As we all know by now, the television and film writers are on strike. One of the things they're requesting is an increase in the residuals from DVD sales. This can put the consumer in something of an awkward bind – there's not much on TV right now and there's a whole lot you want to watch that's out on DVD, but you don't want to buy something now and cheat the writers of out the larger residual that they may end up getting if you bought the DVD in a couple of weeks or months. What are you to do?
I think I have an answer: go British. There is a ton of really good, really fun British television out there on DVD; it's stuff you probably haven't seen but is all well worth your time. I'm in no way advocating not buying American shows, I'm just providing an alternative to the consumption of a product at this moment that may benefit the workers if it is consumed at a later date. This is just a suggestion of some recent and not-so-recent releases of British shows that circumvent any guilt about the writers' strike.
First up, The Prisoner (all the episodes are currently available in a single boxed set). This show originally aired in 1967 and stars Patrick McGoohan as Number Six, a one-time super-spy who made the mistake of deciding to resign. As it turns out, super-spies don't get to resign — they get shipped off to “The Village,” from which escape is impossible. Number Six takes it upon himself to try and determine who his captors are, who the other people on the island are, and to try and escape. Meanwhile, his captors consider it their mission to determine what exactly Number Six discovered that caused him to quit in the first place.
The show is full of hidden meanings and clues, and it never shies away from critiquing our society. The whole Village is monitored on CCTV (remember, this is 40 years ago) and escape is prevented by “Rovers,” which are huge white spheres. It is weird, psychedelic, and one of the best shows ever put on television. Plus, chances are that even if you have never seen an episode you're seen it referenced elsewhere (notably The Simpsons on more than one occasion, Babylon 5, and the British version of Coupling). The show's influence on later shows and movies is staggering.
That actually brings me to the next British series I want to discuss, Coupling (available either separately or together). Readers may remember the U.S. version that aired oh-so-briefly in the fall of 2003. That not so funny version was based on the utterly hysterical British one. The show revolves around three men and three women and their various relationships (imagine an adult comedy-oriented version of Friends). At the show's center are Steve (Jack Davenport, Pirates of the Caribbean) and Susan (Sarah Alexander, Stardust), a couple whose relationship progresses through the four seasons (or “series” as long as we're talking British TV) the show ran for. The two of them have their own set of idiosyncrasies, but are far, far more normal than the friends who surround them.
It's a sitcom and follows many sitcom rules, but it manages to still somehow be funny, smart, and unconventional. There are numerous he said/she said storylines, and while the stakes seem more heightened than reality would have them be, the observations are often funny because they are completely drawn from reality.
Slightly less drawn from reality even if the show appears far more gritty and realistic are the characters in Chancer (Series 1 available now and Series 2 as of January 29). Chancer stars Clive Owen, in own of his early roles, as Stephen Crane. In the first series, Crane finds himself fired from an investment bank for a little insider trading and he winds up working for a small, prestigious, and failing car company (whom he helped, by lying on a financial summary he wrote about them, get a huge influx of cash). Crane is a womanizer, a liar, a back-stabber, and a cheat. However, Owen is, and remains to this day, hugely charismatic. It really makes very little difference what Crane does, the audience stands by his side. The second series follows some unexpected twists and turns in his life, none of which I can really go into without spoiling some of the better moments of plot from the first series.
The show attempts to deal with both Crane's professional and personal life, not that they're entirely separate, and does occasionally find itself swinging too far to one side. When this does occur, the show tends to do better in the business world. The machinations Crane goes through to achieve his goals (personal or professional) are ridiculous and they simply should not succeed. Somehow, possibly sheerly through force of will, Crane often actually does succeed. When Owen is not on screen the episodes can and do tend to drag, but thankfully more often than not he is either on screen or the topic of conversation.
Lastly (for this article anyway — if the strike continues I'll dig up some more British shows, something like Doctor Who probably), there's Robin of Sherwood (Sets 1 and 2 currently available separately). This version of Robin Hood was filmed in the mid-'80s and features Michael Praed (Dynasty) as the titular hero. With good costumes and woodsy-ness and medieval villages and castles to make it seem plausible, the show is a great exploration of the legendary hero. Robin of Sherwood features new takes on classic Robin Hood tales, like the famed archery contest wherein Robin split his opponent's arrow in order to win, while adding some new ones to the canon as well. The show features an element of mysticism and magic and while it doesn't make one forget about Errol Flynn's definitive take on the hero, it may push Flynn to the back of one's mind temporarily. It has romance, political schemes, and just enough fencing and bow and arrow action to get through.
If the writer's strike continues for much longer I'll be back with another round-up of foreign television on DVD, but hopefully it won't be necessary. That being said, even if the strike ends tomorrow, all of the above are worth taking a look at. Good television is not an oxymoron nor is it limited to Hollywood productions. Think of it as green eggs and ham for your TV appetite.