Two things I thought I would never enjoy were any television program where I had to read captions in order to understand what was being said and stuffy, slow-moving, boring British TV shows (and I lumped them all into this category). Now I find I was wrong on both accounts.

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First, regardless of what I was watching, I started using captions out of necessity. My hearing is shot and I now need captions to understand most any TV show (and yes, I need them even more if listening to a British accent because it might as well be a foreign language). It was difficult at first—like trying to draw the number six while making clockwise circles with your leg—your brain can’t handle it. For me, I couldn’t remember what was going on in the TV show and read captions at the same time. But I didn’t really have much of a choice and gradually it came together and became natural.

Second, I started to find that nearly every American detective show had become a carbon copy of all the other shows. The only thing that was different between shows was that the actors changed. Most of the shows were no longer imaginative and were suddenly written by people who liked that it was easier to just babble on or insert insipid humor rather than work on producing stimulating scripts. So I decided to see if the British equivalent were any better—I was surprised by what I found.

Differences—America (A) VS British (B) Detective shows

A—Pace is fast because everything is sandwiched between action shots. Individual, unrelated stories are told in every episode. Characters are superficially developed with nothing but snippets about the quirkiness of the main characters.

B—Pace is much slower because the story is much more important than visual action (in comparison, British shows sometimes have no action scenes whatsoever). The same story often carries on for all or several episodes or even the entire season. Characters are so well-developed that you feel you personally know the characters as you get to know the strengths, weaknesses, and personality of every character.

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A—Violence is ever-present with what seems like the mandatory fist fight, car crash, and shootout in every episode. Every cop carries a gun and they pull it at every possible opportunity. A little police brutality is considered a good thing (as Martha Stewart would say).

B—Violence is almost non-existent. Criminals are forced into submission by brilliant detective work not a punch to the face. Unless the British equivalent of SWAT— the Force Firearms Unit—is needed to provide the heavy weaponry, no one ever seems to carry a gun. These cops don’t rough up anyone—nearly all are real gentleman.

A—The men are all good-looking, physical specimens, who may be a bit odd but are always totally dedicated to the job. Everyone is dressed to compliment their physique. All the women love them. Few women are cast as the lead, but when they are, they are always great looking.

B—Leaders are either well-educated, mannered, gentlemen or slightly psychotic, deeply disturbed, mental cases only slightly less deranged (but always smarter) than the murders they are seeking. The gentlemen are always dressed in a proper suit while the borderline crazy look like they just woke up after a long ride in back of a garbage truck. Women avoid both kinds of detectives because they see them as either pompous and self-absorbed or just seriously insane. Women are often cast in the lead role and often look a bit rough, disheveled, or matronly.

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A—Murders are showy and often have flamboyant personalities. They often compete with the cops to see who is smarter. They are often tracked down at the last-minute by a DNA match, one over-looked clue, or when they try to kill the detective following them. There is usually only one suspect, but seldom more than three. Murders often end up dead at the end of the show.

B—Murders are of two types; the brutal, lowlifes, who are beyond sick whose lives are a disturbing mess or the country gentry or city gentleman who hides behind his money and contacts and is almost smarter than his pursuers. There are generally multiple suspects and you sometimes feel you need a scorecard to keep everything straight. I don’t think I have ever seen a murderer killed by police.

In the end, American shows are easy to follow, are often superficial, are pretty predictable, and always have feel good endings. American TV has churned out season after season of detective shows and now apparently have found it acceptable to accept mediocre writers using the same old, tired plots.

British show are complex (often bordering on being unfathomable), demand you pay attention, may wander in an unlimited number of directions, and endings are often surprises or non-existent. You may find yourself playing confusing segments over several times.  British TV seems to be constantly searching for intriguing ways to keep viewers involved and interested.

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Here’s a few suggestions for your British viewing pleasure:

  • Wire in the Blood
  • Kidnap and Ransom
  • Happy Valley
  • Hinterland
  • Waking the Dead
  • Broadchurch
  • George Gently
  • Midsomer Murders—(this is a gentle show with a lot of humor—after watching the last episode [there are nearly 100 episodes] I felt like I had lost a family member).

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There are a lot more shows available, but these are the best of what I have watched. I have enjoyed these shows only because I tried something I had pooh-poohed most of my life and then found out I had been totally wrong all these years.

A few good shows are being turned out in the U.S. each year—Dexter, True Detectives, Sherlock, Law and Order (the early seasons), The Wire, CSI (the early seasons), Low Winter Sun, The Killing are some excellent ones. But for variety, give the British versions a look—I think you’ll be surprised how much you enjoy them.

Something New: British Detective Television Shows

2 thoughts on “Something New: British Detective Television Shows

  • April 9, 2015 at 10:33
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    Welcome back Dave….Ever notice how the British series end when the story arc is complete? The American shows seem to roll on indefinitely so long as they can sell ad slots in between the segments of poor writing and character development you describe. Case in point, the British series “Luther” (stars Idris Elba, who was in “The Wire”) was extremely engaging and less than 10 episodes long.

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  • April 9, 2015 at 10:33
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    Now that you’re deaf and read the captions may I suggest you move on to the Swedes and Norwegians for mystery. The Wallender series, done for television, not the BBC version, is well done. Melody and I are in the last season and tears will be shed at conclusion.

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