Frank goes to Hollywood: 'Shameless' in Seattle (well, Chicago actually)
Channel 4's 'Shameless' becomes the latest British comedy to have a crack at the US market
Sunday 09 January 2011
The escapades of the Gallagher family on Manchester's Chatsworth estate may seem about as American as warm light ale or tea with the Queen, but tonight will see US audiences come face to face with their own version of Shameless, the cult comedy-drama series inspired by British working-class life.
Launched with a star-studded cast and heaps of PR by the cable network Showtime, the transatlantic Shameless represents an expensive gamble. For to succeed, the programme will have to defy one of the great time-honoured truisms of broadcasting: that British comedy and drama series rarely play well across the pond.
The launch comes the day before that of a new BBC comedy, Episodes, which satirises the painful process of British comedy writers touting their material in the US. The series follows a British husband-and-wife writing team, played by Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, as they travel to Hollywood to remake a successful British series. They are forced to cast Friends star Matt LeBlanc, who plays himself, and the show is set for disaster.
The producers of Shameless will no doubt be hoping that this will not be a case of life imitating art, as Episodes is broadcast tonight on the same channel – Showtime – half an hour before their own show. British viewers will also get a chance to laugh at the misadventures of exporting our comedy when Episodes is broadcast tomorrow night on BBC2.
There have been recent exceptions to this rule, of course. The hit comedy The Office made a successful hop across the Atlantic in 2005, followed swiftly by Extras, also starring Ricky Gervais. Since then, British comedy producers have been touting their shows to US channels, hoping to emulate its success.
It's usually an uphill struggle. The American version of Gervais's series is now in its seventh series, but it sits alongside a long line of British comedy that was lost in translation, from the US remake of Blackadder to ABC's version of Life on Mars, which was set in New York.
The commissioning of Shameless, which swaps the grimy Manchester location for a downbeat Chicago suburb, also comes at the same time as the production of another post-watershed British show. A US version of the explicit E4 teenage drama Skins is set to air on MTV later this month. Television insiders say the often risqué nature of both shows, in addition to their British provenance, will play a role in their success or failure. At best, challenging themes will add to their appeal; at worse, bad language and adult scenes may see them condemned by more prudish sections of middle America.
Producers of the American Shameless modelled their show closely on the British one. Starring William H Macy, it has kept a grim working-class setting, which is often considered a no-no in a culture where poor people are rarely the subject of TV entertainment. The show is also peppered with television's version of explicit sex, swearing and scenes involving alcohol abuse.
This has come as a surprise to producers such as Beryl Vertue, who is credited with being the first to export British television series to the US. She sold the formats for Steptoe and Son and Till Death Us Do Part to US channels in the late 1960s, and says she thinks television executives in America are now relaxing their attitude to what the family-values brigade calls "explicit" content. "I couldn't have predicted that something like Shameless would ever get commissioned in America," she says "Till Death Us Do Part was considered so risqué when it came out that they put extra people on the phones because they were expecting so many complaints."
Revenues from exports of British television shows to the US rose 3 per cent between 2009 and 2010, bringing £485m to the UK, according to the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television (Pact). However, much of that came from the "reality" sphere, in which the UK is a world leader. The show American Idol, for example, remains by far the most watched programme on US television. Lisa Campbell, editor of the British television industry magazine Broadcast, says: "The interest in UK formats and the respect for UK creators is increasing all the time. We're reporting the format deals that people are getting involved in earlier. A lot of US channels are getting in touch as soon as a programme is commissioned."
Despite this, the list of British shows that have flopped in the US is formidable. Ms Campbell admits: "It's unusual for a US version to come even close to the UK one; it does tend to get watered down. Often the creators are quite unhappy with the US version and distance themselves from it." Apart from any wider cultural differences, US shows such as The Simpsons tend to have large teams of writers, rather than a single one, or a pair, as do almost all British sitcoms. And British comedies often lack any sign of our famed sense of irony, whereas gag-filled US ones have plenty.
The traffic of comedy flops seems to be one-way. British television schedules have been dominated by American sitcoms for decades with series such as Happy Days, Friends and Bewitched. American producer Caryn Mandabach, who is responsible for hit series including Roseanne and The Cosby Show, has attempted many times to bring British programmes to the US and says she found it almost impossible to break the market.
When she tried to bring a version of Men Behaving Badly to American network NBC, the show had to be cancelled halfway through the second series following abysmal viewing figures. Only a few cable TV stations, which rely on carving out niche audiences of subscribers, can afford to gamble on riskier British formats. "My experience has been that it's very hard to replicate the magic that people like Paul Abbott bring here," said Ms Mandabach. "The rules are utterly different for network and cable channels, which is why Showtime can commission a show like Shameless. On the networks, language has always been a problem. It was always 'I'll trade you two hells for a damn'." So far, The Office is the only one that's really worked, she says. Its success may, however, lie in the fact that the format was substantially altered for the US.
In a cut-throat market, the ultimate yardstick is viewing figures. What they will be for Shameless is anyone's guess, since reviews have been almost evenly split between good and bad. In the former camp sits the San Francisco Chronicle, which praises the show's "love", "smart writing" and "extraordinary performances". In the latter is Variety, which claimed it "wallows in dreariness". It's easy to predict what Frank Gallagher would say in reply, but that sort of language might not be repeatable on US television.
Hits and misses: British humour across the pond
UK: Are You Being Served?, 1972-85; US: Beanes of Boston, 1979
The slapstick and innuendo of the ladies' and gentlemen's clothing sections of a London department store was so loved by British audiences that it even spawned a spin-off film. Much of the show's humour lay in its satirising of the British class system, which may explain why an attempt at an American version bombed. The pilot for Beanes of Boston went down so badly with US television executives that it was never aired.
UK: The Office, 2001-03; US: The Office, 2005-present
Now in its seventh series, the US version of the hit Ricky Gervais comedy has had more than 130 episodes, with most series averaging more than eight million viewers. The dour Slough setting of the BBC mockumentary is moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Critics put the show's success down to the heavy adaptation of the script and format for the American market.
UK: Men Behaving Badly, 1992-98; US: Men Behaving Badly, 1996
The tale of two male flatmates – played by Martin Clunes and Neil Morrissey – and their unsuccessful attempts at attracting the opposite sex gained a cult following in Britain in the 1990s. When NBC attempted to transfer the story from west London to Indianapolis, Indiana, it did not fare so well. After a mediocre first season, the second season was cancelled halfway through as it lost out on viewers to more family-friendly shows.
UK: Steptoe and Son, 1962-74; US: Sanford and Son, 1972-77
The tale of a father-son rag and bone team living in London's Shepherd's Bush was an unlikely candidate for success across the Atlantic. But a skilful re-imagining saw the two men recast as black salvage shop dealers in Los Angeles, making the show about race as well as class. Six seasons and 134 episodes proved the format worked in the US and propelled the programme into Time magazine's list of the 100 greatest television shows of all time.
UK: Till Death Us Do Part, 1965-75; US: All in the family, 1971-79
The story of a London East End family, headed by the bigoted Alf Garnett, was much ruder and more working class than American audiences were used to. But the US version, set in Queens, New York, defied expectations, becoming phenomenally popular while breaking many taboos in US television, including the depiction of homosexuality, women's liberation and impotence. Its protagonist, Archie Bunker, became known as the country's "lovable bigot".
UK: Blackadder, 1983-89; US: 1775, 1992
The historical sitcom starring Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson is one of the best-loved comedies in Britain and was recently voted the country's second best sitcom of all time. But when America tried to ape the series with the show 1775, following an innkeeper in the run-up to the American Revolution, the series never made it past the pilot. CBS was so unsure of the pilot that it decided it was too risky to commission a whole series.
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