Critic's NotesTV Taps the Foreign Idea Factory
By Mike Hale, The New York Times
- Apr. 1, 2013
Ideas may not fall out of trees, but they do come in the mail from Sydney and Tel Aviv. Of the 100 or so pilot episodes being shot as candidates for the broadcast television networks’ fall lineups, at least a dozen are based on shows from Argentina, Australia, Britain or Israel.
Copying foreign TV shows is nothing new. But back when “All in the Family” and “Three’s Company” were hits in the United States, there was no way to see their British models, “Till Death Us Do Part” and “Man About the House,” short of getting your hands on a bootlegged videotape.
That has changed, though not completely. Amazon and the Internet don’t have everything, at least not legally or with the correct regional DVD encoding. You can, however, watch both “Homeland” and its Israeli inspiration, “Prisoners of War,” or both the American and British versions of “The Office” or “Shameless.”
And with a little planning you can see foreign originals before American copies are made, expanding your cultural horizons and increasing your water-cooler credibility. Here are five shows being remade for American audiences that can be seen easily online or on DVD. Check them out and, when their remakes aren’t picked up by the networks, you can be the first to say, “I knew that would never work here.”‘GAVIN & STACEY’ (BBC, 2007-10) = ‘FRIENDS AND FAMILY’ (FOX)
This sweet, funny, slightly cloying British comedy traces the ups and downs of the title characters’ relationship, from online to long-distance to uneasily married, getting comic mileage from the contrast between Gavin’s English suburban environs and attitudes and Stacey’s seedy surroundings on the Welsh seaside.
The central relationship (Mathew Horne and Joanna Page) could be more irritating than interesting, but the series offers an assortment of hilarious supporting performances to rival the variety of a Cadbury Milk Tray: Alison Steadman as Gavin’s overbearing mother, Rob Brydon as Stacey’s high-strung but loving Uncle Bryn and the show’s creators and writers, James Corden and Ruth Jones, as Gavin and Stacey’s best friends, Smithy and Nessa, larger than life in every way. Mr. Corden, demonstrating long before the play “One Man, Two Guvnors” that he is not just a comedian but a great comic actor, is sufficient reason to watch the show.
It seems like a good guess that the American version will swing the focus away from Smithy and Nessa, played by Dustin Ybarra and Ashlie Atkinson, and toward Gavin and Stacey, played by the more familiar Jason Ritter (“Parenthood,” “The Event”) and Alexis Bledel (“Mad Men,” “Gilmore Girls”). Jane Kaczmarek and Kurt Fuller are likely to be funny as Gavin’s parents, but their casting also indicates that the pilot’s tone may be more American sitcom-standard and less like the poignant (if sometimes prosaic) realism of the original.‘PULLING’ (BBC, 2006-9) = ‘PULLING’ (ABC)
This show, at least in its early episodes, still feels like the one that a lot of American comedies want to be. Featuring three unrepentantly randy women, it’s brutally frank about sex, booze and lowered expectations while also being smart and raucously funny. Donna, the central character played by the Irish comedian Sharon Horgan (who created and wrote the show with Dennis Kelly), leaves her lumpen fiancé on their wedding day and spends the rest of the series torturing him with her indecision. She’s a working-class cross of Jennifer Saunders’s Edina from “Absolutely Fabulous” and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Elaine from “Seinfeld” with the shallowness and narcissism ratcheted up in ways that feel both more real and more absurd.
The one flaw in the six-episode first season of “Pulling” is a reverse on the “Gavin & Stacey” situation: where Mr. Corden and Ms. Jones were better performers than writers, Ms. Horgan was a much better writer than performer. While technically adept, she didn’t transmit much of a personality. It’s not fatal, though, because Rebekah Staton and Tanya Franks are so good as Donna’s roommates, the blissfully delusional airhead Louise and the angry, degenerate drunk Karen. (Many of the show’s 13 episodes begin with one of the women waking up and slowly discovering who or what is in bed with her.)
The American pilot has received a lot of advance applause for casting Kristen Schaal and Jenny Slate in those roles, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll be any better. (June Diane Raphael of “NTSF:SD:SUV” will play Donna.) The real question is whether the writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (both of the American “Office”) can retain any of the original’s hair-raising, wildly gross sense of humor or any of its occasionally heartfelt turning-30 melancholia.‘RAKE’ (AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION, 2010-PRESENT) = ‘RAKE’ (FOX)
Richard Roxburgh, the well-known movie character actor (“Moulin Rouge,” “Van Helsing”), stars in this mix of legal drama, black comedy and social satire. He plays Cleaver Greene, a poetry-spouting lawyer who lives in the red-light district of Sydney, Australia; is in love with a prostitute; and goes to the cafe downstairs in his bathrobe to get his morning coffee. Cleaver resembles a lot of antiheroes on American premium cable, but this Australian model is more low key, and his conniving and self-righteousness have an amusing edge of resignation.
While Cleaver tries to avoid certain bookies and sabotage his favorite hooker’s budding relationship with a prosecutor, he takes on weekly cases that involve typical TV-lawyer tilting at windmills — in the early episodes he defends a self-confessed cannibal and a proud bigamist — but that thankfully emphasize humor over melodrama.
“Rake” could be translated to an American milieu, even on a broadcast network, without too radical an overhaul, and it’s promising that Peter Duncan, a creator of the original, is working on the pilot with the talented writer Peter Tolan (“Rescue Me”), and that Sam Raimi will be the director. Even more promising: the protagonist, now called Keegan Joye, will be played by one of America’s most gifted portrayers of kindhearted sleazeballs, Greg Kinnear.‘SECOND SIGHT’ (BBC, 1999-2000) = ‘SECOND SIGHT’ (CBS)
A series of four feature-length stories, “Second Sight” takes a staple premise of the modern British crime drama — arrogant male detective paired with young, headstrong female subordinate — and plays a clever, if literal-minded, game with it. Detective Chief Inspector Ross Tanner, a left-brainer with an attachment to hard, visible evidence, develops a rare eye disease, forcing him to turn to the more instinctual, psychological, stereotypically feminine methods embodied in the first episode by an attractive young detective who sees Tanner’s infirmity as a chance to advance her own career.
Beyond that premise there isn’t anything distinctive about the writing or plotting in “Second Sight,” and the three-hour opening story is slowed to a crawl by discussions of Tanner’s condition and headache-inducing shots from his point of view. There’s no reason to think that Michael Cuesta (“Homeland”) can’t come up with something better for the American pilot. What’s less likely is that Jason Lee will be as charismatic or as fun to watch as the original Tanner: Clive Owen, who appeared in “Second Sight” around the same time that the movie “Croupier” was making him a star in the United States.‘SPY’ (SKY, 2011-12) = ‘SPY’ (ABC)
Darren Boyd won Bafta and British Comedy best-acting awards for playing the hapless father accidentally turned MI5 agent in this sitcom, which exhibits a common British quality: the ability to do dark, absurdist humor with an air of realism and characters who are recognizably human and occasionally sympathetic. It’s something we rarely get from American broadcast TV, and when we do, as in ABC’s recently canceled “Don’t Trust the B — — in Apartment 23,” we don’t watch it.
The show’s humor flows from the sheer terror Mr. Boyd’s Tim feels in the presence of his 9-year-old son, Marcus (Jude Wright), a combination Einstein and 007 with the blond, bland good looks of the alien children in “Village of the Damned.” Mr. Boyd and Mr. Wright have a nice chemistry in the original; it will be up to Rob Corddry and Mason Cook (the young Burt in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”) to recapture it for the American pilot.Going Global
Some foreign shows being made as American television pilots are available on DVD and online:‘GAVIN & STACEY’ Amazon, iTunes, Netflix (Season 1); BBC, six DVDs, $79.98.
‘PULLING’ Amazon (Season 1), Hulu, iTunes; MPI, one DVD, $24.98, Season 1; one DVD, $24.98, Season 2.
‘RAKE’ BFS Entertainment, three DVDs, $39.98, Season 1.
‘SECOND SIGHT’ BFS Entertainment, five DVDs, $44.98.
‘SPY’ Hulu; BFS Entertainment, two DVDs, $29.98.http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/01/arts/television/new-american-versions-of-foreign-tv-shows-are-in-the-works.html?ref=television