How Ghosts Adapted Its Story for an American Audience
The first season CBS's Ghosts became the rare successful American adaptation of a British sitcom. Here's how.
This article contains spoilers for Ghosts season 1.
The entire season of Ghosts leading up to the finale rests on a foundation of carefully adapting a successful BBC sitcom for American audiences. For readers who haven’t been able to see the UK series on HBO Max, the basic premise is the same: a city dwelling couple inherit a massive old mansion called Button House from a distant relative of the wife. An accident enables the wife to see the ghosts who have died in the house or on the grounds. These ghosts represent various eras of British history from the Stone Age to the 1990’s.
The shows’ creators Joe Wiseman and Joe Port have worked on several previous CBS sitcom series. This background made their creative partnership the right choice to adapt Ghosts.
“One of the things we wrote four or five years ago was an unproduced pilot about vampires that have been married for 500 years,” Wiseman says. “It was called Eternally Yours, it was about vampires who were literally stuck together forever. When CBS acquired the rights to this, I think they thought we’ve done a lot of work with them and we sort of wrote a supernatural themed comedy for them. They sent us a link and asked us if we would be interested in it. We watched it and very quickly were taken by it and realized just how fun it could be and what a unique idea it was. Also just how portable it was to be adapted into. You take this really fun premise and then you populate it with American archetypes.”
“I was an American history major in college, and I’m just very into that,” Port adds. “I feel like it’s just a fun way to explore American history and make it fun. A lot of people tell us they watch the show with their families and their kids love it.”
Americans have a different relationship to history and the way it is portrayed on screen compared to British audiences. The starkest difference between the two series is the way slavery and colonialism is discussed not only as jokes but also how this history affects the characters of color. In the UK series, Jay’s equivalent is Mike, a Black British man. Alberta’s equivalent is Kitty, a Black British ghost from the mid 18th Century or Georgian Era. Sass doesn’t have a UK equivalent. Mike and Kitty have very divergent personalities and their stories on screen don’t always reflect what it means to be Black and British in the 18th Century or today.
“Race is so much a part of the story of America, and it’s something that we want to handle delicately and respectfully and honestly,” Port says. “It’s definitely something that is interesting to explore and necessary to explore in the relationships with our characters.”
Wiseman adds, “We used American history as a guide and populated it with people and cultures that would’ve been represented here.”
Going where few American sitcoms, let alone many American period dramas have gone before was always part of the plan.
“When we sat down to figure out who the characters would be though, having a native character was always our number one priority amongst the cast,” Port says. “We have native representation in the writer’s room, we have in the cast obviously, and we have a Lenape consultant. It’s something that we really take care to get right. It’s a story we want to tell, we’re excited about telling Sasappis’ stories.”
Alberta’s characterization was also more than leaning into tropes about The Roaring Twenties and the fun side of the Harlem Renaissance.
“A big part of Alberta’s backstory was her struggles and her family’s struggles with racism,” Port says. “I thought it made ‘Alberta’s Fan’ that Lauren Bridges wrote, so much stronger. It would be dishonest not to really dig into some of the issues of race in America.”
Translating the ghost characters to US television also involved accounting for differences in frame of reference for history and current events even within the same decade or time period. Trevor’s UK equivalent is Julian, a middle-aged politician who died with his pants down, but for a different reason.
“The ’90s British sex scandals in Parliament were such a specific thing,” Port says. “Obviously, we had our own ’90s sex scandals…The douchey finance bro to us seemed like a fun American archetype to explore. I went to college with so many of those guys at Penn.”
Fanny, Hetty’s UK equivalent looks exactly like the “Downton Abbey” imagery Sam uses to diss Hetty’s with early on in the season. In the United States, we refer to what the British call the Edwardian era the Gilded Age. Hetty’s thematic parallels with HBO’s The Gilded Age were entirely accidental and mostly based on the fact both series take place in and around New York City.
“We started writing [Ghosts] in 2019 before the pandemic,” Port says. “Maybe they had been in development or shooting, we don’t know… It didn’t air until recently,” Wiseman added. According to our previous interviews with actor Morgan Spector and historical advisor Dr. Erica Armstrong-Dunbar, 2019 was when HBO started production on The Gilded Age.
“I love that era though, and where I grew up, there was a mansion on a hill from the 1850s two blocks from my house that is a historical museum now called Baker Mansion,” Port says. “The woman that lived there was Hetty Baker and her husband Elias Baker. That’s where we got those names for Rebecca’s character and Matt Walsh’s character. I think that was an era that we thought was so ripe for lampooning. I think there’s something in the zeitgeist about the vast income inequality right now. It’s definitely sparked people’s imaginations, and there are easy parallels to draw.”
On the other hand, Pete’s UK equivalent Pat didn’t need to change that much. “With the boy scout, we didn’t even realize that that was a British thing,” Port says. “That seemed so American off the bat to us.”
The story setting also influenced which American pop culture and historical tropes to include in Ghosts. Several possibilities were discussed at first.
“When we realized that we could realistically place a Viking in the American Northeast, we got very excited,” Wiseman says. “We thought that’d be such a fun, surprising character to have. Pretty quickly after discovering that, we’re like, we’ll set it there, and it made sense for other reasons as well. Obviously, [New York] has one of the longer histories of America. That was a fun thing for us because it’s a supernatural comedy, but we’re trying to be historically accurate as well.”
The original Woodstock Festival Flower (Sheila Carrasco) attended was in a neighboring county New York state as a whole. Isaac’s UK equivalent the Captain is also gay but there’s a huge difference between them in time period. Button House was used as officer’s quarters during World War II. New York plays a huge role in Revolutionary War history and also current pop culture. Yes, the Hamilton jokes around Isaac are purposeful.
“When we came up with how [Issac] can’t believe he knew Hamilton and can’t believe how famous he is now and was just incredibly jealous. It just seemed so funny, and Brandon is so funny doing it,” Wiseman says.
“As a writer, you work with a lot of people who go on to do big things and you develop a lot of one-way rivalries where the other person doesn’t even think of you at all,” Port adds.
Unfortunately, neither Port nor Wiseman have heard any reactions from the cast and crew of Hamilton.
The UK series established some ground rules on how the world of ghosts interacts with the living. Port and Wiseman decided to expand the scope of the American adaptation. “Early on, they were very heavily involved in the pilot and everything, and they’ve reached out with suggestions,” Wiseman said. “They’ve been incredibly helpful, and obviously at the beginning of this process they had incredible experience [with the story]. Since then, we used the rules that they set up in their series as the basis, but the going down was something that we came up with. They did early on send us an email talking about how when a ghost ascends, we call it getting sucked off. They were like feel free to use that, and we did. We took that and ran with it. That’s a fan favorite, but the English get full credit for that delightful piece.”
We’ve seen Sam’s Mom and a few other ghosts get sucked off this season but how did the opposite develop with Elias, Hetty’s awful robber baron husband? “The thing with the vault where Elias gets [sucked down]… That was something that Wiseman came up with where there was a material that’s impenetrable to ghosts,” Port says. “We were trying to think of a way that we could have Hetty’s husband, who we’ve spoken so much about in the show, appear. It’s hard to figure out ways to get new ghosts to appear because everyone’s been there for the entire time since they died.”
“We’ve somewhat [followed] the rule that was established in the British series, where they can’t really leave the property, so it’s difficult to get visiting ghosts or new ghosts,” Wiseman adds. “[Woodstone Manor is] a large property and we’ve found the English ghosts living in a shed. In [last] week’s episode, we introduce a character who’s been spending a lot of time in a rarely visited room in the attic.”
For fans who have watched both series, some may wonder if there’s any collaboration between Port and Wiseman and the UK writers as the American world-building expands. “Currently, there’s no coordination as far as down the line, there might ultimately be some inconsistencies,” Wiseman said. “There’s none that I’m aware of, but we’re not in constant contact saying, “What about this? What about this at this point?”
Nerds and geeks love discussing the rules of worldbuilding and it’s the same thing with the Ghosts CBS production team. “These are always fun questions that come up in the [writer’s] room and can get out of hand,” Wiseman says. “You can have very long discussions about ghost rules. Some of it makes it into the shows, and the English people have done it as well, talking about why they can walk on the floors and they can sit on furniture but go through walls. Some of it is inconsistent and some of it is just practical, we have to just make sure that the ghosts have to be able to walk into a room. There are going to be some inconsistencies.”
Ghosts CBS season 1 has succeeded in making an American adaptation that respects the UK source material while expanding the worldbuilding and adding more racial diversity. Part 3 of our interview with Joe Port and Joe Wiseman will answer some of your burning questions about what to expect in Season 2.