There are good remakes, and then there are ones so brilliant the US president sends personal congratulations. The American version of The Office might be the greatest TV remake of all time – and the moment that cemented its success was when Barack Obama got in touch.
Steve Carell [who plays Michael Scott] came in with this letter,” remembered actor Oscar Nunez in the 2021 book Welcome to Dunder Mifflin: The Ultimate Oral History of The Office. “He was like: ‘You guys might want to read this.’ It said something like: ‘Dear Steve, I just want you to know that at the White House, The Office Thursday is family night.’”
But for every The Office US, there is a terrible American version of Skins or Gavin and Stacey (rebranded Us & Them, at least having the decency to distance itself from the original). It is all too common for there to be a big fanfare about a UK show being adapted for another country, only for it to unapologetically bomb – think The Inbetweeners or Call Me Kat, the cringe-inducing remake of Miranda. With so many remakes failing, what is the secret of making a sure-fire success?
When it comes to gameshows and reality series, TV formatting – that is, taking a popular show from one region and making a new version in a different country – is fairly easy. In the late 90s, remakes of shows such as Big Brother (Dutch; franchised in 62 countries), Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (UK; 160 countries), Dragons’ Den (Japan; 45 countries) and Strictly Come Dancing (UK; 60 countries) all proved what a quick, easy and cheap way it was to turn TV shows hyper-global. But remakes of fictional programs have always been a harder nut to crack, with the need for new scriptwriters, sets and actors to make it culturally relevant and still harder – funny in a completely different market.
While it takes an extremely bold production team to watch a hugely popular foreign TV show and say: “We can do this better,” there seem to be plenty of them around. We are soon to see a UK version of the French hit Call My Agent! (called – in a direct translation of the original French title, Dix Pour Cent) and in the US, a re-do of the BBC Three mockumentary This Country is airing, called Welcome to Flatch. Clearly, there’s something about shows like these that appeal to programme-makers.
“I loved the original series,” says Welcome to Flatch’s writer, Jenny Bicks, who was approached to adapt it by director Paul Feig. “I love that sort of ubiquitous British comedy for the moments they sit in silence, and the fact you can have these small, tragic moments in comedy. There were a ton of original stories we were able to mine from it that totally worked for American audiences.”
Bicks’ version transports the action from a village in the Cotswolds to a fictional town in Ohio; and the cousin duo of Kerry and “Kurtan” Mucklowe have been turned into Kelly and “Shrub” Mallet. The other major changes include the leftfield casting of Stifler from American Pie (Seann William Scott) as the vicar, and the making more of an ensemble cast, allowing Bicks to “round out their world”.
It is, says Bicks, possible for the situation to remain more or less the same, despite the cross-cultural divide. “One of the issues people talk about with The Office UK was that American audiences didn’t like the Ricky Gervais character because he seemed mean. That’s a very American thing; Americans want to feel like they’re rooting for the underdog. But our characters of Kelley and Shrub were already underdogs, so we didn’t have to worry that they wouldn’t be likable.”
One issue that is always pressing when remaking a fictional show is whether or not to involve the series’ original creators. For the remake of This Country, Daisy May and Charlie Cooper were fully on board. “It was a bit like a blind date meeting them,” Bicks says. “We ended up in the Cotswolds, they gave us a tour and we sat in the basement of a little pub and just laughed.” But that doesn’t necessarily ease the weight of expectation. In fact for Bicks, it was more intense than any of the original series she has written for, such as Sex and the City or The Big C. “You do not want to be the one who fucks up the remake! It’s a lot of pressure – and you have to make it your own. There has to be enough in it that makes it its own animal, so you don’t feel beholden to the original.”
The writer of Ten Percent – John Morton of W1A fame – also seemed to feel some mild trepidation at adapting Call My Agent!, possibly due to the fact that the original French creator, Fanny Herrero, had no involvement in the UK version, which will stream on Amazon Prime Video. “I’m thrilled, startled and daunted to be given the chance to recreate such a wonderful show as Call My Agent! for an English language audience,” he said at the time of his announcement. “It’s a big responsibility … If we’re all very ambitious for this project, it’s only because the original is so good.”
Which poses the question: why would a writer or producer be so quick to remake a smash-hit show? After all, it was only in 2015, that Dix Pour Cent, about life in a Parisian actors’ agency, became a huge success for French TV, earning a record audience share of more than 5 million viewers – eventually going on to pick up a solid viewership in the UK on Netflix. Isn’t it too soon?
Not according to Dr Andrea Esser, professor of media and globalization at King’s College London, who says demand for prestige shows is so high – the format market is estimated to be worth $2.9bn (£2.2bn) – on average every format is adapted about three times. “Because of the many streaming services, remakes have become hugely competitive, as there’s so much need for content and not enough good talent around. There are research companies dedicated to looking at what’s going on in the world, what’s creating a buzz, writing reports and selling them globally. There’s a huge desire to look abroad, see what’s popular and copy it as quickly as possible.”
As we’ve seen, the quality of these do-overs can vary greatly, depending on the trends of the time. The rise of Scandi-noir thrillers of the 2010s such as The Killing and Borgen saw many copycat versions with varying levels of success. Since then, alongside The Office, the other names that come up again and again as bettering the originals include House of Cards, Veep (based on The Thick of It, adapted by the show’s original creator, Armando Iannucci) and Shameless. These were all incredibly popular and critically lauded remakes of UK series that had new life in a new region. Most recently, Euphoria has managed the same heady feat – it’s a genuinely captivating and exciting American remake of the Israeli teen drama of the same name.
What seems to link these shows is that the remake shares the core values of the original, but manages to become its own entity. As Esser says: “There’s no formula. You can’t say: ‘You can’t change more than a quarter or more than a half’ or anything like that. A German producer who adapted Ugly Betty for the German market told me if you get a German scriptwriter to adapt something, the cultural sensibilities come in automatically without even thinking about it. He said, what’s really important is to look at the original and try to find what created the appeal of the original show. That’s the one thing you mustn’t lose. After that, everything else falls in place.”
But what if it doesn’t? “The biggest pitfall is when people think it’s all about adapting or translating a text,” says Esser. “It’s not – you have to think about the audience. Are you adapting it for a TV channel, and what’s their target audience? BBC Four has a different audience to ITV. Or are you adapting it for Netflix and a global audience? It’s not just as easy to say you’re adapting it for a country – who is it for? If you don’t know that and you don’t get it right, an adaptation is never going to work.”
Then there are the fans to contend with. Staunch defenders of the original series will always have an air of superiority, but Esser points out that only a very small number of viewers will watch both versions. “Part of my research highlights that you have people who religiously watch those shows on, say, BBC Four, they’ll always prefer the original. So why would they want to see the adaptation? But then you have people who don’t even know something is an adaptation, as they never go to BBC Four to watch the original shows. These are the people worth adapting the show for.”
Plus, she adds, we need to stop thinking about remakes in binary terms. “You can have an adaptation you think is absolutely horrible, but that someone else loves. People have moved away from ‘good’ or ‘bad’ judgments of a TV remake because: what are your criteria? It really is better to think about different audiences – ‘good’ is if you see what makes that show great, keep it and adapt it.”
Online, perhaps, the public might not be so evenhanded. However, Bicks is stoic about the response on social media for Welcome to Flatch. “I think, as most people weren’t able to watch This Country in America, it’s good for us, I guess, as it allows people to come in a little cleaner. I just want to do the show proud, and as long as Daisy and Charlie are happy, that means more to me than whether someone has it out for the remake.” Although, we imagine, a letter from the president would not hurt.
Welcome to Flatch is on Hulu in theUS; Ten Percent will be on Amazon Prime Video in the UK on 28 April.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism