Thursday, 24 July 2014

Television: Escapism or Realism?

Thursday, 24 July 2014
Is television drama an escape from reality, or a mirror on the world?

To immediately answer that question, it can be both. But which do you prefer? Why do YOU watch scripted television drama? Is it because it offers stories that simply can't happen in the real-world (i.e. escapism), or because it reflects ordinary lives in a more dramatic way (i.e. realism)?

I think it comes down to personal taste, and I certainly don't stick to either "type" of drama exclusively, but chances are you favour one or the other. Having grown up seeing TV as an escapist medium, I tend to enjoy the more fantasy-tinged shows over the deadly serious dramas.

And that, generally speaking, means I prefer American drama over British. They invest more in escapist fare (which often can't be done without serious cash investment), but the lower budgets of UK dramas result in more real-world shows. There's occasionally a luxuriant period drama (Downton Abbey), or a strange concept goes mainstream (Life on Mars), a cult favourite becomes a global money-spinner (Doctor Who), or a down-to-earth idea gains modern-day pizazz (Sherlock), but most of the drama output for the UK is low-key fare. Cops, doctors, lawyers.

U.S television also has its cops, doctors, and lawyers, of course. But those shows always feel more "heightened" than their British equivalents; maybe because the U.S networks can't resist showmanship and have cash to flaunt. Just compare BBC legal drama Silk with CBS legal drama The Good Wife. They're apples and oranges. There's always embellishment with U.S drama (leading to fizzy pop entertainment?), whereas U.K shows value greater accuracy (leading to fine wines)?

You see this difference sharpest with soaps. In the U.S soaps are a daytime guilty pleasure involving millionaires and murder, whereas U.K soaps concern ordinary people and murder (when ratings need juicing). There were hopes to create an EastEnders-style "blue collar" soap for American TV about five years, but it never happened. Maybe it's because U.S studios can't see why ordinary people would want to watch other ordinary people, because don't reality TV and documentaries have that covered? The closest America's come is probably their adaptation of British dramas Shameless and Getting On, but I can't vouch for how down-to-earth they've remained.

Oh god, this is devolving into yet another U.K vs U.S debate, and I really didn't mean it to! It's just unfortunate our two countries are the ones who, for reasons of culture and finances, largely favour "realism" or "escapism", respectively.

Which do you prefer? Is there nothing you like more than getting a fascinating insight into an area of real-life you don't interact with much, through the prism of a scripted TV drama? Or is reality the last thing on your mind when you turn the telly on, as you seek something completely distinct from normality and current events?

Please vote in my poll and, if you wish to elaborate and trigger some debate, leave a comment below!