The American Remakes of British TV: Why Do They Keep Doing It?

by E. "Doc" Smith, 2013-02-01

The American TV industry's attempt to duplicate the success of many of England's greatest TV shows by remaking them has met with less than stellar results. "The Office" is about the best of the lot and a rare exception. NBC's "Prime Suspect", and ABC's "Life on Mars" didn't fare well. Hollywood's recent version of "State of Play", met a similar fate. CBS has ventured into the world of Sherlock Holmes with "Elementary", (even recasting Watson as a woman), but honestly, the BBC's "Sherlock" is the best contemporary TV Holmes made to date, and their "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" with the late Jeremy Brett were masterpieces. Now comes Netflix's "House of Cards", a remake of the classic BBC series starring the late Ian Richardson as the evil Sir Francis Urquhart, aka "F.U."…

Now I love Kevin Spacey, and Robin Wright, but once you've seen the BBC's original trilogy including, "To Play the King" and "The Final Cut", you know it's going to be difficult to pull this off. The intrigue, the inner workings of Parliament, the uniquely British music and filming, the era in which it took place, and some of England's best actors and actresses made it a classic. Translating it to America, the White House, the State Department, and recreating the characters is simple enough, but are there no original stories out there to be told, or will we continue to see a trend of these films, films that are often shadows of the originals?

In the 1970s, we saw "Sanford and Son", a successful remake of "Steptoe and Son", a Scottish version of the junkyard, father/son team. England gave us James Bond 007, the Avengers, and the Saint; we joined in with the Man From U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, Mission Impossible and the Wild, Wild, West. Sci Fi? No worries, Britain had Doctor Who and Blake's 7; we had Star Trek, Space 1999 and Lost in Space. Those aforementioned TV shows became cult classics, but they weren't carbon copies of each other; the casting was unique, and the stories were written by some of the best Sci-Fi writers of the day, like Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon.

Roger Moore, known as TV's Saint and later as 007, once portrayed Holmes in a dismal "Sherlock Holmes in New York". It's always a challenge bringing a character written for 1880s London to 1970s New York. The BBC's "Sherlock", is set in modern day London, with the well cast Benedict Cumberpatch as a thoroughly manic, high-tech genius and very, very well played. The stories are rather smartly, combinations of a variety of Holmes stories rolled into one. CBS's "Elementary" seems all wrong compared to the BBC version, it just doesn't translate. A much better version of the male/female-Holmes/Watson duo is Law & Order: Criminal Intent's Goren and Eames.

The original Prime Suspect, starring Dame Helen Mirren, was one of the BBC's best series, yet its American remake was cancelled after only a few episodes. Prime Suspect took place during the 1990s, and Mirren's character was based on a real-life, female DCI, one of the first ever promoted. The sexism was evident and a big part of the story. No doubt sexism still exists in modern day Manhattan, but it is not the Manhattan of the 1970s/Kojak era, where a newly promoted female Detective, may indeed have faced the kind of blatant sexism Mirren's character faced. 2012 just feels different to me.

Interestingly, one of the more successful reverse remakes is the BBC's "Law and Order: UK". A great cast, and duplicates all the original Law and Order stories and formula, complete with "Doink-doink". The British wisely, do very little remakes of American TV shows. Not many of them would translate very well either, yet we attempt to remake the British shows that seem to fail over and over again.

No doubt Spacey will do a good job as Frank/Francis Underwood/Urquhart as he "deceives, inveigles, obfuscates" everyone and everybody to achieve his aim, yet Ian Richardson is an unbelievable act to follow. In spite of the risk, how and why do they still continue to do it? According to USA Today, Netflix thinks they have a recipe that will work.

"Netflix has built a business streaming movies and TV repeats for $8 a month. Now it's hoping to rival pay-cable channels HBO, Showtime and Starz by offering up exclusive programming as a lure to keep customers paying those monthly fees. Cards alone marks a high-end, $100 million-plus investment, topping rival bids by HBO and AMC; Netflix is also reviving Fox's canceled cult comedy Arrested Development with 14 new episodes in May. The streaming service bets $100 million on original, high-profile programming. Will it be a winner?…"

Here's a bit of advice for Netflix. If your are going to compete with likes of "Game of Thrones", "Homeland", or any of the other shows HBO, Showtime, Starz, or any of the other cable companies have to offer, come up with new, original, interesting series, not remakes of classic British ones… The odds are really against you.

E. "Doc" Smith is the Arts & Entertainment Editor for BeyondChron. He doesn't like bad remakes of British TV shows and terrible movie adaptations of comic book superheroes.