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The Globe and Mail

The prime-time decline of the American empire

"England and America are two countries separated by a common language," George Bernard Shaw once said. Today, the fact that there is an established repertory-theatre festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., devoted to his work might come as a surprise to the old goat, but I doubt it would make him revise his opinion.

Britons, as a rule, see North Americans (yes, they lump us all together) as an earnest, upbeat, overeager bunch, whose friendliness runs in direct proportion to our lack of stoicism. As an Englishman once said to me, "You people are all a bit like golden retrievers, aren't you?"

North Americans, on the other hand, have historically regarded the English as a frightfully witty if somewhat uptight bunch, who embody a kind of priggishness best suited to Merchant Ivory period pieces.

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But times have changed. America is an empire in decline. As a result, it is looking to Britain for narrative inspiration, but not of the parasol-and-Pims-on-the-grass-tennis-court variety. These days, U.S. broadcasters are casting across the pond for some good old-fashioned misery and grit. And they've struck oil - because no one does cultural disappointment quite like the Brits. They have been wallowing in it ever since losing control of the Suez Canal in 1956.

As Nick Stumpf, lead singer of the American band French Kicks once said of Britain, "It's a bit like seeing the Rolling Stones. All the trappings of greatness are there but it's long over. So they're left only with the decorations and the now-unfounded arrogance. And disappointment. The English are disappointed in themselves and in you."

But not these days - at least when it comes to TV drama. Britain is downright chuffed about the fact that this month sees the launch of two U.S. remakes of acclaimed British series - Shameless and Skins. The former, which follows the trials and tribulations of a welfare-dependent Manchester family of seven headed by an alcoholic bounder, has become, over the past eight seasons, a classic example of what is undoubtedly my favourite British narrative genre: The utterly amoral yet strangely lighthearted working-class-family drama.

Skins, happily, is more of the same. A bunch of underparented minors in Bristol abuse and enjoy themselves and each other in a way that would make the entire cast and crew of Degrassi blush.

The new shows will be set in Chicago and Baltimore, respectively, and are said to stick closely to the original material. Except, of course, it will be Americans rather than Brits smoking meth and having sex on cheap vinyl sofas; William H. Macy heads the Shameless cast.

And on the other end of the dial, we have a very different sort of British invasion. Piers Morgan, the former televised talent-show judge and British tabloid editor, will be taking over from Larry King on CNN. Morgan, who is an object of derision among Britain's chattering classes on account of his unabashed ambition and unctuous interviewing style, is said to have won the top job thanks to his talent for making interview subjects - such as then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown - weep like babies.

For his part, Morgan has noted that "the Yanks have more basic respect for each other than we do," adding that Americans don't seem to suffer from the "ludicrous envy" that afflicts so many Brits.

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He is right, of course. But this craven mistrust of glamour and success is the very reason Britons love to make (and watch) television programs about average people getting slaughtered at the pub and head-butting their children for fun. Things have been grotty and miserable over here for so long that audiences have developed a fine-tuned sense of gallows humour about it. North Americans are more accustomed to being disturbed by depictions of domestic abuse, gang violence and childhood substance abuse. There's a reason The Wire wasn't billed as a comedy.

This is not to say that Skins and Shameless won't translate well across the Atlantic, just that if they do, it will be a sign of the times. If Americans can actually laugh at the hypocrisy and failure of their own historic dream, a new level of national self-awareness must also have been achieved. And I, for one, applaud it.

As for Morgan, I wish him well. Unlike the characters on Skins and Shameless, he is the embodiment of a more stereotypical sort of Englishness: the ingratiating posh fop. In recessionary times, it seems North Americans are attracted to grimness and pretension in equal measure.

As the middle class shrinks, so does their appetite for middle-of-the-road entertainment. Where Roseanne Barr once presided over her no-nonsense kitchen sink, it's now either Macy passed out in his own vomit or Piers Morgan slathering over Oprah. Call it the class stratification of the TV universe.

Disturbed? I suggest you just keep calm and carry on.

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About the Author

Leah McLaren is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She’s published two novels, The Continuity Girl (2007) and A Better Man (2015) both with HarperCollins Canada and Hachette in the USA. The first was a Canadian bestseller, though the second is actually much better. More

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