If it takes three to make a trend, then we have one in the TV business this spring: extremely literal, note-for-note American cable remakes of British TV shows.
Last week brought Showtime’s bawdy family comedy “Shameless,” in which that show’s British creator relocated his original script to Chicago with only minor changes. Tonight brings two more: Syfy’s “Being Human” (9 p.m.), about a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost who wind up sharing the same apartment; and MTV’s “Skins” (10 p.m.), a raunchy high school soap about a group of hedonistic teenage friends.
I’ve seen maybe five minutes of the British “Being Human,” but other critics have told me that the Syfy version’s first few episodes lean heavily on the source material. And even without knowing that in advance, the three episodes I’ve seen felt flat and airless, outside of the performance by Sam Huntington as the werewolf. (There are also a few scenes early on that suggested it was going to be more of a slice-of-life show about the logistics of being a non-threatening monster in the modern world, but the show moves off that pretty quickly.)
I have, however, seen all of the first two seasons of the British “Skins,” and outside of one replacement character (whom I’ll get to in a moment), it is nearly identical – beat for beat, shot for shot, joke for joke – in every way except one: it’s not as good, with every actor seeming a pale copy of their British counterpart, and leading man James Newman a particular disappointment as the allegedly charismatic main character, Tony. (As played in England by Nicholas Hoult, Tony was obnoxious but you understood why everyone was drawn to him and put up with all the trouble he caused; Newman’s Tony comes across as someone whose friends would have dropped him years ago for all the crap he pulls.)
Now, I understand the commercial reasons for remaking these shows, even though perfectly popular editions not only exist in English, but have aired in the States on BBC America. MTV and Syfy are both more-watched channels than BBC, some people won’t watch shows with accents, both vampires and teen dramas are always popular, etc., etc., etc.
What’s frustrating is the need the respective creative teams felt to make carbon copies. I recognize that the great majority of people who see these new versions will have no idea that the originals even exist, never mind having seen episodes of them. But by the same token, few in America had ever seen the British “Office,” yet almost everyone agrees that the first episode of NBC’s version – the only one to ever closely copy a British script – is one of the show’s worst episodes.
A good remake takes an important idea and then recasts it to fit the vision of the new creator, or something specific to the new country or time in which it’s set, or something to do with the new actors. (Norman Lear famously had never seen the British show that “All in the Family” was based on before he wrote a script, and just wanted to do apply its premise of a father and son disagreeing politically to what he was seeing of the generation gap in ’70s America.)
The British “Skins” was notable not only for its blunt, casual attitude towards teen sex and drug use, but for the fact that most of its writing staff had an average age of 21 (with several “teen consultants”) and was based on very recent, culturally-specific experience. The new show just duplicates the old show in an unnamed Rust Belt city, and sands off a few rough edges – a curse word here, an explicit nude shot there (Tony’s famous naked lady bedspread has been replaced by a comforter with spiders on it) – to accommodate the difference between what British TV and ad-supported American cable will allow.
The one big change is that the character of Maxxie, an openly gay teenage boy, has been replaced by Tea (Sofia Black D’Elia), an uncloseted lesbian girl. Tea has a different personality and backstory, and her episode (each episode of the show is told largely through the point of view of one of its characters) is the only one that’s notably different from the old show, but the change feels like the American producers playing it safe. In England, Tony gets bored with his girlfriend and has a brief fling with Maxxie as a change of pace; in America, Tony instead tries to seduce Tea when he gets bored. One’s daring and transgressive; the other’s a variation on every other story you’ve seen about a guy trying to turn the hot lesbian.
Surely, there are talented American writers not long out of their teens who could have helped craft a new group of characters and stories that reflected their own experiences – and with enough sex and drugs and mayhem to please MTV’s need for extra attention. (The Parents Television Council has unsurprisingly denounced the new “Skins.”)
Similarly, I think there’s a way to take the raw material of “Being Human” and do something new with it. At press tour last week, the American producers made it sound like they’re going to deviate more as the first season goes along, and said they had chosen not to watch the second season of the British show for now, and possibly ever. That’s definitely a step in the right direction. But I think the Lear approach – tell a few producers nothing but “A werewolf, a vampire and a ghost get an apartment together” and send them off to write their own version of that – might have yielded something that felt livelier from the start.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com