The Fiver: America Doesn’t Ruin Everything – Top 5 Most Successful American Brit TV Adaptations


As fans of British television, nearly every time we hear one of our favorite shows is being adapted for American television, we utter a collective groan and roll our eyes.  We know they’re going to change something, cast actors who aren’t right for the part, copy word-for-word the British scripts without adapting the metaphors or slang properly, etc. etc.

However, for every three adaptations that don’t go right (Coupling, The IT Crowd, Being Human), there are shows that do.  There may still be changes for an American audience, but they end up being ones that help make the show a success.  Check out the choices below and see if you don’t recognize them.

1. Steptoe and Son/Sanford and Son

Yes, if you didn’t know already, Red Foxx’s famous crass-talking, heart-attack faking Fred Sanford was based on a British show.  Steptoe and Son ran from 1962-1965 and again from 1970-1974 with two movies in 1972 and 1973.  Much like its American counterpart, Steptoe focused on the relationship between “rag and bone man” Albert Steptoe (played by Wilfred Brambell) and his son Harold, who constantly schemed for success in life.

Producer Norman Lear (also responsible for the American version of Till Death Do Us Part as the classic All in the Family) created Sanford and Son in 1972 and ran for six seasons until 1977.  With comedian Red Foxx as the irascible Fred and Desmond Wilson as his son Lamont, the show climbed to #2 in the Nielsen ratings during its second and fourth seasons.  To this day, it remains a prime example of a successful American comedy show and as critic Gene Siskel said, “What All in the Family did for the Caucasian race in our nation with television, Sanford and Son did for African Americans.  It is one of the two most noted and significant African American sitcoms since the invention of television.”

2. Top Gear/Top Gear US

For the purists such as myself, Top Gear US is barely watchable, but yet it makes the list for reasons you’ll see below.  The original Top Gear began in 1977 as a conventional consumer-driven car show and was cancelled in 2001, but was revived in 2002 with a greater focus on muscle cars, insane challenges, and celebrity guests.  Hosted by the rabble-rousing Jeremy Clarkson, “Captain Slow” James May, and fun-sized Richard Hammond, the British program is on its 19th series, doing approximately two each year.

Produced by BBC Worldwide, Top Gear US started on History Channel in 2010 after some rocky attempts to get the show on Discovery Channel and NBC.  Hosted by comedian Adam Ferrara, NASCAR commentator Rutledge Wood, and stunt/rally car driver Tanner Foust, the show displays a slightly different format including a renaming of “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” to “Big Star, Small Car”.  Possibly surprising to many UK Top Gear fans, the show is now on its third season and even has the support of the British hosts.  Jeremy Clarkson has said that, “Top Gear is our baby so you can understand why Hammond, May and I were anxious about passing it on to the presenters of the US show. We needn’t have worried because Top Gear is clearly in safe hands[…]. Watching an episode from series 1 with Richard and James, we found ourselves in a genuinely heated debate about which of the presenters’ cars was best. We were just three ordinary chaps watching a car show and loving it, which is exactly what Top Gear should be.”   And, to be honest, while it’s not as good as the original, at times it’s still worth watching, as Ferrara is entertaining in the studio, while Wood and Foust really bring the challenges to life.

3.  Shameless

This comedy-drama about the dysfunctional Gallagher family began in 2004 on Channel 4 and started its 11th series this month.  The original incarnation of the program stars David Threlfall (“Hot Fuzz”) as the alcoholic Frank Gallagher, Anne-Marie Duff as his daughter Fiona, and James McAvoy as Fiona’s boyfriend Steve for the first couple series.  As the show went on and actors left, the focus shifted in 2009 to focus more on the Maguire family.

Producer Paul Abbott was also responsible for bringing the show to America, where it has been renewed for a fourth season on pay-channel Showtime.  Perhaps owing to the success of the American version is star William H. Macy as Frank, along with Emmy Rossum as Fiona, and Justin Chatwin as Steve.  Comparing it to other American blue-collar comedy shows, Abbott has said that “It’s not My Name Is Earl or Roseanne. It’s got a much graver level of poverty attached to it. It’s not blue collar; it’s no collar.”

4. House of Cards

Debuting in 1990 on the BBC, the original House of Cards program was based on a novel by Michael Dobbs, former Chief of Staff for the Conservative Party.  The show followed Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson), the Chief Whip for the Conservatives in Parliament through his schemes to become the party leader and eventual Prime Minister.  Throughout the course of the series, Urquhart manipulates friends and foes alike, culminating in a stunning finale.  Since its initial broadcast, the British Film Institute rated it 84th in a list of “100 Greatest British Television Programmes.”

The American version represents Netflix’s first original series and starts Kevin Spacey as Congressman Francis Underwood, a South Carolina Democrat and Majority Whip who plans revenge against those who plotted against him to deny him a promotion to Secretary of State.  Also starring Robin Wright as Underwood’s wife Claire and Kate Mara as a reporter who makes a deal with Underwood for information that will help her make her big break, the series premiered on Netflix on February 1st.  Since then, it has received rave reviews from The Denver Post, People Weekly, USA Today, and The Independent, and British House of Cards producer Andrew Davies stating that Spacey’s portrayal was far more menacing, “hiding his rage behind Southern charm and old-fashioned courtesy.”

5.  The Office

Perhaps the greatest success of an adaptation within the last decade, Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s mockumentary about the workplace premiered in 2001 and ran for two series with two specials.  Helmed by Gervais himself as manager David Brent, an employer with an over-inflated ego, the program helped make household names out of himself as well as fellow stars Martin Freeman and Mackenzie Crook, whose characters’ American counterparts would do the same.  The program went on to win several awards, including a Golden Globe in 2004 for “Best Television Series:  Musical or Comedy”, being the first British show nominated in twenty-five years.

Now in its eighth season, the American version of The Office premiered in 2005 with former Daily Show “correspondent” Steve Carrell as Regional Manager Michael Scott,  Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute, and John Krasinski as Jim Halpert.  The series had a rocky start, but has since been nominated for 40 Emmy Awards and won four of them, and Carrell winning a Golden Globe for his performance.  The show is often credited for launching his career as well as that of Wilson and Krasinki, so much that at the Golden Globes, Gervais jokingly remarked to Carrell that “I made you what you are.”   In a nice nod to the British series, Gervais has appeared twice as Brent on the American version, once in an encounter with Michael Scott and again during interviews for Scott’s job.

So, there you are, proof that America doesn’t ruin everything.  Sure, Coupling was utter rubbish and the American In-betweeners is unwatchable, but that doesn’t mean we should automatically assume a program is bound to file.  Of course, I could always be proven wrong…again.

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  1. avatarJohn says

    You forgot, Love thy neighbor (All in the family) and man about the house (three’s company).

  2. avatarMark says

    The US Being Human has gone, IMO, very right as an adaptation. It is not line-for-line a remake of the British but has taken the story in different directions, much like the successes you mention. Both versions are outstanding in their genre.

    Touching Evil is another one – it didn’t make it in the US, but it established Jeffrey Donovan as a series lead, paving the way for his very successful Burn Notice.

  3. avatarMary says

    Being the Snobby Brit that I am, I thought everyone of those American versions of brilliant British TV, paled in comparison.

    • avatarSteph Chazalon says

      Not being a Brit – I still agree that the American versions paled in comparison. Sanford and Son was close only because they mostly used the same scripts. House of Cards simply does not compare and a lot of fellow Canadians who have seen and loved the original agree.

  4. avatar says

    Kevin Spacey’s character is about the most evil I’ve seen – he’s really scary. Watched the original series, but the US version is very different. The writing and story lines are good, but the sex scenes and the immorality of the two lead characters is mind boggling.