Translating British TV to America: From Being Human to Skins, here's how it's done
The rush to import TV shows and stars from Britain may feels a new, but everything from CBS' classic All in the Family to ABC's sex comedy Three's Company started as a different show across the pond.
So it’s small surprise this week find two major Brit-to-Yank transplants scheduled for U.S. television today: MTV’s version of the hit teen drama Skins and Syfy’s take on the supernatural drama Being Human (last week, Showtime debuted its translation of the British working class dramedy Shameless and tonight English export Piers Morgan tries saving CNN with a new chat show at 9 p.m.)
Given all that's going on, here’s a few quick rules on How to Turn a U.K. TV hit into a Shot at American Success:
Boost the beauty: One thing about the British television system – it is WAY more willing to make stars out of relatively unattractive people. In other words, the first thing any U.S. production does when it tackles a Brit TV remake, is find better-looking actors to star (a phenomenon spoofed mightily in Showtime’s Episodes, where former Friend Matt LeBlanc is hired to star in the bastardized remake of a British show starring a plump, AARP-ready English stage legend.)
Even MTV’s Skins remake, which cops the jittery verite camera style and look of its gritty BBC predecessor to a T, couldn’t help casting more telegenic teens as its stars, including well-muscled high school senior James Newman as coolly manipulative ringleader Tony (at least most of the cast in this high school drama are still close to their teen years, unlike, say, the twentysomethings stalking the halls of McKinley High in Glee).
Skins (debuting at 10 p.m. Monday on MTV) follows a handful of teen friends through lives drenched with wild parties, casual sex and social drug use. Parents and teachers are insecure blowhards, easily manipulated by smooth-talking Tony as his crew chases down the kind of good times real people twice their age can’t manage.
Boost the production values, but not too much: Skins and Being Human share a new tactic – aping the more basic visual style of their British ancestors, but with important flourishes. Being Human (debuts 9 tonight), Syfy’s remake of a show about a werewolf, vampire and ghost who wind up living together in the same house, benefits from slicker American special effects -- especially when geeky nice guy Josh becomes a vicious beast of the night.
Fans will recognize lots of shards from other supernatural series: vampire hottie Aidan flicks out his fangs just like True Blood’s ghouls and Josh’s transformations look an awful like outtakes from An American Werewolf in London. But the absurdity of a disparate crew of nightmare monsters bunking together remains, making it tough to take this adaptation seriously.
Ditch the dialects, keep the dreary locales: Shameless is set in Chicago, Being Human unfolds in Boston and Skins takes place in some nameless suburb. But like their London counterparts, the sun rarely shines brightly in these shows, which feel like they all could have been filmed around the corner from their English forebears.
It all adds up to an increasingly permeable industry, where stars and shows pass across the pond like they’re crossing a busy highway – we give the Brits Law & Order: U.K., they give us tabloid editor-turned-CNN interviewer Morgan.
Think about that way, and it still seems like we're getting the raw end of the deal.