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lost in translation

Are American TV Execs As Crass As Episodes Makes Them Out to Be?

You know who doesn’t respect the British? American TV network executives! Or that’s what Episodes, the new, funny Showtime series starting Sunday night, would have you believe. (You can read Emily Nussbaum’s review here.) The sitcom explores a British couple’s attempt to adapt their critically acclaimed BAFTA-winning TV series, Lyman's Boys, into an American sitcom. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well. Despite a network executive’s promise that he wants to do a faithful adaptation, Lyman's Boys — originally about a "erudite, verbally dexterous headmaster" hopelessly in love with a lesbian librarian — is rapidly bowdlerized, and before you can say “Americans are idiots,” it’s a sitcom starring Matt LeBlanc as a hockey coach. Of course, it’s great Episodes would satirize this process, because things like this happen all the time. Like when The Office was adapted and the first episode of the American series was … exactly like the first episode of the British series. Hmm.

Well there is Shameless, another British adaptation starting on Showtime this Sunday, which is so flagrantly unfaithful it moved settings from Manchester to Chicago and … uses exactly the same plots as the British series for its first two episodes. Okay, okay, but there is MTV’s version of Skins, which changed a male gay character into a female gay character … and otherwise copied the original’s pilot almost exactly. Wait, is it possible that Episodes, a very enjoyable, well-crafted sitcom you should totally check out on Sunday, is based on a totally bogus premise?

When British series are adapted for American television they tend to have been done so almost slavishly, as the aforementioned examples demonstrate. Even when adapted shows fail — Coupling, Men Behaving Badly, Viva Laughlin, Life on Mars — it's usually not because they sold out the source material so much as couldn't get that source material to play. Coupling, for example, didn't become a show about six friends working at a swingers club, or even a show about six friends with kids living in the suburbs. It mimicked the British version almost exactly — excepting the bit where it was at all funny.

Sure, some changes happen when a show gets adapted, but they tend to be tonal, not wholesale rewritings of plot and character. The Office didn't really start to work here until the writers figured out that Michael Scott couldn't be as relentlessly foolish or unsympathetic as David Brent, and the series itself couldn't be as bleak and nihilistic. But making Michael a bigger-hearted buffoon than David isn't the same as making him into a very handsome, competent car salesman, which is about the level of changeEpisodes has the main character in Lyman's Boys undergo.

Is it funny and to a certain extent true that Hollywood is crass and American audiences crude? Sure, and that's why Episodes works, even though our track record adapting British TV shows isn't the best example of either. Of course, there's a relatively easy fix: If Episodes had wanted to be funny and accurate, it would have been about a foreign screenwriter who signed on to remake his movie for a major studio. Poor guy.