Television: Our Friends in the States

Moments That Made The Year: The old adage that US import equals trashy viewing was finally laid to rest, just as pseudo-science took over the schedules. By Thomas Sutcliffe
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The Independent Culture
It was a year that confounded some received opinions about British television. Who could really argue, for example, that American imports are little more than cheap filler for British schedules in a year that delivered Murder One, Stephen Bochco's imperial display of industry clout? Murder One wasn't perfect, and it disgraced itself with its final episode, but the gloss and style of the 22 that went before had an undeniable, extravagant force and converted this critic into a slavish viewer (not to mention the fact that it also possessed the Signature Tune of the Year). In comedy, too, the Americans proved that their production-line technique, lavishly funded and prodigiously well staffed, could frequently defeat the two-man craft-shops of British sitcom. The Americans would be unlikely ever to produce something as wayward as Father Ted, easily the best British comedy of the year, but they are unlikely to worry too much given that they can turn out programmes like Frasier and The Larry Sanders Show with such consistency (the latter, incidentally, is not just comedy of the year but front-runner for Comedy of the Decade - savage, hilarious proof that irony is an indigenous American form). I confess, too, that I finally capitulated to Friends (runner-up in the Signature Tune category, with its bubble-gum hommage to The Monkees), though it is best to treat it as a radio programme, so that it is possible to enjoy the script without having to endure the gesticulating self-congratulation of the cast.

In homegrown drama, the headline event was Our Friends in the North, although I never quite managed to match my genuine admiration for its ambition with any real warmth of feeling for the thing itself. In the more routine stretches of the schedules - the day-in, day-out feeding of that endless appetite for narrative - several things stood out: This Life was a witty, convincing account of an ecology rarely captured on television, the life of young single people in and out of their first jobs; The Sculptress restored a gothic shudder to the English detective serial; and The Crow Road showed that compelling drama need not follow the ruts of the established genres.

Documentaries were in good shape too. The House proved that the traditional fly on the wall still had plenty of buzz left in it and Modern Times continued to stretch the established documentary techniques (a case in point would be Lucy Blakstad's documentary about flat-sharing, which used multiple cameras to film flat-mate interviews as the emotional dramas they are). It was also a year in which a new genre confirmed its existence. Following on the success of The Real Holiday Show, Moving Houses exploited the ability of hand-held video to get inside people's houses and their lives, a quality that also distinguished the best of the year's Video Diaries - a film about the rigours of adopting a foreign child.

Easily the most pernicious development of 1996 was the viral spread of paranormal programmes, a plague that announced its arrival on BBC with the televisual bubo of Out of This World, hosted by Carol Vorderman and several hundred kilos of dry ice. Out of This World compounded the sin of wilful credulity with that of hypocrisy, presenting itself as sceptical inquiry but undermining common sense at every turn, with tricks of lighting and verbal innuendo. Truly a bias against understanding.

There are antidotes to these triumphs of ignorance in the form of Horizon and Equinox, the second of which earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal for its documentary about the terrestrial origin of extra-terrestrial sightings. Unfortunately the people who need the antidotes most are most unlikely to take them. Turkey of the Year (should you still feel peckish) was unquestionably Wanted, in which Channel 4 spent thousands of pounds on establishing beyond contradiction that watching people waiting in telephone boxes isn't very interesting.