This concept has been becoming more and more noticeable to me as of late. It is a fairly well accepted notion that American TV programs continue to devolve into a greater state of trashiness with each coming year, and it’s safe to say that this is largely due to the ever increasing number of reality TV shows on every single channel. Strangely, all of these shows essentially depict the opposite of “reality”. Ironic? Perhaps. Wildly popular? Definitely. People who are offended by the cringe-worthy, self-indulgent nature of American television often draw upon reality shows such as “The Jersey Shore” to support their reasoning; said program features little to no plot line, excessive alcohol and drug use, frequent violent brawls, promiscuity, and a complete lack of intellectually stimulating dialogue. Now, am I an avid watcher of reality television? Not at all. Am I one of the people who finds reality television to be insulting and offensive? Sadly no. But rather than beat myself up for occasionally enjoying such Grade-A depictions of sleaziness and general idiocy, I prefer to think of trashy TV shows similarly to how I would think of the circus: odd, creepy, and kind of wrong, yet entertaining because it’s so absurd.
Something that truly fascinates me is the hugely varying spectrum of reactions from the American public towards their own TV programming, and how fundamentally different it is from the way people in the UK perceive their television; I started pondering the weird dueling nature of American Trash TV vs. UK Trash TV about 3 years ago, after I discovered (through first-hand experience) that British and Irish programs are often far more graphic and racy than American programs, yet receive less popular and critical backlash.
When I studied in Ireland for a semester in 2009, my student apartment was outfitted with a television that received quite a few channels, and such began my experience with Irish/UK TV programs. I quickly became very surprised by what I saw on a daily basis; while the “Reality TV Show” genre had not yet taken off there at the time (these days it is becoming very popular with the help of British spin-offs of American reality shows like The Jersey Shore), their regular TV programs outdid ours on the raunchiness scale by far.
For example, we all know the very specific rules that American primetime and daytime programs must abide by: No blatant profanity, no clear depictions of sexual intercourse, and no overly graphic conversation topics. This goes for movies shown on TV as well- we censor them using “bleeps” over swear words, and any scenes that are deemed inappropriate for TV are cut out. Even in reality TV shows, swear words are bleeped out and scenes of people blatantly having sex are not aired (I think I heard somewhere that they draw the line at “thrusting”. Teehe). Any racy shows or movies that are aired without censoring are saved for the late-night slots, or for special channels. The American media and entertainment industry seem to believe that plot lines and characters of television programs can be utterly foul, as long as the inappropriate things they do are censored to some degree. And something that I find to be slightly ironic is the fact that it’s much more common to see scandalous behavior coming from REAL human beings on the reality shows, than from the fictional characters on sitcoms and drama programs.
What intrigued me was the fact that the UK essentially takes the opposite approach. In Ireland, censoring of television shows and movies (no matter what time of day or what channel) is little to non existent. Profanity is common, even frequent, depending on what program you are watching, and sex scenes are far more graphic. Dialogue and conversation contains much more controversial topics, and spares no details. Yet at the same time, there weren’t many raunchy reality TV shows (although now there are); all of the raunch was provided through normal TV shows and films, and it wasn’t confined to the 2am slots like in America.
Now I’m not necessarily shocked or surprised by the approach that the UK takes with television. More of the shock factor, for me at least, comes from the fact that such a degree of “scandalous behavior” is allowed to be depicted on basic television channels, and that none of the Irish public seems to be bothered by it in the slightest. You don’t see people up in arms about the racy nature of the shows, or parents whining that kids might stumble upon something they shouldn’t, which is a common parental complaint in America. I find myself surprised, almost impressed, by the fact that a country known for it’s conservativeness and religious fidelity takes such a lenient and open-minded approach to public entertainment. Yet in America, where there is a well established liberal, progressive community, this would most likely never be allowed. And ironically enough, it is usually the liberal and progressive members of American society who seem to have the most problems with the racy nature of today’s TV.
I don’t mean to argue that one approach to television is better than the other, but I will say this: the lack of censorship present on Irish and British TV sure makes for some fantastic shows. You get all the excitement of American programs, but without the cheesiness and unrealistic aspects. For example, when I was in Ireland, a brand new show debuted on E4 (the equivalent of America’s CW or TBS) called “Misfits”, which still to this day is one of my favorite Television programs ever. While the show was technically part Sci-Fi, in that the teenage main characters obtained superpowers through a freak accident (do not scoff, it is awesome), the portrayal of the characters was otherwise gritty and realistic. Their behavior, language, attitudes, and everything else was spot-on; an uncanny depiction of “delinquent” high schoolers. It lacked the melodrama and absurdity of most American teenage dramas, and replaced it with a much more real element. Not to mention that while the show was categorized as a drama, it was also absolutely hilarious (much more so than most American comedies), because the characters were allowed to swear, tell dirty jokes, sleep around, and just be general assholes- and come on, we all know that’s exactly what teenagers are. And, not surprisingly, the show aired at 9pm every Thursday, the same time slot that is typically reserved for more family-friendly shows over on our side of the pond. Here’s a lovely little montage of some of the best moments from Season 1 of Misfits, just so you can get the gist of it:
Ok, you get the point. Basically, I find it interesting that places like Ireland and England have used a liberal approach to television to improve plot lines and create generally more well-made shows, and in turn nobody complains, while in America, we use the “creative license” to create reality shows that manage to piss off about 50 percent of the population. This also makes me wonder if the outrage and disgust that Americans feel towards their own reality TV shows like “The Jersey Shore” are due to the the nature of the featured characters, or the due to the the content of the shows themselves. By this I mean: is it the fact that reality shows feature real people doing awful things, or is it the awful things themselves that cause all the public backlash? And while I am fairly certain that graphic British programs like Misfits would not fly on American prime time television, I think it’s great that Britain and Ireland have embraced our take on the reality show and are now making spin offs of their own. Maybe they, like myself, simply appreciate the fact that average people can get wasted and act like idiots on television these days, all in the name of entertainment.