by Deren Hansen
There I said it. And I'm prepared to face accusations of a lack of patriotism or, worse, elitism.
of it is the cultural distance: it's easier to believe people across
the pond are like the ones I see in the programs because I don't rub
shoulders with many counter-examples. Cultural distance is, however,
even more important on a structural level. The British programming with
which I'm most familiar has come through the good offices of various PBS
stations, who presumably have selected from among the best programs.
also confess a weakness for the language. Between the accents and the
slang, viewing British comedies is a more engaging experience because it
requires effort on my part to follow along. Their writers seem to have a
particular gift for articulate, literate, sarcasm.
I think the most important reason is the format. Thanks to the
commercial interruption, American sitcoms have two acts, where their
British counterparts have only a single, longer act.
addition to forcing the story into two acts, the American format
requires the first act to end on a strong enough note to keep the
viewer's interest during the commercials. Then the second act must bring
down the tension in order to have enough runway to build to the climax
of the story. In other words, the story has to have two high points: a
false climax at the end of the first act and the narrative climax at the
end of the second.
In contrast, British sitcoms can
spend the entire half-hour developing the characters and building the
narrative tension toward a natural (in the sense of having only one
This is why there's some truth to
the generalization that British comedies are driven by character, while
American comedies are driven by caricature.
Of course my point here is not to argue for English superiority but to show how structure effects storytelling.
you haven't seen any British sitcoms, you owe it to yourself as a
writer to compare and contrast. It's an eye-opening exercise.