American TV Isn't Very American Right Now

COVID-19 has given rise to an unprecedented amount of international programming on US airwaves.
  • US networks are plugging holes in their schedules with shows like Canada's Coroner (The CW), and the UK's Jamie: Keep Cooking and Carry On (Hulu) & We Hunt Together (Showtime).
    US networks are plugging holes in their schedules with shows like Canada's Coroner (The CW), and the UK's Jamie: Keep Cooking and Carry On (Hulu) & We Hunt Together (Showtime).
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all his Primetimer reviews.

    I remember as a kid when my local TV station signed off for the evening — this was by order of President Eisenhower, who had an early bedtime. As the U.S. Marine Corps Band played the National Anthem over grainy footage of Old Glory flapping in the breeze, I would bask in the glow of the broadcast day just ended and think: American TV is the greatest TV in the world.

    Now, it’s possible my recollection is a bit hazy, and that I made up the part about Ike. But the greatness of American TV in my youth was an indisputable fact, literally, because American TV was pretty much all I got to watch. Oh sure, my PBS station would occasionally try to hook me on shows from overseas — Monty Python, Doctor Who, The French Chef — but back then it was an iron rule that American viewers watched shows made in America, because only those cultural pillars known as ABC, CBS, and NBC understood us.

    We did get two TV stations from Canada at my house. I remember watching countless hours of curling matches and never figuring out how it was played. Mostly, though, what Canadian TV aired was American TV. I watched The Carol Burnett Show on the Calgary station because it was on at a more convenient time. It simply never occurred to me that other countries were putting out their own TV shows that could compare with ours.

    Remarkably, the assumption that American TV had to have a "Made in the U.S.A." sticker on it held well into the 21st century. But then Netflix came along, became a behemoth in 190 countries, and started an import-export business, trying out shows in other countries and in the process, ending the age of American TV hegemony.

    And that brings us to this weirdest summer of all, where nearly every interesting new program airing or streaming on America TV is an import from Australia, Canada, or Great Britain. Faced with a shortage of fresh content after the pandemic shut down production months ago, American networks are hoarding what few new shows they have left, and plugging the holes in their schedules with foreign acquisitions. Some of it is low-rent reality TV that we’d all recognize, only with accents. Some of it is among the best television being produced anywhere in the world… with accents.

    Showtime, for instance, was supposed to be bringing us The Good Lord Bird, Ethan Hawke’s long-awaited (by me, anyway) adaptation of James McBride’s National Book Award-winning comic novel set in 1850s Bleeding Kansas. But no, Showtime is putting that on hold and instead promoting We Hunt Together (debuting on August 9th), a six-part detective thriller from BBC Studios which aired this spring in the UK. Though a complete pivot away from John Brown and slavery, We Hunt Together does offer two intriguingly matched Black man-white woman pairings:

    Meanwhile, Hulu is calling this week its “British Binge-cation,” with UK shows dropping each day, kicking off today with Jamie: Keep Cooking and Carry On, a new quarantine cooking series from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

    Say this for the Brits — they don’t string their viewers along. Six episodes to a season is the standard, not eight, and certainly not 20. Maxxx, tomorrow's debut, stars O-T Fagbenle as a onetime boy-band star trying to get the glory back with help from his former manager, played by SVU alumnus Christopher Meloni. Produced for Channel 4, its first season takes less time to watch than two nights of America’s Got Talent. Likewise the BAFTA-winning In My Skin, a comedy about a teenager with an unfortunate home life that drops a first season on Thursday that's just five episodes long.

    While Hulu is a going concern with thousands of on-demand shows, The CW only has to fill two hours a night, and as I noted recently, it seems to be having trouble doing even that. A couple of Canadian shows are coming up on The CW, and they’re actually kind of entertaining — bonus: one of them is even on-brand.

    Fridge Wars, which begins Aug. 2, gives cooks 45 minutes to make something fantastic out of leftovers found in people’s refrigerators, so it’s Iron Chef meets Subzero. The primary quality of Fridge Wars is that it’s friendly and polite, like Canadians. A young-adult drama from Canada, Coroner, starring Serinda Swan as an impossibly young medical examiner, debuts Aug. 5 on The CW. It could easily have fit into The CW’s lineup a few years ago, before comic-book heroes took over the entire schedule.

    In the end, viewers probably aren't going to care too much if their shows aren't in American English, so long as they're on-brand. That's what makes The CW's choices, Coroner aside, so curious. Taskmaster (also Aug. 2) is a British import where various UK comics take on physical challenges from host/“taskmaster” Greg Davies. It’s a lively mix of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Double Dare, but as a CW show it feels as schedule-filling as an infomercial.

    By contrast, two Australian shows that recently dropped on Netflix — the Cate Blanchett immigration drama Stateless and the autism dating series Love on the Spectrum — embody the high-concept, autoplay-friendly entertainment that Netflix has become known for. Or take Upright, now on indie streamer Sundance Now. Written by and starring Tim Minchin (Broadway’s Groundhog Day) as a burned-out musician driving across Australia with a runaway played by Milly Adcock, Upright is loaded with goofy dialogue and oddball characters, with two appealingly flawed leads and a kick-ass soundtrack. All of this makes Upright a perfect addition to Sundance Now’s library, in any year and any season.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Coronavirus, Coroner, Fridge Wars, Jamie: Keep Cooking, We Hunt Together