In Showtime’s Episodes, British TV writing team (and married couple) Bev and Sean Lincoln (Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan) are flown to Hollywood to advise on the American remake of their hit TV series. Unfortunately, when they arrive, the show is retooled, turning a Richard Griffiths headmaster into a Matt LeBlanc hockey coach. Not only are Bev and Sean mortified, they have to keep working on the show because it picks up steam. To celebrate Episodes‘ fifth birthday today, let’s take a look at five American remakes of British TV and film and how they went horribly wrong.
Life on Mars
One year after the two-season cop drama Life on Mars ended in the U.K., American television channel ABC aired an American remake with Irish star Jason O’Mara doing an American accent. O’Mara was not a bad replacement for John Simm as the emotionally distraught time traveling detective Sam Tyler, and he even got to use his real accent in an episode where he goes under cover with an Irish gang. However, the real appeal of the original show was not Tyler and his psychological fluctuation in and out of 1972 but the dynamic between Tyler and his boss DCI Gene Hunt. Life on Mars is at its heart a warped Starsky & Hutch buddy flick. The American version botched this dynamic by casting Harvey Keitel, who is 33 years older than O’Mara. Instead of Gene Hunt being the unreliable, un-asked-for best friend, he’s more like an abusive father figure. He’s also a little too New York gangster.
*Spoilers for the American finale ahead. Don’t worry, you wouldn’t want to have seen it anyway.*
To be fair, the U.K. season 1 was always about Sam Tyler’s daddy issues, but the American version eradicates any subtly the U.K. version ever had in the finale. While the U.K. version never really tells you what’s going on until the sequel series, the American finale shows Sam Tyler wasn’t mad, in a coma, or back in time. He was on a spaceship in stasis. Turns out, like the Wizard of Oz (a theme from the original show), all of his space crew-mates became cops in this elaborate 1972-style dream. Most notably, the ship’s captain (Harvey Keitel) is also Sam’s father. His name is Major Tom. Yes, the original show is based on lyrics to David Bowie songs, but it is subtle. It is not punny. What’s more, the spaceship is going to Mars to look for signs of life (genes). They are looking for life on mars. They are going on a gene hunt. Yeah.
There was also a pilot version of this show, which took place in L.A. with a slightly different cast. Instead of the grittiness of New York, which matched the grittiness of Manchester, this version was super slick, brightly lit, everyone was well dressed in shiny leather and stereotypical 70s clothes. At least we didn’t have to sit through that version!
The American remake of Red Dwarf didn’t even last one season. It couldn’t get beyond the pilot episode, and believe me, they tried twice (the biggest difference between the two pilots is that in one of them, Cat is female). While Lister (Craig Bierko) and Cat (Hinton Battle) aren’t bad, there is something that skeeves you out about seeing other people walk the halls of the Red Dwarf. Even Bierko says that casting him was a big mistake. He acknowledges that the original is brilliant and “boy did America crap on it.” Rimmer is a complex character, one I wonder if anyone but Chris Barrie can play so well. Chris Eigeman plays one layer of Rimmer, and plays it well, but it is, alas, only the surface of the man. Probably the weirdest aspect of the remake is that Robert Llewellyn, who plays Kryten in the original, is playing Kryten in the remake, and he plays it exactly the same. But, since Kryten isn’t in the first season of the original show, the character is wedged into the plot, which is otherwise more or less the same.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Where do we start with this shambles? The original author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (H2G2) radio scripts, book, and TV show, Douglas Adams, is credited as a co-writer of the Disney film script, but Adams passed away four years before the movie came out, so who knows what sort of overhaul the script got after his passing. As a Disney film with a dramatic plot, evil villain, love story, and happy ending, the film succeeds. As a member of the H2G2 franchise, it falls flat on its face.
What about casting? How do you get such a superb cast and screw it up? I love Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, and Alan Rickman, but they were cast wrong and written wrong. After they get off Earth, they all but write Ford Prefect out of the script, they infuse the story with a made-up love story that never used to be there, and invent a super villain played by John Malchovich, which undermine’s Adam’s point that bureaucracy is our greatest threat. The Vogons are the celestial version of the planning committee trying to knock Dent’s house down. Even the missiles launched from Magrathea are a “courtesy” launched automatically for bureaucratic reasons. There’s no need for a man with metal spider legs to steal Zaphod’s second head on a quest for universal domination, even if it is just political. You can read my full review here.
The I.T. Crowd
Like Robert Llewllyn joining the American Red Dwarf without telling the rest of the cast, Richard Ayoade secretly joined the cast of the American The I.T. Crowd. Creator of the original sitcom, Graham Linehan, didn’t find out that it was being created until it was already in the process. Linehan stated: “I was looking at the internet and I saw a news story saying, ‘The IT Crowd starts filming in 2 weeks’ or something like that. I had to phone Richard and say, ‘Is this true?’ They didn’t have any interest in speaking to me or getting my opinion on it.” This 2007 pilot was nearly shot-for-shot the same show. They even re-created the mistakes from the original. In RHLSTP, Linehan says of remakes, “Everyone thinks America’s great. Everyone in America thinks we’re great. It’s ridiculous.” Luckily, it never came to a full season.
These days, Linehan is working with NBC on a sanctioned pilot, and he insists that it should not be shot-for-shot the same show in the same way that the American The Office was not the same show.
The Thick of It
Although the creator of the political satire The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci, did help produce the ABC remake, he was relieved that the pilot was immediately rejected for commission. There are a number of things that make the original show unique: The wobbly camera style, the improvisation, and the swearing. In fact, if The Thick of It is known for one thing, it’s the language. The character Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) is immortalized in British consciousness for his obscenities (“Come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off!”). The ABC version was shot in a standard way, without improvisation, and most appallingly, without swears.
Like Cat in Red Dwarf, Ollie Reeder was re-cast as a woman. With Cat, it was no bid deal. The character isn’t even human, so there’s no risk of romantic feelings among the male-dominated cast. But Ollie represents a large population of the people who work in government–the young, eager men who get to play with the big dogs and therefore think they’re one of them. These characters, as we learn from the finale, often wind up evil like Malcolm Tucker. Removing that type of character from the office atmosphere warps the reality of politics so vastly that it’s no longer a satire, just an ill-researched hack job.