Have you heard the one about the dog who gave his master a titty-twister and then demanded he make a big ol’ plate of nachos?
If the idea of a down-and-out man finding companionship and understanding via fur suit sounds familiar, it’s not because Mel Gibson’s movie The Beaver, about a depressed man and his relationship to his buck-toothed handpuppet, will be released this summer but because Wilfred, a t.v. series scheduled to air on Fox’s FX network this summer and starring Elijah Wood, is a remake of the successful Australian show by the same name.
[This is where I would embed the trailer of the U.S. Wilfred if FX hadn't apparently hired a staff to rid the internet of any evidence this actually exists. Shall we take that as a sign?]
Australian co-creator/-writer Jason Gann will reprise his role as the eponymous dog in the U.S. version, which, like a well-trained pooch, sits up and begs the question Why remake it at all? Why not cut down on production costs and the potential for a major public FAIL when you can just license the existing two seasons (one from 2007 and one from 2010) for U.S. broadcast and let the people enjoy the original instead of the derivative?
The answer, according to my research, is: Because North Americans can’t handle teh sex and teh drugs. And the answer to why Wilfred will fail is: If you have a successful series whose impact, whether humorous or serious, depends on sex and drugs, you can’t just eliminate them from the recipe and expect the same effect. It’s like baking a chocolate cake without using chocolate, where chocolate is, in the case of Wilfred, bongs and a randy canine who prefers missionary over doggy-style.
Here are a few examples of why, having seen very little of the new Wilfred, I’m dubious of its ability to not suck.
FAIL: Coupling. The U.S. version tried to replicate the wit and raunch that made the U.K. version a hit–many episodes were nearly word-for-word reproductions–but whereas the British version delighted naughty audiences both across the pond and here at home, running for four seasons, the American version only lasted four episodes before it was pulled as too risque for us delicate Yanks.
FAIL: Oh, No! Not THEM! The title pretty much says it all, and with not one but two exclamation points and an ALL CAPS for good measure. A pilot was filmed in the mid-eighties for this U.S. version of Britain’s The Young Ones, but Fox declined picking up the adaptation after experiencing a moment of clarity that might well have come after MTV aired several episodes of the original that had to be so heavily edited it should have served as a big, flashing neon clue that America was not the right market for this show about an apartment full of unwashed undergrads at the tony-sounding Scumbag College.
FAIL in progress: MTVs remake of Skins, which has aired six episodes since January and is currently in danger of being cancelled. Even before it premiered, it was blasted by audiences and advertisers alike for being too controversial (see: the grand trifecta of teh sex + teh drugs + underage actors) and all this despite the success of its nearly identical BAFTA-winning British counterpart, now in its fifth season.
Unlike the other examples above, the problem with Skins isn’t that American producers rounded off the rough edges that made the original version interesting but that the remake is so close to its inspiration that it’s redundant. So then what makes a successful remake? Finding middle ground between straight-up imitation and lackluster derivative.
WIN: All in the Family. From 1971 to 1979 this reinvention of the U.K.’s ‘Til Death Us Do Part (which ran seven seasons sporadically from 1966 to 1975) tackled sensitive subjects like racism, homosexuality, women’s lib, abortion, miscarriage, rape, cancer, war, and impotence and was #1 in Nielsen ratings for five of its nine seasons. Clearly U.S. audiences were hungry for this during the 70s, and All in the Family was able to use what it had learned from the success of its British counterpart but then tailor-make episodes that spoke directly to its American viewers.
WIN: Three’s Company. With no drugs, and very little actual sex to speak of, this one was a hit because it didn’t have to step too far away from the original Man About the House. Note to producers: If you’re going to adapt a series for an American audience, your safest bet is to stick to shows that are fairly tame to begin with (especially when it’s easy to make Chrissy’s crotch shot look like an accident) .
WIN: The Office. Ricky Gervais’s original ran only fourteen episodes in the U.K. but is one of the most successful imports, spawning the hugely popular U.S. version, now in its seventh season after having miraculously survived not only the fruition but fruitful reproduction of its main romantic players, a plot move that is often the kiss of death for a series.
Possible WIN: Shameless. William H. Macy stars as an alcoholic single father of many children by many women who is struggling with his personal demons as well as the U.S. recession. The show has only been on since January, and its success, I think, will depend on how many Americans want to sit down in front of a show about reality rather than escapist fantasy. This one might hit too close to home to make it.
There’s a thin line between shameless and shameful. Let’s hope our fine country figures it out.