Sunday, March 20, 2005

American vs. British

Last night I watched an episode of Trading Spaces straight through. It wasn't a new one, but the one with Christopher Rich and Melissa Peterman from Reba doing each other's rooms. With all due respect to Rich, I was there to watch Peterman because her character on Reba is a hoot and probably the best reason to watch the show, although Steve Howey's character "Van" comes close. I tried to write about the experience last night but the words wouldn't come, mainly because I was trying to do a general overview of why American adaptations of British "lifestyle" shows may be commercial successes but don't work as well as the British originals - in my opinion anyway. So let me take another run at this thing.

I am not a handyman. I have tools but most of them were inherited when my grandfather died, and my brother got the better tools, like the router. The one power tool I own because I wanted to have it is a new 22 speed Craftsman cordless drill because, let me tell you, a cordless drill is the one power tool that you will use the most. Even if you live in an apartment there are screws to take out and put back in and Ikea furniture to put together and a cordless drill is just the thing. But even if I am totally inept about tools - a tool about tools if you will - I love home improvement shows. Norm Abrams is a demi-god in my world, thanks to his series New Yankee Workshop and the gang at This Old House are idols. I watch Extreme Makeover: Home Edition which is fun, and the guy they call in next Holmes on Homes (a Canadian series that features contractor Mike Holmes going into peoples places and redoing renovations that slipshod contractors have done in the first place). And of course there's Changing Rooms.

Changing Rooms is a simple little half hour series that was adapted into the hour long American Trading Spaces. All of the elements of the former are in the latter but for me at least they don't come out right. Going to an hour from a half hour is part of it. I think that the half hour format makes the show more focused and dare I say it more entertainment than the American version. Of course the American show has more of a commercial element to it. In the episode that I saw last night we watched the designers head off to Home Depot (the adult male's answer to "Toys R Us") and Pottery Barn and actually do some shopping. In the British series you might get a designer mentioning where he picked up a particularly nice bit, or a particularly cheap bit but to a North American the product might just as well be on Mars. Tell me, where do you get lime wax in Saskatoon? The interesting thing is that while the British show is shorter than the American program, it doesn't seem as forced. Fast paced yes, but not as if they were trying to overstuff it.

Of course the big thing is the personalities. Both shows had perky hosts - in the United States there was Paige Davis, while in the UK there was Carol Smillie (I say was because Smillie ended her hosting duties in 2003 after six years and three pregnancies, while it was announced that Davis will be dropped at the end of the current season). Smillie always seemed more polished. Not surprising, after all she had been the "Vanna White" clone on the British version of Wheel of Fortune while Davis was a Broadway performer with no previous TV experience. The British have always had "chippie" (British for carpenter) "Handy" Andy Kane, while Trading Spaces has gone through a succession of carpenters starting with Ty Pennington, Carter Oosterhaus, and several others. Kane tends to be calmer but can be quite sarcastic to the designers and even the "clients", but it's a funny quality.

Of course the designers are the hear of both shows. The core British designers are Graham Wynne, Linda Barker, Laura McCree and Anna Rider Richardson with Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen moving from designer to host after Carol Smillie left. The American series has had a larger number of designers although Frank Beliec, Hilda Santo Tomas, Roderick Shade, Laurie Smith and Doug Wilson have been with the show from the start. On the whole I think that the British designers aren't as flamboyant or abrasive as many of the American designers. Certainly they seem to take the tastes of the customers - the people they are working with rather than the people whose houses they're renovating - into account more than the American designers. That's not to say that the British designers don't have their stupid designs that please no one except the designer. Laura McCree's first room was a bedroom in an 18th century vicarage that belonged to an artist - she turned the room into a replica of a London squat (an abandoned building taken over by squatters) that no one liked. On the other hand no one is likely to staple straw to a wall, paper the kitchen of a teetotalling Baptist minister with wine bottle labels, or turn a family room into a home theater despite the fact that the family only had a 19 inch TV. The British designers are usually calmer and less prone to be overdramatic and tend to work more cooperatively with their teams. American teams and designers frequently seem to be in opposition to each other.

I can't really put my finger on the reason for it, but - and this tends to be common to all of the American versions of British originals - I like tend to feel that Trading Spaces is nowhere near as enjoyable as Changing Rooms. I watch the latter as pure entertainment and somehow I'm just not as entertained by Trading Spaces as I am by Changing Rooms.


Linda said...

Agree with you 100%, for all reasons. TRADING SPACES is *boring* compared to CHANGING ROOMS.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

And besides...Christopher Rich hasn't been funny since Murphy Brown was cancelled.

Brent McKee said...

And besides...Christopher Rich hasn't been funny since Murphy Brown was cancelled.


Well that goes without saying. In Reba he basically plays straight man to Peterman, and pinata to McIntyre.