1. The Office
Greg Daniels' American adaptation of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's cult Brit phenomenon The Office creaked out of the gate with a shaky pilot episode that leaned far too heavily on gags from its British cousin. Dark rumblings claimed that the show would be a quickly cancelled disaster, but The Office quickly found its feet with a more likeable, attractive, and considerably less pale cast, plus a rich assortment of new characters, like Paul Lieberstein's bashful human-resources guy, Mindy Kaling's hyper, flighty flibbertigibbet, and Creed Bratton's unpredictable space cadet. The Office boasts perhaps the deepest bench of ace supporting players in sitcom history. Sixty-six episodes in, it's still going strong, and expectations are high for its recently announced, shrouded-in-secrecy spin-off. The Office has managed to lighten the tone and expand the show's comic universe while retaining the undertone of despair and existential frustration that made the original so resonant for wage slaves everywhere.
In the '60s and '70s, lefty television kingpin Norman Lear hit paydirt adapting class-conscious British sitcoms about endearing blowhards and their families, first with the zeitgeist-friendly All In The Family, an adaptation of Til Death Do Us Part, and later with Sanford And Son, which re-imagined the early-'60s English smash Steptoe And Son and wound up using it as a vehicle for popular comedian Redd Foxx. Steptoe And Son starred Wilfrid Brambell—best known to American audiences as Paul McCartney's irascible grandfather in A Hard Day's Night—as a junk dealer who uncomfortably cohabitates with his upwardly mobile son, a moony Labour supporter whose big dreams bring him into conflict with his cynical, reactionary father. Like Til Death Do Us Part, Steptoe & Son proved too big a phenomenon (at one point, it boasted a staggering 28 million viewers) to be contained by the small screen. It inspired a pair of feature-film adaptations, 1972's Steptoe And Son and 1973's Steptoe And Son Ride Again.
3. All In The Family
Archie Bunker and his dingbat wife Edith are beloved staples of American culture; the U.S. Postal Service gave All In The Family its own stamp, and Archie and Edith's chairs now occupy a place of pride in the Smithsonian. But our country's most adorable racist misogynist has disturbingly Limey origins rooted in Till Death Us Do Part, a long-running sitcom about the culture clash between working-class bigot Warren Mitchell and lazy, no-good Socialist son Anthony Booth, who was downgraded to a well-intentioned hippie nicknamed Meathead (played by Rob Reiner) for the American version. As with its iconic American adaptation, the show's loudmouthed anti-hero was held up as a truth-telling hero by fans who missed the show's satire of blustery proletariat boorishness. Also like All In The Family, Till Death Us Do Part was popular enough to prompt sequels: Till Death, which took place in a retirement home, and later In Sickness And Health. It also inspired a pair of feature-film adaptations, 1969's Till Death Us Do Part and 1972's The Alf Garnett Saga, which featured its ornery protagonists embarking on an LSD trip.
4-6. Payne, Amanda's and Snavely
American networks weren't able to replicate the acidic brilliance and pitch-black humor (not to mention international popularity) of John Cleese and Connie Booth's classic hotel farce Fawlty Towers—but not for lack of trying. Star power clearly wasn't a problem either, since the show's ill-fated three American adaptations boasted star power up the wazoo, with lead performances from some of the most popular television stars of all time. First came 1978's short-lived Snavely, which cast Carol Burnett Show standout (and voice of The Great Gazoo) Harvey Korman in the Cleese role, and the equally popular Betty White as his wife. Five years later, it was Bea Arthur's turn to bomb in 13 episodes of a gender-switched Fawlty Towers adaptation called Amanda's, which unwisely excised the marital combat of the original by making Arthur's cantankerous hotel owner a widow. 1999's aptly named Payne found another overmatched sitcom all-star (John Larroquette) fumbling around in John Cleese's outsized shoes as the proprietor of the Whispering Pines, opposite JoBeth Williams. The show lasted a mere nine episodes, making Amanda's look like a smash by comparison.
Writer Steven Moffat can virtually do no wrong in the world of British television. He's navigated the worlds of children programming (Press Gang), sitcoms (Joking Apart), horror (Jekyll), and science fiction (Doctor Who). The autobiographical Coupling—based partly on Moffat's relationship with Coupling executive producer Sue Vertue—became one of his greatest successes during its four-series run beginning in 2000. So successful, in fact, that NBC decided to import it, almost word for word. Though highly promoted, the show drew poor reviews, and its British sauciness attracted some bad press during a run that only lasted four episodes.
Since 1993, the bearish Robbie Coltrane has periodically reprised his role as Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald, a Manchester criminal psychologist suffering from multiple addictions: alcohol, gambling, nicotine, womanizing, food, and cracking cases. In 1997, Robert Pastorelli—best known for playing Murphy Brown's philosophical handyman—tried his hand at a Los Angeles version of the character, but Pastorelli substituted bellicose bluster for the original's keen intellect, and the result didn't go over well with American audiences. (Of course, it didn't help that the anti-hero TV era of The Sopranos and The Shield was still a few years away.)
The American version of the long-running Britcom Man About The House isn't just one of the most successful UK-to-U.S. TV transplants of all time, it's one of the few to go in whole hog for the double-entendre-laden bedroom farce that's been a staple of British TV comedy since it began. The two series are practically identical, from the premise—a male culinary student pretends he's gay in order to share an apartment with two curvy ladies—to the name of the suspicious landlord, Mr. Roper. For all its broadness, Three's Company was aided immeasurably by the talents of its star, the late John Ritter, who made double-takes and slapstick look almost graceful, even when he was stuck in yet another dumb, coincidence-fraught plot.
A modern cop gets hit by a car and wakes up in the '70s, where the culture of police work—and the culture in general—is decidedly different. It remains to be seen just how much of this premise for the British Life On Mars will survive when the American version debuts in October, though it would seem to be impossible to change it too much without losing what makes the original special. On the other hand, the original hews to a specific mood—grounded in the grayness and remoteness of industrial Manchester—that'll be tough to recreate on network TV. After all, when's the last time someone built a Top 10 show on a foundation of ache?
Few popular British TV shows replicate their success Stateside, but Dear John was an even rarer phenomenon: an American adaptation that was more successful than its English counterpart. Well, relatively speaking, at least: The Judd Hirsch series, which ran from 1988 to 1992 on NBC, is mostly forgotten now, but its sibling only lasted a year on the BBC. (Neither is available on DVD.) The U.S. series centered on Hirsch's John Lacey, whose wife dumped him—via a Dear John letter—for his best friend, and his support group for divorced/widowed/otherwise lonely people. The group was filled with character archetypes—the ladies' man (played well by Jere Burns), a wisecracking senior, the sexpot divorcée, etc.—but it at least gave the show a novel setup, and a surprisingly deep comic well.
Like a lot of British sitcoms, the David Renwick-created One Foot In The Grave found a small cult following on PBS, where viewers averse to droll British humor about aging knew to change the channel once the screen started to flash with images of a giant tortoise slowly crawling to the accompaniment of an Eric Idle theme song. Those who stuck around, however, probably grew to appreciate Richard Wilson's turn as a grumpy, unwilling retiree and the show's willingness to go dark in search of a laugh. Though it ran for four seasons between 1996 and 2000, the American remake, Cosby, couldn't help but be overshadowed by its star's eight-season '80s hit The Cosby Show. (After some last-minute recasting, Cosby even re-paired Bill Cosby with his Cosby Show wife, Phylicia Rashad.) A lot of Cosby Show viewers tuned in to Cosby hoping to see lightning strike twice. It didn't.
When Showtime adapted Queer As Folk, the Channel 4 series about gay men living in Manchester, they didn't just shift the show to Pittsburgh. (A more alluring Pittsburgh has never been depicted on TV. The fact that the show was actually shot in Toronto probably helped.) Several key increases were also made: The number of main characters went up from three to five. The sleekness was doubled. Showtime's version also increased the age of Justin/Nathan, the young student whose deflowering by the hedonistic Brian/Stuart in the first episode essentially kick-starts the series' drama. (He went from 15 to a less-scandalous 17 years old.) And Showtime wasn't afraid of scandal—they courted it in the hope of garnering ratings. So the U.S. Queer As Folk amped up the nudity and the sex scenes, making it the most explicit series, gay or straight, on television—until Showtime developed The L Word in 2004.
The Ted Knight vehicle Too Close For Comfort had the unusual distinction of beginning its run the same year (1980) as the British sitcom that inspired it, Keep It In The Family. It also outlasted its inspiration by several years. Both shows revolved around a genial cartoonist who keeps an eagle eye on the romantic escapades of his adult daughters after they move into the downstairs apartment of his duplex. Though initially a big hit, Too Close For Comfort floundered in the ratings after it switched nights. After the show's initial network run ended, it was picked up for syndication. In 1985, the show underwent dramatic changes that further distanced it from its British sibling; Knight quit his job as a cartoonist to run a newspaper in another city and moved out of the duplex, effectively writing the daughters out of the show, though fan favorite Jim J. Bullock remained a cast member. A name change to The Ted Knight Show accompanied the changes, but the show ended in late 1986 after Knight contracted colon cancer and died while first-run episodes were still being shown.
Groundbreaking if for no other reason than its willingness to show vulgarity, the British sitcom Men Behaving Badly lived up to its title with plots involving alcohol, sex, farting, and so on. That set it apart, but also made it challenging to adapt to American broadcast standards, which partially explains its low-rated, frequently retooled two-season run on NBC between 1996 and 1997. It starred Rob Schneider, which explains the rest.
British sitcoms often have high concepts geared for short runs that don't convert easily to the long seasons of American television. That's certainly true of The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin, a 1970s series created by David Nobbs, who adapted his own novel. It's largely about a man who fakes his own suicide and then lives under various disguises, eventually remarrying his own wife. In the time between Soap and Empty Nest, actor Richard Mulligan tried to make the part originated by Leonard Rossiter his own, but U.S. viewers didn't bite.
Ahem… American Idol, Supernanny, Kitchen Nightmares, The Weakest Link, Celebrity Fit Club, Trading Spaces, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and on and on and on… There's a lot of airtime left to fill when your nation's TV producers only crank out six to eight episodes per season, and a lot of "presenters" who need work. Thus the UK has been the petri dish for countless "unscripted" programs that have gone on to creep across the American pop landscape like a toxic mold. Thanks, old chums.