UK-to-US TV imports that deserved better

Feature Mark Harrison 27 Feb 2014 - 07:00

Doctor Who and Downton may have been welcomed with open arms, but here are the UK imports to the US that didn't fare as well...

A few weeks ago, we wrote about how the UK market for US television has changed, with the competition of streaming and subscription services seeming to have put broadcasters off their appetite for imports and acquisitions. It's also interesting to note that advances in technology may have had the opposite effect on some American viewers' enthusiasm for imported UK television.

The particular knack for cultural imperialism that Hollywood expresses all over the world has also been brought to bear on certain UK TV imports. There aren't that many examples of British remakes of American shows, but it's been a different story for some UK shows that have crossed the pond.

We're not talking about entertainment formats, like The X Factor, Deal Or No Deal or Big Brother, which are easy to adapt for international audiences, in comparison to the more nuanced, scripted formats of drama and comedy. Over the years, we've adapted Family Fortunes, The Apprentice and Total Wipeout for audiences in Blighty, but have tended to import scripted shows rather than re-imagining them, (with the notable exception of Law & Order: UK, the first series of which was based on episodes and stories from the parent series.)

Historically, shows like Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and Are You Being Served have been shown in their unexpurgated format on PBS, a public service broadcaster which is funded by corporate grants and viewer donations, as opposed to the UK's mandatory television licence fee.

But the whole production model is different in the USA. There are twelve episodes of Fawlty Towers in existence, and they're all brilliant. There have been twenty plus episodes of Two And A Half Men every single year for the last decade, and even the biggest fan of that show would have to admit that there are episodes where the misogyny isn't quite as sharp as usual.

While PBS would broadcast British shows from their library of acquisitions, it's fair to say that most successful British comedies have endured some tinkering at the hands of just about every other network. Infamously awful pilots have been made for sitcoms like Red Dwarf, Coupling and The IT Crowd, all of which hit a brick wall in trying to translate the sense of humour of the original.

More recently, ABC produced a pilot for King Of Van Nuys, a remake of Only Fools And Horses starring John Leguizamo as Del Boy, Dustin Ybarra as Rodney and Christopher Lloyd as Granddad. After several years of trying to revamp the format, it didn't get this far until 2012 - the series is beloved in the UK, but in terms of hitting something at the height of its popularity, that's like going out and selling Piers Morgan Live t-shirts this afternoon, (or, actually, at any time during the last thirty-six months.)

But of course it's not all bad news. Some US remakes have completely distinguished themselves from the original, and gone on to be very successful. The fondly remembered Sanford & Son re-developed the premise of Steptoe & Son with African-American characters; NBC's take on The Office was a success both in the States, and on Ricky Gervais' home turf; and HBO's award-winning Veep is arguably an American spin-off of The Thick Of It, although it actually adopts most of its cast from the 2009 film spin-off, In The Loop.

Likewise, it's not all bleak on the drama front. For every US Life On Mars, (SPOILER: in which the whole series was contrived to be the collective hallucination of a crew of astronauts on a “gene hunt” on the red planet) there's a US Shameless, (in which certain Mancunian idiosyncrasies are discarded in favour of a focus on “trailer trash” characters, to the tune of four successful seasons on Showtime so far.)

Happily, it's the distinctive remakes that have lasted. While shows like MTV's Skins don't make it past the first season, until recently, Syfy's Being Human was able to continue unabashed for four seasons without even having to play the “anyone can die” card that sustained the BBC Three original through a whole bunch of seismic cast changes.

While there's no questioning the success of certain remakes, it's not fair that brilliant original UK shows have had their chance of marketability in the States diminished by dodgy, cack-handed pilots. It's to the immense credit of Simon Pegg, Jessica Hynes and Edgar Wright that they weren't having any of this nonsense when McG decided to remake Spaced.

Wright coined the name McSpaced, to distance the failed pilot from the original, and has told Q&A audiences that McG even phoned him personally to try and get him on board, at one point saying “Listen, I really sympathise with you. If I heard somebody was remaking Charlie's Angels, I'd be pissed off.” Aside from that hilarious lack of self-awareness, it's not even like the series needed to raise its profile with an American spin-off.

The series accrued a loyal fanbase from those who discovered it on DVD after Wright-Pegg collaborations Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, and benefited from endorsements by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, who provided DVD commentaries on the US special edition. Spaced may not have been a stratospheric success, but it found its audience when it was made available to them.

According to Jeanette Steemers in her 2004 book, Selling Television: British Television In The Global Marketplace, “For the vast majority of Americans, British TV is marginal, and factual co-productions and the British formats adapted for mainstream US television are not recognised as anything other than American shows.”

She further commented: “American broadcasters are resistant to foreign-sourced programming like no other nation.” Granted, that was ten years ago, and we all know that viewing habits have changed with improved availability, but it's not like this attitude has been massively changed.

A number of big UK TV hits of recent years are either planned, or currently in production. ITV's Broadchurch will be reconstituted as Gracepoint, with showrunner Chris Chibnall and star David Tennant going along with the transition. David Fincher and Gillian Flynn recently announced that they were redoing Channel 4's Utopia for HBO, and Robert Downey Jr won a heated bidding war for the film rights to the Black Mirror episode, The Entire History Of You.

Even the aforementioned factual co-productions aren't immune - the BBC's Walking With Dinosaurs was nominally adapted into a dreadful kids' movie, voiced over with all the finesse of an unfunny YouTube video, at the end of last year. Even the acclaimed series, which featured a voice over from Kenneth Branagh in its original form, was re-dubbed by Avery Brooks (Deep Space Nine's Sisko) for its US transmission on the Discovery Channel.

It seems that the only internationally marketable show that is completely remake-proof in the States is BBC Two's Top Gear. The massively popular format has been re-purposed in other territories, but the commercial entanglements of featuring different car manufacturers would appear to have stumped a market where product placement goes an awful long way towards the budget, and so Americans are most familiar with the Clarkson-May-Hammond dynamic of the UK version.

We deliberately haven't mentioned Top Gear, or dramas like Doctor Who, Sherlock or Downton Abbey, up until now, not because the topic of the article is intended to exclude their phenomenal success, but because they're examples of how well a show can do without being compromised. We knew that Downton had made it big when it got a running gag in Marvel's Iron Man 3, and it's brought PBS the kind of rapt attention it hasn't had in a while.

Still, that kind of visibility is tough for British shows to build and maintain, in competition with the larger marketing allotment for domestic programming. Aside from the vastly different model of production, and what Steemers perceived as apathy for foreign programming, it's just a much bigger market than the UK, and the budget isn't always there.

One major force for representing British television on air is BBC America, the cable network operated by BBC Worldwide. Early on, BBCA basically repeated lifestyle shows and formats like Ground Force and Changing Rooms, but has since branched out into original programming, and also brings new episodes of Top Gear, Sherlock and Doctor Who to audiences.

We could write a whole other article on Doctor Who's broadcast history in the States, but Who is perhaps the best example to illustrate the transition, having been on air back in the 1970s too. Tom Baker is automatically the most iconic Doctor over there, because PBS ran his first four seasons in a cycle, throughout the late 70s and 80s. But lest we forget, Doctor Who could have had its very own American remake in 1996.

The TV movie, starring Paul McGann, got through just well enough to be considered canonical with the one true series, but if it had been a bigger ratings success, there was a whole plan to go to series with remakes of classic serials like The Tomb Of The Cybermen, The Gunslingers and The Dalek Invasion Of Earth. Imagine the continuity debates, and quiver.

But another effect of American viewing habits can be seen in the direction that the 2005 series took. Russell T. Davies was greatly influenced by Buffy The Vampire Slayer, up to and including the 45-minute episode format, which leaves just enough space for ads to round out an hour on US commercial channels. US fans have sometimes complained that longer episodes have been cut down for time, but BBCA seem to have phased this out during their transmission of the series, and extended the allotted timeslot when necessary.

The show really broke out in America during the Matt Smith era, with an increased marketing budget, increased focus on international co-production, and heavy presence at conventions, and on Who-friendly talk shows like The Nerdist and Late Night With Craig Ferguson. And nowadays? You have Graham Norton (whose own chat show has endeared him to new audiences on BBCA) greeting Peter Capaldi on-stage, in full costume as the Doctor, at the BBC Worldwide buyers showcase just this week, representing the international profile that the series currently enjoys.

The bottom line is that if something eccentric and quintessentially British as Doctor Who can find an audience in the States, when promoted right, then there's a whole bunch of British shows that deserve better than an abortive or poorly received remake.

It all comes down to audience sensibilities, of course. The Danish version of The Killing is a big hit on UK telly, while American viewers got AMC's frequently cancelled English language remake, starring Joel Kinnaman, but that's not the same. Whether the new version of successful or not, it's merely a transition from English language to American language, and shows that can and have broken through go to prove that not all British shows are considered marginal.

But once again, we come back to the current state of affairs- viewing habits are changing. Hulu has offered new and classic British content direct to US viewers since September, and previously hosted US exclusives like The Thick Of It and Misfits (both of which had failed US pilots, pre-Veep in the case of TTOI) and there are plenty of similar services for viewers who are so inclined to seek out UK shows.

Hopefully, this will mean that we eventually see the decline of US broadcasting networks trying to put their own mark on existing UK brands, because narrowcasting the original has only left series struggling to amass support that anyone would class above that of a cult favourite. As for remakes, while imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it can be seen that the new versions lose much more in translation, than they gain in production value.

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