NOWAK: Appeal of British TV a simple deduction

Photo by Rebecca Rebholz // [email protected]

I’m about to make a statement that will put me in an extreme minority among college students.

I rarely watch TV shows. Even on Netflix.

It’s not that I have anything against the great American pastime; I just always find some excuse not to sit down and become completely indulged in one show to the point where I feel obligated to catch up on a new episode every week. The last time I did that was for “Monk,” and I have all eight seasons on DVD and undiagnosed OCD to prove it.

For the most part, I just don’t have the time, but there’s also a lack of interest in the material. Nearly all American TV shows revolve around the same storylines – solving murders, dealing with humorous, yet familiar family issues or bragging about a glamorous lifestyle to make the rest of the country jealous (I’m looking at you, reality TV). The plots continually recycle throughout the seasons with little at stake for characters we don’t care that much about anyway. Common themes even jump between shows on completely different channels, keeping you in a state of déjà vu every time you hold the remote.

Of course, there are times when I’ll flip on NCIS — my absolute guiltiest of guilty pleasures — for background noise while I’m doing something, but I rarely follow an entire series. Unless I’m watching “Sherlock.” Nothing can tear me away from a screen showing Benedict Cumberbatch in a deerstalker cap.

Since its 2010 debut, the BBC One crime drama quickly became one of the network’s most popular shows. Based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic novels, it features Cumberbatch as consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as his trusted friend and sidekick Dr. John Watson, who solve modern versions of Conan Doyle’s crime mysteries.

The stories have been retold in countless stage, film and television adaptations, and yet the season three premiere of “Sherlock” on Sunday drew more than 4 million viewers to PBS, in addition to 10 million from its UK debut. Just two weeks earlier, British period drama “Downton Abbey” set its own record with 10.2 million viewers tuning into its season four premiere, making it the highest-rated drama in PBS history.

So, what’s the appeal with British television that makes these PBS Masterpiece shows such masterpieces?

For starters, they look and feel like feature-length films. Each episode of “Sherlock” is close to 90 minutes long. Until season three, “Downton Abbey” episodes took 75 minutes. The time slot allows writers to develop the plot and characters over the course of one episode, instead of an entire season. This is only possible with the lack of commercial breaks during shows (brought to you by the contributions of viewers like you. Thank you). Even shows with a half-hour time slot fill out the entire time. The additional five minutes of content may not seem like a lot, but that’s more than enough time to make a striking plot twist.

In order for those twists to affect the audience, you need smart writers to write smart scripts, and the UK has no shortage of those. Stephen Thompson and “Sherlock” creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, both of whom wrote for “Doctor Who,” chronicle the detective’s adventures with a wit and humor no American writer can duplicate. They somehow develop gripping plot twists at the end of every season, and since the seasons only have three episodes, they pop up a lot more frequently than those in most American shows. Having fewer episodes per season also improves the quality of each. In American TV, there’s always that point in the season where you know the writers were struggling to get something out.

Even the cinematography feels like a movie, with a wide variety of camera angles and effects to keep the audience attentive without distracting from the story.

While these qualities are found in exceptional American shows, like “Breaking Bad” or “The Walking Dead,” they are just a few in a pool of otherwise mediocre entertainment. British shows give American audiences a chance to get away from that and see something that keeps them thinking and wondering what will happen next.

To be fair, no one should expect American producers to create a show like “Sherlock” just as British producers cant be expected to make another “Breaking Bad.” The cultures are just too different, but that doesn’t mean we should deny our fellow Americans the genius that is British television.

That’s elementary, my dear reader.