American remakes of Australian TV shows: the good, the bad and the legendarily dire

From ‘Wilfred’ to the new season of ‘No Activity’, here’s our rundown of notable US adaptations of Oz shows

The fourth season of Seinfeldian cop comedy No Activity launched in April, with new episodes dropping weekly on Stan. The show’s maintained the same verbose format that has kept costs low and comedy value high – i.e. lots of inconsequential babble from both sides of the law, as cops wait during stakeouts and crims kill time before robberies – but has changed its look and feel.

It’s also made the leap from live-action to animation – the show’s way of adapting to pandemic-induced production shutdowns. Though it “seemed like a crazy idea,” co-creator, co-writer and star Patrick Brammal told the New York Post, it was also “creatively interesting”. And indeed, the animation looks good and provides at least a veneer of freshness.

The transition from real actors to figurine-like CGI isn’t the most significant transformation the show has experienced. Kicking off in 2015, No Activity was an Australian (Stan Original) series that caught the eye of Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and others at Funny Or Die, triggering an American remake. So the most important transition was transplanting it from one country to another, which came across as effortless – perhaps due to its thoroughly exportable premise.

All US versions of Australian TV shows share this in common: they are adaptations of a malleable concept. Most abide by the rule of the high-concept Hollywood movie: the premise can be explained quickly, on a space no larger than a matchbox. American remakes of homeground series don’t pop up very often, and high-quality versions are even rarer. Here are four key examples reflecting varying quality: the great, the good, the bad, and the legendarily dire.

The great: Wilfred

The original 2007 Wilfred series (based on a 2002 short film) has a low-fi scuzzy charm, evident from the moment Adam (Adam Zwar) goes home with a woman (Cindy Waddingham) after their first date and meets the titular character – who appears to him as a man in a dog suit, but whom everybody else observes as an actual canine. The series’ rough style accommodates the weirdness of this concept, whereas the much slicker American adaptation rubs up against it, creating an interesting tension between the polished nature of the show and its thoroughly bent, indie-esque humour.

In the American series, which debuted in 2011, Elijah Wood plays Ryan, the Zwar character, giving the rejigged version some star calibre. But importantly, Jason Gann (who co-created the original show with Zwar) stayed on as the potty-mouthed, weed-smoking dog. The fact that this talking man-canine (manine?) happens to be Australian, or at least Australian-accented, just makes it all weirder and better. The US version also finds a better way to kick off the story, introducing Ryan as a suicidal man receptive to the idea of having a new best friend. The pair’s subsequent and often hilarious misadventures thus constitute a kind of deranged, dope-addled spiritual rebirth.

Arriving a year before Seth MacFarlane’s hilarious comedy Ted, starring Mark Wahlberg and a pot-smoking CGI teddy bear, Wilfred is proto-Tedian – with the opposite trajectory for the man-child protagonist. Instead of an adult needing to grow past his childish inclinations, manifested in Ted through, well, Ted, Wilfred focuses on an adult who gets a second lease on life through a new puerile pal.

Across its four seasons, Wilfred’s thoroughly moreish 20-odd minute episodes are unafraid to get dark and filthy; you don’t blink when the dog makes deep throat-related jokes about a stuffed giraffe. It’s that kind of show.

The good: Review

The premise of the mockumentary series Review With Myles Barlow, which ran for two seasons on ABC TV from 2008 to 2009, is an absolute cracker: instead of a critic reviewing films, food or books, the show focuses on a critic who reviews anything. Barlow – in the words of the opening voice-over bloke – “dares to review all facets of life at your behest”, making the host a combination of pompous critic, daredevil prankster and agony aunt-esque adviser.

Accepting viewer lettings requesting him to investigate particular subjects sounds like an innocuous exercise. But it works on the same basic principles of the internet – in that it turns pretty freakin’ dark pretty freakin’ quickly. Barlow, for instance, stabs a man to death and gives murder half a star, and ‘reviews’ many other acts of moral depravity involving Buck’s parties, racism and an attempt to kill Kyle Sandilands.

The American version, starring Andy Daly as critic Forrest MacNeil, has a habit of rounding the pointy corners of the original, presenting a more widely palatable spin on the concept. Take two segments in the third episode, in which MacNeil ‘reviews’ a huge stack of pancakes, which basically involves him eating them and looking sickly. Barlow would not have wasted his time with something as ordinary as a mere eating competition.

Having said that, MacNeil still gets down and dirty – with murder, shoplifting, orgies… all the finer things of life. And the show keeps successfully extracting mileage from that excellent premise. Whereas Barlow comes across as an empty vessel of a man, MacNeil is more your straight-up square. The American version is not as darkly breathtaking as the original, but it’s still thoroughly decent.

The bad: The Slap

The task of translating the essence of a great book into a screen adaptation has long bedevilled film and television directors, who have to grapple with the task of literalising and visualising often eloquently written descriptions. This process can be particularly stifling for books that explore moral complexities, such as Australian author Christos Tsiolkas’s acclaimed novel The Slap, which explores characters whose lives intersect around the event of a child being hit at a barbecue by an adult man who is not their parent.

Thus, the temptation to use voice-over narration in order to spell things out. This temptation is indulged in both the Australian and the US version, though the former is unquestionably superior. The 2011 ABC1 series was a dramatically richer, more interesting production, with better developed, more likeable characters and superior performances. Neither version is amazing, to be fair, and the 2015 American version isn’t awful – but it shortchanges the material and creates an atmosphere more befitting of soap opera than prestige TV.

Substituting a grassy Melbourne backyard for the concrete-covered rear of a terrace house in New York, where the slap takes place, the dramatic area is spatially more cramped – but paradoxically feels, much like the series itself, less intense. Peter Sarsgaard delivers a strong and morally ambiguous performance as Hector (played by Jonathan LaPaglia in the Australian version) but Zachary Quinto is a one-note angry man as Harry, the slapper, while Uma Thurman is completely wasted as Hector’s long-time friend Anouk.

The legendarily dire: Kath & Kim

I say “legendarily”, because articles about the 2008 American remake of the beloved Australian comedy about an ocker middle-aged woman (Jane Turner) and her daughter (Gina Riley) paint a picture of a show that is bad. As in: very very bad. As in: legendarily so. Headlines make liberal use of phrases typically reserved for things that go bump in the night – such as “nightmare fuel” and “extremely cursed”.

Given I am more than a little partial to various kinds of TV and movie masochism (like the day I suffered through every top 10 title listed on Netflix Australia), I set out to watch it for myself – only to discover I couldn’t find the damn thing anywhere. It was as if the producers had tracked down and incinerated every copy.

Googling away, I came up with nothing, besides a sense of shame for using search terms like “where can I watch Kath and Kim US version?”. When the robot revolution happens, I wondered, will Google remember that I craved such bleak entertainment and judge, or perhaps even punish me accordingly? What kinds of torture are inflicted in a robot-run gulag?

With nowhere else to go, I turned to Twitter for assistance. When I asked if anybody knew where I could legally watch the series, however, my tweet generated a, shall we say, less than helpful response. The responses included “In Hell”, “NO. DON’T DO IT”, and my personal favourite: “You can find it on channel Don’t Bother.” I did bother, but alas, I remained unable to locate this great white whale of a show. Was it even real? Could it have been a kind of collective hallucination, like that ’90s movie Shazaam, which actually never really existed? Perhaps I shall never know.