TV Land: The British invasion

Few clothing accessories puzzle me as much as the elbow patch. A fez can impress, a bowtie can be cool but an elbow patch just confounds me with its utter uselessness. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking on the origin of the elbow patch. Perhaps, this was a waste of time. Alright, it was a waste of time. But, I’m not alone. There is a place where my sartorial curiosities are not only represented, but thriving. It’s a place of unusually bland foods, of corgies and tea. It’s a place that the Pope has recently dubbed “a third world country.” I’m talking about glorious old England.

The home of Prince William’s balding head holds a special place in my grossly undersized heart. It’s where my mother’s family hails from long ago, in the days of Puritans and Pocahontas. This, of course, was well before my ancestors relocated to the South, picked up a few slaves and fought for the Confederacy. So proud. But England is more than just the source of my familial origin. I didn’t know any of this history before I stumbled onto last month in an effort to avoid an essay. Beforehand, I just knew British television. A lot of it.

British television works differently than American television. For one, the vocabulary varies from our own. A season of television is a “series.” A quiz show is more colloquially referred to as a “panel” show. And reality shows are professionally described as a “heaping pile of shit.” The latter is the same in the U.S.

But it’s more than just one country incorrectly pronouncing “aluminum.” There’s no “i” in it! Get it right, Brits. Structurally, a “series” only consists of six or 12 episodes unlike the typical American order of 22 or 24. The truncated size may seem lazy, but it fundamentally changes how a TV show works.

It’s an example that’s been beaten into the ground almost as much as my self-esteem, but what the hey, let’s go there. “The Office” U.K. ran for only a total of 14 episodes. That’s barely half of one season of the U.S. version, whose season five ran for nearly 30.

Right. Who cares? That just means less antics involving staplers and sexual tension with the secretary. But, it also means that because there is just less content, there must be more happening. And, arguably, there is. In just 12 short episodes and two Christmas specials, the U.K. version took its characters farther both plot-wise and emotionally.

That’s not to say it’s better. The U.K. “Office” was a different show altogether from what the U.S. has become. It was darker, more cynical and had far less Lady Gaga references (the early 2000s were so innocent before she showed up). No, it wasn’t better as much as it worked differently as a visual medium. British television functions far more like an American miniseries than standard TV.

We get six episodes (or 12) planned as a complete set. Series 5 of “Doctor Who,” though problematic in parts, carried its Fairy Tale tone throughout each episode, carefully weaving in common elements (mostly a bow tie, fez and elbow patches) as part of a larger, more concentrated arc that stands strong as an isolated story.

Now, America has started to do the same. We always do. First, we steal their language and love of figgy pudding (that’s not just me, right?) and now, their television structure. Next thing you know, we’ll all be wearing redcoats! Alas, the horror! Actually, on second thought, that might be a good change because I look ravishing in red. The change isn’t a bad thing for TV either.

Cable dramas have already picked up the format. “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Boardwalk Empire” all share the shorter season structure and in my opinion, are better off for it. There’s no excess from an expanded episode count and because of that, there are no expendable episodes. All episodes have been carefully planned to perfection and their quality is heightened because of it. The only thing missing is the elbow patch.