Foreign Imports Drive Pilot Season

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With this year’s pilot season truncated by the writers strike, networks seem to be relying increasingly on foreign imports to pad their schedules.

Canadian imports Flashpoint and The Listener recently were handed series orders by CBS and NBC, respectively. David E. Kelley is doing a remake of the BBC series Life on Mars for ABC that has some of us at TV Bacon very concerned. And NBC is planning remakes of both the British Father Ted and the Australian Kath & Kim.

Yesterday, CBS picked up two more pilots based on foreign imports. NY-LON is a remake of a six-episode U.K. series that aired in 2004, about a man and a woman who attempt a long-distance romance between New York and London after a chance meeting. The Office‘s Rashida Jones starred in the original, but it’s unknown if the actress, currently appearing in Fox’s mid-season comedy Unhitched, will reprise her role. Mythological X, from Veronica Mars scribe Diane Ruggiero, revolves around a woman who begins revisiting all of her old boyfriends after a psychic tells her that she has already dated the man she is destined to married.

And today Fox greenlighted two pilots based on British series: Outnumbered, about parents struggling to raise three intelligent children, and the dreaded McG-produced remake of the Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright hit Spaced. Another Fox comedy based on a British import, Don’t Bring Frank, has reportedly begun casting, although it has yet to receive a pilot pickup.

Since I can think of all of one whole successful American remake (NBC’s The Office) and a whole string of spectacular failures (Viva Laughlin, The IT Crowd, and Coupling, just to name a few of the most recent), one must wonder why, exactly, the networks continue to cling to remakes. On its face, I suppose it must seem like an easy out–take a proven formula and refit it with a fresh American cast and writing staff. Simple as pie, right?

Not so much. Because it takes more than just a great premise to make a show work. Just like it takes more than just a great actor or a great writer. It takes a mysterious, magic formula that combines all of these things, along with a hearty does of that undefinable quality known as chemistry, to hit the butter zone.

Okay, so it worked with The Office. But only because they just happened to bring together one of the best writing staffs in television with one of the best comedy ensembles in television. And even then it took them almost a full season to hit their stride. It wasn’t until they stopped following in the footsteps of the British original and started to develop their own unique voice for the series that it really came into its own.

If anything, I’d venture to say that it’s actually much harder to turn a remake into a success, because you have to fight an uphill battle to move out of the shadow of the original, especially if you’re remaking a show like Spaced or Life on Mars that’s widely available in the U.S. To borrow a phrase from another series to spawn a limp remake, it has to be better, stronger, faster.

Otherwise, why should I watch a watered-down American copy when I can enjoy the real thing in all its glory? Which is exactly the question I suspect audiences will be asking themselves this fall.

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7 thoughts on “Foreign Imports Drive Pilot Season

  1. Oh, sweet Lord. I knew about Life on Mars (who here could possibly be concerned? Guh!), but I didn’t know about Spaced. Heaven help us all. Maybe Pegg and Jessica Hynes will get paid for it, at least?

    You’re so right about the need to develop a unique voice, etc.–I wonder if the desire to plug into a formula actually hurts this process. If you’re stealing a success, you wouldn’t want to change it up, would you?

    On the other hand, a few changes from Blackpool to Viva Laughlin proved that it is possible to make every single wrong decision…

  2. They first announced Spaced in the fall, to the outrage of pretty much everyone who’s ever seen the the original. Hey, McG and Simon Pegg… they’re totally interchangeable, right?

    And last I heard, Pegg and Hynes won’t be involved in the remake at all, and Pegg was a bit annoyed at the way Fox was throwing their names around as though they were. Although I must assume they’re making some money off the whole disastrous affair, so at least some good will come of it.

  3. Late to the party here… but I just read Edgar Wright’s mySpace about it… they’re not thrilled. At all.

    At least the folks who like the original are all on the same page here.

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  5. Very apt comment about the Blackpool to Viva Laughlin transition–Where do I begin–Let’s start with the setting. What is it about American TV that a show is not complete unless scantily clad females walking past sun-drenched waters? One of the biggest stars of Blackpool was the city itself–gritty, just hanging on, hoping for that big break–kind of like Ripley. And speaking of Ripley–they took the whole dynamic of Ripley and his wife, Ripley and Carlisle and turned it upside down. David Morrisey’s Ripley started out as a character easy to dislike and became someone who did the right thing in the end. And of course, David Tennant just drips sex appeal. The chemistry between him and Sarah Parrish just burnt up the screen. As you say, Viva Laughlin made all the wrong decisions–characters, actors, and writing.

  6. Pat, you do not even want to get me started on the Blackpool to Viva Laughlin disaster. I allowed myself to have a little hope, because Hugh Jackman, he can *sang*. But that show was like a manual for how to make every single wrong decision in crafting a show. The lifeless musical numbers were just one example–Blackpool‘s were no better sung/had the original piped over, too; Laughlin‘s, however, acted as though just starting some music was sufficiently different from everything else to make the show special. As you note, Blackpool was very carefully crafted, from setting to songs to cast, while Laughlin, despite getting a potential setting right, just seemed lazy.

    Which is exactly Susannah’s point in why we fear these adaptations–if the thinking that brought the adaptation to life is so lazy, why should we have any faith that the day-to-day production decisions won’t be just as lazy? It looks like McSpaced is circling the drain, but the US versions of Top Gear and Life on Mars chug forward.

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