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British TV hits 'Skins', 'Shameless' and 'Being Human' get a makeover for American audiences

The rush to import TV shows and stars from Britain feels like a new fad, fueled by the lightning-in-a-bottle success of House's Hugh Laurie, NBC's Americanized version of English comic Ricky Gervais' The Office and countless unscripted so-called "reality TV" shows.

But some of stateside television's most venerated series started on British shores, including All in the Family (Till Death Us Do Part overseas), Sanford and Son (Steptoe and Son in the U.K.) and Three's Company (Man About the House for Britain's ITV).

So it's small surprise the trend has heated up again in 2011, with three major Brit-to-Yank transplants scheduled for U.S. television this week: MTV's version of the hit teen drama Skins; Syfy's take on the supernatural drama Being Human; and Showtime's gleeful revamp of the working-class comedy Shameless.

The game has changed. These days, there's less tinkering than ever in the translations, as American and British media culture meld like an awkward family reunion. Here are a few quick rules on How to Turn a U.K. TV Hit into a Shot at American Television 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, silver-haired English stage legend).

Even the Skins remake, which cops the jittery verite camera style and look of its gritty BBC predecessor, couldn't help casting more telegenic teens as its stars, including well-muscled high school senior James Newman as coolly manipulative ringleader Tony (though most of the cast are still close to their teen years, unlike, say, the 20-somethings 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. Nice to see some teenage fantasies know no national boundaries.

Boost the production values, but not too much: Shameless, 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 at 9 p.m. Monday), Syfy's remake of a show about a werewolf, vampire and ghost who live together in the same house — talk about three's company — benefits from slicker American special effects.

Fans will recognize lots of shards from other supernatural series: Vampire hottie Aidan flicks out his fangs just like True Blood's ghouls, and nice werewolf Josh's transformations look an awful lot like outtakes from An American Werewolf in London. 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 moves to Chicago, Being Human unfolds in Boston and Skins takes place in some nameless suburb. They retain their predecessors' downcast, sunless atmosphere; particularly Shameless (airing at 10 tonight on Showtime), which translates many of the original series' scenes so specifically they nearly are shot-by-shot remakes of the original episodes.

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 a new Law & Order, they give us tabloid-editor-turned-CNN-interviewer Piers Morgan.

Somehow, put like that, it still feels like we're getting the raw end of the deal.

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British TV hits 'Skins', 'Shameless' and 'Being Human' get a makeover for American audiences 01/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 14, 2011 7:09pm]
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