The absolute best of foreign TV often makes it to American shores, but it usually comes in the form of a shortened film version of a European miniseries or a DVD courtesy of some company like Criterion. Love Fanny and Alexander? Scenes from a Marriage? Berlin Alexanderplatz? All were originally made for television on foreign shores, even though most American audiences came to them through cinema showings or DVDs. Even something as relatively esoteric as Lars von Trier's The Kingdom has seen U.S. DVD distribution (and a poor U.S. remake, courtesy of Stephen King). So the very best of foreign miniseries and made-for-TV movies make it here, even if it takes a little while.
That's not the case for TV series, generally. There's simply no existing economic model for taking a foreign series and doing subtitles (or dubs) for it, then presenting it to American audiences. There's really no channel the show would air on either. Outside of specialty markets (kids and anime fans, pretty much), the foreign TV we get hails from the UK or Canada. Heck, we barely get any Australian TV. While the vast majority of other countries get virtually everything produced for American TV as well as a healthy dollop of stuff from elsewhere, we, by virtue of being the largest television content producer in the world, don't struggle to fill our airwaves and see relatively little in the way of foreign content. It's entirely possible this will change; BBC America has proved that showing programs that originate in other countries can be a moneymaker, and channels as diverse as Comedy Central and Sundance are experimenting with showing programs from other nations. But this is all creeping along as slowly as you would expect gradually opening up a hermetic industry to outside influences would take.
So this list comes with a big caveat: These are the best foreign series that I've seen, and I go out of my way to download critically acclaimed shows from other lands that don't seem likely to see a U.S. airdate. Even with that, I see very, very little foreign television, much less than those of you in other countries see of the output of my nation (and I should point out that if a critically acclaimed series originates in, say, China, I really have no way to know what the hell it's about, as I don't speak the language or fully understand the cultural customs and assumptions of that country). What's more, this is JUST an overview. I could have done a list of JUST Britcoms or something. With all of those caveats in mind, here are 10 shows from the UK and Canada that I think are pretty chill.
Canadian production, 1976-1984
As you will learn over the course of this list, I'm not a big fan of sketch comedy. I do love the goofy charms of SCTV, however (and one other Canadian sketch troupe, whom we'll get to). While most sketch shows are ridiculously disconnected, creating a real sense that the actors may just be making it all up as they go along, SCTV was great because it created a thin tether between its sketches -- namely that they were all part of the programming on a fictional television network. This led to some pretty lame parodies of bad TV, but more often than not, this was truly inspired, funny stuff. The careers the show launched are also fairly estimable, including the careers of John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy and Harold Ramis. At the time it was broadcast, SCTV was seen as the antidote to an increasingly tired Saturday Night Live, and NBC even imported the show to air after SNL for a while (in one of the few cases of a major American network picking up an import and airing it basically unaltered instead of remaking it). SCTV's cultural and historical specificity mean it has aged more poorly than most of the best of SNL, but there's a daffy charm to the show all the same. Much of the show's run is on DVD from Shout! Factory, so if this sounds interesting to you, checking it out might not be a bad idea.
If it were on the real list. . .: SCTV probably would have struggled to make the real list, but I wouldn't have been surprised by it landing in the low 90s.
British production, 1991-2006 (sporadic)
In the early '90s, American cop shows were pretty cheesy. They had ridden the Hill Street Blues motif of cops with shattered personal lives straight into the ground, and they were coming up with some truly odd alterations to that formula. While NYPD Blue was still a few years away, many critics believed the best cop show work going was on a series of miniseries produced in the UK and aired on PBS starring Helen Mirren as a woman who was a good cop with a terrible personal life. Reading that sentence now, it seems as though Prime Suspect might have been the most cliched thing ever, but at the time, it was bracing, especially as it showed just how hard it was for Mirren's character, Jane Tennison, to make her way in the police force as a woman (in the first series). Subsequent series confronted more and more of Tennison's personal demons (from alcoholism to an unplanned pregnancy), and the policework always remained tight; in short, as Tennison got better at her job, her personal life collapsed more and more. Mirren retired the character for a long while to focus on films, but returned for two final series in the 2000s, both of which aired on PBS to great acclaim. While Mirren had worked steadily since the 1960s, Prime Suspect helped bolster her reputation among American audiences, who gobbled up the miniseries as quickly as PBS aired them. All of the miniseries are available on DVD, and it's worth checking them out for Mirren's work alone.
If it were on the real list. . .: As Prime Suspect aired as a series of Masterpiece Theatre miniseries in the U.S., it would have been ineligible for the list. It's still great, though.
British production, 1969-1974
What else do you say about Monty Python, one of the most written-about television shows in the history of the medium? Also, how do you justify putting the show, probably the most influential British show of all time, at eighth on a list like this? Well, to understand my mixed feelings about Python (a show that was blindingly uneven but probably the best example of a sketch show when it was on), one has to understand that I came to the show's fans before I came to the show itself. Python is one of those things that's so funny that everyone thinks they can do a good Python impression or get some great laughs just by doing their twist on one of the most famous sketches. Because everyone's quoting them at you all of the time, it's hard to go back to the original sketches and see just what made them brilliant without all of that interference in the way. It doesn't help that Monty Python is just as uneven as the vast majority of sketch comedy. All of that said, the best of Python is so good that it almost makes any criticism of the work as a whole invalid -- I mean, the Dead Parrot sketch, posted above, is so pitch perfect that there's simply no way to remove the show from a list altogether, as I briefly thought about doing to protest the general over-rating of the program. And it's rather hard to imagine a TV world without Python, which influenced all sorts of programming the world over, including, arguably, Saturday Night Live itself. The series' broadcast on PBS stations across the country made it one of the biggest import hits on that channel, even if not all stations showed it (which is how I got to college without having seen a minute of the show -- stupid South Dakota). Like all things with overzealous fans, Monty Python is a bit overrated, but when you rent the DVDs, look past some of the stuff that hasn't aged so well and get to the real gems like that dead parrot or the goofy songs or the Spanish inquisition or even the department of silly walks.
If it were on the real list. . .: I'm sure the show would have occupied a place in the 60s or 50s, to accommodate Python's far-reaching influence.
Canadian production, 1988-1994
There's just something about the air, I guess, in Canada that produces great sketch comedy, and my favorite of the modern sketch troupes is, indeed, Canadian. There was something so seemingly wholesome and innocent about each of the troupe's members that some of the strange, demented stuff the group came up with was that much funnier. Despite their connection to SNL producer Lorne Michaels, the Kids were famous for staying away from celebrity impressions and pop culture spoofs, choosing instead to do more general spoofs on culture and old movie tropes. They also frequently employed gay themes and characters, playing off of North American discomfort with such things to hilarious effect. Kids in the Hall was uneven, like all sketch shows, but because it was such a concentrated comedy series, this was less noticeable -- the Kids were able to make most of their sketches count, and they didn't overstay their welcome, leaving the air after their fifth season. The best of Kids is strange and a little surreal, and if you've never seen the show (understandably, since Comedy Central seems to have stopped showing it), picking up the complete series on DVD is in order.
If it were on the real list. . .: As the Kids are my favorite sketch comedy troupe, I would have found room for them in the upper 50s or lower 40s.
British production, 1975, 1979
The show that became perhaps the most influential British sitcom of all time worldwide aired only 12 episodes in two seasons that aired three-and-a-half years apart. No less a show than Cheers cited Fawlty Towers as a marked influence on its idea of showing the workplace as a twisted sort of family (and, indeed, Cheers' original setting was in a hotel in an homage to Fawlty Towers). Created by series star John Cleese and his wife Connie Booth, the series was memorable for how clearly defined its characters (especially the character of Basil Fawlty, played by Cleese himself) were. The generic humor and stereotypical characters of many workplace shows were discarded by Fawlty Towers (though many of the character here later became generic stereotypes on other series). When watching the series today, it's remarkable just how much of it holds up. When watching many of the other acclaimed sitcoms (British or otherwise) of the 1970s, a certain amount of understanding about the cultural situations the shows arose from is necessary to glean the most amusement possible from the series' humor. Not so with Fawlty Towers, which is just pure, unadorned silliness, like the best of Python. Though that silliness may seem occasionally strained to modern eyes (and the series IS available on DVD in most regions), Fawlty Towers remains one of the best workplace sitcoms ever made.
If it were on the real list. . .: I'm sure the 40s or 50s would have been where I placed the show.
British production, 1963-1989, 2005-present
Doctor Who is the British Star Trek in many ways -- a mostly unassuming little science fiction program that somehow went on to become a cultural behemoth. While the original production of the show offered up some good, fun television, the 2000s reimagining of the program is where the concept has really managed to shine. While the original series was often clumsily educational (even as it was engaging in having Daleks exterminate everything), the new series wears its geeky charm like a badge of honor -- it's family TV that doesn't feel at all ashamed to be doing something family-friendly; in short, the sort of stuff the U.S. forgot how to do a long time ago. Watching a good Who feels exactly like pulling the covers up over your head and turning a flashlight to the pages of one of those science fiction anthology magazines with spaceships and tentacled aliens on the front. As conceptualized by Russell Davies, the series is broad enough to allow for all sorts of storytelling, even as its continuing story (of a lonely alien who comes to love humanity) resonates. As with most science fiction shows, not all of this works, but the best of it gains a heft that you rarely see outside of those thick, doorstopper science fiction novels about lost space colonists or somesuch. Who has aired sporadically in the U.S. (and at least two public television stations still air the original, cheesy series), but its newest incarnation has become a staple of the Sci Fi channel and one of their flagship series. Much of the series run from both the past and present is available on DVD, even in the U.S., and if you're looking for some solid, science fiction entertainment, you could hardly do worse than, say, The Girl in the Fireplace or Blink. (A brief aside to note that Stephen Moffatt is one of the best television writers in the history of the medium, and his work for British television has been almost uniformly stellar. Look for the Whos with his name on them.)
If it were on the real list. . .: Probably the high 40s, if only for its influence on British popular culture over the years.
Canadian production, 2003-2006
I love the live theatre. Much of my college career was spent as a member of one theatre troupe or another, and I frequently found myself staying up late into the night to help out building sets or running rehearsals or just hanging out with my theatre friends, laughing and drinking. Few, if any, television shows have ever captured the rhymes and rhythms of the live theatre like Slings and Arrows, the story of an oft-struggling theatre troupe that puts on mostly Shakespeare plays. Slings and Arrows perfectly captures the bleakly comic worldview of people committed to a way of life that's mostly out of the mainstream now and the lust for fame that goes with that all too often. Created by Mark McKinney (of Kids in the Hall), playwright Susan Coyne and Bob Martin (one of the creative forces behind the popular musical The Drowsy Chaperone), Slings and Arrows collects a uniformly strong cast (which features Paul Gross and, in the first season, at least, Rachel McAdams) and puts them through their paces with excellent scripts that almost fetishize the many rituals of the theatre. The series aired on Sundance Channel in the U.S. to respectable ratings and much critical acclaim before ending after three seasons of six episodes each. The entire run is available on DVD, and I guarantee you'll work your way through the low-key dramedy before you even know you've popped in the first DVD.
If it were on the real list. . .: I really like Slings and Arrows, so I wouldn't be surprised by a placement in the 30s.
British production, 1967-1968
It's hard to imagine television without The Prisoner, a series that has been so thoroughly co-opted by so many other series (just a quick list of shows that tried to latch on to its low-fi weirdness would include The X-Files, Lost and occasional episodes of The Simpsons). The brainchild of series star Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein, The Prisoner dumped a full complement of mind-bending goodness into 17 episodes that still mostly hold up, even if the production values occasionally leave something to be desired (still, those bubbles that float around as sentinels have never been improved on -- and they were mostly constructed as a budget-saving measure). The Prisoner tapped into the free-floating paranoia of the late '60s and somehow anticipated the even more concrete paranoia and dread of later ages. To watch it now is less to groove to just how out there it all is and more to marvel at just how much of the current worldwide mood it absolutely nailed (I mean, people being hauled off to some sort of prison that tries to disguise itself as not really a prison for little to no reason? And the real enemy being OURSELVES? Whoa!). Like all '60s sci-fi, there's stuff in The Prisoner that might seem laughable to modern audiences, but it's hard not to watch the series and not be impressed by how accurately it nails that slowly creeping sense of dread. The series aired occasionally in the U.S., usually on PBS stations, acquiring that cool air of something slightly contraband as it grew in its reputation as a cult series over the years. A complete series DVD set no longer means you have to luck out and live in a market that's rebroadcasting the show, but it still carries that whiff of being something that's broadcast from another galaxy.
If it were on the real list. . .: Probably in the 20s. It's one of the great one-season wonders, and it's hard to imagine a lot of TV without it.
British production, 1986
Even in the United States, Dennis Potter's work has acquired a whiff of "too good for TV." That's why I'm cheating a bit to include this miniseries on the list (which, if I had a whole list of British miniseries, should also include the miniseries Pennies from Heaven and Bleak House). The Singing Detective is one of the true highlights of television's history, a bold blend of musical sequences, detective stories, a dying writer and a long string of flashbacks. Potter drew heavily on his own quirks and failings to create the central character of Marlow (played so memorably by Michael Gambon), and the resultant work brims with his own personal reminisces and regrets; it feels like nothing less than the creator tossing his life entire into a blender and then reassembling the pieces in a dramatically satisfying manner. Potter's original script made even greater use of television convention and the skewering of it (the hospital scenes were originally supposed to be shot like a sitcom), but the work itself takes enough chances with form to have become a favorite, even in the U.S., where it aired on cable and PBS and won a Peabody. The miniseries is available on DVD and highly recommended; just stay away from the 2003 American film version.
If it were on the real list. . .: It would have been ineligible. But I wanted to remind people of its existence.
British production, 2001-2003
Damned solid and only occasionally over-the-top (funny as it is, that David Brent dance scene goes a LITTLE too far), The Office is one of my favorite television series of all time, a frank examination of how the modern corporate workplace breaks down essential humanity, leaving it free to pursue other interests, be they an illicit romance, a series of practical jokes or motivational speaking. Anchored by a performance from Ricky Gervais that's so good he'll probably spend the rest of his life trying to run away from it, The Office seems, at first, to be baldly misanthropic, with little love or tolerance for its characters. But as you watch more and more of it, you realize that the show has a deeply humanist core -- it spends the first season tearing them down, then spends the second season seeing what's left of them before restoring their dignity in the Christmas specials that close out the series, letting them go off with some, though not all, of their dreams accomplished. The Office is probably the best argument there is for the British model of limited series that come to a logical end. In the course of a little under 10 hours of television, it says all it needs to say and then leaves you wanting more. The Office, unlike so many workplace sitcoms, isn't about how your workplace functions as a crazy second family; it's about how that dysfunctional family came about because someone else forced it to be that way. This is a series about how surprising it is that any of us can function in that manner. A huge hit in the UK, the series was the first big success for BBC America and has since spawned new versions of itself in countries around the world (the concept is, after all, incredibly elastic). The complete run is available on DVD, and if you've only seen one of the remakes or you've never seen any of them, you owe it to yourself to check this out as a holiday treat.
If it were on the real list. . .: Yes, it would have placed second. No really!
Today's Christmas Tune: Mostly forgotten today, Fred Waring was one of the premier choral directors of mid-20th century America, and his sweetly sincere and utterly frill-less work deserves to be rediscovered. Check out his Pennsylvanians singing "Silent Night."
Tomorrow: Places 70-61, including the next great workplace sitcom, rock stars and a show most of you will slap your foreheads to find is on the list.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
9) Prime Suspect
8) Monty Python's Flying Circus
7) Kids in the Hall
6) Fawlty Towers
5) Doctor Who
4) Slings and Arrows
3) The Prisoner
2) The Singing Detective
1) The Office