Howard Jacobson: We could learn a thing or two about television from the Americans – really

It seemed dire at first. I would channel hop and get only ads, interminable ads
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The Independent Online

A blizzard closed the city the day my plane landed in Washington five weeks ago and a warm spring sun is shining the day I leave. Someone trying to tell me something?

A damned shame, I call it. I'd have liked to see Washington with people on the streets, and Washingtonians with smiles on their faces. If I'd wanted to see a population in an ice-induced state of catatonic depression, blanched, desolate, too cold to be curious, shrunk into their alpine North Face anoraks like snails poked into their shells by some sadistic gardener, I could have stayed in London.

Winter is no season for old men. No season for men of any age, in my view, or women, come to that, though at least a woman can wear a fur hat and coat and get through February looking like Anna Karenina. Yes, I know there's an animal argument against fur. But it doesn't apply to February. In February it's dog eat dog. March, too, the way it's going.

The advantage of being snowed in is that you get to watch a lot of television, that's if you like television. My hotel suite in Washington had a wide-screen television on the wall of every room so you never needed to miss a minute of your favourite programme, that's if you have a favourite programme. Mine, while I was there, was King of the Hill, a cartoon less overtly anarchic than The Simpsons but subtler in its satire and more subversive sexually. Americans are strange about sex. On some channels they pixillate a cleavage, on others they throw the C word around like Confetti. The movies they show on television are nearly all emotionally retarded; if you want to be generous you could argue that their subject is emotional retardation, but it amounts in the end to the same thing – men behaving like boys who think they're behaving like men, interested only in getting into girls' pants, not so much for the sex as to be able to tell their friends about the sex.

Show Americans sex as practised and thought about in other countries and they grow agitated. I went to the cinema twice in Washington, first to see Haneke's The White Ribbon, which is a masterpiece, and then to see Polanski's The Ghost Writer, which isn't. There is a deeply distressing scene in Haneke's film in which a man turns on his mistress in a rage of sexual revulsion, emptying his loathing on her in a torrent of abuse. Only embarrassment, or even shame, could explain the awkward snorts, the sniggers even, that greeted this scene. But why, for an adult audience, would shame take such a form? Even in easily embarrassed old England we don't wrap discomfort up in laughter. As for the gasps of suppressed mirth occasioned by the sight of Ewan McGregor taking his drawers off in The Ghost Writer, there is no explaining them either, unless the American audience saw a joke I hadn't.

Retarded sex apart, I am missing American television. It seemed dire at first. I would channel hop and get only ads, interminable ads whichever button I pressed, except on the Public Service Channel where I'd have welcomed an ad to break the tedium of the worthiness. And then there was the problem of finding what we think of over here as a "programme". You know – someone cooking, or looking into a lavatory pan, or estimating the value of an antique grandfather clock, or altering a house, or telling a perfectly well turned-out woman that she looks a fright in skirts that don't stop where her bottom does and re-fashioning her in the style of a Wolverhampton street-walker – you know: a programme for Christ's sake! In their place – instead of one excuse after another for showing the English proletariat gathered round a bar exchanging inanities, exchanging inanities around a bar being all the English proletariat ever does – endless weather maps and talking heads, followed by more weather, followed by more talking heads, all going over the same item of news, over and over whether it was Obama's stalled health reforms or the war in Afghanistan or the record amount of snow that had fallen from the minute my plane touched down in Dulles International Airport, every event treated with the same thoroughness as any other, a speech, a suicide, a snowflake. With, of course, this one exception: not a word about what's doing in the land of America's staunchest ally, Britain, unless, of course, an old Sherlock Holmes movie is showing.

But something happens if you can abandon your hurt patriotism and give yourself to television of this sort. Slowly, you start to like it. We have long abandoned the fantasy that British television is the best in the world, at least when it comes to the substantial stuff, the drama series of which we cannot bear to miss an episode, the comedy that excoriates - The West Wing, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Frasier, Curb Your Enthusiasm, programmes that bear comparison with great literature. Marooned for ever in the sub-drama which is class, unable to give convincing voice, as the Americans consummately can, to a diversity of cultural experience – because for us everything diverse must first pass through the mincer which is "Englishness" – and that means class again – we fail to approach either the moral fervour or the pitch-perfect antic boldness of series such as those. But we have consoled ourselves with the belief that at least we still lead the world in news and current affairs. After a month in Washington I'm not so sure.

Reader, though you have to suffer the rancour and the bigotry which many news channels do not scruple to conceal, the constant rubbing at the itch of opinion becomes infectious for the reason that it's passionate, witty and leisurely. No one is looking at the clock. No producer is whispering down a presenter's ear piece to wind it up. Best of all, no one is interrupting – that curse of English broadcasting: the hectoring interrupt – except in the sense of wanting to do battle, and a battle is not the same as an interruption. Some horrendous things are being said in America about Obama, about the state, about the fear that socialists are coming to steal people's furniture, but the argument is being had out vociferously and voluminously – for that's the other side of the bigotry on some channels, the amount of counter-bigotry on the others. Our neatly edited current-affairs programmes are more elegant, but they don't allow for the roar and rage of opinion in which America revels. We might not laugh when someone undresses, but we still have much to learn about what makes a great democracy.