Once British: The American TV Tragedy

I recently confessed my delight about Life on Mars, the British TV series, partially shown on BBC America. There was much to like about this show: it was British, the songs were good ones and worked in the context of the episodes, it was British, the 2006/1973 mystery, and it was British. Unfortunately, the empty-hearted stiffs at BBC America did not care to air the second – final – season and wouldn’t ‘fess up the reasons why they’d stop half-way. The news gets worse. Life On Mars is being redressed for American TV, and, David E. Kelley, writer/creator/producer extraordinaire, is to blame.

Yes, I know that American TV execs have been “borrowing” from the Brits for decades and decades (and American series have been turned into British hits and misses). The sad and basic truth for me is when comparing a British series and the American remake, there is no comparison. If I had the chance to see both versions, with few exceptions, I’d choose the UK broadcast. The British sensibilities, writing, presentation, and, those delightful accents, win every time. [OK, the exception is that I’d rather see Hugh Laurie in House than in Blackadder any day.] I love British TV, always have; ever since I watched The Two Ronnies and Morecambe and Wise every single week, with my dad. Later, we added Monty Python. I can’t recall laughing at American comedy shows that much.

A number of American shows (borrowed from the Brits) have risen up the ranks to become classics in their own right, All in the Family, for example. I was vaguely aware of Til Death Us Do Part, the original source, because it was mentioned in press articles heralding the debut and rise of All in the Family. I never saw one single minute of the British smash and was a bit intrigued to discover that Germany, Japan, and Hong Kong had their own version of the show. I began to wonder just how many series from the UK remade their way onto American TV schedules. This partial list includes the good, the bad, and the forgettable:

British Original /American Remake

George & Mildred/The Ropers

Man About the House/Three’s Company

Steptoe and Son/Sanford and Son

I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here/I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here

Absolutely Fabulous/Cybill

Strictly Come Dancing/Dancing With The Stars

Scrapheap Challenge/Junkyard Wars

Coupling/Coupling

Keep it in the Family/Too Close For Comfort

Not the Nine O’Clock News/Not Necessarily the News

The Office/The Office

One Foot in the Grave/Cosby

Antiques Roadshow/Antiques Roadshow

Pop Idol/American Idol

Dear John/Dear John

Please Sir/Welcome Back Kotter

*Robin’s Nest*/**Three’s A Crowd

(*follow-up to Man About the House/*follow-up to Three’s Company)

Max Headroom/Max Headroom

There are so many more; some didn’t even require a new name. British Wife Swap spawned two American copies, Wife Swap and Trading Spouses. The two programs aired on different networks.  Nothing is sacred, apparently. A UK-US collaboration  designed to revive Dr. Who aired in the states as a TV movie pilot.  It didn’t work and was relaunched in England. Doctors nos. 9 and 10 are airing (this moment) on BBC American and the Sci-Fi Channel. Hoo-hah.

We’ve grown used to Archie Bunker, Meathead, Chrissie Snow, and Cliff Huxtable. I can’t picture them as beloved British characters. Can you? We isolate this bunch from the comparison.

I did conduct a few side-by-side comparisons: Airline, The Weakest Link, American Idol/Pop Idol, and Changing Rooms/Trading Spaces. I did see the British shows months before viewing their American counterparts. They were entertaining, especially Airline. The American Airline showed a lot of boorish people who wouldn’t take the blame for their own problems and airline employees who wouldn’t compromise airline policy, even when the rules were ridiculous. The British Airline did the same, but the travelers minded their manners a bit more and weren’t so boorish. The Weakest Link’s Anne Robinson was the stronger link. Her American replacement might have been chosen because of a striking physical resemblance, but he lacked her acerbic wit. Her personality propelled the show, making “You’re the weakest link, goodbye”, trademark material. American Idol reached the stratosphere. We’ll save that story for another day when the well runs dry. Redecorating the home of your friend or neighbor while they make over yours sounds like great fun. The British version just seems more exotic.

Getting back to Life On Mars, any tinkering of the original show heads in the wrong direction. However, it’s almost certain that the number of American fans aware of the original show will be dwarfed by those who watch the American version of this British gem. Network and affiliates still beat out specialty cable. That, my friends, is tragic.

Copyright October 13, 2007

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5 responses to “Once British: The American TV Tragedy

  1. Helloooooo! Glad you sent your link. I’ll bookmark you and throw in some plugs a I can to drive some readers to your site. If you ever have thoughts on real estate, write them so I can link to you in Shak&Jill (www.shakandjill.com). Kathy T.

  2. Hi Abby,

    Thanks for your comment at my site re: the Nobel Prizes. I’ve replied there …

    So pleased you like Life On Mars – an excellent show – and lots of our other original TV progs.

    I love many of yours! Currently particularly enjoying Men In Trees, a great replacement for Northern Lights. Lost, of course, and also Heroes, Boston Legal, House, ER, Brothers & Sisters, Ugly Betty – I could go on and on!

    It’s a pity BBC America apparently don’t plan to show series two of LoM – very frustrating for you! Equally frustrating for us here in the UK is the way the US networks often cancel shows after perhaps only one series over there due to poor domestic viewing figures when sometimes they’re wildly popular here. Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip is a current prime example. They gave it a big build-up here, linking it to the success of West Wing, and of course I tuned in and thoroughly enjoyed it right from show one. Then, a few weeks in, I happened to read in a magazine how it had been cancelled in the US after the first series! Aargh! It makes watching the rest of the episodes quite a sad affair, knowing that there’s no real point investing time in building relationships with the characters.

    You’d think that these days, the global market for popular, decent TV shows and the money they can bring in from overseas would override any domestic shortcomings. But it seems not. I do wish the execs would consider their wider audience!

    Excellent blog you have here. I’ll be back. 🙂

  3. Bob, American tv execs are not known for their creativity nor their interest in those who are loyal to a series.

    I see the British used “series” the way we use “season”. We would say that Life on Mars had 2 seasons. It is one series. Another series would be, say, Torchwood. Makes it just a bit confusing.

    Hopefully, one day we’ll have a choice of tv programs and can snub those cr*ppy unfunny sitcoms, pathetic dramas, and boring reality shows.

    Hope we chat again, Bob.

    Kathy, Thanks for the add and the visit.

  4. I’m an American (Brazilian by birth) who reads the Guardian (and a lot of other British news sites) regularly and discovered your blog while reading the Guardian’s entertainment blog. I too have always preferred British TV (started watching in the 70s) and your entire blog entry is about a subject that I’ve often talked about to anyone who’ll listen. I was riveted by Life on Mars and am very upset that BBCA will not broadcast the 2nd season. I actually have been disappointed with BBCA, when I first started watching some years ago I’d expected something much less commercial. There’s far too much home repair/self-repair/cooking stuff and over-the-top trashy stuff like Mile High. I do like some of the programming but I’d it seems like they’re just trying to dumb down the programming. Anyway, great blog you’ve got here, I’ll be visiting often.

  5. Sandra,

    Glad you landed here. How exactly did you come across my musings? I read more than a week’s worth of Guardian blogs, but didn’t have a clue. The vacants at BBC America don’t have a clue either. The only solace is that I catch a few treats from them, like a few episodes of Torchwood..

    I last went to England more than a decade ago, but I remember that I enjoyed a few shows. Less than a year later cra**y remakes showed up on the networks.

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