British TV shows. That’s the ticket. The American television industry has never been one to pass up a good idea especially if it has already been tested and found to be successful. When a TV show becomes a hit, producers fall all over themselves to quickly duplicate the formula and cash in on the excitement. Rarely, do these “knockoffs” work and the shows are quickly cancelled.
In a similar vein, American producers will look to foreign markets for good ideas. None has been mined so successfully as that of the British television industry. Over the last half century, well over 100 British television series have been adapted or outright copied by their American cousins. These series include some of the most atrociously produced ripoffs in history and include doomed adaptations of classics such as Fawlty Towers, Upstairs, Downstairs and Red Dwarf.
Fortunately, we Americans have also created some well-received and excellently produced copies. Here are some of the best:
Til Death Do Us Part (1965) / All in the Family (1971)
Both of these comedies were intended as realistic portrayals of the trials and tribulations of the working classes of their respective countries. This intention lasted less than an episode as the conservative Alf Garnett and Archie Bunker were constantly upstaged by the other, more liberal and “enlightened” characters. Both shows, albeit unintentionally, highlight the elitism evinced by the media in both countries.
Steptoe and Son (1962) / Sanford and Son (1972)
These two sitcoms chose to focus on the intergenerational antagonism of their characters. Of course, in both, the older, more conservative character were shown to be out of touch while the younger, more liberal one was seen as more virtuous. They are nothing, if not works of fiction. Unbeknownst to their creators and writers, the popularity of Al Steptoe and Fred Sanford were directly linked to their ability to overcome the insipid imbecility of their progeny.
Man about the House (1973) / Three’s Company (1977)
These two shows each had four leading characters, none of them male, and an irrelevant supporting cast. Even so, the wholesale duplication is abominable. Chrissy (same name, both shows) and her roommate allow Jack Tripper/Robin Tripp, a man who can cook, to pose as a homosexual to fool their landlord, Mr. Roper (same name, both shows). Hijinks follow. The plots are almost identical from show to show. I am just surprised that Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke didn’t receive residuals.
The Office (2001) / The Office (2005)
Just to be clear, the British version with Ricky Gervais is the original. The U.S. knockoff features another comedic superstar, Steve Carell. Both are exceptionally well done, ingeniously clever ensemble sitcoms. Each blends a unique sense of humor into the ordinary trappings of working life in their respective countries. Describing them is futile. Each is simply a must-see, television show. But bring your thinking cap, it will double your enjoyment.
Hustle (2004) / Leverage (2008)
I admit a certain fondness for the “grifters with a heart of gold” in the British dramedy, Hustle. Michael Stone is the elegant mastermind of the group while Albert Stroller, played by the inimitable Robert Vaughn, is particularly smarmy as the American component of the team. The other members are all experts in their particular criminal fields. Of course, they only use their powers to redress the wrongs committed by the rich and powerful. Leverage, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. This group of master criminals borders on the superhuman. They are so good that I find it hard to believe that they haven’t toppled the government of Switzerland and taken over the world economy. Seriously, it’s that asinine.
Turnabout is Fair Play
For the sake of fairness, here are two examples of British TV shows, one a comedy and one a drama, that have obviously taken their premises and direction from earlier American TV series. Both are excellent examples of the student teaching the teacher. If you are a fan of either American show, take the time to see how it should really be done.
24 / MI5
Both are spy thrillers of the tried and true variety.While 24 confines itself, somewhat unbelievably, to a single day per season, MI5 takes the more traditional spy thriller approach and each episode is played out over the course of a week or more. Both follow the exploits of the best and brightest (??) in their country’s respective intelligence agencies and both feature the unflappable rogue who will not “play by the rules. Incidentally, MI5 is titled as Spooks in the U.K.; something that their American counterparts were too politically correct to mimic. Does anyone other than Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton even consider it a slur anymore?
F•R•I•E•N•D•S / Coupling
F•R•I•E•N•D•Sis a somewhat funny, sideways look at the wacky machinations of a group of upwardly mobile, financially entitled but intellectually challenged, Upper East Side, New Yorkers. As Martha Stewart would say, everything is funny when you have tons of money. For starters, just look at the title. How wacky is that? Coupling, on the other hand, is an extremely funny, sideways look at the wacky machinations of a group of upwardly mobile, financially entitled but intellectually challenged Londoners. No difference, you say. The sexual repartee and innuendo of the British knockoff is far subtler and ultimately more satisfying than in Friends. In short, Coupling offers another excellent example of a derivative series surpassing the original.By the way, Gina Bellman is spectacular, and far more realistic, as the British version of Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe. It’s a shame her agent booked her, as the same character, into the previously mentioned disaster, Leverage.
A Final Thought
As this statement admirably demonstrates, there is nothing, repeat nothing, new under the sun. Borrowing freely from other people’s work is as old as Art itself. A problem arises, however, when the new work adds nothing of note to the original. Some knockoffs work incredibly well (Think the American version of The Office or Coupling) and some are dismal (Three’s Company and Leverage). Finding the jewels in a pile of dung may seem daunting but, what’s the problem, you have time. After all, you're still just watching TV.