The banality of American popular culture

It is fashionable to describe US television in adulatory terms, when truly innovative work comes from Britain
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The Independent Online

Only a few days into January, and already the media hype machine has cranked into overdrive, with the first "must see" drama series of 2005 starting on Channel 4 last night. Heavily promoted and extensively advertised, Desperate Housewives has been touted as a worthy successor to both Twin Peaks and Sex and the City - but is it truly a satire, or even remotely original television? It's certainly been a hit with audiences, more than 22 million Americans tuning in, and has gathered critical praise and a whole clutch of Golden Globe nominations. Following the fortunes of four women living on the same street in southern Californian suburbia, it's narrated by their absent friend Mary Alice, who inexplicably blows her brains out the week before the story starts.

Desperate Housewives certainly looks fantastic, all tracking shots, cranes, super-glossy interiors, loads of lip gloss and soft, warm sun. There is no doubt that the acting is of the highest order and all the production values are exemplary. But it's about as cutting edge as a packet of Symingtons Table Cream. Its success proves, just as the re-election of President Bush demonstrated, that Middle America rules the country and dictates popular taste. In spite of faux-daring dialogue (one woman's teenage daughter asks her how long is it since she had sex, while another clobbers her husband for trying to force her to have an unprotected bonk), Desperate Housewives never really starts to get to grips with the stultifying set of values that sum up suburban America, the ideals that propelled Bush back into the White House.

The fact that it upset organisations promoting "family life" and advertisers like Kellogg's (unhappy with the content) means that America is more easily shocked than at any time in recent history. British viewers will have found Desperate Housewives more anodyne than any episode of EastEnders, and I've heard far more explicit talk of sex on Radio 4's Woman's Hour before my elevenses. If nothing else, it proves that Britain and America have very different sensibilities. We are grown-up, sophisticated, knowing and capable of layers of meaning. Sadly, Desperate Housewives proves once again American popular culture is one-note - it tells you a story in a childlike, simple way and then clobbers you over the head with it time and time again. Subtle it ain't.

Before Bush's re-election campaign got under way, there were worrying signs that any dissent from public figures in the States meant they weren't patriotic. But since Bush's day of victory, what has happened to all those prominent Americans who were going to leave the country if Dubya triumphed? Michael Moore is now making a film about the health service, Alex Baldwin is still a US resident,and Barbra Streisand has been conspicuously silent.

Bush's re-election proved that most voters are not city-dwelling, sophisticated, well-read liberals, but suburbanites who watch mainstream TV and go to church. Americans have continued to buy into the dangerous concept that they are "fighting" a war on terror that can be won, and Bush is secure enough to despatch his brother Jeb, the much-criticised governor of Florida, as a special envoy into the tsunami disaster zone with Colin Powell.

But, if the level of political debate that emanates from America seems emasculated, that is nothing compared to the banal level of their popular culture. When some of the biggest grossing American films in recent years feature talking fish, I realise that there is not going to be a lot more creative happening on the small screen. Since the ground-breaking Twin Peaks 15 years ago, American television has steadily stagnated. In this series, David Lynch brought together a dreamlike quality of story-telling, an original take on Middle American values combined with visual imagery and superb casting in a way never seen on US television before. And what since?

In spite of all the hoo-ha, Sex and the City was froth, no more no less, making no comment worth noting on the predicaments facing modern urban women. Six Feet Under - a brilliant concept which ran out of steam. The Sopranos, once thrilling, now about as tired and unexciting as last night's spaghetti bolognese reheated. 24 - the first series was certainly a ground-breaking concept but subsequent attempts to prolong its life are risible. For sheer memorability, Angels in America, directed by the legendary Mike Nichols, has been the only US series in recent years to have any chance of a place in the television hall of fame. The performances of Al Pacino, Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep ensured this was one of the greatest American television dramas for over a decade, a moving and timely comment on the ravages of Aids.

The idea of living in America appals me, if I was condemned to watch their television, endure their level of conversation, operate in an irony-free zone. It is so fashionable to describe their television in adulatory terms, when it is here in Britain that truly innovative work is happening. We manage time and time again to produce television series which not only reflect our multicultural country with all its stresses and joys, but we can produce work which appeals right up and down the social scale in the process.

From The Office to Little Britain, the best television in the world starts here. We are capable of constantly re-inventing formats, revisiting classic series, and pushing the boundaries of taste with reality television and original documentaries. We can be confident that our society, warts and all, is reflected through our television screens. On the other hand, American television is made by committee, cast by investors, tested to within an inch of its life with focus groups, put together by teams of writers and bank-rolled by companies like Disney who espouse mainstream "family values", no matter what they say to the contrary.

At Christmas, the BBC broadcast a new Sherlock Holmes saga, this time with Rupert Everett in the title role played to perfection by Jeremy Brett for Granada 20 years ago. It is a sign of the confidence and strength of British television that classics like these can be constantly updated and reinvented for different generations without any diminishing of their appeal. The Kumars is a wonderful television series in which some of our best Anglo-Asian actors mock the cult of celebrity, comment on ethnic communities in Britain, and showcase clashes between the different generations, all within the format of a chat show combined with a soap opera. This kind of multi-layering yields rich results, but it is not the kind of work with which Americans feel comfortable.

The Yanks want to have their cake and eat it. They seek to be culturally dominant by flogging their television shows for a great deal of money around the world - Desperate Housewives has been sold to 60 countries - but they also want to be taken seriously. Take Nip/Tuck on Sky - an achingly funny drama series built around the lives of two plastic surgeons operating in Florida. But does it actually make any real comment about the relentless quest for physical perfection underpinning so much of America? No way - likewise Desperate Housewives is entertaining fare, but socially aware? I think not.