JAMES PONIEWOZIK Friday, Oct. 03, 2008
God bless the American TV industry! While the rest of corporate America is outsourcing, this fall television is aggressively insourcing, remaking several shows from other countries and populating them with red-blooded Americans.
This is, of course, not a brand-new programming strategy: All in the Family was adapted from a British show, reality hits from American Idol to Survivor have overseas DNA, and Ugly Betty and The Office are remakes of international hits, while CBS ran the made-in-Canada cop show Flashpoint this summer.
With a good half a dozen new imports this fall alone, American TV is becoming a diversified global marketplace. But with every Toyota and Lexus, this season shows, you're going to get a few Yugos.
NBC's Aussie adaptation Kath and Kim (Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. E.T.; debuts Oct. 9) is the new import with the highest profile, partly because NBC needs a hit badly and partly because NBC's new chief, Ben Silverman, was behind the successful importation of The Office and Ugly Betty. Kath and Kim, though, shows that, as with Vegemite, not all flavors are so easily translated. The premise is the same as the original: single fortysomething Kath (Molly Shannon) has her life disrupted when her dim-bulb daughter Kim (Selma Blair) leaves her husband and shows up at Kath's doorstep. Like the British Absolutely Fabulous, it's a comedy of grotesques; Kath is a clueless ninny, Kim a crass, inarticulate walking id.
AbFab pulled this off by reveling in its characters' crudeness. NBC's Kath simply smugly insults them — for their clothes, their pop-culture obsessiveness, their eating at Applebee's. It's sneering and unwatchably badly written; it shoots at fish in a barrel and still manages to miss. On NBC's My Name Is Earl, by comparison, Jaime Pressley's Joy may be a moron, but she's an interesting one, with a kind of admirably feral greed. Blair's Kim is just a cartoon idiot. ("It's over!" she declares about her marriage. "O-V-U-R!") If you can't even make your characters believably dumb, you've got problems, and while Shannon does her best with what she's given, the mother-daughter dialogue plays like bad Oscar-presenter patter.
CBS, meanwhile, has two very funny British imports. Sadly, only one is a comedy. CBS's adapted Britcom Worst Week (Mondays, 9:30 p.m. E.T.) has a much easier premise to sell to Yanks, mainly because it's pretty much lifted from a Ben Stiller movie: hapless Sam (Kyle Bornheimer), just engaged, tries to impress his future in-laws, but every attempt ends up disastrously. (In the first episode, he accidentally convinces his wife's family that her father is dead, a social faux pas in most cultures.) It's game if unambitious, with plenty of misunderstandings and physical comedy that involve the violation of poultry. By the second episode, there are signs that the premise may not sustain for long (the title, after all, gives it only a week), but it still shows that a good pratfall is the universal language.
In the drama Eleventh Hour (Thursdays, 10 p.m. E.T.; debuts Oct. 9), meanwhile, genius biophysicist Jacob Hood (Rufus Sewell) advises government agents investigating cases of science gone too far, be they in genetic science or homeopathic drugs (no, really). As is mandatory in the House era, Hood is brilliant, eccentric and an irritant. "He's got this annoying habit of telling the truth," an associate says straight-faced, "and the truth hits a lot of people's pockets." Simultaneously gross and sanctimonious, this histrionic science procedural is mainly a warning against the cloning of TV concepts.
Speaking of gross, HBO's Little Britain USA (Sundays, 10:30 p.m. E.T.) is the one import this fall to retain its original cast, and it bets confidently that Yanks and redcoats alike can be united by the love of a good penis joke. Comics Matt Lucas and David Walliams transport the characters from their BBC sketch show, while adding a few American originals. But their new characters don't measure up, and the original British ones — like Lucas as thick-accented juvenile delinquent Vicky Pollard — are so culturally specific that they translate to being plopped inexplicably into American settings here like spotted dick on a McDonald's dollar menu. (Except that spotted dick is funnier.)
CBS's The Ex List (Fridays, 9 p.m. E.T.; debuts Oct. 3) is adapted from a show in Israel, which earlier this year gave us HBO's therapy drama In Treatment. In this dramedy, emphasis on the -medy, single gal Bella Bloom (Elizabeth Reaser — and, yes, Bloom owns a flower shop) throws a bachelorette party and gets thrown for a loop when the bridal party visits a psychic. Bella, the clairvoyant says, will get married within a year, to one of her ex-boyfriends — but if she doesn't find him in that time frame, she will never marry. (Some prophets speak in parables; this one speaks in high-concept-series pitches.) Each episode she tracks down one ex to see if he's the one.
This My-Name-Is-Girl concept may be outlandish, but Ex List is also fresh and raunchily funny (there's a scene in the pilot comparing feminine-waxing choices to historical figures — the "Hitler," the "Gandhi"), and Reaser is winning and adorable. If you can check your skepticism at the psychic's bead curtain, it's a charming, funny, undemanding escape — a sort of romantic procedural. Any praise for the show needs an asterisk, though, because the original producer-writer, Diane Ruggiero, recently quit in a creative dispute with CBS, which she said resisted the changes she wanted to make from the original Israeli series.
That brings us to the major challenge of Americanizing many of these shows, which is not so much cultural as structural. Like our restaurant portions and children, we make our TV bigger in the States. Where an overseas series may run a dozen or so episodes in its entire life, an American show will air 22 or more a season. So plots must be stretched out and subplots multiplied. This is not automatically bad; the American version of The Office fleshed out a stronger supporting cast, made its central character more multifaceted and found its own voice. Other adaptations find that once they run out of source material, they've got nothing.
The fall's most promising import is also the most potentially susceptible to this problem. The premise of ABC's Life on Mars (Thursdays, 10 p.m. E.T.; debuts Oct. 9) is ludicrous but irresistible: New York City cop Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) gets hit by a car and does a reverse Rip Van Winkle, coming to 35 years ... earlier. Inexplicably trapped in 1973 (he awakens wearing a collar with the wingspan of a 747), he returns to his precinct, tries to get his bearings and eventually finds himself working on a case directly connected to the one he was working on when he was run over.
Is he alive? Is he insane? Can he come home? And what does it all have to do with the David Bowie title song? We don't know, and the pilot doesn't bother making it plausible, but it does play up the time-travel culture-clash aspects for all they're worth. Even the predictable situations — Sam mentions his cell phone to a cop who answers, "You need to sell what?" — pay off. (A more somber, striking moment: Sam looks up after he comes to and sees the gleaming new Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.) But the real fascination is how the show plays off the techno-expectations about police work that CSI has bred into us. With no computers or lab work, Sam has to chase his case '70s-style, with shoe leather and — as his new boss, Lieutenant Gene Hunt (Harvey Keitel), demonstrates — a healthy disregard for search warrants.
Life on Mars should bring viewers back for a second episode, but the highly praised British original resolved its story in only 16 episodes. Can this American Life avoid becoming ridiculous stretching the story out over dozens of episodes? It will depend on how well it rethinks the closed-ended British story line. In the end, successful foreign-transplant shows are not really "imported"; they immigrate. Eventually, they need to learn a new dialect and new mores. If they succeed — like Archie Bunker and all TV's other Ellis Island inductees — they'll have to find a way to adapt, take root and thrive in their new home country.
6 months ago