The British Invasion: UK TV Shows Go Stateside (Skins, Being Human and Shameless)

Between sitcoms, game shows and reality series, from Steptoe and Son (remade as Sanford and Son) to Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, US TV has a long history of taking British TV formulas and reworking them for Stateside audiences. With Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office finding massive, unlikely creative success overseas and remakes back en vogue, it was just a matter of time before other networks started snatching up more lucrative Brit shows to Americanise and hopefully spin into ratings gold. This month saw a trio of remade series hit US airwaves, with Skins, Being Human and Shameless all receiving the makeover treatment. So how do the pilot episodes fare against their originals?

The Show: Skins

What’s it about? The hedonistic lives of a group of 16-year-olds as they navigate their daily lives of sex, drugs and partying. The UK series kicked off in 2007 on youthful channel E4 to massive success and is now about to enter its fifth series (and its third cast – centring on the two-year college life of its characters, Skins picks up with a new cast every two seasons).

How does the remake fare? In a word: Terribly. Sure, the knee-jerk reaction upon hearing that a popular property is being unnecessarily remade and Americanised is to cry foul and wish a stabby torment on the studio who okayed it, but there’s always the potential that the show could quickly branch off into new territory and become a worthwhile companion piece, as NBC’s The Office did, and Skins – as much as I love it – left massive room for improvement, especially in its later years. With that in mind, I was curious and oddly hopeful that MTV’s Skins would be a worthwhile American alternative to the drek of Gossip Girl and similarly bland shows that saturate the US teen television market. Unfortunately, though not too surprisingly, the pilot to MTV’s Skins falls halfway between complete duplicate and neutered, generic facsimile of the original.

A great deal is lost in character, whether by virtue of less talented performers or script doctoring. Nicholas Hoult’s slightly slimy performance helped define series lead Tony as a middle class sociopath, while James Milo Newman plays him simply blank and arrogant – between Newman’s half-hearted effort and script alterations, the lead who didn’t feel too far removed from a Bret Easton Ellis character becomes just another bland, cocky doucheclown. Similarly, hopelessly adorable and slightly unhinged Cassie becomes a less interesting cliché; with her craziness thrown at us with jackhammer subtlety in a terrible scene that has her announcing her love of knives and death while inferring that she’s about to cook a bunny, she’s less the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the UK series and more a cookie-cutter goth stereotype with better dress sense.

Feral drug dealer Madison Twatter also gets retrofitted into an infinitely less threatening American incarnation, who looks rather like a retired golf pro who skipped a night’s sleep (likely leaving viewers wondering why Stanley would even bother worrying about repaying the drug debt that fuels the episode). Amidst all the superficial changes, though, the most damning issue is that almost no attempt has been made to infuse the US retread with its own sense of cultural identity. The barely-adapted pilot script lazily and awkwardly still includes a handful of Brit slang (possibly due to the heavy involvement of very English showrunner/writer Bryan Elsley), while the show’s Canadian sets and locations (so often used as a cheap, generic double for urban America on film) lend the show a strange, faux-American aesthetic, taking place in an indeterminable city without character. When coupled with the awkward censorship of the UK original’s shagging-and-swearing content, it puts Skins US somewhere between an unnecessarily close retread of the original and the safe, sanitised land of 90210-esque teen drama soaps that Skins should be the counterpoint to.

It’s that what makes the process of remaking the original show such a pointless exercise. Skins is no sacred cow, being an occasionally excellent but often incredibly flawed and wayward series, especially as the show shifted into its later seasons, but the redeeming value of any remake is in how well (if at all) it steers the concept into new and interesting directions, emphasises different elements or infuses an imported idea with a new cultural identity. MTV’s Skins, so far, does neither, duplicating the original almost verbatim, while making minor alterations which only drives it into generic territory.

It remains to be seen if later episodes will steer away from its inherited foundations and forge its own original, worthwhile identity, but the opening episode only announces Skins US as an entirely unnecessary, creatively barren alternative to just airing the original series again for US audiences.

Advantage: The UK Series.

The Show: Shameless

What’s it about? Shameless follows the day-to-day escapades of the sub-working class Gallagher family – a clan of six kids headed by motherly eldest sibling Fiona – as they endure the presence of their shambling alcoholic wreck of a father Frank, who milks unearned government benefits for all they’re worth when not begging, borrowing and (mostly) stealing the rest.

How does the remake fare? Considering that it adopts the same shot-for-shot, word-for-word remake tact as Skins, it’s strange that Showtime’s Shameless stands out as a solid, entertaining and worthwhile adaptation of the British show. I’d hardly begrudge a US network for remaking Shameless for American audiences to begin with; sure, the result is an English language, shot-for-shot remake of an already English language show, but Shameless is so filled with impenetrable northern regional accents that the dialogue may often prove indecipherable for US audiences without subtitles. In that sense, it’s less senseless fodder for a reworking than Skins is.

Unlike Skins, the US reworking of Shameless quickly grounds itself with a tangible sense of place; location is especially important for a show so ensconced in its lower-class roots, and the streets of Chicago, drenched in snowy sludge with the rusty L-train tracks blocking the sunlight as they loom overhead makes a suitably dank and oppressive American alternative to the dingy wastelands of Brit housing estates.

The retread does stumble a little in the casting department, though. William H. Macy clearly relishes the chance to play drunk, disgusting and despicable, and the usually bland Emmy Rossum is surprisingly fantastic, as are the younger cast. But then there’s Justin Chatwin, who is clearly no James McAvoy, and the more wooden abilities of the former result in the character of Steve (the middle-class boyfriend of Fiona) coming across as slimy and detached in moments where McAvoy’s inherent, effortless charm shines through. And though the addition of Shanola Hampton as Fiona’s neighbour/ best friend Veronica adds some welcome racial diversity, it’s unfortunate that her character quickly announces herself as a “sassy black friend” stereotype.

To the showrunners’ credit though, they at least seem aware of the charisma-deprived Chatwin’s failings – the US show’s first major divergence from the original is in the second episode’s emphasis on Steve’s creepy trend of trying to buy lower-class Fiona’s affection and their subsequent break-up. It bodes well that the writers seem to be shaping the show to suit the strengths and weaknesses of their cast rather than adhere rigidly to the British scripts. Admirably there’s no attempt made to tone down the content either – the remake’s cable TV home affords it the ability to avoid the censorship that Skins suffers from, and thankfully Frank Gallagher is still as despicable and watchable a scumbag as ever.

Advantage: Draw. Shameless looks to be the quickest of the shows to split off from the original and start forging its own path, and while it doesn’t better its original, it’s at least as entertaining and well performed.

The Show: Being Human

What’s it about? A vampire, a werewolf and the ghost of a young woman become roommates as they struggle to understand and control their respective curses.

How does the remake fare? Of the three remade shows surfacing this month, Being Human is the one that feels to some degree more like its own show from the outset, even if it does go on to cannibalise the British first episode for the second half of its two-parter. SyFy, who’re fronting the US remake, also have the benefit of Being Human being the weakest of the import trio pulled in from across the pond with the most room for improvement. But while Being Human is a decent reworking of the original, little attempt is made to better it, sadly.

Quick to embrace more American sensibilities, SyFy highlight the supernatural elements while exercising their comparatively larger budget. Annie the ghost is no longer corporeal or particularly mobile, bound to the house and fading in and out of existence with poofy CGI aid and unable to touch things, where her UK counterpart liked to engage in that distinctly English method of coping with deathly crises: Making craploads of tea. Broody vamp Mitchell/Aiden gets a more evident and immediate dose of superpowers, too, as an altercation in a hospital results in holes slammed in walls and some super-speed shoving. The superspeed thing makes little sense in execution, thanks to some lazy adaptation; Aidan having the gift of superspeed aids him in a last-minute rescue during a new crisis added for the in the US version, but his powers are forgotten when a familiar UK scene rolls around, and like his Irish counterpart, he just broods and lets a girl bleed out in an alley rather than dash her to hospital. Dick move, fang-boy.

The mismatched roommates comedy/drama takes a relative backseat to the race-against-time monster-mash thriller plot (complete with cliffhanger ending) that takes prominence as Josh finds himself locked in the hospital’s cell-like isolation room with his sister (a character added for the US remake), moments before he’s due to transform into chompy wolf form. It’s rather tense and effective, mostly thanks to the choice of cast: Meghan Rath proves a rather boring, less likeable alternative to Lenora Crichlow, but the casting of Sam Witwer as vampire Aidan has the opposite effect, giving the chronic brooder a charisma upgrade. Sam Huntington especially provides an great replacement for the excellent Russell Tovey, with a wolfy George (or Josh) who’s a tad more self-centred than the kind-hearted nerd at the heart of the original series, and he and Witwer display a solid chemistry.

But while the show is just as entertaining as its inspiration, albeit for slightly different reasons, it sadly doesn’t embrace the opportunity to improve on much, either. Like the original, far too much time is lent to the elitist vampire society needling at Aidan to rejoin the fold while he just wants to smoulder and brood in peace. Sure, the awesome Mark Pellegrino (Supernatural’s Lucifer and Lost’s Jacob) gets welcome screentime as the series’ sinister antagonist, and makes the storyline more enjoyable than in the original, but the diabolical threat of elitist, well-connected and well-dressed network of evil vampire elders is tremendously dull, familiar stuff that’s been over-explored in almost every bit of vamp fiction to hit page or screen.

Advantage: Draw. If you’ve seen the original, there’s nothing particularly new in SyFy’s interpretation, but a mostly fantastic cast and some slight tweaking of the concept make Being Human a decent and energetic alternative if you’ve never caught the UK series.