Friday, May 23, 2008

The UK Invasion

The end of this year is going to be a difficult time for viewers who prefer US shows above home grown television series. With the WGA strike biting into pilot season the networks seem to have decided on sticking with the devil they know. From the select band of new shows that will appear when the Fall Season starts broadcasting, a number of them will look strangely familiar to viewers over here.

Good or bad, when English shows are given an American makeover the results are usually quite intriguing. Usually it’s like meeting a friend who has had reconstructive surgery and to begin with you’re mentally comparing the before and after while trying to decide whether it was necessary or not. In the end it’s down to the expertise of a surgeon who knows what’s best for the patient. The US version of The Office turned into an unqualified success because Greg Daniels, the writer and executive producer, perfectly understood what he was getting from the source material.

On the other hand, Viva Laughlin, BBC Worldwide’s version of Peter Bowker’s musical drama Blackpool, was canned by CBS last year after just two episodes were aired and frankly it deserved it. Monarch of the Glen’s Lloyd Owen was a poor choice to replace David Morrissey as Ripley Holden, in fact the whole cast seemed to have been chosen for their lack of vitality. Most astonishing was the fact that the miserable pilot had cost £7m, which was probably more than the original six-part series.

This year there’s the Americanization of Life on Mars for everyone to chew over. Whether it succeeds or fails, it’s certainly going to be interesting to see how far executive producer David E. Kelley shakes up the concept of a modern-day police detective transported back in time following a hit-and-run to give it longevity. It was obvious that the original creators concocted the scenario of sending Sam Tyler back to the early 1970s so they could have fun pretending they were making The Sweeney.

If they go that route what would be the comparable American drama? Given this new version is set in 1972 maybe that would be The Streets of San Francisco, although I can’t really see Colm Meaney channelling Karl Malden to perfect his Gene Hunt. Otherwise, what do they get out of 1972 other than lots of afros and piles of cardboard boxes to drive through? If “The Rules are Old School” as the US show’s trailer states, why not take the Crime Story route and head back to a pre-Miranda 1963 where the cops could kick in doors and bust heads to their hearts’ content.

Another upcoming drama taking place in 1972 is David Milch and Bill Clark’s Last of the Ninth for HBO. Set in New York, in this instance the year is significant because it was when Clark, a twenty-five year veteran of The Job before becoming technical consultant on NYPD Blue, earning his gold detective shield. It was also the year the Knapp Commission investigated allegations of systemic police corruption, which makes it all the more relevant. In this instance the timing makes sense. Of the two dramas, I think it’s pretty clear which one I’m looking forward to.

Whatever the outcome, ABC has scheduled Life on Mars on Thursday nights in the ten o’clock slot. At the same time over on CBS, taking Without a Trace’s coveted slot straight after CSI, will be Jerry Bruckheimer’s take on Stephen Gallagher’s Eleventh Hour, with Rufus Sewell taking over from Patrick Stewart as Doctor Hood, the scientist and special government advisor actively pursuing those ingrates who misuse scientific breakthroughs for their own gain, and Marley Shelton stepping into Ashley Jensen’s shoes as “feisty female bodyguard” Rachel Young. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which show is going to ace this timeslot.

Apparently US sitcoms are in decline. That’s what they say. The “they” being people who obviously don’t watch The Office, 30 Rock or My Name is Earl. To stem the tide, CBS are parachuting in Worst Week, a reworking of The Worst Week of My Life. I quite liked the original, if only because, if I recall rightly, Ben Miller’s character repeatedly did unspeakable harm to the family dog before eventually killing it. I have a feeling no pets will be harmed in the US version, which will be a real shame.

Though not British in origin, Australia’s Kath & Kim has been shown over here – which is the sort of tenuous link that has media outlets wildly celebrating the massive haul Britain annually brings home from the Oscars. Now it’s being remade over there, with NBC having a crack at an American version. Molly Shannon and Selma Blair are climbing into the stretch pants originally worn by Jane Turner and Gina Riley. It’ll be interesting to see if middle-class America wants to watch a show that takes the piss out of them.

After that there’s Suburban Shootout in development at HBO, which is frankly quite too despressing to even think about. The original, shown here on Five, relied on the gag that instead of making jam or having coffee mornings, the Home Counties housewives were tooled up with automatic machine pistols and into all manner of illegal shenanigans. So chuckles were to be had from the juxtaposition of Barbour jacket-wearing middle-aged women with perfect hair and makeup toting Glocks or Heckler & Kochs. How will that work setting in a country where every uptight arsehole has a gun?

The interesting thing about reading the press releases for these shows is how the original creators are treated. Although he has no direct involvement with the American version, the release for Eleventh Hour rightly announces that the drama is “based on the British miniseries by acclaimed science-fiction writer Stephen Gallagher”, just as ABC states that Life on Mars “is based on the BBC series created by Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah”.

But when it comes to the comedies it’s an altogether different matter. Whereas Turner and Riley are credited with the creation of Kath & Kim and given executive producer credits on the US version, and the same for Suburban Shootout’s Roger Beckett, Laurence Bowen, and Gary James Martin, The Worst Week of My Life co-creators Mark Bussell and Justin Sbresni are conspicuous by their absence on any material relating to Worst Week with only Hat Trick Productions’ Jimmy Mulville listed as an executive producer.

If you do this sort of thing it can get quite tricky. One pilot that didn’t get picked was the US version of Spaced for FOX. In material relating to the show Adam Barr, a co-executive producer on Will & Grace and The New Adventures of Old Christine, was listed as the show’s sole creator. It’s fair to say that this royally narked Simon Pegg, Jessica Hynes and Edgar Wright who were more taken aback by the complete lack of common courtesy from Granada America or McG’s Wonderland Sound and Vision.

Because they had initially signed away their rights to what had certainly been a labour of love, their grievances weren’t regarding monetary payments but the total lack of respect from companies that didn’t bother to let them know this new version was going ahead until the pilot was in production. By then Pegg and Wright’s names were being used in publicity material solely to trade on the success of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Jessica Hynes, though co-creator of Spaced, failed to get a mention. You’ve got to love this business.

So which shows could do with a full on US makeover? Have a think about it and let me know. In the meantime I’m trying to figure out why it is that Doctor Who seriously doesn't work for me. I’ve really got to sort my head out over this once and for all.


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