MTV's The Inbetweeners Review: An Americanization We Can Get Behind

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The Inbetweeners S01E01: "First Day"

Among the different forms of the remake—reboots, revivals, reimaginings—surely one of the least respectable is the Americanization. It implies (or worse, confirms) some embarrassing notions about Americans, in particular the fact that we have no tolerance for foreign-made entertainment. Which isn't true! Except it kind of is true, isn't it? I mean, you and I enjoy subtitled cinema or the consistently solid offerings of BBC America, but let's be real: We're the exceptions in our population. Seriously, the number of people I know who still haven't seen the original version of The Office is staggering and I know smart people! But as much as we aren't particularly proud of this trend to remake foreign shows in our own image, let's admit something right now: Some Americanizations are terrific. The Office. Shameless. In Treatment. Ugly Betty (arguably). Queer As Folk (maybe). See what I'm saying? They're not ALL disasters like Coupling or Kath & Kim. So, among the different forms of the remake, a new subgenre must be acknowledged: the Surprisingly Good Americanization. MTV's new version of The Inbetweeners is one of them.

For the uninitiated, The Inbetweeners follows four teenage guys—neither popular nor outcasts—who tend to create as much turmoil for themselves as humanly possible. Whether it's buying alcohol, wooing the girl next door, or finally scoring their own set of wheels, these guys manage to take normal teenage rites of passage and turn them into scenarios of nuclear awkwardness. Although this American remake has borrowed many of the original elements—premise, character names, and even some jokes verbatim—it's also been imbued with a dramatically different tone. Where the U.K. version was slightly drab and gritty, MTV's version is clean, attractive, and heightened in the more stylized interpretation of high school as MTV's other surprisingly good teen comedy, Awkward. The Inbetweeners definitely fits right in here.

Much like the U.K. opener, MTV's pilot episode introduces us to Will, a snobby kid forced to transfer from a prep school to a public school after his parents' divorce. After falling in with a group of three misfits almost by default, they quickly form an alliance bound mostly by a shared affinity for bad decision-making. Joined by spacey Neil, neurotic Simon, and loud-mouthed Jay, Will suddenly finds himself playing hooky and scoring booze by Day 2. At this point the American pilot departs from the British original by segueing into a scenario that came later in the original series: Simon drunkenly confronting his crush at her house, only to have one of the most casually alarming projectile vomiting scenes ever broadcast on TV. (For my money this gag is even funnier in the American version.) Although The Inbetweeners traffics in some of the most juvenile basic cable humor since Workaholics, Will's insightful voiceover and the show's surprisingly heartfelt tone bring a decidedly Freaks & Geeks vibe to the proceedings. Basically these kids are eff-ups, but they're nearly impossible not to root for.

Among the more obvious changes between the U.K. series and this one is how much more attractive MTV's locations and characters are. There's no getting around this fact: Most of these kids are lookers. But their appeal extends beyond that; executive producer Brad Copeland (Arrested Development) has reconceived these characters to be much, much more likeable than their original counterparts. The British version of Will was borderline loathsome, but here he's a well-meaning kid just happy to be included. It's actually impressive how little these characters resemble their original inspirations (a major reason why fans of the original may still enjoy this version on its own merits) without changing the fundamental premise. As it turns out, there were plenty of us in high school who weren't necessarily outcasts. Just underconfident, overlooked, and bored.

But as much as The Inbetweeners' premise might seem universal to both British and American audiences, it turns out that coming-of-age stories perhaps DO benefit from localized interpretations. Being a teenager is all about the frustrating minutiae of everyday life, and so the more recognizable and relatable those details are, the more effective a story can be. For example, a major part of the British pilot involved high school students hanging out at a pub and entailed carvery-related drinking loopholes. Funny? Sure. Relatable? No. The replacement scenes in MTV's version—trying to buy booze with a fake ID and then attempting to drink straight vodka in an open field—were sliiiightly closer to things I actually exerienced. And while not all entertainment needs to share the same points of reference with all its viewers, MTV's The Inbetweeners suggests that maybe it's necessary for shows about teenagers. Maybe this particular genre should get a pass when it comes to Americanizations? Whoops, I just remembered MTV's Skins. Okay, I guess that was a disaster. But I will say this: I connected with this interpretation of The Inbetweeners almost instantly, whereas for the original I had more of an academic appreciation.

Most of the credit for this version's likeability goes to the snappy yet somehow laid-back, offbeat absurdism that Copeland brings to the table, but also the subtly stylish direction from Taika Waititi, director of New Zealand indie Eagle vs. Shark and a handful of episodes of Flight of the Conchords. Also, whoever oversaw casting deserves a raise and maybe a nice fruit basket. As Jay, Zack Pearlman is singularly funny and reminded me of a more excitable, less condescending Jonah Hill. And I can't say enough nice things about the improbably named Bubba Lewis, whose Simon walks an impressive balance between flailing neuroses and everyman romantic hero. And in a performance so departed from the original that it may as well sum up the whole remake, hilarious weirdo Brett Gelman (Eagleheart, NBC's brand-new Go On) plays Mr. Gilbert, who was a total dick in the original, but is now a possibly insane yet mellow sweetheart. So, funnier AND more likeable.

The Inbetweeners is not going to change anybody's lives in the same way that Freaks & Geeks or Teen Wolf might have (haha, just wanted to mention Teen Wolf somehow), and so my praise could definitely stand to be taken with a grain of salt. But if you like off-the-wall teen hijinks with a measured dose of heart, maybe give this version a shot? The 2008 U.K. original is a widely liked show that will continue to exist and be liked in the future; this new one will not replace it. But as the number of quality Americanizations increases (and let's be real, this Americanization trend isn't going anywhere), it might be time to accept that these things can work out pretty well. MTV's The Inbetweeners sure has.


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