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.
- 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.