I have a problem with the burgeoning popularity of high-concept American shows in the UK. Shows like The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones have become a big part of my life in the last couple of years. Not because I’ve watched them all, but because hours and hours of my time have been taken up by glassy-eyed fanatics telling me over and over again to watch them. Not only is the devotion and fervour with which people extol the virtues of these shows slightly sinister, it makes the shows harder to watch when I get around to doing so.
The same is true with sitcoms like Arrested Development, Community, and 30 Rock. The latter two I watched, and I really really enjoyed them, but it took real effort to get over the hype. I’d been so constantly shouted at by transatlantic cultists to watch these shows that I went into watching them with an attitude of coerced resentment, which isn’t the right mood to fully enjoy anything. I recently gave in to increasing pressure to watch Game of Thrones, because if I’ve got to devote that amount of time to any TV series, I expect as much bloodshed and sodomy as it’s humanly possible to include in an hour. And I wasn’t disappointed. Not only was there plenty of both of those things, it was utterly compelling and entertaining. I think you’d like it, but if you don’t want to watch it or don’t have time, that’s fine too.
It’s symptomatic of something very unusual happening in television here and across the pond. In the UK, especially among more savvy audiences, there’s a view that American television is absolutely superior to British TV in every way. And to be honest, I’m not sure that’s too far from the truth. Certainly, with a couple of exceptions, British sitcoms have been largely lowest-common-denominator and disappointing, especially those on the BBC. Not to mention the fact that American TV networks often have a lot more money than British ones, so they’re able to make these sprawling, high-concept shows that simply would not be practical to most British channels.
However, there have been British shows that have found success in America as well, particularly Sherlock and Doctor Who in recent years. Recently American TV producers have had an obsession with remaking British shows, with very few successes. The American Office was a hit, largely because it was so dissimilar to the British show of the same name, which also allowed it to continue for much longer than Ricky Gervais’ original creation. However, since then, there have been countless American remakes of British shows, from Shameless and Skins to The IT Crowd and Jo Brand’s Getting On.
The fault with these remakes tends to be the refusal to deviate from the original script in the way that The Office did. Graham Linehan said in an interview with Richard Herring that the American IT Crowd changed the script so little that it kept the same set and camera angles that were exclusively used due to the British show’s low budget. The clearest-cut example of this is the fact that the American remake of The Thick Of It bombed, whereas Armando Ianucci’s Veep enjoyed much more commercial success, due to the fact it was written specifically for a US audience. However, the fact that The Thick Of It was made for ABC, the Disney-owned squeaky clean network won’t have helped.
It seems baffling that these executives don’t learn from the mistakes of their peers, but it’s even more baffling that US producers seem desperate to recreate British shows at all, rather than simply showing them as they are. Surely our gentrified chimney sweep accents aren’t too impenetrable for American audiences? Strike a light…