There are a lot of great British shows. There are a lot of great American shows. There are not — however — a lot of great American remakes of great British shows. For every The Office there are five Joel McHales holding a monitor and blowing your mind by the fact that he was in the failed US version of The IT Crowd. OK, not literally five, but you get the idea.
So to celebrate the fact that brilliant new BBC content like The Wrong Mans is now streaming directly to Hulu, cutting out the American remake middle man who is often terrible at his job, let’s take a look back at five shows The States miraculously got right and five they cocked up royally when attempting to translate them across the pond.
The IT Crowd is one of the funniest, geekiest, shows to to ever come out of Britain. It was broad, and had a laugh track, but the characters played by Chris O’Dowd, Richard Ayoade, Katherine Parkinson, and Matt Berry were lovable and adoring. It was basically the show that The Big Bang Theory wishes it could be, and yet, when they brought it to America with Richard Ayoade (reprising his role), Joel McHale, and Jessica St. Clair, I suspect it became more like the show the The Big Bang Theory actually is. We’ll never really know, however, because NBC never even picked up the pilot, claiming that there was simply “no spark.”
Shut up! Yes, it’s a silly reality show, and yes, it’s on TLC. But back in the day, Trading Spaces was one of the original (if not, the original) home makeover shows in America. In its heyday, it was a simple, no-frills reality show where two families with small budgets of like $1,000 swapped a room in there respective homes and redecorated. The home improvement tips or what have you were OK, but the true joy in Trading Spaces was the reveal, especially when one couple opened their blindfolded eyes to discover that the other couple had basically turned their bedrooms into cheap coke den. It was the perfect hangover show, and Paige Davis, who hosted for the first four years, and again in 2008, was bubbly, effervescent perfection.
Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit of Happyness) directed the pilot — which actually featured Hugh Jackman (who produced the series) and Melanie Grifith — and seemed poised for instant success. However, despite an excellent time slot (after CSI during its heyday), the CBS series bombed. The New York Times called it, perhaps, “the worst television series in the history of television.” The British version, Blackpool, starring David Tennant and David Morrissey, was a big hit and was even nominated for Best Drama at the BAFTAs. The American version? Cancelled after two episodes.
Having seen the first four seasons of the brilliant British series, I was skeptical about the American remake, and the first few episodes — which too closely tracked the British series — suggested by skepticism was well-founded. However, midway through the first season, the American version began to break away from the British series and eventually found its own voice, becoming one of the most under appreciated comedy-dramas on television thanks to great writing and a terrific cast that includes William H. Macy and Emmy Rossum. Until Masters of Sex came along, Shameless was the most consistently good program on Showtime.
The British version, starring (among others) Anthony Head, was a filthy, dark black comedy that used the word “c*nt” three times and “f**k” twenty-two times and raised the ire of media watchdogs over in the UK. The American version was a sanitized remake starring Hank Azaria (and again, Anthony Head) that forgot to bring the “black” part of the comedy. It was cancelled after four episodes.
Though the original British series was only 4 episodes, Netflix decided to adapt House of Cards as its first major original program after the British series found immense success on the streaming content service. The gamble paid off, as the $100 million first season produced by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright successfully introduced binge-watching to first run episodes. Gripping, suspenseful, beautifully crafted, brilliantly acted, and frequently very funny, House of Cards is addictive and entertaining.
Not technically a remake, so much as an American continuation of a Doctor Who spin-off, the British original started out slow (like a raunchier Fringe) but built toward a third series, Torchwood: Children of Earth, that was one of the most amazing and devastating bits of sci-fi to ever air on television. Torchwood: Miracle Day, the American continuation of the series (co-produced by the BBC), however, was appalling, bringing in a barking Mekhi Phifer, moving most of the action to the States, and minimizing the best thing about Torchwood (Captain Jack). The fourth series spun its wheels through too many filler episodes and careened toward a dumb cliffhanger that will likely never, ever be resolved.
Not technically a remake, Armando Iannucci basically transplanted the same premise and the brand of comedy from a British government minister’s office in his In the Thick Of it to the Vice President’s office in America. The results are equally terrific. The jokes are rapid-fire and hilarious; the satire is sharp; and the acting is top notch (Julia Louis Dreyfus has won two Emmys), and Veep is probably the smartest comedy on television right now.
The grandaddy of all failed British remakes, NBC took Steven Moffat’s provocative and hilarious Coupling, which was something akin to a British version of Friends, and tried to turn it into an American version of Friends, when America already had a Friends on the air. The network’s interference, in addition to terrible miscasting, led to Coupling’s cancellation after four episodes. Even NBC President, Jeff Zucker, who brought Coupling over to the network, said of Coupling that “it just sucked.”
The pilot — basically a scene-for-scene remake of the original British series — was a bust, and the six-episode first season was mediocre, at best. But once the American The Office broke free from the British original, the series ran off three of the best sitcoms seasons in the 21st century. The post-Carell, post Jim-and-Pam marriage years were mediocre, at best (save for the final six episodes), but during its heyday, very little came close to The Office’s ability to mine office-life for often perfect (and perfectly awkward) observational comedy.