Peruse a schedule for the five British TV networks any night of the week, and chances are you’ll find two or three American shows in the lineups. Sitcoms like Frasier and Friends and dramas like Ally McBeal and The Sopranos blend seamlessly with home-grown products. (Differing standards of propriety mean that shows whose language or subject matter make them strictly cable fare in the United States—The Sopranos, Sex and the City—can be shown on “regular” television back in Blighty.) On this side of the water, though, British shows tend to be limited to the long-frocks productions of Masterpiece Theatre, the detective books-to-box translations of Mystery!, and the smattering of superannuated Britcoms that round out public television’s broadcast day.
While Brits import the originals, mainstream American programmers license characters and situations from British shows and make their own versions. It’s been going on for years—in the 1970s, All in the Family and Sanford and Son were American translations of the English shows Till Death Us DoPart and Steptoe and Son. The Weakest Link and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire represent a swing in the trans-Atlantic quiz show balance of trade after years of American shows like Family Feud, The Price Is Right, and Hollywood Squares moving eastward with new names and English hosts. The opening night of Showtime’s version of Channel 4’s gay drama Queer as Folk secured the network’s highest-ever rating, and NBC turned the BBC series This Life into its own young lawyer show First Years.
What have we learned from our experiments in cross-cultural TV exchanges? Well, mostly that the British versions are better. To be sure, there’s a reflexive American modesty in the elevation of British imports above domestic products, but you just need to compare American shows with the British originals to see that this isn’t just a matter of being charmed by the accents. So, how can America improve its TV translation skills? Some recommendations for Hollywood to consider:
Throw in more pop-culture references. British dramas acknowledge something you’ll never hear mentioned in an American show: other TV programs. American producers seem reluctant to alienate potential viewers by making cultural references they might not understand or relate to. It comes down to the economics of television in the two countries—a critically acclaimed show with a small niche audience has a good chance of surviving in Britain, so scriptwriters can preach to the choir. Compare two parallel scenes from Queer as Folk: When searching for a name for a newborn, the British characters run through a list of pop-culture figures called Alf; the Americans just wonder if Abraham would be picked on at school.
Hurry up already. In the United States, premium channels invest in shows like Queer as Folk to hook subscribers; people won’t commit to a channel for a four-episode series, so the broadcasters stretch them out. Adding very few original story lines (and cutting others), Showtime turned eight hours of Queer as Folk into 22 hours of television, leaving the story pretty thin, especially after the subscriber-hooking early episodes. The result is a bland TV world that moves too slowly.
Hire ugly actors with bad teeth. This complaint is a classic, but it’s still true: American actors and writers seem reluctant to show weakness or ugliness, even though imperfection is often sexy and sometimes funny. In the British This Life, reluctant lawyer Egg has an offbeat appeal; in the American First Years, the actor just comes off as a gormless idiot who dresses weird. The British Queer as Folk is packed with hilariously unintelligent, unattractive characters who act like fools and wouldn’t know a bon mot if they saw one on television. In the United States, even bit players keep their dignity. Which is funnier? See for yourself in the video below. (Just so you know: The first scene shows two guys making out.) In the first episode of QaF, the narrator goes home with a tricky trick—in the U.S. version the guy is packing a fake butt and a bulge enhancer, but he’s otherwise perfectly presentable; in the original the fellow is coarse and common, with a plastic plate disguising his saggy chest and flabby stomach. While he’s waiting for action, he picks at his bellybutton and smells his armpits. The language is uglier too—prissy BBC America bleeps out so much swearing in its screenings of This Life that I always think my TV sound is faulty.
Ditch the classless society. On American TV shows, every family is prosperous. Class distinctions, on the very rare occasions that they’re made, are always drawn with a fat magic marker. In the original QaF, the 15-year-old love interest is working-class and none too bright; in the U.S. adaptation, he’s a smart, upper-middle-class 17-year-old who draws like a dream. In This Life, gay Warren is a working-class Welshman with complicated family relationships; in First Years he’s a standard TV-issue rich boy with predictable coming-out anxieties. Why does it matter? Because variety, subtlety, and a dash of realism make for good television. Good everything, really.
Clip 5 Personally, I can’t wait to see The Kennedys, CBS’s version of the BBC show The Royle Family. The original is some of the best television you could hope to see: For 30 minutes, a family of common-as-muck, pig-shit-thick, ill-kempt shirkers sit in on the couch, smoking, swearing, and eating junk food in front of the box—things that lots of Americans do, just not on television. To see what American TV should aspire to, watch the video (complete with salty language) at the beginning of this paragraph.