The most amazing thing about the fall TV season is the proliferation of British (or in one case, Aussie) remakes: ABC's Life on Mars, CBS's Worst Week, and NBC's Kath & Kim. We'll size up the odds of where these may fit on the hit-or-flop-ometer in a minute, but first, a quickie history of how TV got so veddy, veddy British.
It's not because Norman Lear nicked the notions for All in the Family and Sanford and Son from Brit series four decades ago, even though journalists often say so. The real catalyst for today's Anglophilic slate was young Hollywood agent Ben Silverman, hailed in a heroic New York Times profile. It was Silverman who visited Britain in the mid-'90s and thought one of their hits might be a hit here. His first try, the detective show Cracker, flopped. So did Coupling, a Friends-like sex farce.
But imports like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and The Weakest Link proved some transplants could take. The problem was, they tended to bloom and wilt fast, as the high concept got exhausted. What was needed was a show that could start slow, like All in the Family, which floundered for a whole season, and then put down lasting roots that wrapped tender tendrils around American hearts and would not let go.
Silverman got that kind of hit with The Office. Boy, did it start slow: it was reportedly the lowest-testing pilot in then-recent NBC memory. Reportedly, Paul Giamatti turned down the lead role and Martin Short got turned down. Giamatti was too hot, Short too cold. Steve Carell, of course, was just right. His sweaty, clumsy neediness fit American audiences better than Ricky Gervais's more pause-based, English embarrassment-based take on the boss character did.
The Office might have died a cult hero's death if not for Carell's out-of-the-blue success with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but the point is, America was ready for his style of comedy on any screen, big or small.
So why did The Office eventually soar, while Coupling died horribly in four episodes? The latter was more literally based on the original scripts, trimmed a few crucial minutes to fit in U.S. commercials. More fatally, NBC installed hammy actors and tried to pump up and Americanize the gags. Chicago Tribune critic Steve Johnson called it "the Sitcom Genericizer, a small, well-guarded device rumored to resemble a Xerox machine. Its ability to turn fresh, wry and surprising into familiar, simple, and obvious is treasured by every American network."
Coupling creator Steven Moffat blamed it all on NBC, but that's not quite fair. The original show was insufficiently original, essentially American, an attempt to turn his own sexual history into a string of Seinfeld catchphrases (like "unflushables" for pesky exes-"They just keep bobbing to the surface"). Gervais based The Office on better American models: The Simpsons, Spinal Tap, The Larry Sanders Show.
And, bottom line: the time was ripe for Gervais's sensibility channeled through Carell. Is the time now ripe for the new Brit imports? It might be. After an impasse with the original David E. Kelley pilot, ABC has fascinatingly cast Harvey Keitel in his first TV star vehicle as the hero of Life On Mars, about a cop who time-trips back to 1973 to treat criminals to a two-fisted cure. This isn't just stunt casting. Keitel is the baddest guy this side of Christopher Walken, and he'd no doubt crave a similar comeback. He's the original Bad Lieutenant, and this show is perfect for him.
The British series' dialogue will have to change. When Detective Gene Hunt pushes a bad guy's head through a wall, he can't lament "What happened to British craftsmanship?" and his colleagues can't say, "Steady, Guv, we don't want another of those enquiries." Keitel, who proudly showed me his new issue of Marine Magazine when I visited his apartment, is just the man to say it right for New York in the '70s. Likewise Michael Imperioli, Chrissie on The Sopranos, as Keitel's ass-kicking sidekick. And though I hail Kelley (my coauthor on the Ally McBeal book), it's probably smart to switch the setting from LA to New York.
My only caveats: the bad-cop role that made Kiefer Sutherland a hero of the post-9/11 era (actually exerting real influence on the real politicians who devised our national policy, frightentingly enough) is now feeling a little passe and our national mood shifts to more domestic terrors, like losing one's house, job, and future. Are we as up for a bad cop as we were?
Also, probably thinking of X-Files, ABC plans to devote much energy to elaborating the mythology of the show-how it was that Gene Hunt wound up in 1973. This strikes me as ominously unpromising. He's there, he's got 1973 bad guys on the run, what more do we need or want to know?
CBS's Worst Week (based on Britain's The Worst Week of My Life) could leap the pond adroitly, since it's about the universal predicament of an imminent wedding. In England, the groom-to-be kayoes his best man, inadvertently manhandles his in-laws, and tosses their pooch into a cement mixer. In America, he pees on the roast turkey. I just don't know how to rule on the prospects of the show until I see it. Will it come off as a tenth-generation Xerox sequel of Meet the Parents? Will we miss the subtlety of the Mike Leigh indie-film veterans of the British version? I'll have to tune in and see.
The new import with the biggest buzz isn't British, but Australian: Kath & Kim, an Absolutely Fabulous-like comedy about a 40ish mother and 20ish daughter who mangle the language and commit every fashion sin known to woman. The original broke Aussie records and beat Desperate Housewives. It might have done the same here had NBC replaced the original cast with the women recommended by the Australian actresses for their roles: Hillary Clinton and Paris Hilton.
And maybe it'll be a hit Stateside, too, making NBC "effluent" (as the original Kath and Kim yearn to be, not knowing the word is "affluent"). I'm willing to place a modest bet on it, but if it flops, I'll bet the culprit will be what Time Magazine's James Poniewozik calls the " Homogenomatic 3000," the Hollywood tendency to tone down gags and smoothen rough patches that give shows their personality. Australian audiences like way more raunch in their humor, and Americans might want more, if only Hollywood would dare to give it to them. Kath and Kim's excellent American adventure is another Ben Silverman enterprise. Here's hoping it's another The Office, not another Coupling.