Remember back in 2012 when MTV came out with an American version of The Intbetweeners? There is a good chance that you have made significant efforts to repress that dark time. The remake, which was thankfully cancelled after one unsuccessful season, stripped the concept of anything that made the beloved UK show so funny in the first place.
But why is it that US networks have such a problem in remaking UK sitcoms? It’s certainly not for lack of trying – pretty much any sitcom that was well liked in Britain has had American remake attempts, though the vast majority of them make it past the pilot stage. Peep Show, Fawlty Towers, Gavin and Stacey, Spaced, nothing is safe from the US treatment it would seem. The common answer for this is that Americans don’t understand sarcasm, and whilst the British/American humour is very different the reason for the failure of these shows is not so straightforward.
There are exceptions to the rule which go a long way in explaining things – look at the US Office for example. Based on Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s BBC mockumentary series, the US version starring Steve Carrell went on to have 9 successful seasons at NBC, even surviving Carrell’s departure in season 7. The reason for this? After a shaky first season which relied on copying much of the content of the UK version, the show firmly established its own identity. Whilst characters were initially based on UK counterparts, writers soon also established totally new creations and took the ensemble in a distinctly different direction. This is the key to the shows success, taking the basic concept, applying an American view to it, and establishing its own identity entirely.
It is this that is the stumbling block for so many of these remakes – Us and Them (the US version of Gavin and Stacey), The IT Crowd and The Inbetweeners being perfect examples of this. If you look at the failed pilot of the US version of The IT Crowd (which also starred Richard Ayoade as Moss) it is an almost frame for frame remake. Similarly, The Inbetweeners copied the majority of the plot of the original whilst sanitising the language – the iconic “bus wankers” becomes “bus turds”, and there lies a problem straight away.
What makes the likes of The Inbetweeners so funny and relatable is very distinctive to British culture. The vulgarity, swearing and painful awkwardness is explored in a no-holds-barred method in the UK – the central four look and act like teenage boys really do. American high school culture is a whole genre in itself, and there are plenty of US comedies which chart its pitfalls (MTV’s Awkward, for example), but teenagers are generally much portrayed in a very different light – the ‘nerds’ and ‘outcasts’ still have good looks, nice clothes and only an endearing level of awkwardness.
Shows such as Peep Show and Only Fools and Horses are representations of British culture at the time they were produced. Only Fools and Horses touched upon the struggles of the working class in Thatcher’s Britain, whilst Peep Show contains critique of the recession among countless other nods to UK culture. It is this sort of observational comedy that is very difficult to translate into another culture, and it is this, rather than the concept of sarcasm as a whole, that American audiences fail to warm to.
Another reason so many remakes fail boils down simply to the massive differences in the way television is produced in the UK and US. Television is a big commercial business in the US, dominated by profit hungry networks. This means that a lot more money is thrown at projects than in the UK, which still often relies on traditional shoestring budgets. This leads to US remakes often having a much more polished look that don’t always suit the show – the ‘low-quality’ look of most British sitcoms actually enhances the message final product, such as with The Royle Family.
US networks are also much keener to sell advertising slots, which is the main reason US shows have much longer seasons than UK series. This can allow for much more character development and multiple story arcs per season, but does not suit direct remakes of UK stories, which tend to be much tighter and more compact. Even the structure within episodes are different, with US shows tending to end each section on mini cliff hangers to keep viewers interested over frequent advertisement breaks, whilst many UK sitcoms do not have breaks if broadcast on the BBC, and usually only have one if on another network.
Ultimately it is not down to one system being better than the other, rather just a significant difference in culture, which causes difficulty in translating UK sitcoms into something that is appealing to a US audience. Check out some examples of UK sitcoms that were remade in the US below and let me know what you think in the comments box!