BBC Culture

From Downton to Sherlock: US TV’s British Invasion

About the author

Ken Tucker is a writer and critic who contributes to the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and NPR, among others.

  • Valuable exports
    Downton Abbey recorded over 10m viewers during its fourth series premiere in the US, a record for America’s Public Broadcasting Service. (ITV)
  • Holmes-ground advantage
    PBS is pairing Downton with three new installments of Sherlock, the series that made Benedict Cumberbatch a star and earned him a massive US fanbase. (BBC)
  • Baker Street to Wall Street
    Elementary, a present-day Sherlock Holmes adaptation set in New York and starring British actor Jonny Lee Miller, is a top-rated programme for US broadcaster CBS.
  • Funny bone
    British TV in America was formerly limited to weekend PBS programming blocks of old comedies like Are You Being Served? and Keeping Up Appearances. (BBC)
  • Whodunnit?
    The 50-year-old Doctor Who franchise has won a huge following stateside, setting viewership records for BBC America and packing convention centres with fans. (BBC)
  • Quirks and quarks
    British sci-fi like Who and Black Mirror may appeal to the US audience as an alternative to homegrown sci-fi, which is often imitative of Star Trek and Star Wars. (Channel 4)
  • Casting against type
    More British actors have been taking on American roles. Idris Elba first achieved popularity in the US on The Wire, and Damian Lewis earned a following on Homeland. (HBO)
  • True grit
    US networks are taking inspiration from British programming. David Tennant, star of the detective procedural Broadchurch, will appear in a remake for Fox. (BBC)
  • Inviting satire
    Humourist Armando Iannucci exported the acidic sensibility of his UK series The Thick of It to America via the comedy Veep, starring Julia-Louis Dreyfus. (HBO)

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Downton Abbey is smashing records and Doctor Who is filling convention centres in America. Why is TV from the UK so popular across the pond? Ken Tucker reports.

When the fourth series of Downton Abbey premiered in the US on 5 January to more than 10m viewers and a new ratings record, it was hardly a surprise. The previous success of Julian Fellowes’ real-estate-porn soap opera showed it satisfies a deep need in the American viewing public’s collective psyche: a barely subconscious yearning for a time when manners mattered, when people knew their place – even if such a time never really existed. When a Downton Abbey season is in full swing, it provides millions of US viewers with a safe haven from the vulgarity and violence of so much TV programming. Lord Grantham is never going to be revealed as a human-liver-eating serial killer; Lady Mary is never going to join the Real Housewives of Yorkshire.

America’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) now has that rarest of things for a network that struggles with slim ratings and ageing demographics: a blockbuster Sunday prime-time schedule. Beginning the night with Downton, imported from UK broadcaster ITV, it is followed by three new installments of Sherlock, a clever, quick-paced update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuth. These are just two examples of the many British TV offerings the US audience is now devouring. For American Anglophiles craving small-screen entertainment from across the pond, the variety and amplitude of imports has begun to seem like a mini-golden age of television.

Imported British programmes have long served as video comfort food for Americans who crave proper grammar with their giggles and furrowed brows. For a long time, before cable’s proliferation, PBS shaped America’s view of British-made telly. The programmes fell into two camps: the twee (Britcoms such as Are You Being Served?, Yes Minister and As Time Goes By) and the eccentric (Monty Python, Fawlty Towers).  What is different now is the way British-made programming reaches a bigger, more diverse audience in the States via a multi-media mix of broadcast and cable TV, internet sites like NetFlix and Hulu and  DVD sales. British TV in the US no longer has a cult following; it has mass appeal. Simultaneously, American-made programmes are being influenced by UK television more than ever.

Genre benders

The earlier era of TV Anglophiles had similar tastes to fans of the mystery-novel subgenre known as the “cozy” in which an air of frowsy familiarity prevails. Some US viewers persist in the notion that the British are inherently both more sophisticated than Americans yet also more down-to-earth. That sounds like a gross generalisation but it is a recurring theme in reader comments below articles on British TV published on US websites. Now a new wave of Anglophiles appreciates pectoral muscles and doe-eyed beauty as much as the correct use of the titles of peerage. Twitter and Instagram, in cahoots with paparazzi pictures of Downton stars in modern garb, render these performers bigger stars than actors from the era of the original Upstairs, Downstairs.

But new technologies don’t entirely account for British TV’s mainstream success in America. There has been a more diverse selection of programmes being imported from the UK in the last five years, shows that bend genres and rack up bothcritical raves and younger,more intense followings. PBS airs Call the Midwife, for example: It comes on like a soothing medical drama from the 1950s, but it is actually far more hardheaded and complex about the roles of women as patients and caregivers than most American doctor shows. Whereas something like Grey’s Anatomy plays up zippy romance, lest its viewers find being in hospital a downer, Midwife makes the very act of women helping women seem not merely heroic but a pleasingly heady, hearty mixture of feminism, moral complexity and light-comedy shenanigans.   

And just as the British science fiction of writers like China Miéville and Iain Banks has found a welcome audience in America, imported television sci-fi permeates much of the fare that intrigues younger US Anglophiles. British sci-fi TV doesn’t live in the shadow of Star Trek and Star Wars, as is often the case with American sci-fi. There is an imaginative freedom set loose in programmes like Black Mirror (an anthology series in the tradition of The Twilight Zone), The Fades (spirits of the dead are signs of the Apocalypse) and Being Human (the vampire/werewolf craze crossed with Friends).

Indeed, it is in the nooks and crannies of genre fiction – sci-fi, thriller, medical and romance shows – that British imports are making their most intriguing impact. Ripper Street features Matthew MacFadyen as a bowler-hatted hunk hunting Jack the Ripper and other miscreants in a tidily grimy East End. Broadchurch, broadcast in the US last year on BBC America, is, although set in a quaint British suburb, a scaldingly hardboiled mystery that is far more grim than what you would find on a US procedural. What Americans are responding to right now in these series is their small-scale intimacy and their close attention to detail, whether it is in a period setting or a well-conceived near-future.

Rule Brittania

The UK sensibility gets imported to the US in sneaky ways. While a tepid American remake of The Thick of It vanished quickly, its original creator, Armando Iannucci, has triumphantly brought that show’s blowtorch satire of government incompetence to full-blast power in the HBO comedy Veep. Idris Elba made his first American impact slinging drugs on HBO’s monumental The Wire, before confirming his sex symbol status as the brooding cop on Luther. Some American-made shows are now benefiting from the mixture of sexiness and articulate tartness supplied by British actors such as Jonny Lee Miller in CBS’ Sherlock variation, Elementary, and Tom Mison as a floppy-haired sex-symbol Ichabod Crane on Fox’s surprise supernatural hit Sleepy Hollow.

It was Downton Abbey, though, that started and remains, even in its more mechanically plotted current season, the spearhead of the new British invasion. Downton floated onto American airwaves in 2011 as merely the latest entry in the long-running anthology series Masterpiece Theatre, which had become the place to go if you wanted a low-budget adaptation of a 19th Century novel. In retrospect, it is obvious that PBS did not have a clue that Downton was going to become a hit, a pop-culture phenomenon: Fellowes’ baby received no big promotional push, no extra oomph, yet found – created – its audience anyway. Viewers in both the UK and US responded to its slight twist on an old formula. The Upstairs, Downstairs model had been freshened to accommodate themes and subplots involving class warfare, race, homosexuality, babies born out of wedlock and rape, even as Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess continues to drift in and out of drafty rooms emitting artfully aimed spitballs of spite and genial contempt.

Downton creator Fellowes has been commissioned stateside, by NBC, to come up with an American Abbey – a series that is tentatively being called The Gilded Age, about 19th Century New York society. In effect, he’s being hired to replicate the success of Abbey on a bigger-network scale. And therein lies a potential pitfall. A phenomenon like Downton Abbey and cult smashes like Luther or Sherlock work best in small doses: tighter budgets and a more limited number of episodes than American networks usually order pays off in audience hunger for more. And creating hunger for one’s product is a key element in TV popularity that crosses all genres and any country of origin:  Business is business, whether it’s about butlers or aliens.

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