The Simpsons named US TV show with greatest influence on Britain

As America celebrates Thanksgiving, PBS UK looks at the US shows that have had an impact over here

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The Simpsons is the US television show that has most influenced British culture, according to a panel of experts brought together by the digital channel PBS UK.

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US cultural commentators, including Paul Gambaccini and Bonnie Greer, joined the American public service broadcaster’s UK general manager, Richard Kingsbury, and North American studies professor Iwan Morgan in calling the long-running animated show “the best TV series of the 20th century”.

The panel said The Simpsons had transformed cartoons from being the sole preserve of children into something that could appeal to all generations and had had a significant influence on British comedy, as well as the country’s TV landscape as a whole.

“Lots of British comics have suggested they were influenced by The Simpsons,” Professor Morgan told RadioTimes.com. “The best example is probably Ricky Gervais, who created The Office.

“The Simpsons has also had a huge effect on British broadcasting, helping Sky to become the principal non-terrestrial television provider.”

“It was the one programme that everyone on the panel agreed on straightaway,” said Kingsbury. “It’s hugely popular, but also consistent in terms of the quality of writing and its sheer scale – 490 episodes over 23 series.”

At number two on the list, gritty crime drama The Sopranos was highlighted as an antidote to British series, such as Downton Abbey, that deal in nostalgia rather than realism.

“Whereas the Brits once took the lead with this kind of hard-hitting drama,” said Morgan, “I think the Americans are streets ahead now. We’re importing them, where ten or 15 years ago the situation would have been the other way around.”

In third place, 1950s comedy I Love Lucy was seen as the blueprint for modern-day sitcoms and significant as the first such show that put its female star, Lucille Ball, centre stage.

“It was the first imported show to play in Britain, and the first scripted show in front of a live audience,” added Morgan.

The list also includes 90s sitcom phenomenon Friends, supersoap Dallas, David Letterman’s Late Show, seminal cop drama Hill Street Blues, wartime comedy drama M*A*S*H, PBS-originated children’s series Sesame Street – the first to show that education and entertainment could go hand in hand – and The Cosby Show, which is said to have changed for ever the way black families are portrayed on TV.

It’s a diverse line-up, but the panel felt the shows had a number of things in common.

“The ones that are most influential are those that created shared national moments in Britain,” said Kingsbury.

“I remember who shot JR even though I was at school. I wasn’t actually watching the show at the time but it was being talked about in the playground.

“Friends spilled over into real life, with people going out and getting ‘Rachel’ haircuts.”

“The shows on the list were all cutting-edge in their own way,” said Morgan.“Hill Street Blues revolutionised the cop drama, focusing on the police as people rather than merely crime-solvers. It paved the way for British shows like The Bill.”

The list of the US shows that have had the greatest influence on Britain was drawn for RadioTimes.com from PBS UK’s wider list, the Best of America Ultimate Top Ten. 

The Simpsons was third on the list after US president Franklin D Roosevelt’s inaugural address, which included the famous line “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, and early mass-produced car the Ford Model T.

The full list of the TV shows is below. Do you agree with the panel’s choices? Post a comment and let us know.

1. The Simpsons

2. The Sopranos

3. I Love Lucy

4. Friends

5. Dallas

6. Late Show with David Letterman

7. Hill Street Blues

8. M*A*S*H

9. Sesame Street

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10. The Cosby Show