Meet Will, Simon, Jay, and Neil, your typical college students in London. (Their “college” is our “high school.”) Neil has had sex, Will and Simon have almost had sex, and Jay says he’s had tons of sex but actually never has.
A scene in the Season One finale will define the tone of the show for you. For the first time, Jay shows a softer side as he bonds with a classmate manning the bar at a school dance. As they talk about trust and wanting to feel special, a pretty girl approaches. Jay quickly asks her if she wants to go DJ with him, so he grabs the drinks from the bartender and rushes off. “You didn’t say please! What about opening up and trusting?” his classmate offers sadly.
Jay looks back. He stares at the only kid with whom he’s had a serious, meaningful conversation. “Fuck off, you fat wanker,” he shouts.
Welcome to British humour. (Them Brits have funny spellings.) Let’s begin.
From the BBC to NBC:
Television Lost in Translation
In high school my parents took my brother and I to a resort in Mexico, and I remember being surrounded unexpectedly by things I associated with home. From cheeseburgers and ice cream to well-ventilated rooms with flat-screen TVs, I found the resort to be, in short, unexpectedly American. On the drive from the resort to the airport at the end of the trip, the lesson of the week became clear as we passed dilapidated shacks and barely clothed women lining the streets: among the nonindigenous, Americans tend to seek the American.
And this, dear reader(s), might be one explanation as to why many American adaptations of British shows fail, time and time again.
First, though, I have to call out the fundamental differences between the BBC, the largest broadcasting organisation (there goes that spelling again) in the world, and the U.S. broadcasting system. For one, the U.S. seems to favor quantity over quality. In a more market-driven consumer culture, U.S. broadcasting seems to feature more disposable shows (of an arguably lesser quality), with a few gems thrown into the mix. Culturally relevant shows like The CW’s “Vampire Diaries” and “Gossip Girl” serve as examples of shows banking on a fad in America’s ever-changing pop culture. Meanwhile, a show from ABC programmer Steve McPherson like “LOST” stands stronger as an example of a network gem that’s enjoyed a longer shelf life.
BBC programming, however, seems to exist in a different league. Averaging six episodes per season of each show, logic tells me there must be more time devoted to each episode of each show. This would in turn allow for a higher, tighter writing quality. The BBC also seems to serve a different function than that of U.S. broadcasting. As the BBC website explains, it exists free from direct government intervention and “is run in the interests of its viewers and listeners.” It was established by a Royal Charter and is funded by a license fee that’s paid by UK households. (The annual cost of a color TV license is £145.50, which is about $230. A black and white license, however, only costs £49. But is it really a choice? You obviously have to watch Gordon Ramsay in color.)
While there are hundreds of American adaptations of British shows, I’m going to focus on three in particular simply because they’re the ones I’ve watched most recently. I’ll start with “The Office,” although it doesn’t quite fit into my argument about failed U.S. adaptations. In fact, it stands against it, really. Instead it’s an example of one of the many wildly popular BBC shows that’s become an international franchise with versions produced in Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Israel, and the U.S. (The Regional Manager in the Israeli version goes by the name Avi Meshulam and looks like he could eat Michael Scott in three bites.)
“The Office” (U.K.) vs. “The Office” (U.S.)
“The Office” (U.K.) was created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant and ran for fourteen episodes beginning in November of 2001. A few years later, Greg Daniels developed “The Office” (U.S.) for NBC with the help of the British duo. Debuting in 2004, the show stuck closely to its British counterpart, down to the line. It has since come into its own after diverging from the original downsizing U.K. plot and introducing a cast of strong, dynamic characters.
With an average of twenty-four episodes per season to the U.K.’s two six-episode series and two-part Christmas special, the American show has had more time to apply a distinctly American humor to Michael Scott’s Dunder Mifflin while delving into the monotony of the office workplace. Consequently, you often get meandering, topical episodes and back stories (i.e. Jan and her breast implants) that sometimes seem distracting and disposable.
In any case, the general argument I’ve heard is the American version is much tamer than the British version, a safer show without the British wit. What I’ll agree upon is that the humor is expectedly different in both shows. Overall, the U.K. version is more bleak and grounded in reality. It’s often quite sad watching manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais) awkwardly slide around the office, waiting for any and every moment to interject with an obnoxious and/or offensive comment. The office itself also seems to function within a particular unconscious desolation. If the unhappy workers continue to show up even though they can’t stand working for the incompetent Brent, it’s easy to infer that the employees have lost faith in corporate management altogether. The episode “Training” provides a good example of the office climate as the staff sits in a circle in the meeting room as Brent sings an original tune called “Freelove Freeway” on the guitar. It’s as if he’s singing, “I am paying you, so be my friend! Be my friend!” And this is sad to me.
The U.S. take, however, is more lighthearted. While the minor characters in the U.K. version are mere victims of Brent’s cultural insensitivity, the U.S.’s are more present and developed. Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson), for example, is a reactive beet-farm-working, self-proclaimed hero. Receptionist Pam Beasley (Jenna Fischer) has also been given time to develop fully as we’ve watched her move from behind the front desk as a single woman to a seat on the sales floor as a married mother.
In terms of the boss, Michael Scott is arguably less distressing than Brent and has moments, albeit rare ones, when I find myself really respecting him as a boss. This can be seen in the episodes highlighting the playful camaraderie that sometimes exists among the characters. For example, in Season Five’s “Café Disco,” Michael turns an empty room in the building into a disco room, a safe haven that brings the office together momentarily in song and dance. In Season Three’s “Local Ad,” Michael creates a television commercial for Dunder Mifflin that’s debuted to smiling faces at an office party. In what I consider one of the best moments of the entire series, the staff sits beside Scott as they watch themselves on screen and realize, if only for a moment, they are all in the humdrum business together. (Watch it here: http://www.nbc.com/The_Office/video/local-ad/172072/) Nevertheless, such moments are rare and still don’t overshadow the fact that Scott is often just as immature as Brent. Scott offers his “That’s what she said” punch line whenever he deems necessary, writes “Hey Meredith, Liz Taylor called, she wants her age back and her divorces back!” on Meredith’s birthday card, and fake fires Pam.
Ultimately, I can’t say which version is better. I’ve heard many people from the U.S. say they can’t “get into” the U.K. version because it’s dryer than the U.S. version they know and love, which I think testifies to the expectations of the U.S. TV-watching audience. When it comes down to it, most Americans just want to laugh. They want to turn off their brains and resort to the TV after a long day as a cheap and easy escape. In any case, Greg Daniels’ adaptation of the show still remains in my mind as one of the more successful adaptations of a contemporary British show. As of late, my opinion of it’s U.S. brother is at an all-time low as Season Seven has been, in short, pretty damn mediocre. Case in point: “China,” last week’s episode. You can’t make a show like “The Office” a backdrop for commentary on the changing dynamic of global powers. As the A.V. club says, it just can’t do that level of satire. Leave that to the crime procedurals.
The winner: Let’s chalk it up to a tie.
“Coupling” (U.K.) vs. “Coupling” (U.S.)
“Coupling” (U.K.) is a show based on the relationship between writer Steven Moffat and executive producer Sue Vertue. Starting in 2000, it ran for four seasons with an average of six episodes per season. The show follows six friends, three women and three men, throughout their daily conversations about sex, life, and more sex. (Sound familiar? It should.) The episodes are often characterized by crude humor coupled with insightful and witty musings on what it means to be a man and a woman. Season Two’s “Naked” provides a telling example. Jeff Murdock (Richard Coyle), arguably the most rough and awkward character, imagines kissing his coworker and begins to daydream about the consequences. The situations he creates build and build, taking the humor into the even more absurd until he’s nearly naked in an interrogation room on the verge of being hanged.
But the U.S. could never pull this off. The U.S. version premiered in 2003 on NBC and didn’t even last until November sweeps. Four episodes aired, while seven more were filmed but ultimately unaired. I firmly believe the adaptation failed because 1) an almost identical script to its British counterpart was used and 2) miscasting. The humor and wit of the U.K. version was quickly lost through the delivery of the U.S. actors who, in short, sounded silly when reciting the same lines.
Although it seems NBC wishes to forget “Coupling” ever happened (as the show is now hard to find), one short clip on YouTube pairs a scene from the U.K. version with the same scene from the U.S. version. In Season One’s “The Girl with Two Breasts,” U.K. Jeff hovers in a bar near an Israeli girl who doesn’t speak English. As he approaches the table he says, “You read,” commenting on the obvious fact that she’s reading. U.S. Jeff Clancy (Christopher Moynihan) recites the very same line, but with a very different intonation. Jeff exclaims, “You read!” followed by a cheesy, frat boy thumbs up and nod. This very gesture exemplifies the miscasting on part of the U.S. version and why it may have failed. (Or maybe it’s because Gina Bellman’s U.K. character Jane Christie is renamed Jane Honda in the American version.)
The winner: “Coupling” (U.K.)
Where Do We Go From Here?
Everyone I tell to watch “Skins” gets hooked. My cousins (and therefore their friends) are the latest victims.
“Skins” is a U.K. teen drama following teenagers in Bristol, South West England. It’s become a popular yet controversial show dealing with a myriad of issues regarding homosexuality, dysfunctional families, personality disorders, sexual abuse, and death. The show was created by father and son TV writers Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain who meet with teens on a weekly basis to keep the show authentic and fresh. The show premiered in 2007 and will enter its fifth season in January 2011. The first two seasons follow one cast, or “generation,” led by Nicholas Hoult as Tony Stonem. (Hoult is best known to American audiences as Hugh Grant’s chubby and lovable pal in “About A Boy.”) In Season Three, the show transitioned to the current cast.
I’ve come to really love “Skins” and was therefore upset after hearing last year that Liz Gateley is bringing “Skins” to America. With an unknown cast. To be aired on MTV in January 2011. Why is this an issue? “Skins” is what it is because it’s raw, sexy, and real. In my opinion, MTV is the wrong channel to host this kind of a show. Knowing the MTV Brand, it might tame the show and package it more accessibly for its young adult demographic. (Nevertheless this week’s premiere of MTV’s “The Vice Guide To Everything” gives me hope. The show featured correspondents chewing the natural narcotic qat in Yemen and visiting an underground strip club in Detroit run by a man named Jay Thunderbolt. It was pretty damn gritty.) The teasers for the show also make me feel it could fall prey to the Coupling Syndrome—sticking too close to the original, that is.
The winner: TBD (This is me being civil and fair.)
Ultimately, I think more care needs to be taken when adapting British shows. We can’t just ignore that British viewers bring a different worldview to their TV, one that we can’t wholly relate to over here in the U.S. (Some people find it difficult to watch someone dig themselves into a hole deeper, and deeper, and deeper, until they’re naked in an interrogation room while daydreaming about getting hanged. I get that.) The crudeness and wit of the U.K. doesn’t necessarily have to be lost, but as “The Office” shows, perhaps the best solution is to truly adapt the show. Take the premise and characters and work them into a culture and world as better recognized by the average American viewer. And then put it on the appropriate channel. (I would say cable TV is where it’s at and broadcast TV is where it was.)
For now, I journey back to Season One of “Skins.” Sometimes it’s fun to think about what would happen if the writers of “Skins” and “The Inbetweeners” pulled a soap opera move and made the cast cross over into each other’s shows. Maybe they’d meet at a club in London and then Jay and Cassie would fall in love and then their car would get stolen so Tony would hijack a car on the side of the road and then they’d get caught and have to go to court and it’d turn into an episode of “Law and Order: U.K.” and the judges would be wearing wigs and we’d all have a good laugh.
Shit’s about to get real.
(I often experience the impulse to put a Works Cited list at the end of some of my blog posts because this is what college has taught me to do. So, with that said, Desperate Networks by Bill Carter and NBC: America’s Network by Michele Hilmes informed parts of this post. And that MeTube thing.)