Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Beeb
I finally had to take “anglophilia” off my disinterests list. Not that, up until now, I wasn’t interested in England, the way I’m interested in Norway and Fiji and the Falklands, but I never felt the need to fangirl the UK, the way some misplaced Americans do, reaching out for some beautiful, centuries-old, Stonehenge-crumbling historic past with kings and dragons and Shakespeare. I always identified more as a straight-up pomo American, too thick with irony to appreciate any of that very genuine, very poncy history that draped itself all over the Queen’s England. England was a modernist icon, I thought, trapped in endearing — but all the while very earnest — echoes of the past.
Let’s not forget I’m talking about television. And though it’s 2006 it took me this long to get past my own stereotyping — up till now England had been that place with four TV channels and nothing on but Masterpiece Theatre and Fawlty Towers, and all of that was adorably quaint but had very little to do with me, over here, slamming Rocky Mountain’s finest ale and mainlining Family Guy, here on the brink of the second revolution in three hundred years, here in this country that’s hasn’t even reached her two hundred and fiftieth birthday yet. I was busily being the young punk runaway, and I’d very decidedly cast off the shackles of the Mother Country, ’cause fat lotta good they’d do me over here.
Tony Kushner, in the early 90s, back before 9/11, before air attacks on our home soil, let Louis say this, in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.
LOUIS: […]In spite of all this the thing about America, I think, is that ultimately we’re different from every nation on Earth, in that, with people here of every race we can’t…Ultimately what defines us isn’t race, but politics. Not like any European country where there’s an insurmountable fact of a kind of racial, or ethnic, monopoly, or monolith, like all Dutchmen, I mean, Dutch people, are, well, Dutch, and the Jews of Europe were never Europenans, just a small problem. Facing the monolith. But here there are so many small problems, it’s really just a collection of small problems, the monolith is missing. Oh, I mean, of course I suppose there’s the monolith of White America. White Straight Male America.
BELIZE: Which is not unimpressive, even among monoliths.
LOUIS: Well, no, but when the race thing gets taken care of, and I don’t mean to minimalize how major it is, I mean I know it is, this is a really, really incredibly racist country but it’s like, well, the British. I mean, all those blue-eyed pink people. And it’s just weird, you know, I mean, I’m not all that Jewish-looking, or…well, maybe I am, but, you know, in New York, everyone is…well, not everyone, but so many are but so but in England, in London I walk into bars and I feel like Sid the Yid, you know I mean like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, with the payess and the gabardine coat, like, never, never anywhere so much — […] in London, there’s just…and at one point I met this black gay guy from Jamaica who talked with a lilt but said his family’d been living in London since before the Civil War — the American one — and how the English never let him forget for a minute that he wasn’t blue-eyed and pink and I said yeah, me too, these people are anti-Semites and he said yeah but the British Jews have the clothing business all sewed up and blacks there can’t get a foothold. And it was an incredibly awkward moment of just…I mean, here we were in this bar that was gay but it was a pub, you know, the beams and the plaster and those horrible little, like, two-day-old fish and egg sandwiches — and just so British, and so old, and I felt, well, there’s no way out of this because both of us are, right now, too much immersed in this history, hope is dissolved in the sheer age of this place, where race is what counts and there’s no real hope of change — it’s the racial destiny of the Brits that matters to them, not their political destiny, whereas in America… […] Racists just try to use race here as a tool in a political struggle. It’s not really about race. Like the spiritualists try to use that stuff, are you enlightened, are you centered, channeled, whatever, this reaching out for a spiritual past in a country where no indigenous spirits exist — only the Indians, I mean Native American spirits and we killed them off so now, there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political.
And I was eager to fight for our political future, because America felt like the future, even though “future” might simply be what fills the vacuum in a world without a past. And because of that, I was threatened by all that past, all those beams and fish-and-egg sandwiches, all that deep racial history and tradition that paralyzed England and enabled us to open a can of whup-ass on y’all at Yorktown.
Then the Millennium was Approaching, and since then, the millennium came, and brought with it our first attacks on civilian soil; the first serious foreign attack on America since Pearl Harbor, and we all recoiled a little bit and realized how our parents must have felt, wondering what we’d been up to with all our tongue-in-cheek irony and sweeping entitled sense of security, like we really were the Brave New World and nothing could touch us.
Point is, we’re not as cutting-edge as I’d thought we were, and England’s not so backwards modernist as all that. Where we’re actually quite paranoid, stuffy and neurotic and afraid of jinxing ourselves, England’s let loose over the last decade, and all of a sudden those four channels are pushing at the parameters of what we’ve come to expect in television, and over here, the WB and UPN collapse in on one another, folding under the weight of trying to support all that teenaged, contrived sarcasm.
Our new hit shows, “My Name is Earl,” “Supernatural,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” are so much more earnest than anyone would have dared pitch in ’99, in 2000, back when it was all edges and irony. Now we find ourselves craving some security in the familiar, the old tropes of love and loss, heroes and monsters. 2006’s television’s just 50’s television grown up, where the men are men and the doctors are doctors and the heroes kill the monsters and the girls are witty, and clever, and behind every good man.
I watched Coupling and some Eddie Izzard specials in ’03 and ’04, watched The Office and Little Britain in ’05, Green Wing and Doctor Who in ’06. (I also watched AbFab in the late 90s and early 00s, but French and Saunders didn’t do much better than Fry and Laurie to subvert my BBC stereotypes, still the same sort of classic combination of slapstick and vulgarity, no?)
In the optimistic economic eighties, we had yuppie TV like “thirtysomething,” like “The Wonder Years” (yuppie nostalgia) and “Murphy Brown,” like “Family Ties” and “The Cosby Show.”
In the counterculture 90s we had “Ally McBeal” and her dancing babies. We had “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld” and we reinvented the evening soap with “Melrose Place” and “90210.”
We got confused in the 00s, the decade we came under attack and went to war for reasons no one could really identify. For the first couple years we played it safe, we returned to Family Values, we carefully filed down anything that might mean fear. Aaron Sorkin left “The West Wing” just like Clinton left the White House, and both the fictionalized and real versions of the West Wing became treacleized and stopped having anything to say.
And we crawled out of the post-9/11 safety cushion with our wallets out in front of us; we bought what came next with our checkbooks. We got “Family Guy” back on TV because we bought the DVDs, because producers of media were too scared to take a gamble on what we might want, and instead gave us what they already knew we did. “Lost” came and reminded mainstream America of the escapist power of science fiction and the paranormal, and in a move that hasn’t been seen since the Formica-plated 1960s, we brought back sci-fi with a vengeance. Sixteen paranormal themed shows premiered, and were as quickly cancelled.
Which isn’t to say some people didn’t get it right. After all, the 00s gave us “Arrested Development” and “Scrubs,” and saw the practical death of the four-camera sitcom. And in our nostalgia we did some things right, like the reimagined, sexy “Battlestar Galactica” and the completely user-friendly and female-viewer friendly “Supernatural” and “Stargate: Atlantis.”
But the UK beat us to it, lapped us, paced us, set the standard for television in the millennium. While we were busy nursing our wounds and looking for anything unthreatening, the UK went wild with some of the most threatening, raunchiest television ever. Queer as Folk in 1999 came like a big fuck-you to the United States, for all our new-world mentality, we weren’t the first to launch a big gay drama, and then, like we were afraid anything new we dreamed up would look pale in comparison, we just went ahead and took QAF and adapted it for the US. Like there are no other gay stories to tell; like the Beeb had Jossed us good. We took “The Office” for the same reason; we tried to take “Coupling” as if we didn’t really understand that, minus the no-holds-barred penis jokes, minus the really human awkward unflushable insights, NBC-clean, “Coupling” wasn’t really any better than any four-camera sitcom we could have created ourselves, stock, stock and barrel.
So the UK reinvents “Doctor Who” and, across the pond, we reinvent “Battlestar Galactica.” DW adds a canonically gay character in Captain Jack; we heteronormalize a queer relationship (Apollo/Starbuck) but also manage to get a lesbian icon out of the deal. BSG’s poised like an epic space adventure, but what it privileges is the domestic — maternal and paternal leaders, with Conservative military and religious ideals, lead their flock home to the bosom of the promised land, and we hear what we’ve heard in the United States since that September day in 2001, namely, “wouldn’t it be nice to feel safe again?”
Russell Davies’ “Doctor Who,” while reimagined in much the same way, inventing comedy and irony in place of bad special effects and totally unscary robot villains, has the opposite moral, and that’s where the UK’s lapped us. “Doctor Who” doesn’t say, “there’s no place like home” — in fact, it posits that we’re living in a world of infinite possibility, where almost anywhere is an adventure and everyplace beats home. BBC used the same old tin trashcan Daleks and spent its focus on reinventing the characters, and letting them tell (in “The Christmas Invasion,” and others) contemporary political stories, and a timeless love story, with humor and ambition and hope. Maybe the money David Eick and SCI FI used to make the Cylons look so good would have been better spent trying to inject some wit, and some sense of adventure, into Galactica’s sprawling and humorless morality play.
And that’s where the Beeb has dared to revolutionize television for the new millennium. Comedies like “Green Wing” play with taboos I wouldn’t have known the world was ready for, stuck in backwards America in 2006. UK television’s got nothing left that’s sacred, and that in and of itself’s an example of how far they’ve left us behind. In “Little Britain,” Dafydd’s “the only gay in the village,” and for the first time we’ve got not only a canonically gay regular on a TV series, but we’ve got several, which allows us to mock Dafydd’s one gay stereotype by holding it up against lots and lots of others. Because America still hasn’t learned that there’s more than one gay story to tell, more than one gay in the village after all.
Watching British TV now is like seeing ourselves in our parents. I can totally see where we got our wit, our sense of irony, our stubbornness and underdogsmanship. And I can see where we went wrong, where we got too big for our britches and where we didn’t live up to their expectations. In “Green Wing,” Guy challenges Mac to name five famous lesbians. Mac immediately goes to the Brontes, which Guy blows off as too easy, off limits. When was the last time anyone on American TV offered up the name of a nineteenth century author as part of casual banter? Next time Turk asks JD to name five famous lesbians, furrow your brow and look for it.
I still stand by the idea of America, and I love that this country’s all future and no past, all potential and no shackles, because somehow even our most embarassing moments, our lapses in judgement, our slavery days, all feel very recent and natural, the growing pains of a country too big and faced with more freedom than it knew how to handle. But we got attacked, in this decade, and it changed us, despite feeling like we were all grown up in big-boy pants and way past changing, past being sensitive or scared.
“Doctor Who” 2005, “The Empty Child.” The Anschluss has come to London and the kids are hiding from the air raids and Rose tells the girl not to worry, she’s from London, fifty years from now. They win this one.
I was in Brooklyn on September 11th of ’01, and Rose in the air raids reminded me that that’s my experience, the closest we’ve come to being in a country that’s been attacked on our own soil. Seeing a city like London under siege in my dad’s lifetime gave me chills. Like it was impossible to believe this city of Panzers and exploding artillery’s the same as the city where I went to the theatre in Picadilly Circus. And Nancy can’t believe it either, even when Rose tells her they win.
Fifty years of recovering from that does something to a country, I imagine. Fifty years of rebuilding with the same stubborn manifest destiny that’s going into rethinking the new World Trade Towers, nationwide, over generations. And so it is like seeing ourselves in our parents, and more, watching them watch us. And we were on the cutting edge for a while there but in this millennium we’re behind the curve, backwards and stodgy and without any real sense of how to play well with others. From across the pond they mock us and watch us stumble, and in their television and movies and rhyming slang we get a peek into how we could have been, how our parents grew, in a different world, in a different time.
Talk back to me about British TV of the last decade, or American TV of the last decade, or strange books about war. I’m about to start the first series of “Black Books;” I’ll keep you apprised.