When NBC announced plans to develop its own version of "The Office," fans of the acidic Britcom moaned. They're going to make the boss nicer...
When NBC announced plans to develop its own version of “The Office,” fans of the acidic Britcom moaned.
They’re going to make the boss nicer, the fans griped. People are going to start hugging each other. The office won’t be nearly as depressing. It’s going to be awful.
As things turned out, the boss is nicer (although barely), characters on the show do hug from time to time (though not always sincerely), and the workplace is (marginally) less depressing than the one depicted on the British original.
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Oh, and it’s also the reigning Emmy winner for best comedy and loved by most worshippers of the original — some of whom have gone so far as to suggest that the remake is better.
After a couple of decades when American television remakes of foreign hits were doomed to failure — including two different versions of “Fawlty Towers,” “Men Behaving Badly,” “Cracker” and, perhaps most notoriously, “Coupling” — we’re in the middle of a multicultural TV renaissance.
“The Office” is the best comedy on television. “Ugly Betty” (originally from Colombia) is one of this season’s biggest hits. The signature reality shows on all four networks come from other countries: “American Idol” (England) on Fox, “Dancing With the Stars” (England) on ABC, “Deal or No Deal” (Netherlands) on NBC and “Survivor” (Sweden) on CBS.
Meanwhile, the networks’ development slates for next season read like the listings for BBC America, with new versions of “Footballer$’ Wives,” “Life on Mars,” “Viva Blackpool,” “Murder Prevention Unit” and more in the works.
What happened over the past few years to make our airwaves friendlier to foreign concepts? How did we stop losing key elements in the translation?
To understand that, we have to go all the way back to the early ’70s, the first golden age of trans-Atlantic TV remakes.
The biggest sitcom of the decade was “All in the Family,” about a conservative blue-collar bigot constantly getting into ideological shouting matches with his liberal son-in-law. The show was based on a hit Britcom called “Till Death Do Us Part” — or, rather, it was based on the idea behind it. Lear never saw an episode of “Till Death” until long after “All in the Family” had become a hit. He just liked the idea of a father and son who disagreed politically, since it mirrored his relationship with his own father.
“Sanford and Son,” another Lear-produced hit of the era, also bore only a passing resemblance to its source material, England’s “Steptoe and Son.” With both, Lear took a one- or two-line description, then shaped it around the personalities of leading men Carroll O’Connor (“All in the Family”) and Redd Foxx (“Sanford and Son”).
Other remakes quickly followed, but with the exception of “Three’s Company” (a fairly faithful adaptation of “Man About the House”), none of them made a splash. Some were so far removed from the source material as to be pointless, like “Amanda’s,” a version of “Fawlty Towers” that eliminated the original main character altogether.
Others were so blindly faithful that there was no way they could work. “Coupling” is the classic example. The British original, about the sexual misadventures of six friends, was a tightly constructed farce, with each episode meticulously setting up a series of jokes for a big pay-off in the closing minutes. But it aired without commercials, with each episode running eight or nine minutes longer than an average American comedy. So the decision to have the NBC remake start off using all the British scripts was a fatal error; with so much essential material chopped out, the jokes didn’t work.
Despite a ton of hype and a plum time slot after “Will & Grace” back in that show’s heyday, “Coupling” was canceled after only four episodes had aired. The fourth episode was the only one to feature an original script; not surprisingly, it was the funniest.
It was produced by Ben Silverman. His production company, Reveille, is at the forefront of the international acquisitions, producing not only “The Office” and “Ugly Betty,” but a host of other network and cable shows.
The pilot episode of the American “Office” was a fairly straight rewrite of the British premiere, a decision born out of haste but also because the actors had auditioned with pages from the original script.
But American and British audiences have slightly different sensibilities, and the bleak worldview presented in that pilot episode — which climaxes, in both versions, with the obnoxious boss pretending to fire Pam the receptionist as a practical joke gone horribly awry — wouldn’t fly here. So in short order, Silverman, writer/producer Greg Daniels and the rest of the American team started shaping the material to fit both their actors and their audience.
Where Ricky Gervais’ David Brent in the original was a sweaty, incompetent clod, Steve Carell’s Michael Scott is presented as a pathetically lonely man who wants everyone to be his friend. It doesn’t make him easier to work for, but it does make us — and, on occasion, the other characters — understand his behavior.
In the second-season premiere, Michael dragged the entire staff to Chili’s for his unbearable annual tradition of “The Dundies,” a gag award show. Everyone complained about having to sit through Michael’s lame, borderline-offensive jokes, but when a bunch of drunks at the bar began to heckle and shame him, the staff rose to his defense — a feel-good moment that never would have happened on the British show but didn’t feel false here.
By the same token, the writers occasionally show Michael to be a great salesman, which helps explain his continued employment on a show that could run for 100 episodes or more, compared to the 12 episodes and a reunion special that the original produced.
Daniels also beefed up the unrequited love story between Pam (Jenna Fischer) and salesman Jim (John Krasinski). What had been a minor element of the original became a continuing hook here, and the non-couple’s attempt to make the workday more bearable with pranks and other time-killers (Office Olympics, impressions of co-workers) makes Dunder-Mifflin a less depressing place to visit than the original’s Wernham-Hogg.
The American show now airs in England under the name “The Office: An American Workplace,” and has won over even the most jingoistic critics.
Similarly, “Ugly Betty” is only loosely based on Colombia’s “Yo soy Betty, la fea,” or any of the other versions that have been produced in Germany, Spain, Russia and elsewhere around the world.
Where the original is a classic telenovela — a soap opera that airs five nights a week, with deliberately campy plots, characters and dialogue — “Ugly Betty” is more in the tradition of “Ally McBeal” or “Gilmore Girls,” a weekly blending of comedy, drama and soap operatics that tries to keep one foot planted in the real world at all times.
As with “The Office,” the trick with “Ugly Betty” was to take a novel concept — an abrasive boss whose ego is fed by the presence of a documentary camera crew, a smart but plain woman trying to survive in the superficial world of fashion — find the right star (as Betty, America Ferrera is a huge part of the appeal), then change or throw out anything that might not work within our borders.
“We have to ground it in such a reality, with specificity,” says Silverman, who points to the ratings struggles of MyNetwork TV, a new collection of English-language telenovelas that began airing on former UPN and WB affiliates this fall. “I think you’re seeing with MyNetwork that if we had just done it as a straight telenovela, it wouldn’t have worked. It wasn’t that I wanted to redo a telenovela. I just liked that specific show.”