Shows that warp locations in the name of fiction are nothing new. Skins makes an absolute mockery of Bristol’s geography to help its characters get from A to B. The flat from New York-based sitcom Seinfeld is actually the other side of the States, in Los Angeles. Talking of the Big Apple, when I was walking down 5th I couldn’t help but wonder why Carrie Bradshaw’s Upper East Side brownstone in Sex and the City is actually located in the West Village. But to be honest, unless you’re watching these shows with an Ordnance Survey map strewn across your lap, and annotating it with a marker pen as you watch each scene, you probably won’t notice these slight incongruities at all.
Of course, TV shows set in a kind of generic Nowheresville aren’t anything new. Stranger Things‘ Hawkins is easily interchangeable with virtually any other quiet American town going, and that’s exactly the point. A sleepy suburban dwelling in ‘middle America’ being overrun with gloopy demons and multiple unsolved murders? It’s a set-up that hinges on the idea that these fantastical things could unfold anywhere.
In recent years, however, a new amalgamation has started cropping up across our telly screens. A handful of shows now ping-pong across the Atlantic Ocean with the ease that you might avoid stepping on a small pebble. It’s very confusing, and Netflix is the biggest culprit. A splurge of glitzy American influences crammed into rural Wales or Surrey just feels weird and disjointed. So why on earth do they keep doing it?
According to Sex Education writer Laurie Nunn, she adopted a decidedly American aesthetic for nostalgic reasons: “I’ve always been really frustrated that the British school experience is never portrayed with positivity or colour or warmth or hope; it always tends to be sticking two fingers up and saying, ‘I’m out of here as soon as I graduate,’” she told Radio Times.
And she’s right – kind of. As anyone who has set foot inside a UK school can attest, our own educational corridors lack the all-American glamour of the school in Sex Education. Personally, my school uniform made the pupils resemble a cast of Butlin’s Redcoats if they were drab, miserable, and forced to wear maroon. The football team didn’t get treated like A-List celebrities as they swaggered through the playground in slick Letterman jackets. Instead, they earned the privilege of being allowed to wear slightly different coloured socks in PE. There were no Mean Girls-style cliques in the canteen, either, largely because Jamie Oliver aka the scourge of Turkey Twizzlers drove everyone away from ever eating there again. I’ve still not forgiven The Naked Chef for ruining ‘Chip Wednesday’.
The script from Sex Education is peppered with British insults and niche references that don’t quite make sense in this context: Adam bullies Eric by nicking his Curly Wurly and scrunching it up into a tight knot, while Maeve boasts of dishing out hand jobs at Butlin’s. The corridors are awash with words like ‘knob’, ‘minge’ and ‘shag’ – but the whole thing resembles a High School Musical sequel.
According to Gillian Anderson, who stars in Sex Education as Otis’ sex therapist mum, “there is a bit of both worlds, decidedly, in the series, and the aim and the hope is that Americans won’t notice.” In other words, it’s an attempt to corner both markets at once – and the Yanks win out, every time, when it comes to aesthetic. I’d much rather Netflix stopped making grabs for multiple audiences at once, and picked a side. Stateside viewers will tune in regardless. They loved The Office, Skins, and The Inbetweeners so much they remade them (the less said about the latter, the better).
Lately, a new series has been mixing up the two countries, perhaps even worse than before. Despite being filmed in suburban Surrey, and starring a British cast, The End of the F***ing World is incomprehensibly filled with these same Stateside diners. In reality, you’d be far more likely to stumble across a roadside Little Chef in this neck of the woods. See, it’s troubling to imagine the diners of Springfield or Twin Peaks jammed full with British people downing cups of Earl Grey – we’d embarrass ourselves within about five minutes by banging on about Brexit and this week’s EastEnders omnibus.
The End of the F***ing World even acknowledges the wonky setting directly. “If this were a film,” comments Alyssa, looking at the car she and James have just crashed, “we’d probably be American.” To put the question bluntly, then: why aren’t they?
Don’t even get me started on Netflix’s other forays into hopping the Atlantic. Even the accents are all over the shop. In The Princess Switch, the platform’s so-bad-it’s-brilliant festive flick, Vanessa Hudgens’ British accent makes her sound like a drunk Mary Poppins. Then there’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – which features more dialects than a faulty edition of Duolingo. Zelda (played by Miranda Otto) speaks with a cool Transatlantic drawl whisked straight from the Golden Age of Hollywood, while her sister Hilda (Lucy Davis) inexplicably has an English accent. I know they’re supposed to be 500 years old, but really, can this be plausible? Confounding things even further, their niece Sabrina has a fairly unremarkable American twang, while cousin Ambrose chunters away like an extra from a Jane Austen drama. It just feels weird, like slapping Hugh Grant’s plummy bumblings into the midst of a Chicago gangster thriller.
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed all of these shows despite their shortcomings. Once I got past the slightly alien blend of cultures and the haphazard accents, of course. The End of the F***ing World’s droll script and dark humour kept me hooked; the sheer awkwardness of Sex Education is genius.
But stacked up next to This Country, which captures the sheer, unrelenting boredom of growing up in a slightly shit west country village, and there’s just not the same specificity. Compare these shows with Derry Girls, set in ’90s Northern Ireland, and the same is true. It feels like a slightly missed opportunity: when everyone’s dressed up as High School Musical extras, it’s not believable to crack out a punchline about a service station in Newport.
- Read more: British TV has made a mockery of the working class for too long; ‘Brassic’ and ‘Derry Girls’ are finally changing that
Shows don’t need to straddle an ocean to gain fans. The point of great television is transporting people to another world, not plumping up your viewership with catch-all programmes aimed at as many people as possible.