TV Column – Are US remakes of UK shows ever better?

As the US version of Camping lands, we look at why American remakes struggle to outdo the originals

Remakes suck. At least, that’s the impression you get from the clamour that greets the announcement of every redo, rehash and reimagining of something that people liked just fine the first time around. But the one kind of remake that’s guaranteed to really raise the hackles is when those fellas across the pond decide to have a crack at Americanising something British. How very dare they?! Don’t they know that it’s the very Britishness of X that makes it so wonderful? Why X without the British humour isn’t even X anymore! Cads, bounders, charlatans, the lot of them.

The cast of the UK version of Camping

I’m not British, so I don’t feel like I have a horse in this race. I’m Irish and nobody tries to remake Irish TV, except for when England stole Zig and Zag and ruined them, but that’s a whole bundle of childhood trauma that I can’t face unpacking just yet. What’s resoundingly obvious from an outside-ish perspective is that when US versions of UK shows appear, the vibe on this side of the Atlantic isn’t a positive one. So, as Julia Davis and Vicki Pepperdine’s wonderful Camping resurfaces on HBO as Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s Camping, it prompted further examination into the phenomenon. Are US remakes really that bad or is the whole thing skewed by cultural possessiveness?

Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson in the US version of The Office

I was quite prepared to bust this one apart. There must be so many US remakes that are great, I thought. But the further you delve into it, the more the general consensus is strengthened. Of course, there’s The Office, remade in the US under the same name but with Steve Carrell, John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer replacing Ricky Gervais, Mackenzie Crook and Lucy Davis. Despite retaining the same premise (buffoonish boss of a small company makes life hell for his employees) and a similar brand of cringe comedy, the two ended up as very different shows. The American version softens its lead character (here Michael Scott, instead of David Brent) and the general tone, which actually causes it to be a little less effective and raises questions, in particular: is racist, misogynistic, homophobic Michael Scott really the kind of man we should be rooting for? We’re never left in any doubt about the answer to that question where David Brent is concerned. The US version ran and ran and ran and was immensely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, but you’d struggle to call it definitively ‘better’.

Olivia Colman and David Tennant in Broadchurch

House Of Cards and Shameless both went on to experience similar longevity and success in America without really exceeding their predecessors, despite starry casts and higher production values. Somewhat ironically, Broadchurch’s American remake Gracepoint – which kept David Tennant and director James Strong but replaced Olivia Colman with Anna Gunn – proved less popular in America than the British original was. Over the decades, there have been many that vanished much more quickly, like the ill-fated attempts to translate Skins, Coupling and The Inbetweeners and the three different-yet-equally-catastrophic attempts to recapture the Fawlty Towers magic.

The immensely funny Julia Davis in Camping

Which brings us back to Camping, the hysterically funny show from Julia Davis and Vicki Pepperdine, possibly the most underrated comedy duo in the UK. Anyone who has heard their deeply inappropriate podcast Dear Joan And Jericha will know exactly what I mean. But Jenni Konner and Lena Dunham are no slouches either, so why is their remake so inferior to the original? Is there some magic formula that British shows have and Americans can’t recapture? The short answer is “no”. There’s definitely a subtlety in the writing and affection for the characters in the UK Camping that is noticeably absent from Konner and Dunham’s version, but that criticism can’t be applied to every show remade across the pond.

The inimitable Fawlty Towers

Part of the reason why US remakes aren’t ever better than the originals comes down to the fact that there’s little stopping US audiences from getting on board with a British show. The humour in Fawlty Towers and the airs and graces of Downton Abbey didn’t put off American audiences, hence why remakes didn’t work or weren’t even considered. A lot of the time, a US remake is undertaken to broaden the appeal of a show or to create syndication opportunities, and that’s where the problems start. Once you take a commercial axe to something that already works, the results are rarely good.

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