American drama: Hit the road, Jack – and smarten up, Don

They outclass their British counterparts, but some American drama series are starting to lose their lustre, says Fiona Sturges

Much has been made of the golden age of US television drama in the past 10 years. And justifiably so. While British television has pretty much given itself over to home-improvement shows, cookery programmes and reality TV, with the occasional classy drama to keep viewers from committing hara-kiri on their sofas, America has given us a near-constant stream of decent and in many instances exceptional dramas – think The Sopranos, The Wire, The West Wing, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, 24, Damages, ER, House - each of them arriving with scope, ambition and apparently bottomless budgets. But while there's no disputing the fact that American studios have raised the bar with deftly written, intellectually challenging and terrifically acted drama, there's one problem that seems to afflict their shows: they don't know how to quit when they're ahead.

Last month it was announced that, after eight arduous seasons of kidnappings, assassinations, computer hackings, deadly viruses, radioactive meltdowns and Jack Bauer's steadfast refusal to crack a smile, 24 was finally being axed. When the series started in 2001, it was fast-paced, densely plotted and full of clever twists that effortlessly quickened the pulse. Played out in real-time and presenting a day in the life of a Counter Terrorist Unit operative, it was like nothing we had seen before.

But as the seasons went on it began to repeat itself and, worse still, parody itself with cartoon villains and plots that stretched your credulity to breaking point. Each series saw 24 desperately trying to outdo itself with the lengths to which Bauer would go to catch the bad guys.

The medical drama ER was another once brilliant series that outstayed its welcome. Its breakneck pace and meticulous attention to detail made it one of the best hospital dramas in television history for nigh on a decade but later it became complacent and lazy, swapping patient storylines and battles against hospital bureaucracy for soap opera-style shenanigans among the hospital staff. For me, the beginning of the end came with the beatific demise of Dr Mark Greene from a brain tumour while lying on crisp white linen in a house in Hawaii. But still ER limped on for five more series, apparently impervious to plummeting ratings and critical drubbings.

Other more recent imports have showed a similar decline in quality after just a few seasons. House, a medical drama about Hugh Laurie's prickly patient-hating New Jersey doctor, managed to maintain its momentum for two brilliant seasons before turning into a formulaic medical brain-teaser along the lines of Diagnosis Murder. The hugely hyped FlashForward, the thriller with Ralph Fiennes, burned out shortly after it began, with the heightened drama of the first episode, in which the human race undergoes a world-wide black-out, proving impossible for subsequent episodes to match. Even the endlessly extolled Mad Men, a show celebrated for its slow pace and elegant aesthetic, went through a lull in its last series, having sidelined two of its most compelling female characters, Peggy Olsen and Joan Holloway, and focused instead on the frustrations of the less sympathetic Betty Draper.

One of the main problems with so many of these dramas is the number of episodes in a given season. While Mad Men has around 13 episodes per season, ER and House average 24. With that kind of schedule it's no wonder that the writers struggle to maintain the tension. When you consider that some of the world's most experienced film directors struggle to keep a two-hour movie on course, it's little wonder that small-screen directors are apt to struggle with a drama that is expected to run at up to 24 hours per season, at one season per year.

Of course, no drama series is without its flaws – sorry folks, but even The Wire had its off-days – and contemporary American drama has certainly come closer to perfection than most. If only they could understand that less is nearly always more.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?