Britian’s television remakes across the pond
When British exports come to mind, we often think of tea and great music (read: Spice Girls), a mix of the traditional and trendy. Many things we’ve borrowed or learned from the British have led to revolutions, whether in music, food or government, but you may be unaware of how much else we’ve borrowed and adapted from our British blokes across the way.
It started with early adaptations of British shows, which became known as Sanford and Son, All in the Family and Three’s Company to us in the States. Now, American television is brimming with British hand-me-downs, especially in reality TV. Most of our guilty pleasures have British roots, like American Idol, What Not to Wear, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Whose Line is it Anyway, Wife Swap and, every mom’s favorite, Antiques Roadshow. Though British viewers are generally very accepting of our original programming, the U.S. insists on remakes. That’s the American way.
If you’re still not familiar with the image of a stapler suspended in a Jell-O mold, congratulations on surviving under your well-isolated rock. The Office was originally a show written by and starring comedian Ricky Gervais. A sitcom that started in 2001, it only ran for two seasons in the U.K. Except there season are called “series” and there it’s normal for extremely successful shows to only last two or three seasons. The Office was soon picked up by the U.S. in 2005 and plans to continue on to an eighth season even after losing the contract with the loveably ignorant boss Michael Scott, played by Steve Carrell. Since its modest start the U.S. version of The Office has now set the bar for future adaptations. In fact, the style and premise of the show made it so relatable to anyone who has ever had a shitty job, that the show has been adapted in France, Germany, Brazil, Canada, Chile and Israel, with Chinese and Swedish version in the works.
Maybe comedy isn’t your thing though. Maybe you’re into shows about teens who take too many drugs, have serious social and mental issues and deal with them by having copious amounts of sex. There’s an adaptation for that.
Skins, which started in the U.K. in 2007, began its own tradition of casting amateur actors and using young writers. The show follows 8 main characters through their last two years of sixth form (or junior college) in Bristol, England, and every two seasons the show starts over with a completely new ensemble cast. You might think with a cast that changes every two seasons, viewers wouldn’t get as attached. Almost the opposite is true. Fans from all countries stirred up a fury on social media sites when word of a U.S. version was in the works. Even Skins fans in the U.S. find ways to watch the U.K. version illegally online and fight endlessly over which “generation” was the best (second, duh).
While the original U.K. Skins is on its fifth season this year, the American version was just picked up by MTV in January. All eyes were on the show, not only to compare the extremely successful original, but because of the controversy it was stirring up. About a dozen advertisers pulled out when the Parents Television Council attempted to file charges of child pornography due to the raciness in the show, calling it “the most dangerous show for teens.” Yeah, because calling something “the most dangerous” has always been an effective technique to deter teens.
Though MTV went out of its comfort zone to put another teen drama on its lineup instead of another show about Jersey, it seemed as if it wasn’t quite sure how to make the show uniquely American. Filmed in Toronto, the show attempted to keep the same racy language, drugs and sex content, but the execution came out awkward. They swapped the male gay character for a lesbian character, kept some names of the original cast and switched others at random. The poor acting didn’t help when American writers kept the original British slang in some parts of the script. With half of the sex, some of the drugs and censored cursing, old and new fans were left unfulfilled and angry.
The friendship between the U.K. and America has been a successfully symbiotic one in the last century. Maybe if we’re lucky, Americans can continue to trade our ridiculous pop culture and doughnuts for great British TV and more singers like Adele. Just remember to feign interest in The Royal Wedding.
So with these examples—one successful and one falling flat—here are some steps for adapting a show to the U.S. successfully.
1. Work on the template. Don’t try to copy word for word and scene for scene. This is a recipe for disaster.
2. Think about your audience. Yeah, we’re Americans, but we’re not dumb. Deliver clever, complex content, and you’ll be surprised at the cult following that emerges.
3. Most importantly: Own it. If you’re going to put it on American TV, make it American. Think about how the show would fit in with our class and race differences, our dialect and accents, and our history as a culture. The Office embraced Scranton and all its mediocrity, but in the process discovered a wealth of hilarious, multi-faceted characters.
Mariana Garces is a sophomore journalism major who likes to watch Skins while drinking a cuppa tea. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.