Why Do US Remakes Fail So Often?

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More and more, networks in the US are buying up the rights to foreign TV shows then renovating them for the domestic market. Wooed by high ratings and critical acclaim in the programme’s homeland (usually the UK), American buyers can’t get their chequebooks out fast enough.

But the resulting remake is not always successful. For every The Office or The Killing, there are dusty cupboards in basements filled with flops--from Absolutely Fabulous and Coupling, to vintage pieces like a dismal Young Ones pilot and multiple Fawlty Towers hatchet jobs. Recently, these losers got a new shelf-mate: MTV’s Skins. Despite being damped down for the more squeamish American market, the show about miscreant teens quickly lost ratings and sponsors. With predicable brutality, it was cancelled after a single season.

Why do so few remakes work? With Coupling, like Skins, it came down to the sanitisation. Leaving in British idiosyncrasy and dirty jokes might not guarantee success, but scrubbing them out is a great way to turn audiences off.

Sometimes, the problem isn’t so much that these remakes are outright disasters, but that they’re mimicking something that cannot be improved upon. When you’ve devoted the best part of decade to laughing at David Threlfalls’ adorably inept Frank Gallagher, it’s hard to feel that same heightened affection when William H Macy falls down drunk. The loyalty an audience feels towards original version of shows like Shameless means that any revamp--good or bad--will struggle to find a fan base.

In the US, viewers (few of whom will have seen the original) don’t have to battle with infidelity guilt. They'll lap it up or scoff based purely on whether they like the show. A dodgy pilot will bomb, regardless of whether it’s a remake or a fresh concept.

Over here, the remakes that thrive are the ones that bring their own sophisticated spin. The Office: An American Workplace might have started life as a literal remake but it soon found its own rhythm and the humour was gentler than the Gervais/Merchant original. Viewers who found David Brent hard work often got on better with Steve Carell’s Michael Scott. The show was--and still is--independently hilarious.

More recently, The Killing US angered American viewers by refusing to wrap things up after one 13-episode series. But as remakes go, it's fabulous. While the clever producers have opted to replicate the Danish version’s brooding, sludgy feel, they’ve also hinted at an entirely different outcome. This way they'll recruit new viewers at home, plus millions - intrigued by the idea of an alternative ending – who watched the original.

So the US teams charged with remaking other British shows--from Sirens and Free Agents to Misfits and Prime Suspect--will need to think carefully about what to tweak and what to leave alone. And even if Americans are happy with the results, convincing cynical Brits that Maria Bello is the new Helen Mirren won’t be easy.

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