American TV shows have a mixed reputation in Britain, a sea of occasional successes mired amongst a wealth of poor performers. In a previous column, I looked at how Friends and other US sitcoms have done in the UK; while over at Dead Homer Society, I’ve looked at the success of The Simpsons here at great length, but how about other adult animated shows? The plethora that have occupied Fox Sundays for a decade-plus now; the pale imitations across other US networks; hell, even our own attempts at the genre?
Much as in the US, the adult animation landscape in Britain remained relatively sparse throughout the early and mid ’90s. Some of America’s disappointments made the cut for the cable networks over here, others didn’t: the relatively acclaimed cable attempts Dr. Katz, The Critic and Duckman found a home on the niche comedy channel Paramount from midway through the decade, but network failures Capitol Critters and Fish Police ranged from late-night satellite burn-offs to completely homeless across the pond. The first post-Simpsons animated hit to really capture the public imagination was the attention-grabbing, press-coverage-garnering South Park, making its way across the pond in 1998 and cannily nabbed by both the free-to-air Channel 4 and Simpsons home Sky1 in a sharing agreement.
South Park proved just as controversial in the UK as in the States, and its popularity was duly capitalised on; home video releases of the episodes made it to shelves within months of broadcast; September 1998 saw the first releases. The song “Chocolate Salty Balls” was released here as a single, and at least partially thanks to a campaign from a Radio 1 DJ, made it to number one in the singles chart that December. (It was almost Christmas number one.) The associated album, Chef Aid, made number 3 (vs. number 14 in the States, where the single wasn’t released). South Park books, pencil cases and stationary lined the shelves of high street shops. It was all vaguely reminiscent of a watered-down version of the early ’90s-Simpsons mania. Inevitably, excitement tempered – by the mid-2000s, Channel 4 had let their rights lapse, and for a period Sky relegated it to 4am showings — but it’s seen a minor resurgence in recent years thanks to Paramount finally releasing later seasons on DVD and Comedy Central UK promoting the show to primetime once again. It holds definitive claim to being the first truly successful American adult animation in Britain following The Simpsons.
King of the Hill, which began in the US in 1997, hit British screens in 1998 also, but its success was far more muted. A subtle, divisive show even in the US, King of the Hill had trouble finding a UK audience, its highly specific depiction of small-town Texas not really connecting with Brits in the same way as the everyman Simpsons and the foul-mouthed kids of South Park. Sky 1 and Channel 4 were the UK broadcasters once again, but neither channel drew great numbers to the show – The Simpsons and later Futurama handily outrated it on Sky 1, and it didn’t trouble the Channel 4 weekly top 30 at any point – so, after experiments with 10pm slots on Sky1 and 6pm slots on C4, the show was largely relegated to late-night for the latter half of its run.
1999 saw animated shows well and truly flourish in the States, as The Simpsons continued to be re-upped, King of the Hill was on the back on its most successful season yet, and Fox, UPN and the WB all saw fit to invest in new cartoons aimed at adults, all of which made it across the pond.
The first to make a UK debut – by half an hour – was Futurama. Heavily promoted by the channel, largely flaunting its Simpsons connections, the show was highly anticipated, and fast became one of the most consistent performers on Sky1 (and later, their sister channels), destined to fill up empty slots in the schedule until the end of time. Even now, it’s in heavy repeat rotation; it, along with The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle, comprised the vast bulk of Sky1’s early primetime throughout the the first decade of the century.
Used as a fifteen-minute slot-filler on Sky 1 for over a decade.
At the show’s height, new episodes of Futurama were able to rival new Simpsons episodes on Sky 1.
Family Guy‘s peaks and troughs largely replicate its success in the States, interestingly, and for similar reasons. Sky1, home of The Simpsons, originally picked up the show in early 1999 and paired it with Futurama during the Tuesday 8pm hour; both debuted on the same night in September ’99. At first a moderate success, ratings declined by the second and third seasons, and the show was unceremoniously shunted to lunchtime and afternoon slots, having been hacked to pieces to make it vaguely suitable for mid-day viewing. Sky eventually dropped in the show in the mid-2000s, but strong DVD sales and impending word of ressurection persuaded the BBC and FX to take punts on the show, and it paid dividends for both. The show is now a staple of youth-oriented BBC3 and pay channel FOX (new name for FX, as of this very week), both of whom air multiple episodes a day.
Futurama and Family Guy weren’t the only notables of the 1999 set. Comic strip spin-off Dilbert and the stop-motion The PJs are now deemed also-rans, forgotten to all but the most devoted fans, but both actually saw reasonable success here, albeit limited by the relatively few number of episodes available to run comapred to The Simpsons or South Park. Sky1 broadcast both as part of their Saturday night “Skyrocket” animated strand, and benefiting from Simpsons and Futurama lead-ins, the shows picked up a decent number of fans, recording viewing figures only slightly below their better-known brethren. Dilbert in particular had long legs in the UK, even seeing VHS and DVD releases (it was one of the first TV shows to hit DVD in any country, S1 being released in November 1999), and remained rebroadcast on Sky One and later free-to-air channel FTN through 2006.
It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that the other Seth Macfarlane shows have seen success here, too, trading on the reputation of their forebearer. American Dad has settled in at BBC3 alongside Family Guy, typically airing slightly later at night to fewer viewers but a relative success regardless. The Cleveland Show was snapped up by E4 (sister of Channel 4, of Friends infamy) to slightly weaker numbers, again replicating the domestic success. E4 also nabbed Bob’s Burgers, Allen Gregory and Napoleon Dynamite, though none performed strongly, even though the former proved relatively resilient in the States.
Less sitcommy animated material has had some bad luck too, alas. Adult Swim shows are under-represented on British airwaves; attempts at a similar “block” have been generally unsuccessful. Under Ofcom rules, Cartoon Network can’t broadcast adult-themed programming at any time of day as they are a designated children’s channel, but others from the Turner stable have taken shots at the strip: Bravo in the mid-2000s, FX in 2010, and TCM 2 from 2012. TCM 2 in particular is an extremely niche channel, and its weekly top 10 shows bottom out at around just 10,000 viewers; the Adult Swim block doesn’t even trouble those numbers, so its presence is a marginal one indeed. Shows in a vaguely similar vein, like FX’s Archer, have faced similar hurdles; Archer was picked up by niche, but free-to-air, channel 5*, but has never really troubled their ratings charts either, garnering under 100,000 viewers each week.
Still, despite the occasional disappointments, adult animation is one of the best-represented US TV genres on UK screens. The Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy and American Dad all get prime-time slots on a regular basis, even in repeats; while at the very least, most of their brethren have found a broadcast home here, more than can be said for serial dramas and sitcoms. And so despite the mixed success of some lesser entries into the canon, British producers have understandably cottoned onto the popularity of these shows, and have made a number of attempts at replicating the adult animation formula for a British audience. Overall, they’ve been unsuccessful, to varying degrees; most have disappointed commercially, and the majority have bombed out creatively, too.
The first major attempts at jumping on the bandwagon came in 1998, as The Simpsons was reaching an ever-greater audience on BBC, and South Park was making headlines in the aftermath of its C4 debut. On the 20th April, 1998 on BBC Two, viewers were introduced to Stressed Eric: the first of the imitators, and arguably the finest. A UK/US/New Zealand co-production set in Britain, the show focused on perenially stressed Eric Feeble, a divorcee struggling to deal with his ex-wife, children and job; in the vein of traditional sitcom farce, his troubles would typically escalate throughout each episode. At times struggling to find a unique voice for itself, it nevertheless turned in a dozen-plus reasonably funny episodes, and offered some great voice work and stylish, cartoony Klasky-Csupo animation that stood distinct from the major American titles. It never garnered much of an audience, though, so it was canned in 2000. NBC were so impressed that they adapted the show for US audiences – replacing Eric’s UK voice artist, Mark Heap, with Hank Azaria, and shifting the premise slightly – but it didn’t work out there either, shunted off of the schedule almost immediately.
Later that same year, UK/Canadian co-production Bob and Margaret began. Based on Oscar-winning short-film Bob’s Birthday, it follows a British couple going about their lives in London, and later, Toronto. It was a minor hit to begin with, and thanks to consistent vieweship and critical acclaim, earned itself four seasons, between success in the UK (on Channel 4), Canada and the USA. Canada also helped us out a few years later with Bromwell High, a 2005 one-season wonder that only saw half of its 13-episode run hit UK screens; and Aaagh! It’s the Mr. Hell Show!, which saw vignettes linked by the eponymous Mr. Hell, was also cancelled after a single run.
More recently, Channel 4 attempted Full English; backed by a massive ad campaign, it utterly bombed out, peaking with just 710,000 viewers for the pilot episode (versus around double that for early primetime Simpsons repeats) and pulled from the schedule after only five episodes had aired, a relative rarity in Britain. Critics were generally appalled by the show, describing it as an extremely weak Family Guy clone. The next attempt is likely to be ITV’s The Wild World of Warren; it looks abysmal. The Chaudhry’s is set to follow, and might be even worse (drunken, cheeky parrot? Come on).
Britain has had slightly more success – only slightly – with animated sketch comedy, a well it’s returned to on many occasions throughout the last decade. 2DTV, a satirical sketch show on the commercial free-to-air channel ITV, lasted a relatively lengthy 50 episodes across four years in the early 2000s; Monkey Dust, a far more challenging show, ran on BBC3 between 2003 and 2005 to critical acclaim and controversy (dealing with topics like paedophilia and bestiality) but relatively few viewers.
Creature Comforts, from the Wallace and Gromit den Aardman, was the first notable British attempt at stop-motion animation aimed at adults, and ran for two seasons, each lengthy by British standards (13 episodes apiece). It was also adapted for the US, again unsuccessfully. The show used audio interviews of regular “people on the street” and used them as the voices of a range of animals. It was an unusual concept, and it worked quite well; one of the more interesting and notable British forays into adult animation. Also toying with convention was Modern Toss, which combined animation with live-action material, to mixed success (two seasons on Channel 4).
Despite some near-misses, Britain has yet to really contribute anything major to the adult animation canon, give or take a Monkey Dust footnote. It’s a shame, as some of these shows had promise, but viewers tend to flock to the American originals even when given a choice; they’re on the whole far more consistent, and even the weaker ones (The Cleveland Show, say) look good compared to some UK attempts.
Join me next week for a look at the state of streaming and digital media in Britain, and in particular how video-on-demand takeup is doing.
More from the week that was:
- The next few weeks see the remainder of the major awards contenders drop here in the UK (leaving the public momentarily confused as BAFTA nominate films not even released in the UK yet); US notables Django, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Flight and Hitchcock all drop within the next month. This past weekend, though, belonged to the British Les Miserables, which garnered an impressive £8m, the highest ever for a musical in Britain.
- The US was represented by Gangster Squad, which also got a saturation release, and did well in third with £2m, fending off strong holdovers Hollywood and European (Hobbit, Impossible, Quartet, Jack Reacher). Texas Chainsaw 3D managed sixth including previews from the prior weekend, which is OK but nowhere near as impressive as its first-place $20m US debut (it took only £1.2 million across two weekends, around 50% below what might be expected) and is likely to lose screens fast in the face of the awards-bait onslaught. (It only made it to 284 sites in total; a very wide release, but still less than every other current top-10 film.) Numbers via Charles Gant.
- “Scream & Shout” by hip new beat combo Britney Spears and will.i.am is the number one single, suggesting British desire for night-out electropop remains high. Taylor Swift‘s latest continues apace, up to number two this week.
- Girls garnered around 50,000 viewers on Sky Atlantic for its S2 premiere, which is a fair result for the premium channel. (Typically, only Game of Thrones is able to break the 100k barrier there.) The New Normal premiered to 650,000 on E4, way down from the 2.5 million watching The Big Bang Theory preceding it but higher than same-night episodes of 2 Broke Girls and How I Met Your Mother.