REVIEW: Downton Abbey Prime, Thursdays, 8.35pm.
The world's most expensive soap opera is back, and ambling along in its elegant, snobbish way. There isn't much in the way of classic dialogue in Downton Abbey (with the exception of Maggie Smith, whose contract no doubt stipulates that she gets the best lines), but it's great to look at, even if Shirley Maclaine looks about as animated as one of the statues in his lordship's garden.
I'm ahead of the game, actually, because I caught the first few episodes during a recent visit to Britain. I took in a few other shows, too, because you can learn a bit about another country and its people by watching their TV. And Britain always makes me despair about the steadily declining quality of what's on New Zealand screens, not to mention how it reflects our society and culture.
The usual smorgasbord of quality documentaries, comedies, dramas, news and current affairs meant I was spoiled for choice most evenings. And five minutes of Mock the Week stomps all over a year's worth of 7 Days (aka Dai's Short and We Hate Hamilton). To be fair, the Brits have a much bigger pool of comedians to choose from - but then, they aren't famous by dint of persistence and in-crowdism over actual talent.
Best of all was Channel 4's The Audience, in which 50 strangers try to solve someone's big problem, following them around for a week and bombarding them with questions. There are confessions and tears, but instead of a presenter nodding along in false sympathy, the subjects are talking with ordinary people, some of whom have been through similar experiences (and shed a few tears themselves). It's an odd concept, but the result is human and heartfelt, without feeling exploitative.
Then it was on to Poland. TV is more of a mixed bag there, with some interesting homegrown stuff (including a medieval drama with lots of fight scenes), but also clones of overseas formats like The Voice. The effects of globalisation can be seen in the ads, too, with familiar brands showing they can solve contrived family emergencies all over the world.
It was good to see that serious current affairs aren't dead in either country. Most of the British shows come without gooey sentiment and tabloid-style packaging, and while the Poles have everything from CNN-style news to semi-tabloid investigative shows, it's all very watchable. Such shows aren't buried in graveyard timeslots, either.
It made me wonder how we let our own TV reach such a parlous state. Prime time is dominated by pretentious foodies and cheapie reality shows (thank goodness I avoided sullying my eyeballs with The Ridges), while Outrageous Fortune and Shortland Street alumni dominate the drama department, and pay-TV has elbowed everyone else over to the sidelines. It's enough to make you want to emigrate.
Coming up: It's Hallowe'en, and Four has the usual mini-season of The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episodes, starting tonight at 7pm. The Nanny's Fran Drescher makes tonight's one particularly horrific.
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