It’s a very American move to ride the coattails of others. The film and TV industry has long been maligned for its dependence on large IPs, creating expansive universes on the backs of tried-and-true existing works (Star Wars, Marvel, DC, the YA novel du jour) instead of greenlighting new and original ideas. It’s the top business strategy and if studios can’t franchise a fandom, particularly with foreign productions, they will just retool and resell it under a US banner. One of America’s most iconic sitcoms, The Office, was adapted from the UK series of the same name, but while some might hold it up as our best argument for US adaptations, history tells us the series actually serves as the exception to the rule.
Adaptations are popular amongst executive suits but unattractive to TV audiences, with the success stories few and far between. Showtime triumphed with Shameless, HBO with Getting On and Veep (which was the second attempt at an American version of The Thick of It), and CBS is currently experiencing success with Ghosts. While most American audiences had little access to the original Office by the time Dunder Mifflin debuted on NBC, today’s HBO Max subscribers can watch the UK version of Ghosts on the streaming app alongside other hit international series like Wellington Paranormal (New Zealand), 2021 breakthrough Starstruck (UK), and Stath Let’s Flats (UK) (whose highly anticipated third season premiered in early December). Unlike adaptations of the past, CBS’s Ghosts clone is essentially competing against itself, sparking the question: is the US adaptation industrial complex obsolete?
A major unspoken outcome of the streaming wars is the rise of international shows and films. In the Blockbuster and cable TV-only days of yore, it was practically unheard of for a foreign production to be a watercooler topic, but the recent discourse has been dominated by overseas gems like the Emmy-winning Fleabag, Killing Eve, Schitt’s Creek, Derry Girls, Lupin, Elite, Money Heist, and more. South Korean series Squid Game won the title of Netflix’s biggest ever original launch while this year’s film award shortlists and Best of 2021 articles are laden with non-English language titles. It’s not only surprising to see these works make the zeitgeist but to receive such a high level of appreciation from US audiences and press. However, we still just cannot help ourselves as Hollywood rushes to ruin the party with plans for its own spinoff to the 2019 Oscar Best Picture winner Parasite, and now a shortsightedly planned US remake of Stath Lets Flats entitled Bren Rents (blegh).
Sitcoms lead as the most-targeted genre for American remakes. Even in the analog days, hits like Sanford and Son (Steptoe and Son), All in the Family (Till Death Do Us Part), and Three’s Company (Man About the House) were the outliers of their time. The record books are filthy with inept projects that never saw the light of day or were canceled before they could air their initial episode orders in their entirety. Looking at UK to US series alone, we see so many that simply didn’t work out.
Shows that never aired include AbFab (Absolutely Fabulous); Beane’s of Boston (Are You Being Served?); As If; Cuckoo; The Rear Guard (Dad’s Army); Friday Night Dinner; Us & Them (Gavin & Stacey); The Grubbs (The Grimleys); The IT Crowd; Outnumbered; and Spaced. Shows that were canceled quickly include Cold Feet, Coupling, Free Agents, The Sketch Show, Worst Week (The Worst Week of My Life), and three failed attempts at a Faulty Towers remake.
Keep in mind these original shows were not on par with mediocre American sitcoms like Suddenly Susan. This was the equivalent of adapting a major hit like Cheers or Seinfeld to a new market. It’s understandable how such an endeavor was initially viewed as a low risk gamble, but the evidence overwhelmingly proves it’s largely been a fruitless undertaking. These failures certainly were not due to a lack of effort or resources. The global leader in TV entertainment utilized many of its top talents in front of and behind the camera, oftentimes working alongside the original show’s creators, and yet no amount of busts has put a dent in Hollywood’s ill-advised hunt for what’s become its white whale. I mean, if you can’t make a sitcom work with Kathryn Hahn as the lead (twice!), you shouldn’t be allowed to even own a TV.
American media is obsessed with trying to make lightning strike twice. Whenever a foreign production makes a grand domestic splash, the discourse immediately turns to, “should we make a US version of this?” Putting our terrible batting average aside for a minute, there is no reason to continue this practice today as entertainment media firmly transitions into this era of streaming.
Before everything went digital, the most compelling case for US remakes was the lack of access American audiences had to international stories. TV sets were once a luxury, followed by cable, then satellite. Networks rarely licensed foreign programs while films were typically relegated to limited releases across boutique theaters in major cities. Streaming significantly chips away at these physical and financial barriers as both distribution range and the price of going to the theater play a huge role in the decline of box office admissions (way, way more than “these f***ing cell phones,” Ridley Scott). Apps like Disney+ and Hulu allow parents to “rent” dozens of films the entire family can watch for the price of one adult ticket a month, while those living outside major markets can stream indie and foreign films that would otherwise require extensive traveling or waiting on the DVD release to see. The digitization of film and subsequent push amongst streaming services to cultivate competitive content libraries made it easier to buy the licensing rights to international commodities. Whereas in the past, remakes presented an opportunity to bring the essence of a foreign piece of work to American audiences, it’s never been easier to watch the real deal in today’s internet-fueled media landscape (by official or unofficial means).
As much as you see people grumble “I don’t watch TV to read,” American audiences are much more game for foreign works than we give ourselves credit for, as Netflix’s coy data analysts can attest to. This year has proven that American audiences do not need to see English-speaking American stars to enjoy a show, they just need easy access to quality international programs. So when access is not an issue, what reason is there to adapt what can simply be distributed abroad?
Although the UK is a largely English-speaking country and the one we exchange media with the most, British humor is its own unique style with a very polarizing reputation in the States. You either get it or you don’t, making it a wonder why we dump so much time and money into trying to make the sitcom equivalent of Marmite happen. In the case of The Office, producers were able to make lightning strike twice by picking up on the template of the show, a model they could mold something new around (boring company mockumentary format inconsiderate boss). The two still differ greatly with the US’s humor not as dry or cruel while hanging its hat on character performances. These deviations succeeded by debuting to an audience that was largely oblivious to the source material. Those who prefer the UK version tend to have been introduced to the Ricky Gervais-led series first and Steve Carell second; when there is no frame of reference, there is no fandom nor sense of authenticity to betray.
It’s this template approach that allows creators to adequately produce something in the spirit of the original rather than trying to recreate it fully (hence why reality and game shows adapt to international markets with greater ease than narrative fiction). But many recent comedy favorites are so tailored around a specific comedic voice, such as creator-writer-stars Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Jamie Demetriou, that replication would be nearly impossible to do well. Fox is currently struggling to make the Mayim Balak vehicle Call Me Kat, based on the UK sitcom Miranda starring British comedy giant Miranda Hart, work after its first season received a poor critical reception. Even with help from Hart herself, it’s naive of Fox to think they could easily plug and play any sitcom actor into a role made by and for its creator. Trying to clone an individual voice is a fool’s errand as these shows work so well because they aren’t formulaic.
It feels especially pointless to try to make a project for a declining medium like network TV, when your competitors can run the original on their hot new service in an ever-growing streaming market. What reason would today’s audience have to tune into Bren Rents weekly when they can binge multiple seasons, old and new, of Stath Lets Flats on the same app that offers reruns of all your favorite shows as well as the world premiere of James Bond 37?
Though CBS’s Ghosts remake has been well-received, it feels cheap and callous to copy such a young series while it’s still on the air. We’re not going to pretend like money isn’t the number one driving force behind any of these decisions, but with the tools at our disposal and recent audience data trends, acquiring licensing rights instead of funding entirely new productions seems like a better use of time and money. We can show our appreciation for great foreign comedies without desperately trying to center ourselves. Get bent, Bren Rents.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.