Friday, February 18th, 2011

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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  • FoxconSox

    I hate to nitpick a well argued thesis but how can you completely avoid mentioning The Office? I am aware that it would completely disprove your point but, come on, the show has had 5 great seasons and 2 really good ones. It is a case where the American version might be better than the British version. Especially, if you consider that the British series amassed a total of 12 standard episodes.

    • Shinobi-San

      The Office is the exception to the rule, that's why.

  • JoshUng

    Good points, and I don't think enough people pay attention to the fact that the US and UK are just different.

    First off, there's the size difference. Population wise, the US is about 6 times larger than the UK. In America, there's the saying "Will it play in Peoria?" Well, England doesn't have a Peoria, or at least less Peorias. With so many more people, you increase the need to please various types of people. I don't think its a coincidence that the show you think does best is on SyFy, a network that serves a niche market, and knows it doesn't have much to gain be being broad.

    @FoxconSox, while the US version of The Office is successful (and I agree, better than the UK version), I actually do think it could be used to serve Meghan's points. Michael Scott I think is much less "dark than David Brent, or at least much less mean-spirited. You get the impression David Brent is kind of a dick, while Michael Scott is more socially inept.

    • http://on.fb.me/e9KS2O T. Baron O'Daighre

      The UK may be six times smaller than the USA, but it's definitely more diverse. For a start, the UK consists of (at least) four distinct nations, but even within those nations, there are many other distinctions. America is home to about nine dialect groups, while there are nearly double that in English alone. There are parts of the UK where you can walk down the road and become a foreigner in a strange community, and there are counties, a few hundred miles wide, whose people still hold grudges from half-millennia old civil wars.

      So yeah, not that it's a competition or anything, but I'd say we have more Peorias. ;)

      The difference is though, is that television production in the UK is so London-centric, (perhaps understandably, as about a tenth of the British live there), so it is perhaps easier for producers to ignore regional tastes. Having said that, BBC Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are independent of White City, and produce their own content specifically for the nations they serve, (I'd personally contend that some of the best British comedy of the past couple of years has come out of BBC Scotland, 'Limmy's Show' and 'Gary Tank Commander' par example).

      But furthermore, I don't think British TV execs get as hung-up about ratings as their American counterparts. This is probably due to the fact that the Beeb, the market-leader, gets exactly the same level of revenues in regardless of how many people watch its shows. I think here in the UK, there is more of a culture of TV channels competing for prestige, rather than for ratings, (which is fine by me!).

      PS. @OP: It's a good metaphor, but absolutely no-one in the UK has their tea black. It's milk wit twa sugars thank thasel very mooch.

      • JoshUng

        Good point, I didn't mean to imply that the UK was homogeneous, but I admit I didn't not know it was that diverse.

        I guess a main difference is the need for the US to appeal across demographics while the UK doesn't need to so much.

  • esquared

    agree, agree, and agree.

    the u.s.coupling was also a disaster got pulled after the pilot episode). there was talk of absolutely fabulous being remade here, starring roseanne barr, imagine what a horror that would have been. there's talk of yankifying the IT crowd, which nbc tried before, but now is in the works again — ugh. i would say, though, that they got it right with 'three's company', which was based on u.k.'s 'man about the house'.

    @FoxconSox i wouldn't argue that the u.s. version of 'the office' is better than the u.k version. it's different — it has taken a life on it's own. the u.s. 'office' version should now say that it is inspired by the uk version, not based on it. but if you want to compare the first few episodes of the u.s. version to the original ones, the u.k version is much funnier and better. besides, the u.k version only needed 3 seasons for it to be great. they knew how to quit while they were ahead.the u.s. version will tire itself out, and just vanish into oblivion without anyone caring about it.

    the u.s. should just preserve the authenticity of the british shows by just showing the original version, esp., nowadays, with bbc america, pbs, and the internet. no need for an american remake.

    • JoshUng

      I agree that the episodes that were basically the same in UK and US were funnier in the UK version, but that's to be expected when the US version was basically just a remake in those episodes.

      I think the UK Office only when two seasons though (and a special) and while they got out while on a high note, I think they left too early. I think the best season of US Office was season 3. So while the US version will probably carry on too long, I actually prefer a show going too long if it means getting not cutting out before it hit its peak (within reason of course).

  • pressmetoo

    I agree although I haven't seen any of the originals of these three, nor do I have any desire to see the remakes.

    The Office is the obvious discussion point but it's been argued to death already. Agree with esquared that the American version is now a different animal and they should be judged differently.

    The Brits know how to air something great for 12 or 18 episodes over two or three series and leave it be. Go out on top. Extras was incredible and I feel there are exactly enough episodes – twelve and a Christmas special.

    Perhaps Ricky Gervais has gained enough fans here in the States that we will start to see some original British comedy; his animated show on HBO and An Idiot Abroad (on Science Channel…huh?) are a good start.

    While not a drama or comedy, has anyone seen the American "Top Gear"? Ugh, what a cluster F that show is. I'm not even a car guy but the original is so great with so many fans that they didn't need to remake it, just air it here on History.

    I'd love to think there's no need for U.S. remakes but it's all about the advertising dollar and reaching as wide an audience as possible by catering to the lowest common denominator and unfortunately I don't think a lot of originals would go over well here.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marc-Brandl/904465723 Marc Brandl

      UK Shameless has been on 8 seasons now though I lost track after the 3rd season. Looking forward to seeing the US version at some point. Frank Gallagher is a classic.

      Uk TopGear has been on since 2002. And the US version really really sucks.

      I agree with your larger point that the really awesome british series that are hits are good at stopping early – Black Books, Thick of It, The Young Ones are three that come to mind as two prime examples – not sure if this happens due to budget or audience expectations or its the BBC or…?

  • Barry Rosenfeld

    Someone else mentioned The Office, I will mention All in the Family. Every show needs to be taken on its own merits.

  • westie1984

    Maybe the key is to ditch as much of the original as possible. MTV Skins has kept the original creators on. The US Office did not, they got Greg Daniels to do it.

    It needs to be built from the ground up and not just another episode of a show that may have jumped the shark.

  • Davidwatts

    The thing we always used to talk about when I did a TV production study thing in the UK was that for a US TV show to really be successful and profitable for all involved, it has to reach 100 episodes and go into syndication. This leads to all sorts of compromises and tone-lightening aimed at keeping the thing together and humming down the road long enough to make 100 episodes. I'm sure this holds for US adaptations, as well. In the UK, there's no syndication structure like that, therefore no need to keep the show going so long. Therefore, there's a lot more freedom to just experiment with a little 6-episode idea, keep it pure, and then maybe go back to the well if people like it.

  • http://stannate.livejournal.com stannate

    A large issue between US and UK programs is that the UK will allow for the idea that the show's protagonist isn't lovable, and in fact can be a righteous asshole. Such a concept barely exists on network TV in the US–I can only think of Gregory House, who is, naturally, played by a Brit. You'll have better luck on cable TV, with Don Draper and Dexter, among others, as characters that aren't meant for the audience to empathize with. There have been three, maybe four attempts, at trying to recreate "Fawlty Towers" in the US, all of which lasted barely half a season. Dabney Coleman, who was born two decades too soon, spent most of the 1980s fighting unsuccessfully against the protagonist-as-lovable stereotype; he'd have more luck today with shows like "Buffalo Bill."

    • westie1984

      Unlovable protagonist only works for short seasons – cable. I got tired of Gregory House's misanthropy after about 10 episodes.

  • pcbedamned

    "…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."
    Ok, seriously, I could not stop laughing at this!!! But then again, I am Canadian with a very British sense of humour…

  • F. Todd Perzy@facebook

    I disagree with the main idea it is a humor or culutre difference. I loved shamless BBC bought the box set series because bbc america stopped playing it. Had to get a region coded dvd player just for them. But i hated the american version. There was no reason that it could not play here. I too loved the chemistry of the BBC cast, and think that casting of some of the childrens roles could have been done better. Producers tried to do to hard to make race an apparent issue by; making liam mixed race, veronica black and still kepping kash muslim…. Don't get me wrong they could of made a lot of suddle racial changes, but these just seemed to forced. As a gay male that has lived on the south side of Chicago, there are a lot of possibilities for ian's charater.
    I was also disappontied in being human… maybe it's just the british accent I miss ;-) cheers