If I can offer the usual caveat before we start: clearly I don’t know what’ll surprise anyone who isn’t me. And let’s face it, if Britain is going to happily export super-British shows like Downton Abbey and watch it go from strength to strength in the US, it’s not hard to understand that one culture can want to experience another precisely because it is not like the world outside their living room window.
So, the bubble I want to pop here is the idea that Brits are high class culture vultures, only interested in high quality box-set dramas like Mad Men, The Wire, True Blood, Breaking Bad and that lot. No one is THAT discerning…
Man Vs. Food
Cards on the table, I’m a little bit obsessed with Man vs. Food, which is shown in the UK on the channel Dave, the place for all the Top Gear reruns and the new series of Red Dwarf. Adam Richman, one letter (and a good belly) away from being Professor Snape, travels around America, finding restaurants and diners that offer one of those “if you eat this, you will die, and then win a T-shirt” eating challenges. He then takes the challenge, after visiting a couple of other places in the immediate area, as a kind of edible travelogue.
The brilliant thing about the show is Adam’s eternal delight in being faced with one of two basic dishes: the enormous pile of meat and bread and cheese and chili, and the smaller spicy dish that tastes like hot battery acid. And he’s right! There are endless different ways to present meat and bread and cheese and chili in a massive pile, enough to qualify as genuinely regional variations. It’s never the same show twice, while always being the same show, every time. Also, I worry he may die in the middle of a massive pizza, so I always watch with a phone nearby, ready to call 911.
Dog The Bounty Hunter
I know people that are properly obsessed with this show. British people. Readers, even. They’re gripped by the real-life adventures of this socially responsible bounty hunter, who always takes the time to counsel the bail-jumpers he finds, and encourage them to live a better life; just like those He-Man cartoons that end with a moral.
I have to confess to never having seen an episode, but only because one of my obsessive Dog fans told me the premise of the show and I laughed so much the fully real reality would only spoil how it goes in my head.
According To Jim
The U.S. is very good at sitcoms. Not just the critically-approved ones like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Arrested Development, but the studio audience, family entertainment, laff-riot ones with one-word names, like Friends, Cheers and Seinfeld. However, between these two poles of excellence lie the comedies that exist as a vehicle for some likeable comedic star, with their name in the title. He (and it’s always a he) has a perfect family bolted around him by central casting, and then acts in a manner which would ensure the loss of said family within three days, if this were reality.
For reasons that escape me, some of these shows are shown on the British Channel 4 at breakfast time, interspersed with reruns of Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond (which does follow the same recipe, but does at least allow the wife to be more than a pretty face and exasperated eyes). The preposterously formulaic, and actually pretty boorish According To Jim has started showing up, and, sad to report, it’s doing pretty well.
The Daily Show
OK, so not everything on this list counts as low culture. Still, it’s a little surprising that a daily satirical show about American politics and American media should be such a hit on the other side of the Atlantic. Even one that gives house room to British talent like John Oliver. But then satire often has to present the thing it is satirising in order to work effectively, and Jon Stewart is a master at delivering context alongside the barbed humor, so it’s not that hard to follow.
I’ll be honest though, I’ve never understood what that “moment of zen” thing at the end is about.
The big daddy of them all. Before Jerry Springer, the Brits didn’t really have the kind of shouty, fighty confession shows we have now, the Jeremy Kyles and whatnot. There would have been discussion shows, where members of the public were encouraged to take part in a debate on some pressing news story of the day, but no actual fighting, no lie detectors, no judgement and no security guards. After Springer, everyone was at it. You may have an opinion of the British as being a civilised nation, keen on the cut and thrust of debate and more used to verbal jousts than physical ones. These shows serve to prove one thing, no we are not.
Footnote: In 2003, the comedians Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee even wrote a highly-acclaimed stage show called Jerry Springer: The Opera, based on some of the more fantastical confessions from the TV series. It eventually ran afoul of Christian campaigners (who, by and large, hadn’t seen it) but not before playing at Carnegie Hall, with Harvey Keitel in the Springer role in 2008.