (“they’re not DOLLS, Dad!”), y’know. There was a BA Baracus one, a Howlin’ Mad Murdoch one, a Face one, and a Hannibal Smith one. And then there was one for Amy “Triple A” Adams, the reporter that found the A-Team for, something, in, ah, one of the stories. No one wanted that one.

The Sopranos and The Waltons
Two American families, separated by time, and intention, and way of life, and morality, and ability, and vocabulary, and lots of other things. The bickering is much the same, of course. And both families spent a lot of time around the dinner table discussing matters of the day. Pa Walton never whacked a guy, and Tony Soprano never wore bib overalls, but these polarized extremes of being good and bad represented unthinkable lifestyles to anyone watching in, say, Slough.

Frasier
This one can’t come as any sort of surprise. Two pompous men living up to the American stereotype of British manhood, set against one actual British girl (of working class origins), and a salt-of-the-earth retired American cop. How could we not love it? The English class system and the aspirations of the middle classes are the bedrock of all manner of British comedies, from PG Wodehouse to The Good Life, and Frasier is a show that follows this noble (and also ignoble) tradition beautifully.

The West Wing
It might appear that the secret to writing like Aaron Sorkin is to have your characters walk a lot, and talk quickly, but that’s not why The West Wing made such an impression on the UK (which began on Channel 4, and ended in an expensive DVD habit). It certainly shouldn’t have been a hit, given that it’s the story of senior White House staff, who have a tendency to say “God Bless America” and talk a lot about the House of Representatives. But the Brits love a good ensemble show, like Dad’s Army, and The West Wing is a phenomenally good ensemble show. Even now, when Richard Schiff or Bradley Whitford appears in something, the urge to yell “it’s TOBY!” or “look! JOSH!” is almost overwhelming.

The Six-Million Dollar Man
I had the action figure (“DAD! It’s not a DOLL!”) and the space rocket toy that turns into a hospital, and some spare bionic legs that came apart when you pressed a button, and some spare bionic arms that did different things. And we all pretended to be bionic by moving really slowly and making that “chuchuchuchuch” noise with our mouths.

Don’t try and tell me the grown-ups of today were any cleverer than the Justin Bieber fans when we were younger. My memory is too good.

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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