People often complain that Hollywood relies too much on remakes in lieu of coming up with original ideas. It’s a valid complaint, sure, but it’s hardly a new phenomenon– and definitely not exclusive to movies.
Going back to the early years of television, TV show ideas have been reused and repackaged in various ways and passed off as new ideas. In the days when our world wasn’t quite so small and we weren’t keenly aware of what was being shown on televisions in other countries, it was easy for American TV producers to take shows airing outside of the United States and retool them as “new” series with American viewers being none the wiser.
Beyond just trying to fool us into thinking old shows were new ones, American networks also assumed that we wouldn’t be able to enjoy shows featuring “foreign” people and locales– even from English-speaking nations– and remade them into American shows rather than just importing them as-is. The country we borrow and import TV ideas from most often is, unsurprisingly, England. While we’ve done right by a lot of classic British shows, we’ve also completely botched plenty of others.
Here are 9 Terrible American Versions of British TV Shows (And 7 That Are Actually Better).
16. Terrible: Viva Laughlin – Remake of Blackpool
Taking the trope of basing a series around a murder mystery but turning it on its head by adding elaborate musical numbers into the proceedings, BBC’s Blackpool— retitled Viva Blackpool when it was broadcast on BBC America– wasn’t a ratings smash or a universal critical hit but did win awards and earned a cult following.
One of Blackpool‘s fans was Hugh Jackman, who at that point had already knocked out three X-Men movies and had the clout to convince CBS that a prime-time musical dramady series with a considerable budget was a good idea. The remake, titled Viva Laughlin and also featuring Melanie Griffith, and was savaged by critics and had ratings so abysmal that CBS only aired two of the eight completed episodes.
15. Better: House of Cards
Although House of Cards is nearly impossible to talk about these days without also addressing disgraced star Kevin Spacey, there’s no denying that it has been an acclaimed series that serves as a benchmark by which to measure other streaming service-exclusive series.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that House of Cards is actually a remake of a four-part British miniseries that aired in 1990 and centered around a politician manipulating his way through the ranks of the British Parliament rather than the American government. It’s a very well-regarded show that the British Film Institute called one of the top 100 British television programs of all time.
14. Terrible: Skins
As edgy as MTV was in its ’90s heyday of Beavis and Butt-head, Undressed, and gangsta rap videos, the network began to really tone things down as it entered the TRL era and started courting the young teen crowd. The MTV of 2011 was not in any position to do a faithful remake of edgy UK teen series Skins.
In MTV’s defense, even the watered-down version of the show’s subject matter they did present– especially the depiction of teenaged actors engaged in casual sex and drug use– led to complaints and advertisers abandoning the show. But controversy doesn’t always mean a show is actually any good, and we all know it takes very little to get middle America worked up.
Ultimately, Skins U.S. was ambitious but fell far short in providing either a proper version of its predecessor or even a workable show on its own terms. It wasn’t the last time MTV botched a remake of a risque UK show about youth, as this list will soon show.
13. Better: The Office
Nobody expected much out of the American remake of The Office. The Rick Gervais-starring UK original was essentially a perfect sitcom, and there didn’t really seem to be any new spin to put on the formula.
When the pilot for the American version was basically a shot-for-shot remake of the original’s first episode, it just further confirmed that there was nothing it could do to improve on the original and could only just copy it. But soon, the American Office broke free of its source material and developed its own plotlines, characters, and completely different– but equally entertaining– version of the boss character, played this time by comedic genius Steve Carell.
12. Terrible: The Inbetweeners
Coming-of-age comedy The Inbetweeners garnered a lot of accolades during its two short years on the air in the UK, including winning an award called “Outstanding Contribution to British Comedy” at the 2011 British Comedy Awards. Much of the praise was aimed at the show’s more realistic portrayal of the humdrum nature of youth rather than the overly glamorized version seen in many teen series.
Like many British shows, it also didn’t shy away from naughtiness, presenting the show’s teenage boys talking and acting the way teenage boys do. It was dirtier than MTV would ever be, so naturally, their version for American audiences was heavily sanitized and lost much of the original’s charm and appeal, lasting only one season.
11. Better: Shameless
Part of why the American version of Shameless is superior to the British original is the incredible performance of William H. Macy as troubled Gallagher clan patriarch Frank. Macy joined the show at a time when A-list Hollywood talent moving into television was seen as a career suicide – something that is far from being the case anymore. And because it’s on Showtime, it hasn’t had to do much toning-down of the very rough content from the original series.
Beyond that, the American version of Shameless is better-paced, far visually superior, and left the original in the dust plot-wise from season three on. It’s not just Macy who deserves praise (and pushes the show beyond its predecessor)– the criminally underappreciated Emmy Rossum is dynamite, Joan Cusack is at her quirky best, and the young actors who make up the rest of the Gallagher crew fit their roles perfectly.
10. Terrible: Gracepoint – Remake of Broadchurch
When former Doctor Who star David Tennant signed on to reprise his role in the American remake of Broadchurch with the original creator also on board, there was plenty of reason to be optimistic that Gracepoint would do right by its source material. Well, you know what they say about best-laid plans.
For starters, the decision to have Tennant ditch his British accent was a bad one, as his American accent was distractingly uneven– a quirk that wouldn’t have been as noticeable if the plot wasn’t so prone to pointless meandering. Another downgrade was Breaking Bad‘s Anna Gunn, certainly a talented actress but one who couldn’t match the performance of Olivia Colman in role of Tennant’s partner.
9. Better: American Idol – Remake of Pop Idol
While American Idol was a full-blown cultural phenomenon that ran for a whopping 15 seasons, its UK predecessor was only around for two before host Simon Cowell shifted his focus to the original incarnation of The X Factor. It didn’t take long before the fairly low-key Pop Idol was left to live in the shadow of the bombastic American version.
Still, it’s not all about quantity over quality, or flash or substance. It all comes down to the actual purpose of the shows, and that’s to produce idols– and there’s no debating which show had better results in that area. The top Pop Idol finishers have had some success, mostly in their native UK, but they can’t touch the impressive lineup of American Idol alums like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert, Scotty McCreery, Fantasia Barrino, Chris Daughtry, or Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson.
8. Terrible: Life on Mars
In another example of taking a tired genre and giving it an unusual twist, Life on Mars is a police procedural that centers on a detective in 2006 who is hit by a car and wakes up in 1973– still a detective, and still working at the same location, just in a different era and with different people.
The bulk of the original series kept things ambiguous as to exactly what was going on: is the detective dead, in a coma, or what? It actually wasn’t until sequel series Ashes to Ashes that it’s revealed he is in a form of “restless dead” police officer purgatory.
7. Better: Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Unlike most of the shows on this list, American audiences actually had ample opportunity to watch the original British version of improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? when Comedy Central began running the show in the early-90s. With that in mind, the American remake perhaps had more to prove since viewers had already been watching the original for years. And prove itself it did.
In addition to bringing back some of the original’s best regulars– Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, Greg Proops, and Brad Sherwood– the American version’s regular and recurring performers blows the original away. It introduced audiences to the uber-talented Wayne Brady, had far more interesting hosts (first Drew Carrey, then Aisha Tyler), and had such top-tier recurring and guest stars as Keegan-Michael Key, Stephen Colbert, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robin Williams.
6. Terrible: Payne – Remake of Fawlty Towers
Remaking Fawlty Towers is only a slightly less ridiculous idea than trying to remake Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but leave it to America to try it not only once, but three separate times.
All three were as disastrous as Basil Fawlty’s attempt at running a hotel. The first, starring Harvey Korman and Betty White, never went beyond a pilot.
The gender-swapped Amanda’s, which had Bea Arthur playing the hotel manager, faired only slightly better by making it to ten episodes before it was forced to check out.
The third attempt was almost the charm when Night Court‘s John Larroquette tried his hand at the premise in 1999 with Payne, reportedly with John Cleese’s blessing. Critical reception was decent– ratings, not so much. Payne was put out of its misery after eight episodes.
5. Better: Three’s Company – Remake of Man About the House
The 1973-1976 UK sitcom Man About The House was considered controversial at the time for portraying a man sharing an apartment with two women. It’s rather surprising that a series that was already boundary-pushing in the typically less-prudish England was remade in America with its premise intact just a couple of years later.
As with some of the other shows on this list, Man About the House was already great, but Three’s Company was simply better. A great deal of the credit for that goes to the effortlessly charming John Ritter, who was a master of comedic timing and was one of the all-time great pratfallers. Plus, Paula Wilcox is no Suzanne Summers, and Man About the House suffered from a noticeable lack of Don Knotts.
4. Terrible: Men Behaving Badly
Mid-90s British sitcom Men Behaving Badly was of the Judd Apatow style of comedy, featuring oafish man-children who manage to be both embarrassing and lovable in equal measure. The show successful enough to last for six seasons and have a finale that was viewed by 14 million viewers (which is a lot for England).
What makes such comedy work is its performers– it’s not easy playing convincing lovable losers. The American remake didn’t have the talent of its predecessor, with Rob Schneider, unremarkable “that guy” Ron Eldard, and Family Ties vet Justine Bateman failing to rise to the challenge. In their defense, the weak material only gave them so much to work with.
3. Better: Sanford and Son – Remake of Steptoe and Son
American viewers may have never heard of the oddly-named Steptoe and Son, but Brits of a certain age remember it as fondly as they remember its remake, Sanford and Son. Both shows are about father/son junk dealers– called “rag-and-bone” men in England– and the hilarious inter-generational conflicts that the pairs have to deal with.
The thing that makes Sanford and Son superior is its legacy– it is generally considered one of the main pioneers of modern black sitcoms. Beyond that, it was just a slightly better-polished show, and there was no topping the genius of comedian Redd Foxx and his iconic fake heart attacks and hilarious cries of “It’s the big one…I’m comin’, Elizabeth!“– which, unfortunately, are now cast in a darker light as Foxx suffered a fatal heart attack during filming his 1991 sitcom The Royal Family.
2. Terrible: Cold Feet
The thing that makes or breaks an ensemble sitcom is the talent and, more importantly, chemistry of its cast. To that end, late-90s British sitcom Cold Feet didn’t have an especially groundbreaking premise but succeeded because the actors worked so perfectly together. It’s a tough thing to get right, and oftentimes it requires sheer luck to find.
Luck was not on the side of Cold Feet‘s American remake. Well, not good luck, anyway. The new cast was comprised of people who not only weren’t particularly noteworthy, but lacked any sort of chemistry as an ensemble. Critics did not warm up to the series, with one reporter saying that the pilot episode caused her to have “mental hypothermia.” Cold Feet U.S. ended up setting an all-time record low for its time slot, and was iced after just four aired episodes.
1. Terrible: Coupling
In addition to basing it on his relationship with wife, writer/producer Steven Moffat also saw Coupling as being the British answer to Friends (and critics also compared it to Seinfeld and other group ensemble sitcoms). The U.S. had Friends, the UK had Coupling, everyone wins. Right?
Apparently not. NBC wasn’t content just having Friends and greedily commissioned an American version of Coupling— and while Friends was still on the air, no less. It might not have been the worst thing to have another sitcom similar to Friends to take over when that show ended two years after Coupling U.S. debuted, but Coupling had neither the quality or the ratings to make it that long.
The only thing worse than a completely unnecessary show is a completely unnecessary and unremarkable show. Of the ten filmed episodes, only the first four ever aired.
What’s your favorite American remake of a British show? Let us know in the comments!
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