America: where British sitcoms go to die

Considering how off the mark U.S. adaptations of UK sitcoms often are, the writer of the following article wonders why British comedy series creators look forward to seeing their work produced on our side of the pond. But to us at TVWriter™ the question is more along the lines of, “Why can’t American writers get UK comedies right?” (Hint: We don’t see this as the writers’ fault at all.)

THE THICK OF IT failed on U.S. Network TV but is running strong on cable as VEEP
THE THICK OF IT failed on U.S. Network TV but is running strong on cable as VEEP

by Andrew Collins

Imagine an alternative universe where Dad’s Army, The Young Ones, The Thick of It and Spaced never got past the pilot stage and Fawlty Towers was cancelled midway through series one. Well, that nightmarish world exists: it’s called the United States, and it’s the place where the brightest and best British sitcoms go to die.

Caitlin and Caroline Moran’s semi-autobiographical Raised By Wolves, about two sisters growing up in a large family in Wolverhampton, is the latest Britcom to arouse transatlantic interest. The Channel 4 original makes its US debut this week on streaming service Acorn. But, more mouth-wateringly, a deal for an American version has been agreed with Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) hired to write the pilot. Caitlin tells me she is “staggered” by the US interest: “When you set a sitcom in Wolverhampton, you’re obviously not expecting that.” But, despite all the flag-waving goodwill and agape expectation, it has little hope of succeeding, statistically at least.

There was a golden period of intersection in the 1970s and early 80s, when three of America’s biggest sitcoms were adapted from British formats: All in the Family on CBS (Till Death Us Do Part), Sanford and Son on NBC (Steptoe and Son) and Three’s Company on ABC (Man About the House). But the last of those went off-air in 1984, and since then the pickings have been slim. NBC’s free-spirited incarnation of The Office ran for 201 episodes and won five Emmys, but its transatlantic transformation was something of an exception.

Why does US transfer remain such a holy grail for UK writers?

I asked Kenton Allen, the hands-on CEO at Big Talk, home of Raised By Wolves, Rev and Friday Night Dinner (the returning Channel 4 show whose own attempted US transfer,adapted by Greg Daniels of The Office, never made it past pilot). “Comedy costs as much as drama but you get less for it, so you used to make money out of selling things like … do you remember DVDs? If you had a Gavin & Stacey, you would sell hundreds of thousands of DVDs. That changed when box-set streaming, Netflix and Sky came online. One of the ways of extracting value from your hard-won British comedy is to try to remake it in America.”

So it is partly about the money. “We could make two series of The Thick of It for what it costs to make a single episode of Veep,” says Simon Blackwell, a writer and producer on the modest BBC4 original and its HBO translation….

Read it all at The Guardian