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The Independent Culture
MICHAEL JACKSON, controller of Channel 4, recently decreed that the station must wean itself off American imports. Like anyone else for whom the taste of fat-free American dialogue in Friday-night sitcoms has created a culture of dependency, my initial reaction went something along the lines of "Oh yeah, like sure, dude, like you're really thinking a', like dumpin' Friends, Frasier, NYPD and, er ER."

Jackson is more likely to buy a pet llama and marry Elvis's daughter than drop any of these four untouchables, but other shows are presumably due to disappear from view, or shuffle over to Channel 5, which amounts to the same thing. But which ones? I think we'll all roll out the Union Jack bunting when Cybill finally limps off the premises for good. Caroline in the City, which has just returned on Wednesday because there's no room at the inn on Friday, also lacks the fibre to stick around forever. With Ellen already discontinued in America, that would leave an imbalance of US sitcoms with predominantly male leads, which sets you to wondering whether they'd have to drain off some excess testosterone by dropping Spin City.

Spin City is on a roll at the moment. The first series started nervously with Michael J Fox's deputy manager dating a journalist whose job was to investigate the misdeeds perpetrated by his administration. They were never going to keep that particular ball in the air for long, so the girlfriend was off-loaded, leaving Fox's character, Mike Flaherty, free to roam through a pasture knee-high in jokes about sex, politics and sexual politics.

Last night's episode found Mike contemplating his first free Valentine's Day in 18 years. (That's how long the time-lag is, by the way: earlier, on Friends, the boys were all throwing on winter coats; and this week's South Park was the infamous one about Mr Hankey the Christmas Poo, in which everything about a traditional Christmas was banned in order to avoid offending minority tastes.) Then in walked an ex-girlfriend from earlier in the series, offering to start over and be as committed as Mike was the first time they dated. The tough negotiator sniffed an opening. "I would have done anything for you," he said. "I'm right there," she replied. "I would have given you unconditional love." "I can do that." "I would let you play with my breasts all day."

Without wishing to give the impression that I collect jokes in this neck of the woods, this put me in mind of Steve Martin's line in LA Story about wanting to be a woman so he could spend his whole time fondling his own breasts. But if jokes about the betises of the amorous male is precisely what appeals, there's a lot of it to go round in Spin City. Also in this episode, Carter, the gay, black control freak, protested too much that he was over the lover he jilted four years before. Paul, the emotionally miserly press officer, couldn't find the words to propose to his girlfriend. And Stuart, the office desperado, tried to get a colleague to pity him so much that she'd sleep with him.

Lately there has been a comparable bias in favour of portraying male dysfunction in Friends, too. The recent plotline in which Chandler fell in love with Joey's girlfriend soared to comic peaks that left the other characters grazing meagerly in the foothills. This isn't a total disaster, because Phoebe thrives on scraps like some desert flower, and who cares about tight-assed Monica anyway? But these have been distressingly lean times for Rachel, who has had scant opportunity to display her irredeemable shallowness since she split with Ross.

This week the script tried to fix that. She applied to be an assistant buyer at Bloomingdales, but her boss scuppered her promotion, only to offer her a better job after Rachel threatened to walk out. She went home to tell her girlfriends, but they were falling out badly over their catering business. Her self-congratulatory leap of triumph after they'd stomped out of the apartment - "I'm an assistant buyer!" - was a perfect Rachel moment. The joke may have been stretched when she went in the next morning to discover that her boss had been killed by a car and, far worse, had left no documentary proof of Rachel's promotion. Couldn't Friends draw the line at actually killing people merely to illustrate a character trait? Despite several close shaves, even Kenny didn't suffer his weekly violent death in South Park. But then, it was Christmas.

Thomas Sutcliffe is on holiday

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