13 Popular American TV Shows Based On Foreign Series

House of Cards

Between Netflix, HBO, and all the networks with big shows to their names, many critics have said we are in the golden age of television. Some shows have budgets that even rival movies now, so there’s no arguing that TV is only getting more ambitious and turning out more high quality work than ever.

As millions tune in each week for the latest episode of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, a lot of people probably don’t realize how many of their favorite shows are actually based on international series. In America we have shows like The Wire and The Sopranos, which are called some of the best TV series ever made. So maybe it’s easy to get a little forgetful that not only are other countries making big name shows as well, but they’re even influencing some of the top shows for American audiences.

If you live in the states, you’re probably watching more series based on international favorites than you know, so here are 13 Popular American TV Series Based On Foreign Series.

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Survivor tribal challenge on the water
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Survivor tribal challenge on the water

It’s no surprise that Survivor flings its contestants across the far reaches of the world for each new season, but some people might be surprised at how widespread the formula is for the show as well. The original version of the island adventure reality show aired in Sweden, and created a template that was redone for audiences in many different countries, including in America.

In the United States iteration alone, Survivor has reached thirty-two seasons and counting, totaling nearly five-hundred episodes. Legitimate injuries have been known to happen on the show, and the on-screen drama has at times spilled into off camera legal battles once the filming was over. Survivor has developed a reputation for not only being physically intense, and an environment for backstabbing, but it’s also become popular for its authenticity in comparison to a lot of reality shows. Iterations of the contest across the globe have certainly proved Sweden caught onto something big.


Homeland protagonist from the American version

With conflict in the Middle East such a prevalent concern for Americans for over a decade now, it’s only natural that attitude would manifest in our TV shows as well. Homeland was far from the first to broach the subject, but it came at the premise with a strong pedigree courtesy of its original Israeli iteration, Prisoners of War.

The first season of Prisoners of War became Israel’s highest rated drama of all time when it first aired. As the name of the show suggests, it deals with those who have been taken captive during combat, a matter that Israel has had to deal with quite a bit. Both the American and the Israeli version of the show deal with the threat of a released prisoner of war who is feared to have been turned against his own country while held captive. Given the history of both countries, it’s easy to see why a show focusing on the potential for terrorism would garner interest. Homeland got strong praise right out of the gate, and is set to continue soon with its sixth season.


Shark Tank presentation being pitched to the sharks

Compared to many other reality shows that have acclimated us to seeing people do crazy stunts or eat disgusting food, Shark Tank doesn’t seem like the kind of show that would be a hit. It’s effectively watching businessmen out on a Power Point presentation for a product to a bunch of rich investors. The only tension is in whether the investors will put money into a seemingly bizarre idea or not.

The concept for the show actually originates from Japan, where the first version of the show translates to Tigers of Money. The concept of business investment wound up intriguing a lot of people, and it’s a premise many other countries picked up on with various animal-themed motifs, such as the United Kingdom’s Dragon’s Den, and other assorted creatures for varying countries. Canada also named it's version of the show Dragon's Den, and when Mark Burnett picked up the property for American audiences, he took two of the Canadian series' "Dragons" (Kevin O'Leary and Robert Herjavic) and made them "Sharks."

Apparently the world has moved beyond needing to see people humiliate themselves to attract viewers, because the American version, Shark Tank, also garners consistent ratings. The show is viewed as a smarter version of programs like Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice, and the premise has become a hit the world over.


Shameless party scene

We’ve seen dysfunctional middle class families before in shows like Roseanne, and have witnessed the potential for humor in some very true to life problems. It’s been a while since we’ve had that kind of relatable show about some darker subject matter, so Shameless helps scratch that itch with its extremely flawed characters. Tragedy often creates a great contrast for humor, so there are some very funny moments in the show because of how sad it gets at times as well.

As will become a common theme during this list, America got this one from Britain after seeing the kind of critical success it was garnering. The dark comedy about an alcoholic father raising (or avoiding doing so) his children brought out powerful performances in its actors who had to depict a lot of difficult subjects. Hopefully most people out there aren’t relating to every aspect of the messed up characters in Shameless, but its American adaption allowed an international audience to be reminded that characters can have it rough but still find a reason to keep going and find some humor in tough situations.


America Ferrera as Ugly Betty

Ugly Betty got a fair amount of attention in the United States, but you wouldn’t guess from seeing it that it was in fact based on a hugely popular Colombian telenovela. The comedy got people talking in America for focusing on a character who wasn’t conventionally attractive, and stirring up conversation about how women are portrayed in the media due to beauty standards. Unfortunately the premise left more of an impression on Americans than the show, which wound up being cancelled after four seasons, despite a cult following.

In contrast, the Columbian Yo soy Betty, la fea spawned not only the American adaption of the show, but was so influential that many other countries made their own versions of it as well. The original Columbian version focused less on comedy, and more on unlikely romance between Betty and her boss Armando. The American version can’t compare to the one hundred plus episodes the original received, but it did turn the character of Betty into an American icon.


Lionel and his dad on Sanford and Son

The first of several British sitcoms we’ll be seeing on this list is Steptoe and Son, a show about father and son scrap collectors. American readers would probably recognize another show by just that description alone. That’s of course the ‘70s American sitcom, Sanford and Son, which was inspired by the British show that had become popular in the ‘60s.

The biggest change between the two versions of the shows was obviously that Sanford and Son notably starred two black actors in the main roles, which was unusual for the time. While the American show retained the moneymaking schemes of their British counterparts, Sanford and Son was also seen as innovative for the racial humor the characters brought to the situations they encountered. It opened doors for other black actors on TV, and gave America many a laugh watching Redd Foxx’s fake heart attack routine.


Jack, Chrissy, and Janet in their home on Three's Company

There isn’t a whole lot that could surprise viewers about a character in today’s TV environment. After all, we’ve even had shows like Hannibal where the main character is a cannibal. So it sounds downright laughable to think that in the old days of sitcoms, it was prohibited to even show married couples sleeping in the same bed, leading to husbands and wives having separate beds on shows like I Love Lucy. But that was the atmosphere that a show like Three’s Company came out of, where it was considered audacious to have a man living with female house mates.

But Britain broke that barrier before America got to it. Three’s Company was an American adaption of the British show Man About the House, and featured many of the same setups that the American version wound up using. The main cause of tension was the male house mate having to pretend to be gay so his landlords the Ropers wouldn’t have a problem with him living with two women. As you might guess by its being popular enough to receive an American version, the gay-panic humor and bawdy jokes were as big a hit abroad as they were in the states.


All In The Family

Even by the standards of today, All in the Family deals with a lot of polarizing topics. People might picture ‘70s sitcoms all being like The Brady Bunch and being filled with characters whose biggest problems are not getting picked for a football team, or getting turned down for a date. But All in the Family frequently dealt with issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, transgender characters, anti-Semitism, rape, and even had recurring characters dying. Yet what makes the show’s characters so enduring is that they still dealt with all these relevant topics through relatable and intelligent humor, something most network sitcoms nowadays wouldn’t have the courage to attempt.

But this balancing act between political issues and making audiences laugh didn’t originate with Archie Bunker. The show was actually inspired by a British sitcom called Till Death Us Do Part. Fans of All in the Family would notice the many similarities in its British predecessor, including a conservative father in Alf Garnett, his diminutive wife Else, their liberal daughter, and their social activist son-in-law. Both shows even followed similar trajectories in their later years, with Archie and Alf both losing their wives to sickness, and going on to star in spinoffs from their main series. Garnett would become as synonymous with conservatism in Britain as Archie Bunker has to those of us in America.


Colin Mochrie and Wayne Brady on Whose Line is it Anyway American version

Whose Line is it Anyway? is a show that didn’t so much receive an American version based on the British one, as it did directly migrate from one country to the other. The American version not only kept the same name, but also kept some of the most popular performers on the ad-lib show, including Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, and Wayne Brady. Though it did receive a new host, with Drew Carey becoming the new face of the show over Clive Anderson.

Since Whose Line is it Anyway? is a gameshow, it’s not as if there was some whole new take for America to take with the show. Basically America just kept the show running since it caught on in the USA right around the time it was coming to a close in Britain in 1999. Fans of improv comedy can continue to get their fix even today since after a hiatus of several years, the show was brought back in 2013 to continue giving out points that never mattered.


Contestant auditioning in the beginning of American Idol

Next is another import from Britain, and it won’t be the last. American Idol is another show that eventually far exceeded its foreign counterpart, going for fifteen seasons compared to the two Britain’s Pop Idol got. Today, competition shows focused on singing are nothing out of the ordinary, and we’ve seen dozens examples of great voices coming from unusual people. But at the time, both iterations of Idol were must see TV for a lot of people.

American Idol also took more than just its competition formula from the British version, even bringing on Simon Cowell as one of the original judges. For a long time Simon’s biting criticisms were one of the biggest draws of the series, especially in the early episodes where the true talent would be separated from the fame-hungry karaoke singers. Idol has now concluded in both countries, but its influence is still seen with the continuation of shows like The Voice and The X Factor.


Mighty Morphin Power Rangers from the Power Rangers first movie

It seems obvious in retrospect, but as kids many of us never had a clue that the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was anything other than another kids show. Today, just looking at the bright outfits, the over the top martial arts, and the bizarre monsters makes it pretty clear that this wasn’t something a bunch of American writers randomly thought up. That’s because our Power Rangers are actually heavily based on the long-running Japanese show Super Sentai.

We’ve seen shows on this that use the same names as their counterparts, or even bring in people who worked on the foreign version. But the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers is the only show that actually utilized quite a bit of the same footage that was in the original show. Though American actors portrayed the rangers when they were out of costume, once the group transformed or entered their zords, many of the fight scenes were directly taken from Super Sentai. We might think of the Power Rangers as a part of our childhood, especially as the new movie approaches, but we actually have Japan to thank for providing us with our rainbow-colored Saturday morning heroes.


House of Cards pilot episode intro

For better or for worse one thing you can say about American adaptions of other country’s TV series is that we leave no stone unturned in exploring its potential. The British version of House of Cards ran for only four episodes (plus two sequel TV series which each had four episodes), whereas the American adaption has climbed up to fifty-two episodes thus far, with more already guaranteed to come down the line.

While the American version understandably focuses on American politics rather than the Prime Minister and the United Kingdom, the premise is the same, as we follow a scheming and manipulative politician in his ascent to power. After the success of shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, there was obviously a niche for immoral characters on TV, so naturally the American version of House of Cards was a hit. Most noteworthy, though, is it helped propel Netflix into being viewed as a provider of original content.


Steve Carell during a meeting scene from the American version of The Office

This has been a very British heavy list, so it should come as no surprise that the most well-known show also comes from Britain as well. It’s actually pretty impressive that such a short-lived British show wound up being as influential as it was, with the original only running for twelve episodes. But then it’s also far from uncommon for British comedies to wrap up quickly, as any fan of shows like The Young Ones or Fawlty Towers knows.

By comparison, the American version of The Office ran for over two hundred episodes, and some would say overstayed its welcome because of having so many seasons. But one aspect that no fan could be displeased by was Steve Carell assuming the role of office leader that Ricky Gervais played in the original. The often incompetent and socially awkward characters developed a devoted following, and while this is one American remake that didn’t quite get the universal praise the original did, it still got a lot of laughs and strong critical reception for many of its episodes.


Can you think of any other shows big shows in America that started off in another country? Tell us about them in the comments!

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