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Contemplating Whether American TV is ‘Genius’

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Growing up in England (having been born there in the first place) my TV options were limited. As a child I could either watch The A-Team and Knight Rider or that epitome of British TV, Hi De Hi (a depressing soap about a low-cost holiday camp). There were a handful of British TV gems, but those were few and far between. Even in my adolescent years, about the only TV show I can remember enjoying was The X-Files (this has nothing to do with Gillian Anderson honest guv…).

Fast forward to the last few years, and one can see that British TV has improved immeasurably. Shows like Hustle, The Office, and Top Gear are well-written, entertaining and captivating (I'm defining captivating as 'making me ignore my laptop for the duration of the show').

So what does American TV currently have to offer the British viewer, and is it still better? Is it 'Genius'?

For the purposes of comparison, I'm going to pick my three personal favourite American shows: Heroes, Lost, and Entourage.

Let's start with Heroes. It's incredibly popular, every office I've worked in since Heroes started airing has had regular informal group discussions on the latest episode. Heroes has replaced Eastenders as the office TV discussion topic of choice. The only UK show to get as much office talk-time as Heroes is Top Gear, but whereas Top Gear is mainly popular with the male demographic, Heroes is popular with both sexes. In my opinion, Heroes has achieved a very nice balance between having engaging and interesting plots to keep existing viewers coming back and being 'glossy' enough to tempt casual and new viewers. The central premise of Heroes – ordinary people who discover their own extraordinary powers – is one which appeals to almost every little boy's and girl's imagination and that's got to be a winner.

Lost is also a great series. My countrymen (and women) agree, voting it Best American Import at the 2005 BAFTAs. I missed large chunks of Season 1 which I still haven't caught up with properly yet, but from the moment I started watching the show, the complexity, mythology, obscure references, and sinuously twisting plots appealed to my inner geek. However. Whilst my inner geek is intrigued, my outer cynic is wondering if the main story is becoming a bit too farfetched. I do believe that the show is genius, and to date the writers seem to have done a good job of creating complex and interesting plots and subplots without letting the viewer lose the overall narrative, but the possibility for a slide is getting ever larger. The show has some very good eye candy too – for boys and girls. The Jack Vs. Sawyer debate still rages amongst female friends (and a few male ones), whilst I face a tough choice between Kate and Juliette. In short, yes I believe Lost is 'genius' but whether it will continue to be throughout the remainder of Season 4 and through the remaining three full seasons is anyone's guess.

Finally we come to Entourage, a show which in my mind possesses that great combination of attributes shared by CSI, Sex and the City and Friends – it's real and it's shiny, and this makes it genius. I do believe Entourage is real, as in really happening right now. I don’t need to consciously suspend my disbelief to believe that Entourage could just as easily be a documentary as a fictional show.  It feels real, it feels true to life.  It doesn't have complex and twisting plots which challenge my credulity. It's very character driven, although curiously the lead character Vince Chase seems the weakest one of the bunch. Is this intentional? Well, the show is called Entourage not Actor so with that in mind the lead does have enough charisma and credibility to serve his purpose and let the stories focus more on his companions and their relationships. So Entourage is 'real', and it is also very 'shiny'. By this I mean that it's polished, it's been well produced and every scene has a bright, glossy sheen. Whilst the plots are relatively straightforward, the casting is fantastic – who can fail to love Jeremy Piven as the funny, obnoxious and deeply offensive Ari Gold? He alone rates the accolade of 'genius' or at least his scriptwriter does.

One thing that must be considered with Entourage though is it's possible relationship to Sex and the City, which was, as I'm sure you are aware, a very popular show with a certain demographic.  However, it wasn't overly popular amongst my heterosexual male friends and co-workers, unless we were looking for nudity, of course. I've occasionally thought that Entourage is little more than a male version of Sex and the City. Both shows focus on a small group of same-sex people; their relationships both with each other and with others outside of the group, their personal lives and their ambitions. Both shows, as previously mentioned, feature relatively straightforward and not especially adventurous plots (no time travel, flying, smoke-like monsters etc….), and both feature some fairly typecast characters (Turtle and Samantha both obsessed with chasing after physical gratification for example).  So if Entourage is just a rework of Sex and the City, does this make it genius? Or were the writers and producers of Entourage cashing in on a known good formula by adjusting the parameters to make it appeal to a whole new demographic?  But, even if they were, is does having done it so successfully return it to 'genius' status? 

I still love watching my favourite shows, even if they aren't all totally original or genius, or if they're just re-works of old shows. Because even if they're not genius, they do entertain me, and that's something one can't lose sight of whilst searching for genius.

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