Remember when the USA used to be a country to look up to, aspire to even? Sure, it’s always had its problems: guns, Bill Cosby, strange orange cheese on everything, meth, the only developed nation on earth not to have some form of universal health care – but there was always a degree of envy with which the UK used to gaze across the Atlantic. With a wistful sigh, we wished our teeth were as white, our cities as soaring, our plastic party cups as red, and that we could walk into the room with the same covetable mix of ignorance and confidence – the kind only displayed in the UK by ex-public school boys.
While scoffing at their insular nature and bombastic national pride, there was always a feeling here that the UK was never quite good enough for them. We were a curio, a quirky pet, the embarrassing slightly ‘off’ half sibling you’re forced to introduce to your new girlfriend at a big family wedding. This feeling has been further reinforced – over many years and by an uncharacteristic level of stealth – by the way they treat British TV shows.
If the UK likes a US TV show, here’s our plan of action – we buy it. Then, one of our main channels screens it, usually over and over again, until 20 years later it becomes so ingrained in our national consciousness that it makes up most of Channel 5 or E4’s daytime schedule. A big American show sinks into our own pop culture – our lexicon changes, coffee houses open in our town centres, and people get a haircut to match one of the main characters in the show – could we be more impressionable?
America doesn’t quite have the same reaction when the roles are reversed. If someone over there sees a successful British show, they don’t think ‘Hey, this is great! Let’s screen it in primetime on FX!’ No, they think, ‘Hey! This is great! Let’s buy this format, extend it to 24 episodes a season, strip it for parts, throw out those parts, and then put some shinier parts in its place, hoping we’ve somehow retained the original magic!’
I’ve been re-watching the brilliant Episodes this week – a parable about this very phenomenon. It’s a habit almost as old as television itself, and it has rarely been successful. ‘Ah, but what about The Office?’, you counter. Well, Captain Smug, for every The Office, there are roughly 100 (don’t look up this statistic) failed US transfers. The US Office only became successful when the big lesson was learned – that British humour cannot be transposed lock, stock, and smutty innuendo, onto an American cast. The bleakness, passive aggressive nature, darkness and downright weirdness does not work with an American accent – they cannot play with our weird toybox properly. It was only when it diverged from the original British scripts that the show took on a magic all of its own, and became a completely different beast.
But let’s talk about the failures, because that’s always more fun. The list is literally finite; Fawlty Towers – never going to work as it’s based on the British class system and repression; Reggie Perrin – ditto; Red Dwarf, Spaced, Skins, The Inbetweeners, This Life, The Young Ones, Cold Feet, Life on Mars (where, in the US Version, it turned out they were all astronauts in deep sleep on a mission to… wait for it… Mars!) All of the original shows depended on being based on our soggy little island, with all its quirks and introverted weirdness. Even Coupling – which was basically a British version of Friends – was bought by an American network and, somehow, they managed to mess that up too.
Utopia is a case in point. The new American version is good, watchable, well-cast, even compelling. But it has lost something. The original series was the British kind of weird – bleak, stylised, silly and creepy – but in the American version it has turned into something more overtly nasty. The polish and larger budget has made the strangeness more clinical and self-conscious. When America goes weird, it goes big – it’s all about the grand gesture and being overtly kooky, the UK flavour of strange is more inward looking, maybe something to do with all those grey skies.
A format which does seem to work is gameshows, perhaps because they’re not as nuanced, and depend entirely upon a regular turnover of contestants and a strong host. This is one genre where the ‘cultural’ exchange has worked both ways – we gave them Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and The Weakest Link, they gave us Family Fortunes and… Supermarket Sweep. And did someone mention The Apprentice? Well…
Now they’ve taken it all to ridiculous lengths; the ratings shit-show of our Prime Minister getting COVID has been transposed over the Atlantic – not only to their leader, but his wife as well. They always have to go one better, don’t they…?