Ch-Ch-Changes: Thoughts on January’s British TV Invasion

Ch-Ch-Changes: January’s British TV Invasion

January 19th, 2011

While television in general has become inundated with adaptations of British series, or shows about adaptations of British series, or shows which have been imported from Britain, the past few days have been particularly overwhelming for me. Having put off watching Showtime’s Shameless (a British series being adapted for American television) and Episodes (a show about a British series being adapted for American television) the week before, and then pairing them with a marathon of PBS’ Downton Abbey and Monday’s premieres of MTV’s Skins and SyFy’s Being Human, I gave myself what has to constitute an overdose of transatlantic television.

And, unsurprisingly, I ended up with quite a few things to say about it. The process of adaptation is hardly a consistent one, and its function in these various texts is wide-ranging: It is the subject of satire for Episodes, a topic of debate for Shameless, Skins and Being Human, and a complete non-starter (albeit not without a controversy of sorts, as I’ll get to in a moment) for Downton Abbey.

The response to these various shows has been diverse, but beyond the legitimate concern that the industry has become creatively bankrupt there lies a shifting understanding of change and how we respond to it. Do we want adaptations to be “true” to the original, or do we want them to change in order to find a distinct identity? What, precisely, makes a good adaptation, and does the degree to which a series changes from the original alter our critical focus beyond how we would consider original pilots? And, if it does, should it?

The following is my attempt at answering these questions.

I’m madly in love with Downton Abbey. The Julian Fellowes-penned story is just the very definition of delightful, bringing an upstairs-downstairs mentality to an important period in British history – and history in general – and creating an isolated, and yet never isolating, world. I’ll likely have something more comprehensive to say about the series when it finishes its American run, mainly because I loved it ever so much (to the point where it has clearly affected my diction), but for now I want to focus on the fact that you could never “adapt” this story. As an historical period drama, one very specific to the British aristocracy during that particular period, the very notion of adapting it seems laughable.

No such plans exist, for just that reason, but there was still speculation that attempts were being made to adjust, if not adapt, the content involved. Jace Lacob, friend of the blog, was caught up in a bizarre situation where a British journalist was dead set on writing a story about how PBS was gutting the series in order to make its plot less intricate (particularly relating to its focus on aristocratic rules of inheritance which American viewers would be unfamiliar with), despite the piece featuring wild claims which were simply untrue. While my experience of watching the first 90-minute PBS cut and then continuing on with the British version revealed some subtle differences in pacing (with some scenes either removed or, depending on how PBS airings continue, moved), the story was largely the same, and the amount of material cut is considerably less than the two hours cited (as Jace identifies in his pointed, and on-point, response).

However, while the piece in question is tabloid dreck and little more, it demonstrates the sort of prevailing paranoia surrounding international programs being put in the hands of American networks. Downton is, of course, a case of subtle changes demanded by timeslots and the like as opposed to an outright adaptation, but this paranoia extends tenfold when we’re dealing with one of the myriad of translations being undertaken at the moment. What I’m interested in is what exactly this paranoia relates to: While we could generalize and suggest that it is a concern that the original property will be somehow damaged by the adaptation, is this always framed as a fear of “change?”

That seems to be the primary concern related to these adaptations: that, in order to adapt a series for American audiences, significant changes are made which inevitably threaten the integrity of the program. Even though I will eventually argue that change is hardly a problem when it comes to adaptations, it is the first thing we notice: Change is always evident, often before viewers have even seen the adaptation in question, which means that it’s the most prominent – or, at least, the easiest – topic of conversation. Yes, we can discuss whether or not these series are becoming an active problem in television development – I think that’s a discussion we need to have, in the same way that reboots or remakes have proliferated in Hollywood as of late. However, the trend seems to be here to stay, and how these shows change seems to be the most self-evident avenue for analysis which presents itself.

This is only natural, and something that I am guilty of as much as anyone. My concern, however, is that some are not following through to consider what effect these changes have, simply choosing to stop at “change is bad.” I had a number of issues with the Episodes pilot, but the biggest was the vilification of the process of adaptation. I don’t mean to suggest that there are not circumstances where ignorant studio executives completely destroy a show when attempting to translate it to American audiences: Steven Moffat, whose British hit Coupling was notoriously butchered by NBC, even tweeted that Episodes hit close to home. Rather, the problem I have is that I don’t see why it would be unreasonable for executives to ask the series’ original star to try an American accent, or why the creators were so quick to presume that he would be moving on with the series.

Now, I know that eventually the executives completely change the functional premise of the series from a Headmaster at an all boys’ school to a hockey coach, and that’s the sort of adaptation hell that I would never defend against. However, because we have not seen the original series and are given almost no information about it beyond vague details of its premise, the pilot just sort of jumps to the conclusion that not casting the original star is in some way a betrayal of the format. I think more had to be done to emphasize that the creators were coming in with expectations which seem wildly out of sync with how American television actually works, and more detail was required to understand just how much they did change in their scripts and whether or not that was itself unreasonable. Because that is absent, we’re asked to blindly presume that these executives are absolutely crazy for thinking that an American adaptation of a British show might work better with an American as the lead. There’s a debate to be had on the subject, but the lack of debate present in the pilot meant that the network became the villain, and change became the doomsday weapon of choice.

I had three very different experiences with the three most recent adaptations, all of which centered around questions of change which are not quite so black and white (a subject which, after this piece was formed in my head, Alan Sepinwall wrote about at length). In the case of SyFy’s Being Human, I had absolutely no context heading into the pilot: While I have heard very good things about the original, I went into to American version with only a knowledge of the series’ basic premise – I don’t even think I watched a trailer. And to be honest, there was something incredibly freeing about such blissful ignorance, with no sense of what has changed or why I should be outraged or excited about it. The cliffhanger pilot is an economical bit of writing, taking no time in introducing key concepts and deftly mixing both supernatural and familiar mythologies while introducing the two male leads – Meaghan Rath’s ghost gets considerably less development, but it seems like the second half of the pilot will be based on her self-actualization so I’ll wait and see how that turns out. And because I have no preconceptions of how it should turn out, or how it should have started, I’m just able to judge it as a pilot to a new science fiction series, one which I think I could enjoy watching (especially since I’ve discovered that I’m a Sam Huntington fan – who knew?).

I did not, however, have the same experience with Skins. I’ve seen the first three seasons of the British original, which means that I went into the American version with a wide range of preconceptions that almost border on unfair. However, if I had a prevailing opinion on the changes being made, it was that there weren’t enough. While there are some subtle shifts in particular characters, and a major shift in gender for one of the other characters, the central storyline of the Tony-centric pilot is completely identical. And while I would agree with Todd VanDerWerff that the series is particularly adaptable to American audiences thanks to the generalities of teenage experience, and I would concur with Matt Zoller Seitz that the series has a certain ephemeral quality that seems a perfect encapsulation of adolescence, I end up falling in line with Alan Sepinwall in that the lack of change is nearly impossible to get past.

The problem here is two-fold. One is that the overall lack of change focuses our attention on those changes which were made, which means they take on a certain degree of purpose that spirals into cynical conspiracy theories. The shift from Maxxie (male) to Tea (female), for example, is problematic less because Tea looks like an uninteresting character (she seems just fine, at least for the moment) and more because it reads like an attempt to limit the series’ transgressive nature. We know where Maxxie’s arc once went, and how it intersected with the character of Tony in particular, and the shift in gender means that the story (according to critics who have seen the episode in question) becomes an expression of teenage boys’ obsession with “girl-on-girl action” as opposed to a symbol of Tony’s fearless exploration of his own sexuality. It ends up reading like an executives’ note that MTV audiences would prefer a female perspective on homosexuality, even if the change was made for other reasons: If it had been one of a larger collection of changes I think we would have responded to it differently, but its status as the only major change means that we read it as an insurrection of the series’ legitimacy.

The other (connected) problem is that those of us who followed the British series might have trouble “returning to zero” when it comes to these characters. I think the remake actually captures a lot of what made the original series so compelling: the use of music is strong, the use of young actors gives it a certain rough edge, and the ephemeral quality to the series aesthetic remains intact. However, because we followed those characters for two seasons and because the second season in particularly felt like it dramatically raised the stakes, we have higher standards than might be reasonable. I think there’s room to compare the two series, and to accurately point out that the cast is markedly (if not significantly) weaker in the American version, but I do think that’s very much inflated by the serialized experience offered to viewers of the original series. If given the time to allow the show to develop, and a second season to potentially move away from the British original entirely, I think that the basic DNA of MTV’s Skins is competent enough to turn into a series I could enjoy watching should it embrace change and find an identity in the spirit of the original.

And because I wanted to make this whole situation as complicated as possible, my experience with Showtime’s Shameless actually blurs the line between ignorance and awareness. I watched the U.S. pilot without much knowledge of the British original, and I thought it was…alright, I guess. I had issues with the broadness of William H. Macy’s portrayal of Frank, but Emmy Rossum is pretty tremendous in the role of Fiona, and I thought Justin Chatwin filled his role effectively if not necessarily charismatically. And more importantly, it seemed like the rhythms of the family were well-drawn: individual characters may have felt a bit rote, with scenarios designed to expose their characterization rather than revealing it, but the interpersonal reality created by their unique circumstance seemed to transcend those moments. With Rossum leading the way, the cast felt like a family even if the world around them seemed considerably more artificial, and there was something to those rhythms (collecting to pay the electric bill, hustling coupons/dairy products in episode two, etc.) which felt like a sustainable driving force for the series as a whole.

However, in talking to Matt Zoller Seitz on Twitter after watching the pilot, he suggested that I follow his example and check out the British original – he was pushed to do so by his editor ahead of his own review, and he felt it really impacted his take on the Showtime series. I would agree with some of his conclusions, especially in regards to how each series establishes space: While both series are about poor families, the British series is so much dingier that it makes the U.S. Shameless feel more like actors performing on sets than anything else (Matt refers to it as being set in “The United States of Television”). The story’s basically the same, but they really do feel less poor thanks to the size, condition and general aesthetic feel of their home and the world around it. There’s also something very distinctive about the type of neighborhood featured in the British original, whereas the Chicago neighborhood is largely generic, meaning that its sense of place is not quite as strong in general.

However, while I entirely understand where Matt is coming from, my experience of seeing the American version first meant that I noticed other changes, for the better. The rhythms that I noted as being so important to the American series’ future success seemed less evident, or at least less impressive. I actually liked this change in pace, and felt like it better suited the actors’ styles, which seemed like a smart decision in shifting the show for a new cast. In fact, watching the British pilot, I actually felt that Fiona’s character in particular was underdeveloped, given considerably less agency within the family unit. Of course, at the same time, I realized that many critics were down on Justin Chatwin since he was – unbeknownst to me – taking over from James McAvoy. While I started with a clean slate, looking at the series as a flawed but potentially interesting start for a series, I ended up with this complex mediation of factors.

Now, on some level, I live for this kind of stuff. I did some Wikipedia reading on the U.K. series’ trajectory, and I’m very curious how Shameless would negotiate its future in light of its industrial and creative contexts. While the British series seems to operate (on the surface, at least) as a primetime soap opera, with various character changeovers and scandals and everything else in between, I don’t know if premium cable would be as likely to follow that kind of pattern. I also think that the U.S. series is invariably influenced by Showtime’s “dramedy” aesthetic, with its “drama” distinction feeling almost disingenuous considering its similarities to a show like United States of Tara, which might also influence the direction the series heads in from this point forward.

However, I have an emotional distance from Shameless, which is what allows me to both understand the points of comparison without having them ruin my experience of one or the other. I’m an impartial observer, someone who came to the comparison as a sort of experiment and ended up finding a balance of pros and cons which complicate any reading of the series which just considers the one-way changes which took place in the adaptation. It helps reveal that the real question shouldn’t be what has changed, but why it changed, and the kind of series which might result: I would certainly concur with Matt that the U.S. Shameless is heading in a different direction without the same potential for class commentary, but I think it’s a direction with potential in other areas, and some of the more positive changes speak to how the show might differentiate itself in the future.

I think that there is a value in comparisons of this nature, both in terms of academic/critical analysis and the pleasure of insisting that “the original was better” in order to create viewing hierarchies with less-cultured viewers who have watched fewer imported series. And yet, I also think there’s value to being ignorant, to watch Downton Abbey without being concerned at what bits and pieces you might be missing and to sit down with Being Human without feeling as if it has additional expectations to live up to. In fact, sometimes I wonder if it’s even fair to hold adaptations up to the original, and if we shouldn’t just ignore the changes entirely and consider it as just another pilot which could turn into a new hit series. And yet that seems just as problematic, as these series so often straddle the line between a faithful adaptation and a purposeful reimagining that the nuance is something that critics, scholars and informed viewers should be investigating.

I guess what I’d resist, however, is the notion found in Episodes that change is this incontrovertible villain which threatens the sanctity of the series in question. I think it’s hard to “pass judgment” on these series with any sense of certainty, to know precisely what they are based on a mediated attempt at appealing to the ignorant and the informed simultaneously, but the critical discourse of considering and engaging with this change seems a necessary first step in a larger consideration of their convergence and divergence from the source material.

And something that, as is clear from the length of this post, I find particularly compelling – expect some more commentary on these lines throughout the Spring as I follow a number of these series.

Cultural Observations

  • Interesting that the first two Shameless episodes are credited as “Based on “Episode X” of the British Series,” even crediting Paul Abbott for his work on those original scripts. I know that the third episode is the largest departure, so I’m curious to see if we see a return of this credit structure in future episodes.
  • Speaking of which, I really like the Shameless credits – glad that it wasn’t just William H. Macy and a bunch of floating beer bottles and welfare cheques.
  • It says something about Being Human that I didn’t think of the obvious Twilight connection until one of the characters pointed out the obvious Twilight connection. I knew it was trope-y, but it didn’t feel like it was pandering to that audience, so that was a plus.
  • I am curious to know what MTV’s younger viewers, those who might not even know a British series exists, thought of Skins – I think that even American viewers who knew of the British original but had no experiences with it would consider the series in light of its status as an adaptation, but younger viewers might not be as aware, which would be an interesting bit of ethnography.
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17 Comments

Filed under Being Human, Downton Abbey, Episodes, Shameless, Skins

17 responses to “Ch-Ch-Changes: Thoughts on January’s British TV Invasion

  1. I too marathoned Downton Abbey over the course of three days. That show is all kinds of fun. I nearly cried in the first episode (!) at the Bates story.

  2. Jen

    I’m British, and I think actually a lot of British people don’t really mind that much when things are adapted for an American audience – generally British people seem to think that they are more intelligent than American people, with most people buying into the whole “American people don’t understand irony” myth. So when things are changed, it’s more of “Well of course it’s been changed for an American audience, they could never possibly understand our complex and really intellectual TV programmes”. Which of course is a load of crap, but there you go. We like to pretend that we’re superior to everyone else (especially America), and at the same time celebrate how crap we are. It’s complicated.

    I think that there are quite a few people who wonder why stuff has to be changed at all though. Why can’t they just use the British version? After all, in Britain we’re bombarded with American TV ALL of the time, so it seems weird that we can’t export stuff without there being huge changes made to it.

    Not that I’m saying that either of these views are correct, but that’s what a LOT of people think. Personally, as long as I’m not going to be forced to see the American version of anything that has been completely butchered, and am able to see the stuff which has been adapted well (like the office – I actually prefer the American version for the most part) I don’t care.

    … I want to see the American version of skins though.

    • Tausif Khan

      I don’t quite agree. I think their is a very important reason that American television series are changed from their original British versions. The television show Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister were adapted for American television as Spin City. As an American I have to say that Spin City was one of my favorite shows because it knew how to write very funny scripts and the acting was good. However, there was no political analysis it was a workplace comedy and office romance. The Mayor of New York (a supporting character to Michael J. Fox’s deputy mayor on the show) was presented as a pure idiot with moments of pure brilliance when you realize the charisma people saw in him and why they voted for him, an idiot-hero. The show was meant to valorize public officials.

      Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister’s intent was to puncture the self-importance of public officials. Not only that it meant to untangle the tricky language of public policy in hilarious twists and turns of logic. The humor is directly generated by the satire of the writing.

      In an episode of Yes, Minister the minister takes on a security detail when their is a threat made against his life. At the end of the episode it is reveal the threat has abated and the joke is that the minister is just not important enough to warrant an assassination attempt. This punctures his self-esteem. This ministers character is much more nuanced. He is mainly seen as an applause junky constantly worrying about approval ratings and how the well the public thinks of him. This makes him realize he is unimportant.

      Yes, Minister also contained adroit social commentary that skewered the logic of public officials and social media a like, such as:

      The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country
      The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country
      The Times is read by people who actually do run the country
      the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country
      the Financial Times is read by people who own the country
      The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country
      The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is
      Sun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits

      This is the opposite of what happens on Spin City. In one episode a local disc jockey has taken on the mayor’s policies. One of them includes cleaning up New York City’s dirty rivers. At the end of the episode the local disc jockey does not believe that the water is really clean (and the mayors office actually knows it is not). The disc jockey knows he has them right where he wants them and so he challenges them to jump into the water to prove its cleanliness. Rather than admit their mistake the Deputy Mayor and the Mayor jump into the water. They are heroes they have through their wiley means defeated a local critic.

      The difference between British and American television was best summed up by Armando Iannucci (in an interview with Charlie Rose). He said that a British politician once commented that he wished British television would portray politicians the way The West Wing portrays politicians again as heroes (notice how this sounds like the minister from Yes, minister hungry for the public’s approval). Iannucci said that this was laughable because the British mind is attuned to being critical of their leaders. Charlie Rose then asked Iannucci what he thought of Obama. Iannucci replied by saying that it is very interesting at how Obama can use such interesting and evokative language and still say absolutely nothing. Charlie Rose then asked him to give an example what he was saying by asking Iannucci to say what Obama might say about the glass of water Iannucci had been given to freshen his lips for the interview. Iannucci said Obama would say something like that “it took the sweat of the brows of my forefathers to bring the water to this table. Their singular vision to come to this country and engage in the ethic of hard work endured so that one day that water glass could be on that wooden table….” Iannucci pointed out that this in fact tells us nothing directly about the water itself or the glass itself. This type of criticism of Obama was unique in the way that he was able to identify Obama’s rhetorical style and satirize it within seconds. This is the type of critical mind that is missing in American television.

    • Gill

      The myth of US intellect is reinforced by the story of the renaming of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone of course.

      I think the sheer blandness of so much US TV creates that sort of prejudice. Compare FRIENDS to Coupling, Skins or Misfits to see what I mean. Our TV is no more realistic than theirs, and certainly not superior, but it doesn’t try to present everyone as affluent twenty-somethings with terminal niceness.

  3. Amy

    Maybe this is just me, especially being British, but does anyone know exactly why American networks have to adapt British series? I mean, I loved Being Human, and it seems to me that you could just watch the British Being Human. Can the networks not get the rights to the British version, or do they just want to do their own?

    • Short answer: money. While they would make the most money coming up with their own bloody idea, remakes allow for networks like SyFy to own rights to online, DVD, and production which give it much more financial benefit than simply airing the British original (which some networks, like BBC America, do).

      • Gill

        Also, British seasons are so much shorter – most US networks don’t want sets of six or eight episodes, max. These days we even get sets of three – Sherlock and Zen are cases in point. Bloody good, but blink and you’ve missed them.

  4. From what I’ve seen of Downton Abbey (having only seen the 90-minute PBS versions) I’ve liked it. However, any novelty the “upstairs downstairs” concept may possess doesn’t really exist for me; having seen the 2001 film Gosford Park, also penned by Julian Fellowes and featuring a similar concept, Downton Abbey tends to feel in some places like Gosford Park stretched out over a series’ length. Take, for instance, that Maggie Smith is cast in both as a royal pain (granted, she does tend to play that sort of role, but still), and both deal in some sense with changing social and sexual norms. I’d say it’s a comparison worth making.

    And don’t spoil anything for me, but does Robert Crawley have a secret love child in the basement or something? Because, quite honestly, no-one is that saintly and aphorism-spouting in real life.

  5. Jonathan

    I also noted Steven Moffat’s Twitter post on the subject. He’s got another interesting connection to transatlantic adaptation that could color his view: his mother-in-law, Beryl Vertue, specialized in working on such transplants. She seemed to have a lot more success than he; her work includes All in the Family and Sanford and Son, the latter of which underwent some fairly significant alteration to suit the US audience.

    • Gill

      her work includes All in the Family and Sanford and Son, the latter of which underwent some fairly significant alteration to suit the US audience.

      You might be surprised to know that both of these did very badly when shown over here – they very much contributed to the British myth that the US networks take our shows and ruin them!

  6. Tausif Khan

    I actually feel that Jullian Fellowes has copied an American television series. For me Downtown Abbey is Gilmore Girls. The Emily Gilmore’s of the world the corporate wives who plan dinner parties at the opening of a new firm are the women of the past. The new Lorelai Gilmore’s of the world are running it. Much of the friction between Lorelai and her parents have to do with class. Where Richard and Emily not only are willing to rely on their rich heritage (stemming back to the Daughters of the American Revolution) and are wiling to cherish it; Lorelai wants to work for and earn every thing she has. This is the same conflict that Matthew Crawley brings to Downton much to the derision of Maggie Smith’s character.

    Both shows show the viewer a dying culture being replaced by a new one.

    • Interesting. Personally, the Gosford Park connection has more traction, in my opinion, but anything that reminds me of Gilmore Girls is fine by me.

      • Tausif Khan

        I would watch Gosford Park as a mini-series.

        Downton Abbey’s end of an era story about an aristocratic family is also similar to Faulkner’s oeuvre. His work was mostly spent document the decline of victorian era southern cultures and how they transition into modern industrial society.

        So I feel that this type of story has been told before. I am worried about execution at this point.

  7. Tausif Khan

    Myles since you are covering The (American) Office for the AV Club are you also going to watch The (British) Office as well and write on that?

  8. Tausif Khan

    What would interest me about seeing an entire run (or a significant portion of the series) and then seeing a new adaptation of the the series in a different country would be to notice what point the original series was trying to make and then trying to figure out what new point the new adaptation is trying to make and analyze the differences and most interesting to me would be to find out how different the cultures of the two countries are perceived through the lens of television.

  9. Gill

    Some interesting points there, Myles.

    In my experience, Brits tend to feel that when our shows are “translated” into US TV they are made blander (as with All in the Family or Sandford and Sons) – the photos I’ve seen of Being Human seem that way too, though I’ve seen none of the show so I am in no position to judge. For every successful transplant half a dozen have failed catastrophically, usually because network people have been so afraid of causing offence that they have removed the elements that made the show work. There was a documentary a few years back about the process of adapting <i<Men Behaving Badly which was painful to watch. The laddish, crude humour which contrasted brilliantly with the females in the show was cut back to the level where the jokes lost their entire point.

    As for the Richard Griffiths audition (the in-joke being that he created the key role in History Boys to which Matt leBlanc refers) I think the key element there was not that the network people were crazy for wanting to get him to do an American accent, but that they had no idea about the original series and its dynamics at all. Of course, RG was sending himself up beautifully as a “luvvie” too.

    the pilot just sort of jumps to the conclusion that not casting the original star is in some way a betrayal of the format. I think more had to be done to emphasize that the creators were coming in with expectations which seem wildly out of sync with how American television actually works, and more detail was required to understand just how much they did change in their scripts and whether or not that was itself unreasonable. Because that is absent, we’re asked to blindly presume that these executives are absolutely crazy for thinking that an American adaptation of a British show might work better with an American as the lead.

    From our POV it was clear that the writers were uninformed and totally unaware of the adjustments they would have to make, and in particular that they believed that their show was what was wanted. It very rarely is. TV companies sell formats, while writers usually have specific characters and situations in mind. Remember that their show had run for some while and garnered awards in each year of running, so they were not necessarily crazy to believe that – just ludicrously naive.

    the British series is so much dingier that it makes the U.S. Shameless feel more like actors performing on sets than anything else

    In a nutshell I think this lies at the heart of the issues Brits have with “translated” shows. We go in for grunge in a big way – our popular soaps deal often with marginal people, certainly those who are in the lower 50% in terms of affluence and education. The same is true of many of our most popular and successful shows. Hustle and Spooks (MI5) have a certain amount of glitz about them, but Being Human; Misfits; Life on Mars and even Dr Who/Torchwood are deliberately invested with elements of what Brits would recognise as “ordinariness”. Generally, that is the element which tends to be removed in translation.

    I’ve enjoyed the first couple of episodes of Episodes, though so far it hasn’t addressed what seem to me to be the most significant elements of difference: we have short “seasons” (which we call “series”), written by a very small group of writers or, not infrequently, by a single writer. Some of these writers become household names here – Galton and Simpson, Johnny Speight, Russell T Davies, Andrew Davis, Stephen Moffatt and many more. It is very unusual to have more than 12/13 episodes in a series, and 6 or 8 is common. From what I know of the US system, at least until the writers’ strike, 22 episodes is the norm, with a writing team of six or eight people led by a show-runner. The names of individual writers are much less likely to be widely-known and the power and influence they have with network executives is consequently much diminished. As a Whedon fan I have watched Fox interfere with his plans way too often to be unaware of this, but have read of similar issues with transplanted shows too.

    In Britain it would be a very brave executive who tried to tell a successful writer what to do. The glory of the BBC in the past was that they left writers and performers to get on with it – hence we got Python, Fawlty Towers, Goodness Gracious Me et al. We had a lot of painful flops too, of course, but the best have endured.

    Downton Abbey was my guilty pleasure last autumn, as it was for many of my friends. It was so clearly formulaic, drawing hugely from Gosford Park, Upstairs, Downstairs and The Forsyte Saga, with very easily recognisable elements from all of those and the rest of the “heritage industry” TV we sometimes get far too much of. (Have you ever seen the syrupy Lark Rise, for example?) For me it was rescued by the performances – Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton striking sparks off each other in particular. It was jolly good fun, but with some highly implausible plot and dialogue elements and it felt very much like a box of posh chocolates – yummy as long as you don’t consume too much at once! Personally, though I watched Downton Abbey with enjoyment, Misfits was the real appointment TV of the autumn season. It all goes back to the Brit liking for grunge. 😉

  10. Pingback: Adapting Skam: From Public Service to Private Interest [Part One] | Cultural Learnings

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