• 'Criminal Justice' / 'The Night Of' (BBC / HBO)Source: BBC / HBO
The Guide editor Nick Bhasin goes head-to-head with UK TV executive Ben Boyer for a lively discussion to decide which country is better once and for all.
By
Nick Bhasin

2 Nov 2016 - 11:25 AM  UPDATED 14 Nov 2016 - 8:59 AM

UK drama Criminal Justice has launched on SBS On Demand. It’s a 2008 drama, that was later adapted by HBO and became The Night Of, a stirring drama about the legal system in the US.

Now we ask the hard questions:

Did the Americans get it right? Do they ever get it right? Are remakes a mistake? Was *I* a mistake, Dad?

(Actually, let’s take that last question offline for now.)

To talk things through, I reached out to UK TV executive and friend of the site Ben Boyer. 

US adaptations of other countries' shows are a sensitive topic and things got pretty heated. If you have children near you or you're in a house of worship right now, you might not want to read some of the saltier stuff out loud...

BEN BOYER: YouTube is littered with dozens of 5th generation VHS uploads of failed pilots of American adaptations of UK favourites (a catastrophic American version of cult comedy Spaced made the rounds recently, with co-creator Simon Pegg explaining that “we signed away our rights to any input in the show's international future, because we just wanted to get the show made”), and those uploads inspire hundreds of variations on the same comment: Why?

NICK BHASIN: Let me interject here, if I can, with one question: Why?

BOYER: Right. Well, the easy answer: $$$. Or, if you’re talking about the UK, £££. In some cases, €€€. There are probably other currencies, too, but I can’t find those keys on my keyboard. Is this one?: {{{.

The truth is that TV execs see a safer bet in trying to work with a known entity than growing something organically - it’s less work and theoretically less risk - though the hit rate of this stuff might argue otherwise.

BHASIN: Just one second. Here’s a clip from the US remake of Spaced… featuring "our" Josh Lawson with an American accent!

 

BOYER: The fact of the matter is, it’s really hard to remake stuff, especially stuff that worked the first time around. I bought a Nando’s cookbook once and tried to make a peri-peri wrap and it came out tasting like a cat that had drowned in gasoline.  Can you name 5 great movie remakes off the top of your head?

BHASIN: Is The Godfather a remake? All right, I can’t name any off the top of my head.

*Googles good movie remakes.*

Some Like It Hot! Cape Fear! Ocean’s Eleven!

Okay it’s hard.

And yet, while I haven't seen Criminal Justice yet, I loved The Night Of. It didn't always make a lot of sense - why would a super smart lawyer make those kinds of mistakes (other than to allow John Turturro to have his big, admittedly great, moment)? - but it was super tense and everyone was great in it.

BOYER: I have to confess to having a small issue with the name change from Criminal Justice to The Night Of. The former lets you know what you’re in for; no mistaking it. I like a straightforward title. Remember that show The Mob Doctor? You knew it wasn’t going to be about The Mayor’s Rabbi or The Zookeeper’s Weed-Dealer (quick note to self: Copyright both of these immediately). Stop trying to outsmart me, HBO.

Anyway, yes – as adaptations go, this is a rarity: Multi-award winning, well-respected British drama gets prestige remake treatment that most everyone agrees is excellent. It helps that they played it fairly safe with many artistic choices; they even swapped out one young hotly tipped British star of tomorrow for another when casting their leads (excellent work from Ben Whishaw and Riz Ahmed, respectively).

All of these fancy-title smarty pants adapters can feel confident starting to clear mantle space for their Emmys.

 

The Office

BHASIN: This is frequently upheld as one of those rare examples of a US adaptation of a UK show working, which is quite a feat given how many of these things fall apart. It’s extra impressive when you consider that the original was so beloved – and short. The UK version lasted 12 episodes plus a Christmas special. The American version made it through 201 episodes over nine seasons, launching careers and further spreading the mockumentary style.

I watched the first couple seasons and I thought it was funny, but all the hugging, we work together and love each other stuff wore me out and I jumped ship. (I do plan to revisit it one day, though.) I also really loved the UK version. It’s one of my favourite shows of all time.

BOYER: I wonder if there was something to the theory that the more one liked the American Office, the less time that person had likely spent working in an American office. Offices are nightmares.

In one job I sat next to a woman who, literally every single day for lunch, had tinned haddock and a bag of cheese and onion crisps. My eyes would be watering and I would be sniffing highlighters to try to make it stop. She smelled like a bus seat in high summer.

And now that woman is my wife. (Just kidding, delete that line.)

BHASIN: Sure, no problem. Consider it deleted.

BOYER: The Office is another adaptation that might prove that there are no hard and fast rules with this stuff – there’s a lot of shading. The original is a masterpiece (this is not up for debate, no matter how much you may or may not like Gervais’ shtick now) with just a few episodes.

The remake introduced some incredible characters without UK analogues (thinking of Creed and Toby here – both amazing comic creations), and managed to commit admirably to the universe (lesser shows would have been unable to resist the temptation to force those characters into unbelievable scenarios).

But then other characters in the remake are played irritatingly broad, as though they’re in a different, less quietly observed show. And as much as the US tapped into something about the American dream, the original Office has embedded in it some very specific-to-England ideas about class that made its larger themes feel heavier.

 

House of Cards

BHASIN: I’ve had a lot of fun with the American show, though it’s been very up and down recently. But it’s big and entertaining so I’ll stick with it to the end.

You know what’s not big and entertaining? The UK version. Good lord, that stuff is dry. I had to fast forward through a lot of it just to stay awake. I watched the ending, which looked very dramatic and possibly affecting. But I was already lost.

BOYER: (Turns to camera) I don’t really like either of these shows.

I find House of Cards to mostly be a shower of grandiloquent gestures that don’t amount to much substance-wise, and from an aesthetic standpoint I find the blue filters on everything oppressive (I want to run into each scene and turn some lights on, and make everyone watch a cat video or something, so I can at least know that these characters live in a world where regular people smile sometimes.

The original is said to be loosely based on Shakespeare’s Richard III, and I already fell asleep typing that, so to quote the show’s famous line, “I couldn’t possibly comment.” I’m so lowbrow that my favorite Ian Richardson performance was in the Grey Poupon mustard commercial they played over and over again on American TV in the ‘80s.

BHASIN: That’s the Grey Poupon guy?! I’m sorry, stop everything. I take it all back. My entire childhood was spent trying to find ways to say “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon” to people in public.

 

Shameless

BHASIN: I haven’t seen the UK version, but the first season of the American version was a pretty serious fast forward job for me. I liked the socio-economic diversity but I didn’t buy or particularly like any of the characters.

BOYER: A bit of admin up top: I was doing a little bit of Wikipedia refreshing on the UK original and came across this factoid concerning an entirely more intriguing “Shameless” adaptation: ‘“Shameless” is a 1991 song by Billy Joel from the album Storm Front, later covered by Garth Brooks on his album Ropin' the Wind’.

Ropin’ the Wind! Now THAT’S a title.

As for the TV shows in question, adapting Shameless for the Americas always felt like a fool’s errand – the show is literally ABOUT class. There’s simply no American equivalent to a council estate in Manchester, or even the idea of a council estate in Manchester.

All of that said, they’ve done what I think many people consider a more-than-respectable job reflecting an America that doesn’t often get shown on TV outside of condescending sketch comedy or Cops re-runs. They also have a gem of a lead in William H. Macy, an actor who – for my money – never stops ropin’ the wind.

 

Man About the House / Three's Company

BHASIN: I didn’t even know this was originally a UK show. It’s interesting when something that seems quintessentially American turns out to be from somewhere else – like All in the Family.

BOYER: I have only YouTube’d clips of Man About the House out of curiosity, since I grew up on Three’s Company, but there is no question for me here: John Ritter is one of the greatest physical comedians of all time, and he could elevate the most pedestrian double-entendre-laden scripts to damn near high art.

Fun: If you start to type “Three’s Company John Ritter” into YouTube, the first autofilled search term is “Three’s Company John Ritter Dancing,” and the second is “Three’s Company John Ritter Scrotum,” which brings you to a 21 second clip from an episode of Three’s Company where Ritter sits on a bed and you can momentarily see his ‘two’s company.’

BHASIN: I don’t know what any of that means, but I’ll remind you that this is a family website.

 

The Thick of It / Veep (sort of)

BOYER: Veep isn’t really a remake – totally different world/characters/themes – it just has some of the same creatives behind it and both programs are set in the world of politics.

BHASIN: Right. But they get compared to each other a lot. I think the hardliners would disagree, but I think Veep is just as good as The Thick of It.

It’s really sharp and nasty and everyone on it is great. I’m not sure it sends up politics as much as the original or properly satirises bureaucracy, but it’s really entertaining and smart.

BOYER: What’s even more interesting is that they tried an American Thick of It - amazingly, it was directed by Christopher Guest from a script by Mitchell Hurwitz - and most people agreed it sucked. So the network canned the idea of the remake and creator Armando Iannucci decided instead to do something in the same world, with the same tone - and that resulted in one of the most critically-acclaimed comedies of the decade. 

 

Broadchurch / Gracepoint

 

BHASIN: I liked Broadchurch but it was really slow and the payoff was underwhelming. I had a hard time imagining that the US version would be much more interesting, so I skipped it.

BOYER: I haven’t seen either of these. Didn’t they both have David Tennant in the lead?

There’s a subset of remakes that keep the lead - Richard Ayoade was in the original IT Crowd as well as the American remake. Sometimes a piece of huge casting still can’t save the show, though - the American remake of Life on Mars re-cast Philip Glenister with Harvey Keitel, which was a huge get.

But the show’s tone in the original British show was understated and ambiguous, and American network TV doesn’t often do subtlety well - it didn’t get a second series. Or season, rather. There’s probably a whole cultural discussion to be had on that one piece of terminology, incidentally: Series vs. Season.

BHASIN: I like season for an individual run and series to refer to the entirety of a show. I also like free healthcare, but I wouldn’t be caught dead eating beans on toast.

 

Pop Idol / American Idol

BHASIN: I found it unwatchable – like most singing competitions – but American Idol made “Since You Been Gone” possible. What did Pop Idol ever do for anyone?

BOYER: There are some things where the source material is so objectionable that the idea of a remake causing potential offence is just redundant. The list of hit singles these programs generated reads like a cataloging of war crimes.

Pop Idol’s cynical manipulation of the music charts made a handful of aural felons hundreds of millions of pounds. American Idol buttered its bread via the mocking of the vulnerable. All of it is depressing. But you’re right about “Since You Been Gone,” except that the actual title is “Since U Been Gone,” so technically U were not right. (Sick burn.)

 

The Inbetweeners

BOYER: Perfect example of something doomed from the start because of cultural differences in terms of permissiveness: The Inbetweeners made its name on youth-themed digital channel E4 in the UK, where – crucially – scripts can be downright filthy post the 9pm ‘watershed.’

And The Inbetweeners was filthy, coining dozens of rude slang terms that immediately entered the British lexicon and which I don’t think I can repeat here (Google “clunge”). It was remade for MTV, meanwhile; a channel that once took the video for Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” out of rotation because they were afraid the bottom of her butt hanging out of her lacey bodysuit would offend viewers.

There was never going to be a convincing adaptation of a warts-and-all look at the nightmare of adolescence and first sexual experiences on the channel whose nearest understanding of teen lust is awarding Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson “Best Kiss” at the MTV Movie Awards for the four consecutive years of 2009 – 2012. (Note to editor: I can provide a VHS tape of this for fact checking purposes, just return it to me the same day.)

BHASIN: I didn’t know any of this (except the KStew/RPatz trivia; I’ve got my own tape) but I watched some of The Inbetweeners and it certainly struck me as a very British show. Why aren’t producers/licensees more careful with where their projects land? I suppose not everyone is lucky enough to have HBO purchase their rights.

BOYER: That’s it - the production companies are almost always going to sell to the highest bidder, regardless of what the show’s creators want for their babies (the “babies” being the shows; these people aren’t selling their children).

 

Gogglebox / The People’s Couch

 

BOYER: This is literally the most baffling TV phenomenon of all time for me, made all the stranger by the fact that it appears to be universally beloved by all of the friends and former bullies who make up my Facebook feed.

Truthfully, I already feel a burden lifting by saying: This show stinks. Sitting on my couch eating Junior Mints while I watch TV is bleak enough; the idea of sitting on my couch eating Junior Mints while I watch other people sit on their couch eating Junior Mints while they watch TV is like some kind of Depression Inception.

BHASIN: Same. It’s also bizarrely popular here in Australia. But after watching two minutes of it, I slipped into an existential crisis coma filled with Darren Aronofsky-directed fever dreams about the coming darkness.

 

Strictly Come Dancing / Dancing with the Stars

BOYER: The current season of Dancing with the Stars features, amongst others, Olympic disgrace Ryan Lochte, death penalty fanatic former Texas governor Rick Perry, and Vanilla Ice, so you’d better believe that America put her own special colonial stamp on this British format.

BHASIN: It’s probably because I’m not British, but I don’t understand the title. Strictly Come Dancing. Is there a reference to the Kinks song in there? Why “Strictly”? Dancing with the Stars is appropriately straightforward. It says what the terrible thing is right there on the box. 

BOYER: I’m pretty sure the Kinks song was named after the original BBC show Come Dancing which aired literally just after World War II, and which Strictly Come Dancing was itself a remake of. The “Strictly” part comes from the fact that the first series of the show had a dominant S&M theme, which the show later dropped. (Fact check this later.)

BHASIN: That’s the second time you’ve corrected me, which I don’t usually allow on this site. Maybe we should wrap up.

BOYER: There are dozens more examples of shows that have made that fateful trip across the pond, with varying degrees of success:

Coupling (a US remake of a UK show that was an unofficial remake of Friends), Ab Fab (an American remake produced by Roseanne Barr and starring Carrie Fisher was developed but never went anywhere), Men Behaving Badly (the lad classic managed two poorly-reviewed seasons in the States as a vehicle for Deuce Bigalow’s Rob Schneider), and countless others.

BHASIN: Oh man, I had forgotten that Schneider was in MBB. All I remember is a post-ER Ron Eldard.

BOYER: And there are many to come: Recent Rose d’Or winner (and jewel in the SBS On Demand crown) Raised by Wolves is getting the American treatment soon, as is Peep Show (which was attempted once already - see the leaked pilot on YouTube, featuring The Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki).

BHASIN: Can't wait! 

 

Follow Nick Bhasin on Twitter.

 

Criminal Justice is now streaming on SBS On Demand. Watch the first episode right here:

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