You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The English Channel

Imperial nostalgia invades American television


British television is having its finest hour in the United States, pulling off the fourfecta of critical esteem, industry awards, impressive ratings, and cultural influence. “Downton Abbey” has earned more Emmy nominations than any foreign show in history and regularly beats network opposition in its time slot; PBS’s other straight shot of Anglo period drama, “Call the Midwife,” regularly gets 3.6 million viewers and is called “sweet,” “heartwarming,” and “gorgeously hopeful” by critics; “Sherlock” and the BBC’s “Doctor Who” combine critical respect, solid numbers, and fandoms of Kremlinological complexity, consisting of Tumblrs, fan fiction, and, in the case of “Who,” conventions where adults dressed as robots attend talks titled, “Everything I Know About History I Learned From ‘Doctor Who.’” Online video services, like Netflix and Amazon, allow intrepid Anglophiles to seek out shows like “Black Mirror,” “Rev.,” “Broadchurch,” and “Last Tango in Halifax,” which offer both a unique sensibility and a crucial sliver of cachet. “Our audience tends to be a more discerning group of viewers,” said Charlotte Koh last year when she was head of original content for Hulu; they “appreciate the distinctive and unique qualities of British television.”

But what U.S. audiences perhaps don’t realize is that British television is indulging in a vast, slow spasm of nostalgia, and that the cause of this is a nation attempting to draw an entire phase of its history to a close. This is not just evident in period pieces like “Downton Abbey”: The landscape is dense with attempts to reimagine and conveniently misremember history. At the time “Downton” is set, Great Britain’s dominion extended over one-fifth of the world’s population. Its prolonged and messy retreat from Empire is the cause of some of the world’s most insoluble problems in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. However, in its television at least, the nation averts its eyes from the vast complications intrinsic to its legacy, and focuses instead on the nice and the good.

The true extent of the U.K.’s nostalgiathon is evident if you look at the most-watched shows of 2014. A few spots after the World Cup, there’s the aforementioned warm bath “Call the Midwife,” about a group of winsome 1950s midwives working in the East End of London; “The Great British Bake Off,” in which contestants compete to see who can make the fluffiest Victoria sponge, is way up there, too. The most-watched list also features Britain’s Big Three soap operas, “Coronation Street,” “Emmerdale,” and “EastEnders,” which are 55, 43, and 30 years old respectively—laid end-to-end, they offer over 120 years of comfort and familiarity, of not very new wine in really old bottles. Perhaps most amazingly, “Countryfile,” a documentary show about the goings-on in rural England, is also in the top 25 and is often watched by seven million people. Adjusted for population, that’s the equivalent of 35 million Americans watching a show that contains segues like, “And now over to Matt, who was on the Merseyside coast helping a young wheelwright restore an old shrimping cart to its former glory.”

Britain is attempting to take its mind off things by baking lemon meringue pies, watching football, and shearing sheep. It is not surprising that this cozy-seeming settlement is seductive to Americans. Accustomed to the agonizing turbulence that its pre-eminent position in the world demands, viewers in the United States desire to know that all this effort is worth the pain. British television offers precisely this reassurance. The Brits’ chief imaginative export is the idea that a nation can reconcile with its past, and, crucially, that even if others may not forgive them, they have forgiven themselves.

“Downton Abbey” is the undoubted flagship of the genteel re-invasion, and embodies the newfound complacency of its home nation. The show presents history precisely as we wish it to be: well-spoken and picturesque, and largely lacking any actual history. It reduces a country that governed a quarter of the world’s land surface to an antique diorama entirely populated by good families and their horses.

The show has greatly profited from the TV version of what happens to British people when they enter the United States—i.e., it’s been donated 40 IQ points it does not possess. Remaining largely unawarded in its home country, it is the most decorated foreign TV show in U.S. history. This speaks to pathologies in both nations: In Britain, nothing so much fun is allowed to be good, whereas in the United States, fancy accents and exquisite production design automatically connote high artistic merit.

In fact, “Downton” is one of the most undemanding TV shows ever made, and that’s its chief glory. The scenes are short, sweet, and pithy, and contain one plot point and one tart observation. The characters always act entirely as you’d expect. Downton Abbey, the house, is a microcosmic idyll, its life little more than a sequence of luxuriously catered, exquisitely lit social events. Despite the ever-present array of pheasant, claret, and syllabub, the young couples are sylphlike, bashful, and ravishing, just as they should be. On the unfortunate occasions when we must espy the working classes, they are reassuringly deferential and doughty, and the farmers are dressed head-to-foot from the Aquascutum catalog. The below-stairs folk are stolid, kind, and amusingly long-suffering. “Downton Abbey” teaches us that drudgery can be fun, and that grown men do not lose their dignity when decanting liquids from tiny jugs for the delectation of perfectly dressed layabouts. This cross-section of gorgeously ordered hierarchy is comforting on a civilizational level. There’s a place for everything, and everything is in its place.

“Downton” viewers are searching for beauty, not truth, and so Julian Fellowes beautifies history at their behest: His art department and production crew act as our own band of servants, working tirelessly and invisibly to assure the constant satiation of our narrative and visual demands. When terrible events impinge, the house opens up and becomes a hospital or a soup kitchen, until everything returns to picturesque normality. The Somme appears as a title card; the Amritsar Massacre is the occasion for a predinner chat. But this is fine, because the show’s sole purpose is to delight: Its frictionless gorgeousness absolves it of all blame. Its excellence is not diminished by the fact that the greatest insight it affords us is that it would be terribly nice to have a butler.

“Downton” takes place at the pinnacle of the British Empire, and the way of life it portrays is a summation of the imperial project: a kind of perfection of human society, particularly for those who owned the place. But of course, it couldn’t last. A few thousand English people couldn’t preside over the fate of the world for long. “Downton Abbey” is Britain congratulating itself for its glorious overachievement.

The prime minister from “Black Mirror” weighs his options.

At first blush, “Black Mirror,” a highly feted near-future series, seems to stand in opposition to the idle veneration of the olden days. Instead of a fond glance backward, it purports to offer a gimlet-eyed warning about where we’re headed. The chief fear of the show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, is that technology has enabled us to doom ourselves, chiefly by demolishing the checks on our worst impulses. If there were a device that allowed us to minutely interrogate our spouse’s sexual history, would we use it? If we could somehow re­create a deceased loved one from the traces he left online, would we? Of course we would, Brooker answers, and posits that in doing so, we would lead ourselves to merry hell. The vigor of the show’s bleakness seems to offer an antidote to the gentle ministrations of “Downton” culture, and conclusive proof that the Brits can be hard on themselves when the times demand.

However, dystopian visions inevitably rely upon a sense of what’s been lost, and in many ways Brooker is as nostalgic as everyone else, if only for the benign and fragile present. Deploying a staple of speculative fiction, the show posits that our true, decent selves are being stolen from us. But by whom?

The first episode, knowingly titled “The National Anthem,” offers the following dramatic proposition: In order to save the life of a kidnapped princess, the prime minister of Great Britain must, as ransom, fuck a pig on live national television. As a premise, it’s preposterous, juvenile, and, frankly, more vapidly sensationalist than the culture it’s attempting to satirize. But once the task is undertaken, Brooker sticks to it with remorseless deadpan zeal. After initially (understandably) being dead set against the proposal, the PM soon realizes that he has no choice: The sarcastic and derisive subjects of Her Majesty make it clear that when a princess is in mortal peril, England expects. Plus, it will be a bit of a laugh, right? At the appointed hour, our hero lubes up, thinks of England, and verily the pig is fucked.

There is certainly a scandalized frisson to be had from watching the logic play out. But, as with much of the series, the nature of the indictment is questionable. The PM is human, fallible, and posh, clueless as to what kind of force could have put him into this awful predicament: We feel for him, and after the dreadful consummation, we’re pleased that his political fortunes prosper, and the only thing that appears to have gone south is his marriage. In “Black Mirror,” as in “Downton Abbey,” we’re asked to sympathize with the powerful. So what, or who, is being satirized?

It’s worth knowing that Brooker occupies the central seat in Britain’s media-industrial panopticon: A former online media critic, he then became a TV critic at The Guardian. He’s presented several TV shows that critique other TV shows on BBC television. He once presented a show called “How TV Ruined Your Life.” His paranoia and derision emanate from a high-definition glass house.

This insularity may explain the biggest problem of “Black Mirror”: It often feels like an expression of nostalgia’s frequent companion, snobbery. Its most obvious stylistic predecessor is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal: an entirely absurd premise pursued with apparent syllogistic rigor to its disgraceful conclusion. However, Swift was horrified by the plight of the poor in Ireland, and the purpose of his brilliant gambit was to draw attention to their perdition. It is notable that almost all of Brooker’s victims are upper middle class (politicians and mandarins, artists, lawyers, and media workers), and if they are corrupted, it’s when they play to the crowd. The show feels like an enactment of the private fears of the urban media class: that the dark, febrile id that is apparently leading us all to disgrace emanates from the proles. When we see the lower orders, it’s as crazed studio audiences clamoring for more sensation or as easily manipulated simpletons falling for a vulgar cartoon that runs for political office. The real villains are the uncivilized masses who unthinkingly accept their overconnected lives, in other words, the stupid. Technology has not subdued the hoi polloi, it has egged them on.

The U.S. urban media class loved its glossy, demonic surfaces without feeling the pull of its deep-seated Toryism. Margaret Lyons in Vulture called it “shockingly good”; Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker was similarly impressed, praising its “righteous outrage.” But outrage at what, exactly? That everyone’s on Facebook all the time? That people like bad television? That politics is often dumb? Nussbaum suggests “global corporate hegemony” as the indicted, but the meaninglessness of that phrase, added to the fact that no such hegemony makes an appearance in the series, reveals the elusiveness of the show’s real driving force. Inchoate fears are understandable, and “Black Mirror” is no doubt a superbly made, dark, fun watch, but satire should do more than stand athwart history shouting at the plebs to turn off their phones.

“Black Mirror” was not widely watched in its home country. Futuristic dystopias are not in keeping with the spirit of the times, where even the superheroes are throwbacks: “Doctor Who” has been on the air for more than half a century, and “Sherlock” has zoomed its eponymous central character from the height of empire to the present, his clothing and accent still frightfully classy, his brain sharper than ever. This last characteristic is the key asset of the British superhero: The power of flight is replaced by resourcefulness and wit. After all, once you lose your naval supremacy, you have nothing to rely on but your mind. The Doctor’s weapon of choice, named with maximum geeky quaintness the “sonic screwdriver,” doesn’t “kill, wound or maim.” The once globally dominant Brits turn out to be pacifists after all. Sherlock and the Doctor are in many respects the same character: the quasi-­autistic loner cast adrift from society by circumstances, immune to the domesticating pressures of sexual love, and too clever to have friends. The eccentric intellectual has taken over from the soldier as the most-admired cultural icon: Even British war films are now about code breakers rather than dam busters.

Holmes and Who are also alike in that their old enemies just won’t go away: Holmes can’t shake Moriarty (“The Napoleon of Crime”) until he himself dies, and the Doctor is sentenced to fight the implacably evil Daleks seemingly for all time. These plunger-faced offspring of a Roomba and a dildo are guilty of the two greatest crimes you can commit in England: They’re nasty and they’re boring. They also have the worst accents in history. They are, of course, based on the Nazis. Britain’s best and brightest are still fighting the ghosts of Napoleon and Hitler, and that’s precisely the way they like it.

Around election season, British politicians continually tout Britain as “a modern multicultural society,” and in many ways it is. But its concerns, both imaginative and political, are increasingly parochial. The direction of the wider world is no longer the nation’s business. Going into the 2015 general election, the issue of immigration has brought out an uncharacteristic crouched defensiveness in the populace. Brits really do want to be left to their own devices. The consequent peace and quiet would allow them to focus on going about their day-to-day business unmolested by conscience. History can be recycled into reassuring entertainment, because the country has convinced itself that it’s over.

Needless to say, the United States is not in this position. Its reckonings with the past seem to be just getting started. And the problems posed by its status in the world and by its own actions are gigantic, intractable, and endless. Its TV landscape is correspondingly vast, fraught, bewilderingly profuse, and almost dementedly creative. In both drama and comedy, the political feels deeply alive, with race and gender in particular providing new lines of inquiry and fresh stakes. Genres are collided with abandon and at great speed; all forms are deployed, no taboo is left undiscussed, and the future is clearly highly in play. But when this frenzy seems all too much, Americans can gaze across the ocean and be reassured that things turn out all right in the end, that decline, when it comes, is not to be feared, and that if the national memory is selective enough, you can get away with living quite contentedly entirely in a past of one’s choosing.