A wave of Americana has swept across our screens as US programming has taken charge of the nation’s viewing habits in recent years. From groundbreaking dramas such as The Sopranos and The Wire to police procedurals (CSI) and medical masterminds (House), it seems we just can’t get enough of the productions that are being peddled over the pond.
Once derided for their output, American networks are now being lauded as the pioneers of a new generation of quality programming that’s attracting blockbuster audiences and critical acclaim in equal measure. New shows have become box office entertainment attracting top Hollywood talent on both sides of the camera. From A-list actors of the calibre of Laurence Fishburne (CSI) and Glenn Close (Damages), to renowned directors like JJ Abrams (Lost) and even Steven Spielberg (The Pacific), the small screen is no longer seen as a career graveyard but the medium of choice for America’s brightest talent.
It’s no wonder then that US programming has found an eager audience here in Britain where broadcasters can’t hope to compete with the type of blockbuster entertainment offered by American networks. Digital schedules now groan under the weight of American programming, whilst increased sales of DVD boxsets and the growing trend in both legal and illegal file sharing have created new audiences for those shows that haven’t yet been snapped up by British broadcasters. The evolution of the Internet and the speed at which information can now be disseminated has also meant that new shows now hit our screens days, rather than months, after they’ve aired Stateside creating captive audiences for the latest American series.
All of this has given us a vested interest in American TV and as the major networks are coming to the end of their summer hiatus, a fresh batch of shows are due to hit screens this Autumn / Winter. From vampires to witches, rap stars to Joseph Fiennes, there’s something for everyone and to help you tell the ‘must see TV’ from ‘straight to DVD’ here’s our guide to the best in show from the American networks.
There’s been a recent resurgence in small screen horror on both sides of the Atlantic with the vampiric hordes making the biggest bang of the things that go bump in the night. HBO’s True Blood returns for a second series this autumn. Currently showing on FX and due to hit terrestrial screens later this year, the drama is set in a world where synthetic blood has meant vampires have moved from mythology to mainstream society overnight and is typical of the kind of stylised and cerebral output we’ve come to expect from HBO.
We can, of course, thank Stephenie Meyer’s wildly popular Twilight saga for the latest generation of teenage vamp fans and given the runaway success of the recent movie adaptations, CW’s foray into teenage drama of the Transylvanian variety comes with little surprise. Based on the hit novels by L.J Smith, The Vampire Diaries is sure to appeal to Twilight fans who can’t get enough of the genre’s brooding, bloodsucking and foppish hair. Written by Kevin Williamson, the man behind Dawson’s Creek, you can expect angst aplenty as the show’s bloodsucking brothers, toothy embodiments of Kane and Abel, go to war over the soul of its high school heroine. Smith’s novels actually preceded Meyer’s runaway series but there’s familiar stuff here that fang fans are sure to love.
Re-making a name for themselves
We’ve become used to Hollywood’s recent spate of reworking, reboots and re-imaginings and the networks have followed suit with schedules that make for familiar reading with several remakes making their way onto this Autumn’s schedules. Following in the rather pedestrian footsteps of CW’s 90210, Melrose Place brings teenage drama circa 1980 kicking and screaming into the 21st century. You certainly shouldn’t expect much from a show fronted by Ashlee Simpson-Wentz, and it’s empty calories as far as your TV diet goes, but fine if you want to shut down your higher functions for an hour or so.
Parenthood brings Ron Howard’s brilliant 80s comedy to life on the small screen. Following similar lines to its cinematic sire, the show has promise but may struggle unless Peter Krause can fill Steve Martin’s sizeable comedic shoes.
Over at AMC, The Prisoner makes a much anticipated return as a mini series made in collaboration with ITV and starring Sir Ian McKellen; and Eastwick sees ABC revisit John Updike’s celebrated book, but the network’s decision to cast the Mountie from Due South to take on Jack Nicholson’s celebrated film role should tell you everything you need to know about the show.
Sci-fi, action and adventure
If it’s action and adventure you’re after then be sure to check out ABC’s Flash Forward (showing on FIVE in the UK) where a mysterious global event causes the planet’s population to blackout for two minutes and 17 seconds; not enough time to boil an egg but more than adequate to get a glimpse into their future six months from now. It’s a fascinating premise that bears more than a little resemblance to Lost and carries genuine blockbuster appeal with The Dark Knight scribe David S. Goyer and Joseph Fiennes attached.
ABC continues to flex its science fiction muscles with its glitzy re-imagining of V, a superb 80s series which is ripe for re-working, whilst Fox will be pinning their hopes on Human Target based on the DC comics character of the same name. Hitting screens in 2010 there’s a lot to hope for here and the premise – that of a contractor who becomes the target in order to save innocent people’s lives – certainly opens up a world of all-action opportunities.
Police procedurals and medical marvels
It’s a bumper year for fans of police and medical dramas, which, judging by the success of shows such as CSI and Bones, is pretty much all of you. It’s all pretty standard stuff, a dashing and sexy surgeon here, a quirky but brilliant detective there, but NCIS Los Angeles and Happy Town stand out from the police line up. The former is notable for the casting of LL Cool J in an otherwise generic franchise rehash, whilst the latter attempts to tread in the twisted footsteps of Twin Peaks and, whilst it’s sure to fall short of David Lynch’s seminal masterpiece, there’s more than enough promise to warrant a once over.
If your prescription is for more medical drama you might want to check out Three Rivers, a drama about organ transplantation which has potential and Mercy, an empowering chick-flick of a hospital drama that follows a bunch of sassy streetwise nurses as they save the doctors, the patients and each other – apparently. British talent is also in operation across both genres, but I suspect Rupert Penry-Jones (The Forgotten) and Richard Coyle (Miami Trauma) will come to regret appearances in shows that are a sad waste of their talents.
Just for laughs
This isn’t a vintage year for American comedy, and Cougar Town, a show which sounds more like the result of a 30 Rock brainstorming session than an opportunity for Courtney Cox to revitalise her ailing career, is just one of the reasons why.
Glee a sort of High School Musical for geeks has kookiness in abundance, but sadly laughs are scarcer despite the presence of the superbly talented Jane Lynch.
At Fox, The Cleveland Show is sure to please Family Guy fans offering as it does a continuation of the type of crass, if not enjoyable, jokes made popular by America’s second animated family. But it’s NBC’s Community, which looks like a real gem in the rough, though. Tagged as higher education with low expectations and starring Chevy Chase, it’s smart, well cast and genuinely funny; pretty much everything you’d hope for in a show from Joe and Anthony Russo, the brains behind Arrested Development.