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Why Do British Sitcoms Fail to Bridge the Atlantic Divide?

Posted: 03/09/2012 01:00

The internet is awash with criticism of the US remake of The Inbetweeners and the ensuing and arguably inevitable backlash, decrying that this is yet another example of American television taking one of our beloved shows and ruining it. Familiar cries once again bemoan the slurry of American adaptions of British sitcoms, arguing that they simply don't work.

In spite of the the scores of angry commenters and internet trolls who unfortunately cross the border over to polemic and xenophobic rants, the original point remains valid: there are few success stories to be found in US remakes.

A large part of the success of The Inbetweeners was that it was inimitably relatable to British audiences; large swathes of the country can identify with the awkward travails of four surburban middle class teenagers, bumbling through life perennially nervous and forever on the precipice of humiliation. We saw much of ourselves in the characters and could identify with that particularly British experience of surburban sixth form life.

Peep Show, Absolutely Fabulous, Coupling and numerous other sitcoms have all at one time been adapted for American television and become short-lived failures. All too often, many fall into the trap of making bizarre claims that British humour is somehow too high brow for American audiences, or that Americans don't understand sarcasm.

But pushing these erroneous fallacies to one side, it has infinitely more to do with the shows revolving around different cultural experiences and using different frames of reference with which an American audience member might not be able to identify. The aforementioned shows (particularly Peep Show) possess a quintessential Britishness; the mindset of the characters, the dialogue, the setting are not easily Americanised.

There was much talk of a US remake of Gavin and Stacey that never came to fruition. This seems particularly strange given that most of the humour revolves around cultural references and differences that are unique to England and Wales. We, as a nation are of course much more aware and accustomed to American culture than they are to British culture which is perhaps why American sitcoms transfer more seamlessly onto our TV schedules. Essentially, we can relate to many of the concepts and ideas in their humour that they might not be able to in ours.

However, the problem doesn't emanate from the over-adaptation of these shows, but rather from the lack thereof. On a basic level, this does not provide a particularly fertile environment for original comedy given that much of the core concept is based heavily on something else. A new cast is thrown together with the nigh on impossible challenge of creating the same dynamic and chemistry and the results are often an ephemeral and toothless facsimile that's devoid of all the charm and charisma of the original.

There are of course obvious exceptions, in particular The Office which earlier this month announced it was going to end after a wildly successful run of 9 seasons. Where the US adaption succeeded was that it forged it's own unique identity and voice. The shows producers sought to take inspiration from the original but not to emulate it nor create a carbon copy. The basic premise owes much to the original but the characters and narrative arcs were unique to the US show and the producers were successful in moulding the show into something recognisable to the original; more as a distant cousin as opposed to a identical twin.

Whereas other remakes have desperately attempted to achieve the dicey task of imitating a certain group dynamic, Steve Carrell only watched half an episode before auditioning for the role of Michael Scott as he feared watching too much of David Brent would influence his own interpretation of the character too much. It's this, in a nutshell that ensured the success of The Office - the desire to be different from it's predecessor.

Essentially, in order to achieve a higher success rate, these shows must follow the example of The Office. The executive producers and Show Runners must endeavour to give the show its own voice. It's vital for its long term success that the programme carves its own path and direction. In addition to this, those who commission these shows abroad must take more time in considering the shows they decide to take stateside.

In order to ascertain the potential success of a remake, more must be done by executives to study why certain programmes are popular and why others aren't. If a sitcom has that increasingly rare universal humour that transcends cultural boundaries then it's infinitely more likely to avoid the scrap heap.

 

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