The United States hardly suffers from a patriotism deficit (“USA! USA!”), which makes its mild inferiority complex regarding the screen noteworthy. In gentrified quarters there’s a prevailing sense that imports possess more class, from France’s deliciously effervescent romantic comedies to the U.K.’s stately period dramas.
New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley summed up this snobbery in her second-season review of “Homeland,” calling the Showtime drama “smart in almost a European cinema way, but also just television-dumb enough to be enjoyable.”
Yet if familiarity tends to breed contempt, TV and movies are also governed by the law of averages and the statistical truth — much like baseball — that more at-bats invariably yield a higher percentage of outs than hits.
Similarly, as networks hungry for original programming begin bringing more imported productions to U.S. shores, the perceived qualitative edge starts to fade amid an increased number of clunkers.
Not too long ago, U.S. viewing of international TV fare was largely confined to the curatorial instincts of PBS’ “Masterpiece” and BBC America. Both had the advantage of selectively treating discriminating Yanks to the cream of the British crop.
The desire to provide fresh, signature programs prompted more channels, especially within the premium tiers, to get creative about relatively inexpensive acquisitions. Not surprisingly, Canadian and British programs have led the way, though other countries where English is spoken, such as Australia, have joined the parade.
At first this produced a small rush of enthusiasm, along with the “We are the world”-type hope that Americans might become more cosmopolitan and open-minded about work from abroad. Indeed, amid the boffo ratings for “Downton Abbey” earlier this year one naive soul (as in yours truly) wondered if Americans were becoming less parochial.
Since then, such ebullience has been tempered by the mediocrity of several recent offerings with an international passport.
This month, for example, Encore will premiere the miniseries “Titanic: Blood and Steel,” a ponderous look at the construction of the doomed vessel that’s the second tepid Titanic-themed miniseries import (ABC aired another in April) to set sail this year.
These leaky vessels join misfires like Encore’s “The Crimson Petal and the White” and ReelzChannel’s WWII-era “Bomb Girls,” which, like “Titanic,” at least had the advantage of being one of those titles that practically writes its own zingers for lazy critics.
Simply put, if the world only saw the U.S.’ top handful of series, our creative legions would look pretty stellar too, much as viewing only the Oscar-nominated best foreign-language films provides an incomplete view of world cinema. It’s only when you entertain a truly broad menu that one’s diet starts shifting from a gourmet feast to include more fast food.
International TV projects often feature recognizable American actors, usually in minor supporting roles, presumably to attract attention from xenophobic U.S. news outlets. For some reason, the “Sex and the City” gang is especially popular this month, with Chris Noth hiding behind a Mr. Monopoly moustache in “Titanic” (he plays JP Morgan) and Cynthia Nixonappearing in Ken Follett-based medieval miniseries “World Without End” on Reelz.
These actors collect paychecks, naturally, while providing projects headlined by those with unfamiliar names a dollop of Stateside sizzle. The tradeoffs include being showcased on the TV equivalent of an Off Broadway stage and occasionally getting caught in the suction as some of the more epic failures circle the drain.
Hope springs eternal, of course, and there have been unexpected gems — see DirecTV’s “Hit & Miss” and Australian drama “The Slap” — receiving exposure via these acquisitions. More often, though, U.S. viewers wouldn’t have missed much had these productions been denied a visa.
The political season has produced considerable talk about American exceptionalism, and the “America first” crowd no doubt sees those who dare speak of the U.S.’ homegrown creative output in second-class terms as purveyors of liberal elitism.
By that measure, the increase in imports should have something of a leveling effect. Because however much some may relish envisioning other parts of the world as havens for sophistication, “television-dumb” knows no borders.