Why Americans Always Screw Up Remakes of British Comedies

American remakes of British shows are easy targets. Rarely do the new iterations match up to their predecessors, even when episodes are replicated almost shot for shot. It’s hard to justify their existence when the originals are readily available to American audiences and, in some cases, are still airing across the pond. But the biggest problem with remaking shows for American sensibilities isn’t creative or cultural deficits — it’s the humor.

When I spent a few months in London in the early aughts, everyone was obsessed with a little singing show called Pop Idol that was soon to debut in America. I remember watching the finale and scoffing that American audiences would never be suckered into entertainment that was so blatantly plastic and cheesy. So clearly my skills as a prognosticator of crossover success are suspect. But one thing I do know from years of consuming British television is that our Anglo friends take their comedy much as they take their tea: black. At the core of the three most recent shows to get the remake treatment — MTV’s controversial, much-hyped Skins, Showtime’s Shameless and Syfy’s Being Human — is a fatalism that is anathema to our sunny American perspectives. It’s not that American TV shows can’t pull off black humor (see: Dexter), but when British shows come to our shores they’re usually stripped of their dark hearts.

An MTV remake of the boundary-pushing teen drama Skins should have been a no-brainer. The Brit creators came over to launch the remake, basically replicating the original’s inventive format — each episode focuses on a different character, allowing the show to play with its tone and perspective week to week. But then came the cries of child pornography, the pulled sponsorships, the falling ratings. In the storm of criticism surrounding the show, its most glaring failing has gotten lost.

The problem with the remake isn’t that it goes too far, but that it doesn’t go far enough. MTV imported the teenage carousing and pill popping, but the characters are uniformly affectless, and every moment that should be funny or clever falls flat. The original employed a mordant sense of humor that undercut its more salacious elements. In the darkest, most disturbing episode of the first two seasons, a creepy secondary character ties her disabled mother to a bed and accuses a teacher of sexual assault in order to get closer to her crush. This happens against the backdrop of the school play, an original production about 9/11 entitled “Osama: The Musical.” It’s a pretty brilliant sequence that simultaneously satirizes the high school musical and the Brit’s tortured fascination with all things American, but I shudder to think of the limp MTV cast attempting to pull off this kind of high wire act.

Later in the series, a character dies and his friends react by stealing his coffin and riding around town with it strapped onto the top of red Mini Cooper. Even though the second season ends on a fairly optimistic note by launching the young characters into their respective futures, not everyone gets a happy ending. Not everyone is deserving of redemption. This bleak undercurrent, so rare in a show about teenagers (try to imagine Gossip Girl’s Chuck and Blair absconding with Nate’s well-coiffed corpse), gave Skins most if its humor and also infused it with unexpected emotional heft. Nothing captures the show’s spirit quite like the surrealist medley of the cast singing Cat Stevens’s “Wild World.”

Showtime’s Shameless, which follows the antics of the outrageously dysfunctional Chicago-based Gallagher clan, has been a bit more promising in its inaugural season. The show suffers from a couple of casting missteps (Justin Chatwin, who plays the suitor of the eldest Gallagher, is a black hole of charm compared to James McAvoy, who originated the role). But the show has undeniable pedigree with John Wells at the helm and William H. Macy and a surprisingly effective Emmy Rossum in the lead roles. But despite the copious amounts of nudity and anti-social behavior on display, it often feels like the show is pulling its punches, unwilling to fully commit to the family’s sociopathic tendencies. Part of the enjoyment of watching the early seasons of the U.K. Shameless was the underlying tension that lent a dark edge to the off-kilter familial warmth — at one time or another almost all of the characters teetered on the edge of becoming wholly irredeemable. You could sense the writers’ glee in pushing their characters where most wouldn’t dare.

It will be interesting to see how far this version will allow Macy to go as derelict patriarch Frank Gallagher, considering that the character’s British counterpart (played by David Threlfall) was unabashedly banging his son’s underage girlfriend by the fourth episode. Of the three current remakes, Shameless probably has the biggest cultural hurdles to overcome — from reactions I’ve heard and read, even people who like the show are somewhat uncomfortable with poverty, abusive parenting, and inappropriate relationships between adults and teens being played for laughs. And as great as Macy is in the role, I can pretty much guarantee that Threlfall’s glorious, manic rant through the streets of Manchester will never be matched by anyone, in any accent.

In some ways, the original Being Human, a hit BBC show about three 20-something housemates attempting to lead a normal life despite the fact that one is a vampire, one is a werewolf and one is a ghost, is sunnier in disposition than the version currently airing on the SyFy network. Of the three shows, I’m the least familiar with the original Being Human as I’ve only seen the first six-episode season — but the main thing that struck me while watching the show was that the vampire character is far less mopey and tortured by his condition than we’ve come to expect from our redeemed bloodsuckers. Mitchell (has there ever been a more ridiculous name for a vampire?) definitely falls on the side of good, but he also seems to have come to terms with the fact that he’s a natural killer who is likely to fall off the wagon every now and again. After all, the show seems to be asking, why can’t someone be both a bloodthirsty monster and an all-around good bloke?

The remake (which is set in Boston but filmed in Canada) relies a bit too heavily on dramatic set pieces and overly morose monologues to set its tone. Still, the three leads (Sam Witwer, Sam Huntington and Meaghan Rath) have a sprightly rapport, and the remake has succeeded the best of the three in capturing the original’s spirit — a cheeky combination of supernatural thriller and young adult coming-of-age dramedy. To really break out it will have to step a little further out of the shadow of the original, but there’s promise here. Hopefully, as the show continues, it’ll be good for a laugh or two.

Meghan Lewit is a recent New York transplant by way of Los Angeles. She likes her weather bright and her comedy dark.

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