Be honest — when was the last time you didn’t have a second screen in front of you when you watched TV? It was about 2007, wasn’t it?
This is my typical litany as I Google on my phone while I’m sitting on the couch “watching” television: Wait, where have I seen that actress before? That can’t be her real accent, is it? Where did they film this? Oh man, who sang that song? Did it actually happen that way in real life?
Gold star to me for having an endless thirst for pub trivia knowledge, but this is certainly not the viewing experience that the creators of those programs intended. I’ve noticed, however, that there is one genre of shows where I don’t do this — and that’s with British comedies.
“Fleabag” won the Emmy for Best Comedy because it’s a beautifully told tale that’s brave and startlingly funny. And, like almost all British comedies, it is the perfect presentation style for Short-Attention Span Theater.
Clicking by at a brisk 25 minutes or so per episode, I barely had time to formulate the inevitable “Where can I get that jumpsuit?” query. And it’s not just that the episodes are short; the seasons are, too — at six episodes each — and the storytelling arc matches the length perfectly.
More American TV shows could mimic this structure, if there wasn’t one fundamental pesky difference between how shows in each country operate. Network comedies in the U.S., by and large, are 21 minutes, but you have to add in commercial breaks to fill the half hour. The resulting formalized act structure seems jarring and dated over the course of, God help us, 20+ episodes a season, and gives you a regular stopping point for your attention to wander. (Not to mention the occasional intrusive laugh tracks, which at this point seem like some remnant of an ancient alien civilization.)
That tone and pacing is not an issue for quick-hit, commercial-free BBC comedies when you watch on Amazon, Netflix, Acorn TV or BritBox. Even those shown on commercial TV in the U.K. — like Channel 4’s endearing period comedy “Derry Girls”, which airs on Netflix in the U.S. — have comparable streamlined narrative episodes that go by in a flash, and there is a season-long arc that resolves quickly.
That structure translates perfectly to streaming. In a world of endless choices, British comedies give you options. You can watch one episode quickly and be satisfied — or an entire season’s arc in an afternoon if you are in binge mode.
After rampaging through the two seasons of “Derry Girls” — about 2.5 hours each season, you know, the basic length of the typical Martin Scorsese or MCU film, except it’s about women — I sat down the next day with my husband to start watching it again. Because the pilot is a perfectly told tale in 23 minutes, and that’s precisely the amount of time and precisely the kind of story that I can watch without getting twitchy and distracted.
The modern world has obviously ruined my brain. But British comedies may be able to save it.