Sunday, March 13, 2005

Whatever Happened To? (#3 of a series)

Whatever happened to good American versions of British shows?

There was a time, roughly between 1970 and 1980, when American producers made really good versions of British comedies. I think there were about four that really really worked. Since then the results have usually been less than desirable. There have been a few successes but a great many failures. And it isn't just comedies - the American versions of British shows, like The Antiques Roadshow, Changing Rooms and What Not To Wear are inferior to the British versions. But that's a story for another time.

The four successful British shows that became successful American shows were Till Death Do Us Part which became All In The Family, Steptoe And Son which was Americanised as Sanford And Son, Man About The House which turned into Three's Company, and Keep It In The Familywhich was remade as Too Close For Comfort in the United States. But now consider the fate of other American versions of British shows, starting with the two spinoffs from Man About The House/Three's Company. The British shows, Robin's Nest and George & Mildred each lasted three years (38 episodes) while the American shows lasted one season. Fawlty Towers was remade twice, as Amanda's (starring Bea Arthur) and Payne (starring John Laroquette) neither lasted as long as the British series, and Cleese only made 12 episodes of that. Then there was that classic PBS warhorse Are You Being Served. That show lasted 69 episodes and spawned a sequel called Grace And Favour (known as Are You Being Served Again in the United States). It was remade as Beanes of Boston but the pilot wasn't picked up. Similarly there were two attempts to make an American version of Red Dwarf, neither of which sold. Men Behaving Badly did make it onto the NBC schedule but while the British series lasted six season, the American version went under two. Most recently there was Coupling which lasted 4 episodes. And there are many more.

What makes the successes work. In the cases of All in the Family and Sanford And Son, the producers took the basic premise of a British show but adapted it to American realities and very quickly tailored it to the stars involved. It didn't hurt that the producer doing the adaptation was Norman Lear, or that he was working with Caroll O'Connor and Redd Foxx. In the case of Three's Company and Too Close For Comfort benefited from strong comedic leads in John Ritter and Ted Knight respectively, and a longer run allowed them to develop the shows beyond where the British series went. A later success, Cosby started with the premise of the British show One Foot In The Grave but almost immediately threw the concepts of the British series out and became a clone of The Cosby Show set in a less affluent neighborhood.

But as is usually the case it is the failures that are of more interest, if only to ask what on earth were they thinking? How could anyone imagine remaking Fawlty Towers a show that is so tied with its star John Cleese that no one else could possibly fit into the role? The show was about more than someone running a seaside hotel it was about Cleese, with his silly walks and his attitude, being the rudest person ever to run a seaside hotel. Similarly how can you do a version of Red Dwarf without the chemistry that existed between Chris Barrie and Craig Charles, and the unique talent that is Danny John-Jules as "Cat". Terry Farrell, who was cast as "Cat" in the second pilot for the American version, was scarcely an adequate replacement. Another example of not getting it is the American remake of men Behaving Badly. In the British series, the so-called men are as someone put it "just barely housebroken". They live in an apartment that could be called a dump if that weren't an insult to dumps, and treat the women they're involved with so badly that if these women possessed any degree of self-esteem they'd be long gone. In the American version they lived in a trendy apartment and have a series of attractive girlfriends. As for Coupling the producers thought they could assure success by using the scripts from the British. Unfortunately they totally misunderstood the nature of the characters and their relationships and cast the series based on these misperceptions. The result probably wouldn't have worked even if the original series hadn't been widely seen in the United States.

Based on the past performance of American adaptations of British series - particularly situation comedies - the prospects for the upcoming NBC version of the BBC's hit The Office is not too good. It is a very fine line to walk between sticking too close to the original series or throwing out all of the qualities that made the British series a success in the first place. Doing either can destroy what made the original series work. Many British series are idiosyncratic, and those qualities don't always translate well. We wouldn't expect an American version of Blackadder to work any more than we'd expect a British version of Reba to work. Come to think of it, it's more likely that most American series could be adapted by the British with comparatively difficulty. The question is, given the current state of sitcoms in the United States, why would they want to?


Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I can't figure out why someone never hit upon the idea of adapting the successful Britcom The Good Life (or as it's known on these shores, Good Neighbors) over here in the States. The premise--a couple deciding to adopt an existence of self-sufficiency--seems tailor-made for an American crowd. A friend of mine once argued that technically, it had already been done with Green Acres although I don't think it's the same thing.

Unknown said...

I actually ssaw the pilot for the American Office and thought it would hold it's own against its British conterpart. In the recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, reports are saying that after the first episode, which is based on "Office U.K."'s first show, "Office U.S." goes down it's own road, while still keeping the flavor well. Don't give up hope.