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Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

Written by: on September 29, 2008

They have done it again. Every year, in some kind of hellish Groundhog Day, the people who control American television turn to their PAs and say, ‘Pietro! Remember that show? From that small country full of unwashed people? I hear it won some awards. I like it. I want it. But I want it BIGGER. I want it MORE NAKED. I want Vicar of Dibley: Las Vegas Edition! Get it done.’

Why can’t shows just be transplanted as they are? Viewing schedules in America (as every aficionado will know, there’s a set season that runs from September until May each year) mean that original British TV simply doesn’t fit in. Our seasons are too short for American advertisers, used to bloated heifers like CSI, to know how to draw in viewers effectively. If an American network likes a show, it might as well (from a purely mercenary perspective) just buy the rights to it and remake it into a format that will sell.

And so, recently, every ‘new’ fall season of American TV looks more and more like England two years ago. This year we are blessed with Worst Week (Worst Week of My Life, BBC, 2005); Eleventh Hour (Eleventh Hour, ITV, 2006); and, most disturbingly, Life on Mars (Life on Mars, BBC, 2006). Even our sporting rivals the Aussies have something to complain about – their oddball comedy hit Kath and Kim (2002) is being redone for NBC.

Dear lord. Not only do you have to wonder exactly what caused someone to decide that Worst Week Of My Life even deserved a remake – it was a pretty paltry concept to begin with, and then it got worse – but you also have to question whether any of the people concerned actually understand the reason why shows like Kath and Kim and Life on Mars became as popular as they did.

Kath and Kim is based entirely on the premise that both Kath and Kim are awful. They are visual expressions of the actual bottom of the barrel, and yet they both think they are dazzlingly attractive. With Selma Blair (Hellboy) and Molly Shannon, actual attractive people, taking over the characters, this pretence becomes a whole lot less funny and more narcissistic and dull.

Life on Mars, too, works because John Simm is a skinny, wonky, ordinary guy in an underfed, wonky, basically ordinary 1970s world. So, naturally, the Americans hire Jason O’Mara, who is built along the lines of a truck, and has a jawline so heroic it could kill Nazis. Ominously, the Americans have hinted that the BBC’s original series ending is far too plebeian and obvious to fit with the magnificent new ‘mythology’ they have in mind. Presumably, this will turn out to involve both Satan and Morgan Freeman and put even Lost’s plot twists to shame. You can’t help but feel that, here, less might actually turn out to be more.

Of course, this ignores the fact that the remade shows could turn out to be great. America has a huge number of slick, brilliant writers and producers, as well as enough money to make even a rusty drawing pin look fabulous. British television, on the other hand, gets by with about two writers per country, a yearly budget of £30, and a tube of polos for when the actors get hungry. If popularity was determined by budget alone, all of this year’s remakes will be instant classics.

While America’s team writing format allows their seasons to go on for twenty two glorious episodes, Britain’s bizarre ‘one show, one writer’ concept (David Renwick wrote every single one of the twenty five existing episodes of Jonathan Creek, apparently on his own) means that a British season can only be about six episodes long, the number of hour-long scripts one or two people can churn out before they go insane and gnaw a hole through their hand. Looking at that objectively, it means a hell of a lot more time for character and plot development in American shows, allowing you to get deeply, deeply into a US series in a way that you just can’t with the traditional British format.

But all that being said, it’s still pretty sad to see a remake. It’s the Wicker Man effect – the original may have been blurry, shoddy and really, really weird, but the 2006 remake, with a budget of a frajillon dollars and Nicholas Cage, was shit. Likewise, 1999’s Queer as Folk, written by none other than Russell T ‘Doctor Who’ Davies, was witty and well-paced, whereas the 2000 American retread was strangely dull, with characters wandering around repeating things like, ‘Your car is huge!’ and, ‘Hey, let’s do it!’ very… slowly… because they knew… they have to pad eight episodes of plot out into… twenty hours. With all that talent floating around California, it’s hard to see why execs think they need to do-over ideas in such a second-rate way. Sure, sometimes they work out – the US Office is still a huge hit five seasons on – but for every Office there are ten Vicar of Dibley, Arkansas Editions (Yes, it really was planned during the 2007 pilot season. It got nixed before it was ever even filmed, for which we must thank every power going.)

The success of the Office is interesting. It has thrived because its writers got the crucial new-to-old balance right: it keeps to the central idea that made the original Office such a success over here, but it has made itself into a distinct show with well-created characters and plot lines. The new remakes this season would do well to learn from it. But I suspect they won’t.

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