I'm given to watching English television series which appear, now and then, on PBS and BBC America. What passes for entertainment on the small screen here in God's favorite country seems to me to be very shabby in comparison, and I wonder why this is the case.
I suppose it's possible that the English are simply better actors, writers and producers than we are, but I suspect there are other reasons. One of them may be the fact that American actors, if not now then in the past, came to believe that acting involved emoting as much as possible. I'm not sure whether this is the result of the teaching of what's been called "method acting" or not, but there appears to have been an entire generation of American actors, such as Marlon Brando, who felt that acting at least in part consisted of shrieking, weeping, smirking, laughing, gesturing in a very broad, almost lunatic manner. This evidently was required in order to impart a sense of reality to the fantasy unfolding on the screen; reality was very much a melodrama, filled with anguish, angst or ecstasy.
I recall the story of Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman during the filming of Marathon Man. Hoffman felt that in order for him to portray his character, who was being hunted and tormented, he had to stay awake for days to achieve an appropriately overwrought appearance. Supposedly, Olivier said to him: "Oh my dear boy, why don't you try acting? It's so much easier." It may be that histrionic generation passed along their hysteria to succeeding generations.
Another reason may be that we consider ourselves, or are considered to be, utterly lacking in subtlety and wit. We are profoundly stupid or are believed to be by those who seek to amuse us. So, in order for us to know a particular character is angry, for example, it is necessary for the character to break various things near at hand or beat on someone, preferably a woman or a child. Or better yet, the character shoots someone or several unlucky extras.
Those who seek to amuse us sometimes seek to enlighten us as well, it would appear, at least as they believe we should be enlightened. And thinking us to be dullards they do so blatantly. To teach us to not be racists, they populate the shows or movies we watch with representatives of every race if possible, sometimes even inserting a character of their own creation into a plot where no such character existed. This is the accepted method of teaching us not to be sexist as well, of course. Thus Peter Jackson saw to it that a female elf played a prominent part in his three-part version of The Hobbit, though no such character appears in the book. Unsurprisingly, we're also being taught by the entertainment industry that same-sex couples, and gays and lesbians, are perfectly fine in the same manner. All are equal in the world of show business if nowhere else.
What Hollywood and the entertainment industry apparently seek to teach us in these respects is admirable; racism, sexism, homophobia, prejudice are all noxious. Whether it should be teaching us at all, and whether it should be doing so by, e.g., rewriting or falsifying the works of writers, are interesting questions regardless, however.
Violence and sex are of course omnipresent in our television; not so much in that of the English, it seems. Perhaps, though, this only appears to be the case because we portray violence and sex in the same way we portray everything else--in as exaggerated a manner as possible. We cannot merely imply violence and sex (that would require subtlety). They must be apparent, jarringly obvious. So must everything be.
This lack of, or perhaps more accurately contempt for, the subtle naturally extends to plots. Nothing is a mystery, really; answers are as obvious as everything else. And all must be done quickly. Characters seem to finish each others sentences. If there are no car chases there are chases on foot, or at the least all are in a hurry for one reason or another.
Perhaps our perception of reality is so manic we feel that any drama which purports to be real must be manic as well. Or perhaps we are by now so used to the overwrought that we are jaded. The merely overwrought may do nothing for us. We require the extreme to be entertained.
This sort of thing seems to more or less inevitably lead to comparisons with ancient Rome though, doesn't it? That would be tiresome and is something of a cliche. Cliche of course is itself the rendering of wisdom into the obvious, and so we see cliche a great deal in our television as well.
The comparison is not a sound one, I think. The Romans were remarkable because their excessiveness was original, while ours is not. Our art imitates their life.