HBO’s new show, Girls, finally reached British television sets this October, but what has its hype got to do with the increasing British hunger for American TV?
We first meet Hannah Horvath while she indignantly protests against her parents’ wish to withdraw her financial support. “I am your only child”, she pontificates incredulously, “I am busy”. Set in New York, Girls follows the lives of four women awkwardly trying to navigate their early twenties in a meaningful way. By highlighting a forgotten period of time in the aftermath of university, Girls explores the problems that the inevitable move into adult life poses, creating humour against a backdrop of anxiety.
Hannah (played by the creator of the show, Lena Dunham) is, like most of her companions, intelligent, quick-tongued and self-aware. In fact she is so self-aware that most of the time she is completely unaware of the artlessly neurotic way she stumbles about life. This is the skilful way Dunham crafts her characters, from the self-martyrdom of Hannah’s flatmate, Marnie, to the bitchy bohemian Jessa, and the straight-laced Shoshanna. Each character is written perfectly to compliment the dynamic of the group, but just self-absorbed enough to cause friction.
Dunham’s writing is brazenly sharp and magnificently witty; the characters she creates are utterly relatable yet also annoying, being as they are both smart and insecure. Part of the brilliance of this show is the way Dunham’s overly-articulate characters struggle to express themselves, which has more to do with their narcissism than any deficiency they may have with communication.
Increasingly, shows like Girls not only reflect the deepening trend for higher quality television in US, but are also evidential of a decline in British programming.
Since launching a little over a year ago, Sky Atlantic has become home of US drama in the UK, scheduling anything from Girls to Game of Thrones. Responding to the gradual but unavoidable demand for intellectually challenging programming in Britain, its bold proclamation, ‘The Home of World Class Television’, captures the sensibilities of its audience beautifully.
Nevertheless, Sky can’t be held solely responsible for this spike in interest; US shows have been slowly garnering our attention through word-of-mouth, DVD releases and illegal downloads over the past ten years.
Take for example an all time favourite, The Wire; producer David Simon’s commitment to plot development made the show a slow burning success, taking seven years to garner recognition in both the US and the UK. Labyrinthine goliaths such as The Wire are being produced with ever more dramatic acceleration which is beginning to impact on British programming.
That’s not to say all UK made shows are becoming prosaic in nature, but it does indicate a struggle to engage viewers’ attention.
Take on the one hand Channel 4’s Fresh Meat, which in comparison to Girls seems to sacrifice depth of character for the sake of quirkiness, or on the other, the bloated corpse of Skins which degenerated in the last three seasons into self-parody, clichés and obnoxiously bad storylines.
At a time when the characters in many sitcoms are not only unbelievable but also offensively one-dimensional, Girls refuses to sacrifice reality at the expense of remaining comic. This is the key to the success of Girls, and more broadly the reason why US shows are increasingly dominating TV sets in the UK.
Since establishing higher standards, British based shows are at risk of appearing sluggish, formulaic and parochial next to their US equivalents.
If Britain wants to stay in the running, it needs a more competitive market, investment in high-end programming and the encouragement of cutting-edge new writing.