British TV broadens its horizons

If the average British television viewer were asked to name the shows they have watched in their life which originated in neither the UK nor the USA, the smart money would be on Neighbours and Home and Away, maybe with a few nostalgic mentions of Due South. The vast majority of imported shows on British television come from America, and it’s easy to see why – it’s a country with a vast, relatively well-funded television industry, which reliably churns out a huge amount of carbon copy comfort food and a small number of cultural gems on top. But does filling our airwaves with US shows only make us blind to the rest of the world?

Over the last few years, a trail of foreign-language television drama has been blazed in the UK by critical favourites such as the Swedish Wallander, the original Danish version of The Killing, and the Danish-Swedish combination smorgasbord of The Bridge. Despite the concentration required to watch these shows, not only attempting to solve the central mysteries in the cold, gloomy, murder-ridden world these shows inhabit, but also reading subtitles at the same time, all three gained decent audiences and in a few cases exceeded the viewing numbers of American critical darlings such as Mad Men. This is probably partially attributable to the crime procedural format, well known to be one of the most reliable types of TV show for attracting big audiences, but must also owe something to a viewing public that is willing to put aside their culture and even their language for an hour or two, and to engage with something slightly different.

A further interesting development happened this year TV SyFy UK’s decision to air original fantasy and sci-fi shows from outside the US: specifically, Continuum (from Canada) and The Almighty Johnsons (from New Zealand). These are not the type of shows that will naturally get large audiences from their subject matter (they are, after all, sci-fi and fantasy), nor do they have any critical buzz for exploring the depths of the human psyche or pulling off any particularly cool directing tricks. They are simply genre shows that are from neither the UK nor the US, and to have two of them airing simultaneously feels quite special.

Admittedly, Continuum has obviously been made to be palatable to a US audience as well as a Canadian one – its futuristic scenes are even set in the ‘North American Union’ – but still it has an approach which is subtly different from the show as it would be made in the US. (For example, I’m reasonably certain that the terrorists who blew up skyscrapers in a scene reminiscent of September 11th aren’t going to turn out to be all bad.) The Almighty Johnsons is an even more surprising choice to air, given that it is a home-grown New Zealand production that is not particularly written with the outside world in mind – stories revolve around characters failing to get restrictions on bringing wood into the country, or even the possibility of a Māori pantheon of gods to challenge the transplanted Norse god protagonists. These shows may have the English language, but they don’t have our standard television setting of a) London or b) southern California.

But television is surely all the better for a wider representation of the world. Instead of being reviled for ‘Americanising’ our culture, why shouldn’t it show us that everyone in the world has their own stories to tell? Now we just need to expand our range beyond Scandinavian/Australasian…