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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Storytelling on British and American Television

by Deren Hansen

I enjoy British sitcoms more than American ones.

There I said it. And I'm prepared to face accusations of a lack of patriotism or, worse, elitism.

Part 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.

I 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.

But 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.

In 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 climax) resolution.

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.

If 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.

2 comments:

Julie Daines said...

I love British telly too, having lived in London for a while growing up. There is something about the humor that is just a touch sophisticated and so very dry. Have you tried the IT Crowd?

Deren Hansen said...

Yes.

While it slipped from the sublime to the ridiculous at times, we quite liked the IT Crowd. The "commercial" for FriendFace was priceless.