<i>Extras</i>: BBC America: What Went Wrong?

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BBC America: What Went Wrong?

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's Extras is the type of clever British programming that BBC America used to beam over to the States all the time. How times have changed for the once-cool cable channel.
By Patrick T. Gorman  Oct 5, 2005

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s new show, Extras, has just premiered on HBO and again they show they’ve got terrific comedic chops. Yes, it’s not as good as The Office, but it’s still a damn fine show, better than anything else out there. (Although, I’m not entirely sure why they started the American season of the show with what is actually the third episode.)

With this new arrival, however, it reminded me of a few years ago when cable television blew me away with the advent of a little something called BBC America. As a longtime Anglophile/Celtophile, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see programs that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to otherwise. It was a beautiful relationship at the beginning. Filled with promise and hope. I was smitten by such shows as the sketch program Big Train with Simon Pegg, the extraordinarily quirky yet moving miniseries Eureka Street that dealt with Northern Ireland, and Julia Davis and Rob Brydon’s dark and delicious Human Remains. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, The Office came along and blew myself and everyone else away. For a generation of comedy buffs, this would be our Sgt. Pepper’s. However, it was not to last as I began to notice BBC America was beginning to act more American and less British.

First off, a reality show called Faking It suddenly had its British narrator overdubbed with an American female narrator. The network had gone back and changed the narration from Michael Kitchen’s mellifluous tones, which could deliver British phrases and lingo in a way that moved the story along with a wry sensibility, to someone who sounded as though she were doing a bored weather report. With this change, it appeared that a line had been drawn. BBC America could be British, but maybe not too British. Did it matter that all of the people on each episode still had these “crazy” accents and the narrator did not? I don’t know, but something began to smell a bit ratty. I still watched the programming though, especially because of inventive and clever shows like Peep Show and Murphy’s Law. Nonetheless, as I watched new episodes of Murphy’s Law – a detective show driven by James Nesbitt’s eccentrically captivating performance as Murphy – I noticed the stories begin to only just barely make sense. Like something was missing. I wasn’t completely smitten with the show, so I wasn’t too bothered to look into it any further.

This changed with Green Wing. An extraordinary comedic concoction unlike anything I’d ever seen, shot in a style so adventurous and cool that you couldn’t help but be impressed, Green Wing captured my heart immediately. But one day when Googling the composer for the show’s music, I came across a review that commented on a funny part that was in the first episode about how two of the doctors dared each other to name five famous lesbians. What caused me to bolt upright was that the scene wasn’t in the first episode I had watched. In fact, I was able to track down a version of the show as it aired in Britain, and it had a good 10 more minutes that the version aired here.

Instantly, I added up all these previous facts and came to the conclusion that BBC America was cutting my comedy drugs with baby powder. The bastards were altering shows – not for content, but for time. For commercials. And that’s when I went through the looking glass. In today’s day and age, people can get anything anywhere – and generally quite legally. I’ve purchased DVDs from Amazon’s British site for years now to get TV shows that I’d never get to see otherwise. I’ve even heard such a thing as Bit Torrents where people can download shows; even the BBC is planning to do a variant on it in the next year or so. Thus they’d be cutting out the middle man of BBC America, and then where would I go to see plentiful commercials for Urine Gone and dodgy “Weight Loss” drugs?

So, this is where our relationship has come, BBC America. To a good old fork in the road. Yes, I’m BBC America’s ideal viewer, but most likely not for long. I’m one step away from giving you a proper British two-finger salute if you don’t change your ways soon. And I know just how you can change for the better:

First, if you’re going to show a program, show the entire show. If you have to create a slot that goes from 8 p.m. to 9:15 or some odd programming situation, just do it. Yes, these British programs are generally longer than ours, but even Britain’s TV schedules adopt a less conventional time structure – so you jolly-well might as well do the same. If you have to bleep language or blur breasts, fine, you get a pass there. But give us the entire show or don’t show it at all.

Next, stop showing Benny Hill. Monty Python and Fawlty Towers are okay. As Time Goes By and Coupling are quite good and that’s fine too. But Benny Hill must be stopped. For the past couple months, it’s been given a nightly slot in addition to other airings – it feels like it’s on every other hour. In case you’re not aware, BBC America: Benny Hill is tacky, unapologetically sexist, and embarrassing. But most importantly, it’s not funny. Any of those other things could be forgivable if it were even mildly funny. But it’s not. (Plus, in today’s world, if you want to see sexy ladies with cleavage being chased around by old guys, you’re not heading to BBC America.)

And finally, take some more chances like The Office. I don’t know how you missed out on airing Spaced – the incredible show by the creators of Shaun of the Dead – which Trio airs. But with that mistake behind you, you can still get plenty of other programs that will make you relevant again. There are a ton of shows to chose from, such as 15 Storeys High (Sean Lock’s inventive tale of two very odd roommates in an apartment building), The Book Group (the daring comedy by Annie Griffith that’s shot as though David Lynch were doing a sitcom), or Nighty Night (a dark comedy by the exquisite Julia Davis that shocks you into guffaws that you instantly feel guilty about.) Hell, how you haven’t taken up Russell T. Davies’ brilliant re-invention of Doctor Who is beyond me. These are shows that take chances and reward the viewer with such a rich viewing experience that you can’t help but watch most American television in comparison and ask why can’t we do the same. Why can’t we make shows that indeed move us and amuse us, but also provoke and shock and earn our laughs in ways we’ve never imagined?

BBC America can matter again. BBC America can be cool again. But you gotta put some effort into it. In fact, until you do, I’m not going to purchase any of the products advertised on your network. I don’t know what I’ll do next time I pee my couch, but I for damn sure won’t be buying Urine Gone.

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