Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Talking Point: Is US drama inherently aspirational, and is this a good thing?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011
The casts of Shameless: American & British

I heard AOL critic Mo Ryan voicing her concerns about the longevity and appeal of upcoming US drama Shameless, based on the UK series of the same name. Both shows revolve around a large dysfunctional family on the bottom rung of the social ladder, led by an alcoholic patriarch.

I tweeted Mo about her opinion last night, and had a brief conversation, which you can read below:

danowen79 - Re: SHAMELESS. Sometimes it feels that Americans don't "get" working class family drama shows (also see: SCOUNDRELS)
moryan - True. Since All in the Family and Roseanne, none have exactly hit it big here.
danowen79 - I think Americans are more aspirational, so don't like to see themselves accurately reflected. Most UK drama is the reverse.
moryan - I think that's a pretty good assessment. Start of my shameless review talks about its non-aspirational qualities.
Anyway, Mo Ryan liked the US remake's pilot, starring William H. Macy, but seemed unsure a TV show about a reprobate family would appeal to mainstream America. And this got me thinking. Why is there a concern about drama reflecting the lives of unemployed loafers in US TV? This just wouldn't happen in the UK. In fact, the most popular drama and comedy shows in British TV history have focused on scroungers, or working class people living humble lives. The soaps EastEnders and Coronation Street have been doing this for decades. Only Fools & Horses was all about two brothers wheelin'-and-dealin' in South London. There's a long, varied and rich history of UK drama based on working class people's lives, even if they're the kind of people you don't really want to be associated with or aspire to be.

So why doesn't US drama do the same? The only family-orientated US show that took an honest look at regular people's daily lives, to my mind, was the excellent sitcom Roseanne. And that started 20-odd years ago. What has come since? I can't think of a single US show that revolves around people who aren't lawyers, doctors, nurses, politicians, cops, forensic experts, scientists, and the like. Even shows that DO show the uglier side of life have caveats (The Wire may feature lowlifes and criminals, but they're balanced by cops and politicians; Breaking Bad's lead is a middle-class chemistry genius; The Sopranos were gangsters, but they were successful and lived a decent lifestyle.)

Maybe you CAN think of some examples of US shows that revolved around the lives of people who've fallen through the cracks of society -- but they're definitely in the minority, right? My Name Is Earl seems to pass the test. Another comedy, like Roseanne. Are there ANY straightforward dramas about the lives of so-called "white trash" people? And if they are, did they all vanish a few decades ago?

The only thing I can think of to explain things is that Americans are more aspirational people. There's the cliché that every American believes they can be born and become President of their country, no matter what their background is. Naïve? Probably. But that kind of positive thinking seems more ingrained in the national consciousness. So why should people who are born and taught to look at the stars, want to peer back at the gutter? Or see the truth of themselves reflected in the media's mirror?

No, it's best to saturate TV with people who audiences WANT to be, to subconsciously set the population a goal. And maybe that works. But it means the media paints a very skewed picture of America today, as it really is. Then again, there are shows like Jerry Springer that made their name using the plentiful misfits of US society, and millions of people watched. Maybe reality TV is its own kettle of fish; a naughty and disposable guilty pleasure.

In the UK, I daresay we're less aspirational people. Maybe that's because you can feel the influence of a class system, primarily through the continued existence of royalty and the upper-class. People are perhaps more accepting of their lot in life. That's not to say there aren't thousands of British people who become rags-to-riches success stories, but I think we're more complacent overall. So our media reflects that. There are lots of unprivileged or plain lazy people on benefits across the UK, and drama doesn't ignore them. Shows are built around them (such as Shameless, or even Misfits), and comedy characters are born of them (Vicky Pollard in Little Britain, Catherine Tate's Lauren). Or am I doing my fellow Brits a disservice?

What do you think?

Is US drama afraid to show dysfunctional, blue-collar people in drama? Is it true that most Americans wouldn't want to watch people who are beneath them socially? Or are there millions of Americans fed up with seeing successful and rich characters on TV, longing for a show that accurately portrays the everyday struggles of normal people?

Is the US version of Shameless the show that's going to spearhead a change in attitude? Or will it die a quick death because Americans don't want to be reminded of themselves?

If you have any thoughts, kindly leave a comment.