In the early 21st century, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s mockumentary sitcom about the staff of a paper company appeared on the BBC’s airwaves and became a huge hit. A couple of years later, American TV producer Greg Daniels made a version for U.S. television starring Steve Carell that went on to become one of the most popular and successful TV shows in history. So, now, ever since the success of The Office, every TV producer in the United States has tried and failed to translate a British sitcom to American television. Here are 10 attempts by American TV producers to remake a British sitcom for their airwaves that ended in tragedy and misery and failure.
10. Fawlty Towers
There have been various attempts to remake John Cleese and Connie Booth’s groundbreaking sitcom. Although network executives initially told the writers that they couldn’t make a successful show set entirely in a hotel, that ended up becoming a hallmark of the series and the use of the hotel setting as a sort of boiling pot that is used to build up tension wound up influencing dozens of sitcoms to come. This is the sitcom that shaped the modern British sitcom, and so it was only natural that a few American television producers would want to plunder it in an attempt to churn out the sitcom that would shape the modern American sitcom. There have been four attempts at this. There was one starring Harvey Korman and Betty White that swapped the coastal hotel for a highway motel. A version starring Bea Arthur swapped the Basil character to a woman and the Sybil character to a man, interestingly, and one remake that starred John Larroquette lasted for nine episodes before the network canned it. There was also a German version that never made it past the pilot episode stage. As one might expect, they have all sucked.
9. Friday Night Dinner
This is one of the most underrated shows on British television right now. Each episode is set on a Friday night as a Jewish family get together and have dinner. That fits the British television model, which only gives viewers six half hour episodes in a season, but it would be hard to imagine it translating to American TV, where the aim is for shows to go on for a hundred episodes or more to get a sweet syndication deal. Still, that hasn’t stopped American TV producers from having a shot at it. The pilot episode was written by Greg Daniels and directed by Ken Kwapis. It starred Allison Janney in the Tamsin Greig role of Jackie Goodman, and Tony Shalhoub in the Paul Ritter role of Martin Goodman (the central mother and father). The show didn’t go to series. There have been a couple more attempts since then and actor Simon Bird, who stars in the original British version, has remained upbeat and optimistic about how it will affect his one: “We’re very proud of the show that exists over here and nothing’s going to change the fact that we’ve done that. So, it’s no skin off our nose for somebody else to come in and reinterpret it.”
8. The Minister of Divine
This was the altered title of a proposed U.S. remake of The Vicar of Dibley, although he was not a straightforward transatlantic translation, as The Office was. In that case, American producer Greg Daniels took Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s original script and basically shot it with American actors. The characters were a straight adaptation, with Tim becoming Jim and Dawn becoming Pam and David becoming Michael etc. And what resulted was the most successful American remake of a British TV series of all time. In this case, they didn’t just do a remake in the sense of literally making something that was British again with American people. This one actually changed the premise of Dawn French’s comic treasure slightly to suit its star Kirstie Alley. The U.S. version of the show was described by the Fox network, who had been developing it and were originally set to air it, as a show that “centers on a woman, known for her rebellious younger days, who returns to her small hometown to be a minister.” The network never picked up the pilot episode for a full season, and that was probably for the best. It doesn’t sound like it would be very good.
7. Absolutely Fabulous
Dawn French is not the only half of the comic duo French and Saunders to have had their shows bastardized by an American producer. The other half, Jennifer Saunders, also got her turn. This wonderfully satirical and biting sitcom about two vain PR agents in the fashion industry was once set for a U.S. remake. In fact, there have been two attempts at this, which were both written to be set in Los Angeles. There was one that was attempted by Roseanne Barr quite a while back (it wouldn’t happen now, of course, after her racist tweet) and another that brought in the UK version’s original writer and star Jennifer Saunders in an attempt to do it right, but both failed to get picked up. The latest version, starring Kathryn Hahn as an American version of Edina Monsoon, which actually sounds like good casting, also failed to get off the ground in 2009, a sign that maybe American TV producers should give up trying to make that one work. Hahn said of the 2009 pilot, “I think [the pilot was made] at a time where maybe this country was not quite ready to talk about conspicuous consumption in a light way [thanks to the 2008 financial crisis]. But it was a ball, it was crazy.”
6. Red Dwarf
It was tough for Rob Grant and Doug Naylor to get their ambitious science fiction sitcom made, since no one at the BBC thought that a funny show set in space that plays around with a lot of lofty sci-fi concepts could be successful. By some miracle, there was a bit of money left over in the company’s budget for production, so they allowed the show to be made and it went on to become a cultural British institution that lasted for years and found a huge cult audience. A couple of attempts at a U.S. remake have totally failed to do the classic original justice. The American writers screwed up the Lister character by making him more admirable and relatable and clean cut. The original cast have said that the only U.S. actor who could successfully pull off the role of Lister would be John Belushi. Just this year, Naylor has said that a movie adaptation could still happen. He said, “The order will probably be another TV series, a stage show, and possibly a movie, and I think the guys agree on that. The film is a long shot at this point, just because it can take so long to get funding.”
This cult hit TV sitcom got together the hilarious trio of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright, who would eventually go on to grace the world with the Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy. This was where they cut their teeth and figured out how to collaborate. On a few occasions, U.S. television producers have had a crack at remaking the show, but Wright has explained exactly why this would never work. It just isn’t in the DNA of the show to translate to America. “Part of the charm of Spaced is [that] it’s people in North London acting out stuff from American films…you know, Hollywood in kind of suburbia…American TV is much more glamorous. It doesn’t make any sense. I remember that the producer at the time said, ‘Yeah, we’d have to change a few things. We’d have to take out the drugs and the swearing, and obviously, Mike can’t have guns.’” But then that’s not the show! You can’t just take out everything that makes a show a show and then still slap that sticker on it and call it what it’s not. Wright said, while the remake was in development, “They would a) never bother to get in touch, but still b) splash my and Simon’s names all over the trade announcements and imply that we’re involved.”
4. The Thick of It
There was an attempt at a clean network version of Armando Iannucci’s searing political sitcom on ABC before Iannucci stepped in to properly translate his filthy, satirical take on British politics to the U.S. political climate with his HBO series Veep starring Julia Louis Dreyfus as the Vice President of the United States with a focus on her and her team. The ABC version seemed like it would be fantastic, just based on the talent that was involved. Behind the camera, there were comic geniuses like Christopher Guest and Mitch Hurwitz, and in front of the camera, there were hilarious talents like Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins. It was a show about a U.S. Congressman and his staff and, based on the fact that the American equivalents of Armando Iannucci’s creative talent were involved, it should’ve been amazing. But it wasn’t. Iannucci himself explained, “It was terrible. They took the idea and chucked out all the style. It was all conventionally shot and there was no improvisation or swearing.” Luckily, American television managed to redeem itself by hiring Iannucci himself to write his own U.S. companion show and we’ve ended up with the hysterical, compelling, and beautiful saga of Selina Meyer.
3. Peep Show
This P.O.V. based sitcom works perfectly as a vehicle for the comedy of David Mitchell and Robert Webb. Its humor and the neuroses of the characters are also quintessentially British. So, exactly why somebody would think that an American remake was in order remains to be seen. And even worse, they got rid of the P.O.V. shooting style! That’s the whole show! They managed to retain the use of voiceover narration to reveal the characters’ inner monologues and emotions, but it doesn’t even feel like they were trying to emulate the original. Johnny Galecki was unusually cast in the David Mitchell role of loan manager Mark Corrigan and one of the key problems with the show – apart from the fact that it eschews a lot of the format and premise of the British show that it’s based on – is simply that it isn’t all that funny. The writing of the original show is so brilliant and inspired. The writing of the American remake is very sloppy and lazy. Series co-creator Sam Bain has offered his thoughts on why the remake didn’t work: “I think adaptations to America are really hard. The exceptions – the ones that work, like The Office – are much more rare, because you’re trying to change a show and keep it the same at the same time, which is quite weird.”
2. The IT Crowd
This was the hilarious sitcom about nerds that found a huge audience long before anyone had heard of Sheldon or Leonard or Raj or Howard. The exploits of the IT staff of a corporate office only got more absurd and surreal and hysterical as the years went by. After four brilliant seasons, Graham Linehan rounded off the series with a one off special that wrapped up the story and gave all of the characters an awesome send-off. The first attempt at a U.S. remake of the show brought back original star Richard Ayoade as Moss, since no one else could hope to play the role as well as him, and starred Joel McHale in the lead role as Roy. The show “didn’t quite spark” with the new boss at NBC who had come on board during the remake’s development, so it didn’t make it to the air. A second attempt at an American remake, which had Bill Lawrence on board as a writer and executive producer, suffered the same fate. A third version is in development at the moment with the original series’ creator Graham Linehan writing and producing, although that one might not make it to the air either.
1. The Inbetweeners
As soon as the first season of their high school set sitcom had become a breakout success on E4 in 2008, Iain Morris and Damon Beesley were asked by ABC to write a pilot script for an American version. That show wasn’t picked up, but in 2011, MTV finally got a U.S. remake off the ground with writer Brad Copeland on board – and it ended up being one of the most terrible and abhorrent and unwatchable TV shows of all time. The problem with it is that the original show relies on the vulgarity of its characters, which also helps to make the dialogue more realistic, and MTV tried to translate that to the safe, clean, family friendly landscape of primetime network television. Plus, in the original show, the cast of Simon Bird, Joe Thomas, James Buckley, and Blake Harrison all have fantastic chemistry together and genuinely seem to be the best of friends. They also have talent and charisma and relatability. The cast of the American show have absolutely none of that and it’s horrific to watch. You can’t blame MTV for attempting to recreate the enormous success of this show for an American audience, but it ended horribly.