The FOX network recently announced that they want to copy the hugely successful British TV show ‘Sherlock,’ which updates Sherlock Holmes and places him in 21st century London. The show is fantastically written and acted, and trying to “Americanize” the show for a US audience seems absolutely ridiculous. For starters, Sherlock Holmes is English—quintessentially English. An American Sherlock Holmes makes no sense whatsoever.
If FOX goes ahead with its plan, I can see this ending in nowhere but absolute ruin. But that hasn’t stopped plenty of other TV executives from adapting other successful UK TV shows for American audiences over the years. Although there have been some successes (The Office, Shameless, All in the Family, and others), there have been a large number of failures as well. Here are 7 hit UK shows that failed miserably in the US—some before they even got out of the gate.
1) Fawlty Towers
One of the most successful British comedies of all time, Fawlty Towers has unsuccessfully been adapted for American TV a whopping 3 times with the same outcome. And none of those adaptations lasted an entire season. The show was first adapted as Chateau Snavely, starring Harvey Corman and Betty White, but only made it as far as a pilot episode. Then in 1983, Bea Arthur tried to make the adaptation successful with a show called, Amanda’s, which lasted 10 episodes before getting the axe. Finally, John Laroquette adapted the show in 1999 as, Payne, along with JoBeth Williams, but this incarnation only lasted 8 episodes before throwing in the towel.
Once again proving that no one can replace John Cleese. No one. As you can tell from this clip:
Coupling was a popular British sitcom that followed the lives of 6 friends and their dating and sexual misadventures. Interestingly, the show was widely known to be inspired by American “group” shows like Seinfeld and Friends, but with a British twist. Although it was slow to gain traction, it eventually became a hugely popular show, running for 4 series in the UK. In 2003, Coupling was adapted for the US but immediately panned by critics and viewers. Four episodes aired before NBC pulled the plug on the show, much to no one’s dismay.
Trying to adapt a show for the US, that had itself been heavily inspired by US sitcoms, was much like making a copy of a copy, only to find out that the resulting image was but a shadow of its former self.
Although you can see here why airing this comedy in the US, might have to be altered a bit to be on network television:
In 1999, Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson (along with director Edgar Wright), wrote and produced a fantastic sitcom about two friends (Pegg and Stevenson) who pretend to be a young married couple in order to get a low-rent flat. The show was brimming with smart humor and witty dialogue, along with frequent pop-culture references, and received several awards in its two-series run. The dry, surreal nature of the show attracted some attention across the pond, and FOX (again) announced the commission of a pilot in 2007, starring Josh Lawson, Sara Rue, and Will Sasso.
At a Spaced Marathon screening in London in 2007, Edgar Wright commented that an American version of Spaced was impossible to make and that translating (and sanitizing) it for American audiences wouldn’t make much sense (source). He turned out to be right. The pilot was so awful that FOX shelved it before it ever aired.
If you’ve ever seen the original, this rare clip of the unaired US pilot will show you exactly why this show was never aired:
4) Free Agents
Although Free Agents only ran one series in the UK, it was considered a success and critically acclaimed during its run. One of the most noted aspects of the original series is Anthony Head’s absolutely filthy character (the boss of a talent agency around which the plot revolves) who spewed amazing streams of profanity. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that when the adaptation, starring Hank Azaria and Anthony Head (reprising his role), was sanitized for US broadcast television, it lost some of its edge and was cancelled after 4 episodes.
It’s surprising that American TV execs haven’t figured out yet that when you sanitize a show for broadcast TV, it won’t be as cool as it was in the UK. Check the clip for a taste of the uncensored original:
5) Absolutely Fabulous
Absolutely Fabulous (AbFab) is one of the most successful British comedies ever. It originally ran for 3 series in the early 90s then returned for two more series between 2001-2003 as well as a number of specials in between. But its humor was innately British and completely lost in two Americanized pilots of the show: one helmed by Roseanne Barr and another by the creator and star of the original series, Jennifer Saunders.
The over-the-top drunken, drug-fuel antics of two middle-aged women trying to stay young played well in the UK, but American audiences are apparently not so welcoming of over-the-hill women behaving badly.
As an interesting bit of pop culture, check out this clip of Saunders and Lumley as guest starts on Roseanne, playing Edina and Patsy:
Blackpool was an interesting and original musical comedy/drama show that ran for 1 series in the UK in 2004, starring David Morrissey and David Tennant. It got generally good reviews from critics and was well-liked by viewers.
The American version, Viva Laughlin, ran for 2 episodes. It seems that moving a casino murder mystery musical from Blackpool, UK to Laughlin, Nevada is enough to suck every bit of life out of a good concept. It was not the musical numbers, however, that turned people off. It was simply the bad writing, bad acting, and bad translation of the show for an American audience that made people look away in horror.
For an example, check out this clip of Hugh Jackman (Executive Producer of Viva Laughlin), playing Nicky Fontana and lip synching badly to the Rolling Stones:
This extremely popular UK teen drama deals candidly with a wide variety of teen issues like depression, sex, eating disorders, and more and has won numerous BAFTA awards in the UK as well as being renewed for an upcoming 6th season. And when MTV saw a teen show that it wasn’t already exploiting, it decided to adapt Skins for the US. However, US television guidelines are a little stricter than in England and much of the show’s edginess and candid nature was completely lost, making it just another dumbed-down teen drama on an already overly-saturated MTV schedule. And it was cancelled after 10 episodes.
Apparently, teens and adults alike want to watch shows that deal with sensitive issues but only if they actually deal with them in realistic ways instead of sanitizing them and using euphemism.
And, as you can tell from this trailer, the US Skins seems more like a music video than a serious drama:
8) The IT Crowd
The IT Crowd has already run for 4 series in the UK and is planned to launch a fifth in 2012. This successful British comedy revolves around the lives of the three-member team of the IT department at a large London company. Similar to the US series, The Big Bang Theory, The IT Crowd bases a lot of its humor on the geekiness and social ineptitude of its nerdy protagonists.
NBC ordered an American version in 2007, starring Richard Ayoade (reprising his role from the original), Joel McHale, and Jessica St. Clair. The American pilot was an almost word-for-word and shot-for-shot remake of the original, except that it completely fell flat comedically. The show was slated to begin in the fall season of 2007, but was pulled at the last minute at the request of the new chairman of NBC, even though many scripts had been written and the cast was ready to go into production.
Even though McHale and St Clair went on to successful TV careers after the failed pilot, The IT Crowd was obviously not part of either’s rise to success.
Check out how little the US writing team had to use their imaginations in this side-by-side comparison of the UK and US versions:
Failure and Success
To be fair, there have also been a number of successful reality and game shows that have been hits in the US, like Pop Idol (American Idol), So You Think You Can Dance?, Trading Rooms (Trading Spaces), Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, The Weakest Link, What Not to Wear, and more. And the jury is still out on a number of other adaptations, like Prime Suspect, The X Factor, Being Human, and Top Gear.
But despite the failure of American adaptations of many British TV shows, TV executives will keep plugging away and hoping to come up with the rare translation that actually works equally well in the UK and the US.
James Ged writes about TV for CableTV.com