Written on: 15. 11. 2011 in the category: news

Brilliance of American TV has shown up the wretchedness of our domestic products

All ideologies are wrong, including the one that says all ideologies are wrong. But generally speaking, the free market is the best way of getting the best out of society.

Now that appears to be an insane declaration, at a time when the most visible markets in the world, the stock exchanges, are about as rational as a women’s gym changing-room containing a mouse with a camera. However, this is not a dogma, merely a rule of thumb.

Other rules work in life; one is that most institutions have a finite life cycle. The early principles that cause zeal and inventiveness wane, as twin evils of Institutional Vanity and Workplace Comfort become the guiding principles of existence. Historically, you can see this in the British motor industry, General Motors, Pan Am, GEC — but not, for some reason, the German motor-car industry.

And you can see it most acutely in state-protected broadcasting companies, where workplace comfort and institutional vanity are objectives that are heroically met every day.

The BBC is the most extravagantly depraved such organisation, but RTE comes close: it is barely credible that the latter, broadcasting in the land of Goldsmith, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, O’Casey, Friel, McPherson, McGuinness, Kilroy, has produced almost no ground-breaking drama in decades.

In the US, the television marketplace was defined not by the consumers, but by the advertisers: an insoluble problem so long as income was dependent on people who insisted that the output could not possibly reflect badly on their products. This was supply without demand, the bland leading the bland, a land in which a female nipple was the visual equivalent of Pearl Harbor, and pubic hair compared unfavourably with The Black Death.

The breakthrough came with Home Box Office, and the revolutionary technology that allows a genuine market to operate at people’s homes. The outcome has been a cultural revolution, because conventional broadcasters have had to match the high standards of HBO. The best television in the world, by a wide imperial mile, is now American. ‘The Simpsons’, ‘Mad Men’, ‘Arrested Development’, ‘Frasier’, ‘The West Wing’, are just some examples of seriously important cultural artefacts that merit close critical appraisal.

Slightly above them, merely because of the quality of the writing, is ’30 Rock’, a truly brilliant comedy written by and starring Tina Fey. Set in a television company — and therefore enabling it to lampoon itself — it sets standards of production, plotting, writing and acting that I thought could not be matched. And then along comes ‘Modern Family’.

Successful art creates a world of its own, with its own rules. It is not life. Life, consisting largely of the secretion of glands until they cease to secrete, when they are given a funeral, is quite boring. Great art requires an existential autonomy, and the suspension of all the rules, yet nonetheless convincing an audience that what they are watching is theoretically possible.

‘Modern Family’ compares with a PG Wodehouse story, in its utter innocence and freedom from glandular complaint. It consists of three Californian families, on whom the sun always shines: within every plot is a crisis, followed by a rescue. One of the three anchor-families of the programme is a gay couple who have adopted a Vietnamese child. Instead of this becoming an occasion for sanctimonious political sermons, their relationship is used for subversive observations about political correctness and homosexual men.

Another family is formed by the sister of one of the gay men, and her husband, an excruciatingly embarrassing “cool dad”, plus their three children. The third family is provided by her father, his spectacularly endowed Colombian wife over 20 years younger than him, and the latter’s son.

The key element is that the cultural value that underwrites ‘Modern Family’ is kindness, a much esteemed value of American life. Indeed, it so deeply implicit in US culture — there is even a TV award for it, ‘Humanitas’ — that Americans often don’t even perceive it, and can sometimes topple over the edge into glutinous sentimentality. It is also why ‘The Office’, which in its original British version was often sneering and unpleasant, in its American incarnation is softer, witter, cleverer, and more enduring.

So no one is ever genuinely hurt in ‘Modern Family’. The fantastical disease-free, death-free world it inhabits is only sustained by some quite superb writing. There is a gag of some kind — a smile-inducing visual or verbal twist or tiny, conspiratorial glance to the camera — at least every minute, almost to a formula. Every single character is written and acted to perfection. I cannot recommend ‘Modern Family’ highly enough: it is television raised almost to the level of genius.

However, one of the defining characteristics of great American television programmes is that terrestrial stations on this side of the Atlantic usually either don’t broadcast them, or schedule them for vampires, nightwatchmen and burglars. This is the insidious collective unconscious of television schedulers at work, and corrupting the marketplace, as monopolists always do: they clearly don’t want to show up the wretchedness of the domestic product. There is a remedy: DVD, which I presume does not stand for Daily Venereal Disease. So what does it stand for?