Nick Leshi

Nick Leshi
Bronx, New York, United States of America
December 13
Writer, actor, media professional, fan of entertainment, pop culture, and speculative fiction. Contact for more info.


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JANUARY 27, 2011 10:37PM

Are American Adaptations of British TV Shows Necessary?

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American television producers are always looking for the next big hit, so it is understandable that they would keep an eye out for TV success stories "across the pond" and try to adapt them for U.S. audiences.  If it worked in England, odds are it should work in the United States, right?  It is funny how things often get lost in translation (even though Brits and Americans technically speak the same language).  MTV's adaptation of Skins is facing public backlash and sponsor revolt, while its award-winning U.K. inspiration, despite having almost identical controversial plotlines, continues to enjoy success in its fifth season. 

My wife and I watched the first two episodes of Syfy's version of Being Human, and we enjoyed it, but as a fan of the U.K. version, which was pretty great on its own, I wonder why an American adaptation was even necessary.  Did the British accents really bother Americans that much?  Maybe Hollywood television bigwigs just assume they can do it better.

In some instances, they might be right.  I used to work for DLT Entertainment which struck gold by adapting the British Man About the House into the ratings hit Three's Company.  In that case, the American version, (in my admittedly biased opinion) the remake was superior.  But if you tap that well to often, you are bound to come up dry, as evidenced by the failure of spinoffs The Ropers (based on George and Mildred) and Three's a Crowd (based on Robin's Nest).

Some American TV classics were inspired by British originals, including All in the Family (based on Til Death Do Us Part) and Sanford and Son (based on Steptoe and Son). Recent successful adaptations like The Office prove that the concept still has moneymaking potential.  It has proven lucrative to bring hit British game show formats, for example, to the U.S., like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and American Idol (based on the U.K.'s Pop Idol).

Failures, however, litter the television landscape, evidence that adapting British hits for American TV screens is still a big gamble.  Some fail because the new versions were uninspired, such as Coupling.  Others, like The Eleventh Hour and Life on Mars, had great potential, but never clicked with broad mainstream audiences in America.

No doubt, any British hit will attract the attention of American producers who will seek the rights to make their own U.S. version.  The question they should ask is whether or not an adaptation is merited.  Some will hit paydirt, while others will flop.  Is it a risk worth taking?  Does it diminish the legacy of the original?  Or is it a legitimate way to bring great stories to new audiences?

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If this were a quiz, I'd answer yes, sometimes, and yes. It seems like there's been more hits than misses. I liked Life on Mars, bty. It wasn't on that long though.
I think it's somewhat condescending by the networks to say: "You guys are too dumb to care about something that happens in another country- so here's the same thing, but it's HERE!" But we probably ARE too dumb, so whatcha gonna do? The problem with "Skins" is that the original had a realistically hot cast and a great sense of humor, the American version is... well, it's from MTV! Other than HBO or maybe Showtime, no American network could have pulled it off.
My husband and I are PRAYING that nobody remakes The Inbetweeners. Please. Pleeeeease leave that one alone, for the love of all that is holy. (also: Dear UK, please make with more Inbetweeners episodes.)
I would like to see an American version of " Keeping up Appearances" Saw Masterpiece last night.. Ok.
People still watch TV? Sorry for the snark, Nick. But even Steptoe and Son became Sanford and Son in the 1970s.
People still watch TV? Sorry for the snark, Nick. But even Steptoe and Son became Sanford and Son in the 1970s.
Yes SheepDog, my examples show my age. :)
I've often wondered the same thing - why should we adapt shows? I understand that in some cases, there might be cultural issues, but I think it would be better if Americans could just see the original version and get to know another culture a little better, matter of fact! As for "Skins", I found it overblown (no pun intended) and unenjoyable in its original version, and even my curiosity hasn't inspired me enough yet to try to watch an American ep. Thanks for a really interesting article, a well-deserved EP.
Interesting! I had no idea all of those shows were adaptations. I think attracting young viewers, the 18-49s as they are called, involves on point pop-culture references and a sense of appointment viewing. Re-airing episodes from another country are neither of those things. However, KNOWING that show is a hit elsewhere makes it hard to resist recreating, as far as network execs are concerned. Plus, our viewing buddies across the pond don't tend to run shows into the ground the way we do... we do easily triple the amount of seasons for any given hit show. Simply acquiring their dramas just doesn't have the longevity or youth appeal that the dudes at the top want to see.

But what about Law and Order UK! Looks like the feeling might be mutual. Are there more US shows adapted for UK audiences?

great post! good read :)
Mary, you make a good point, British TV seasons (they call them "series") tend to be shorter than U.S. TV seasons (which now average around 20 or 22 episodes.) British TV shows really feel like mini-series. Maybe less is more.
You ask a good question, since I am also a fan of BBC shows and feel that US shows tend to be formulaic and boring compared to their British counterparts. I loved UK's Being Human and hope that BBC America airs the next season, in spite of SyFy's knockoff. I think Hollywood tries to nicefy everything. God forbid they should ever touch Doctor Who!
I think it's valid to transfer some shows, especially those as groundbreaking as 'Til Death/All in the Family. I don't think it's patronizing to American audiences to think they won't get the UK shows. There are just too many language differences, and especially cross-references to other aspects of British culture*. Likewise only some US shows would successfully transfer to the UK. M*A*S*H was the most successful transfer, followed by Friends.
As for the UK not doing so many shows, that's true as far as season length goes, but we did have the longest running comedy of all time, Last of the Summer Wine, which ran from 1973 to 2010. And every episode from the same writer, Roy Clarke, who also writes Keeping Up Appearances.
*The ultimate cross-reference - the show "Allo 'allo" was a sitcom which parodied the serious World War II drama "Secret Army". The drama ran for three seasons, but the parody lasted nine!
X alysa, you state :".....know another culture a little better......" from what i know and have seen during my years here and there (uk), what else do americans need to know about english culture? of course the common language makes it easy to just hang with them, but they are no longer a significant player in the may be better to try and understand more about other significant cultures, but that cannot be done with tv shows and therefore much more difficult

btw, i like certain british shows and movies:)
I'd have to agree! Actually, I prefer British television 95% of the time. I know I'm a dork, but I'd rather watch old episodes of Time Goes By than new, insanely dumb shows like 2 and 1/2 Men. I guess I just think no matter what the show, the British just do it better and they don't need all the flashy lights to keep an audience's attention.
I usually prefer the original British shows myself - but then, I speak fluent Brit, so the accents aren't a big thing. Until a few years ago, though - an American viewer had practically no chance at all to see a British series. An American adaptation was about the only shot at all. Now, with BBC America, and internet TV downloads - you can see the originals fairly easily.
I wouldn't rule out an American adaptation, though - but it had better bring something fresh and original in it's re-visioning.
Good points. Hollywood somehow managed to take the UK's smokin 6 episodes of "State of Play" and boil it down into a sleepy 2 hours. They better not touch MI5...
Good thoughts Nick. What's the point really?

Though I did like the US Life on Mars. It seemed like they had to wrap things up a little quickly in the finale. But had it been a two season show, more power to it maybe. And as much as I like the UK version, I liked the US version a little more really, mainly because I liked the US actors and characters all better (especially Gretchen Mol's Annie) - although the UK Gene was better, as much as I liked Harvey Keitel though. I also liked the contrast of the 70s UK vibe versus the 70s New York vibe.

I think the same as you about Being Human. The UK version is pretty good, and the US is okay I guess. What's the point, aside from access I guess. I'm surprised they just didn't buy up the original since they aired Dr. Who and they have aired other UK scifi stuff before, such as Ultraviolet.

But don't let anyone mistake that UK tv is really good. It's mostly good, but just because we screw up their good shows, it doesn't mean all their shows are good. Even their goods shows have dumb stuff in them.

I never really liked Coupling in any version. It's basically a Friends knockoff. As much as we joke about making crappy versions of UK shows, there's a good version of a UK remake that is kind of blech. The UK version is weird. And the US version was really dumb. It's like a xerox of a xerox of something that's been through the fax machine.

I do like when the UK does a show, uses a somewhat Americanized formula, then mixes it with their own sensibilies. Something like Wire in the Blood for instance, which is like CSI meshed with Monk, but darkly funny instead of slapsticky.

I think US adaptions can be good things, because you never know when you'll get an Office. And you can always go back to the original these days.
I couldn't agree more. I shudder when I see the SyFy "Being Human" commercial, mainly because they describe it as a "SyFy original series," which it is not, but also because I'm a fan of the actual original, which is *still going on.* Haven't seen the American "Life on Mars" - the British one was just great. I saw the Brit "Eleventh Hour" because of the American, and was disappointed that the plotlines were not different ... and I liked Patrick Stewart's version better (sorry, Rufus).
Brittish version of the Office? Sucks.
Brittish version of Law and Order? Sucks
Brittish version of Dr Who...well..awesome.

good point.
Wire in the Blood doesn't blend anything else on TV, but was developed from the novels of the awesome Val McDermid.
Maybe French TV would be more fertile ground for copies--an American version of Apostrophe would be interesting. Hard to say who would host it though. It might just bring some decent American writers to light--Franzen is not my idea of literature, or anyone else over 12 years-old mentally for that matter.
I liked the British version of The Office and have never watched the American version. On the other hand, my husband and I watched Shameless but never watched the British version (which might go by another name). I think the key is whether the creators (if you can call them that) truly adapt to American culture.
It's all well and good until you see Fawlty Towers in German.
Shakespeare of course, needs to be seen in the original Klingon.