A popular game to play, in covering television these days, is to complain about how much television there is. Because holy cow, there’s a lot. According to the Washington Post, the number of scripted series has boomed from 45 in 2004 to 199 in 2014; we can make all the spreadsheets we like to track what’s premiering when, but the onslaught of new and returning shows is constant.
Here’s the interesting bit, though: What, exactly, is fueling this onslaught of content. TV shows don’t just come out of nowhere, and it’s not like studios and networks suddenly exploded with money and ideas. Instead, all the trends point to one common element — our new globally-connected world, which grows smaller by the moment. And it’s that new world order which has contributed to this boom of shows.
Here are all the different ways international series have invaded our airways. We might complain about how there’s too much television to watch, but it’s also why there is so much good television.
The English-to-English Remake
It’s true: The English-language remake of an international series that was already in English… does not have a great track record. For every “The Office,” there are a dozen “Coupling”s and “Kath and Kim”s, because simply taking the original scripts for a foreign series and changing the British idioms to American ones doesn’t translate.
(This is such a prevalent phenomenon that there is an entire TV show about how hard it is to successfully adapt a British show for American audiences: Showtime’s “Episodes” is now on its fourth season, which is three more seasons than many of the shows it’s spoofing ever saw.)
The reason the U.S. “Office” succeeded when so many of these shows failed is likely 50 percent due to Steve Carell’s star-making turn as Michael Scott, and 50 percent due to the American writing staff making adjustments to the original British series, where within 12 episodes David Brent (Ricky Gervais) is so incompetent as a middle manager that he gets fired by Episode 11. The early seasons of the U.S. “Office” are very carefully recalibrated from the original to make sure that it’s believable that Michael Scott would still have a job, and that redefinition proves key to helping the show define its own voice by the midpoint of Season 2.
A show that did not find its own voice was the Fox adaptation of blockbuster ITV crime drama “Broadchurch.” Those looking for proof that trying to remake an English-language series these days is a dumb move have a new mascot in “Gracepoint.” Despite throwing a lot of time, money and original ITV series star David Tennant at it, “Gracepoint” is unlikely to return to Fox for a Season 2.
That won’t be stopping the networks from trying again, though: The upcoming NBC series “The Slap,” for example, is based on an Australian series of the same name and, like “Gracepoint,” includes one of the original stars (though Melissa George isn’t a stranger to American television, having done a season or so of ABC’s “Alias”).
The solid pedigree of talent involved with “The Slap” helped it make our Most Anticipated Series of 2015 list. While its origins are still an albatross around its neck, success will come from taking its source material and finding its own unique approach. Which is possible. But it’ll have a tougher time than a different class of shows.
The Non-English-to-English Remake
It’s funny — in contrast to the above, foreign-language remakes have actually had a much better rate of success over the years than ones where the original language is (some form of) English. It’s easy to assume that this is by-and-large because those foreign remakes went unseen by American audiences; oftentimes, it barely comes up that these shows aren’t just translated and reinterpreted dramas and comedies from other lands.
“Homeland” (originally adapted from an Israeli series) is currently one of the best-known examples, but other recent series include NBC’s “The Mysteries of Laura” (origin country: Spain), The CW’s “Jane the Virgin” (Venezuela) and FX’s “The Comedians” (origin country: Sweden).
Attempting to predict what will make a show work keeps a lot of very smart people very very busy, but there’s a chance that not originally being in English might ease the process. Raelle Tucker, executive producer of A&E’s “The Returned” (origin country: France), told Indiewire at the TCA winter press tour she thought going from French to English eased the adaptation process.
“It’s easier to do what I’m doing than it would be to adapt English to English. I think that would be much more difficult, I imagine, because it really forces you to ask the question of why we’re creating this or bringing this to an American audience in English. Just some of the cultural stuff and some of the language — even just that, there’s an instant shift that changes some of the way the characters act or relate to each other.”
The fate of “The Returned” isn’t clear at this point, at least critically, because the original French series actually did get some attention thanks to a cult following built on SundanceTV premiering the series in America (and Netflix hosting it for everyone who didn’t know where SundanceTV was in their cable listings).
But for those willing to read the subtitles, the value of a foreign-language remake is clear. It’s a fully-formed proof-of-concept for a series. When asked at the TCAs why they decided to use a pre-existing Swedish format for “The Comedians” (despite the premise of stars Billy Crystal and Josh Gad teaming up to make a comedy series wouldn’t necessarily require it), Crystal pointed to his initial attraction to the original show’s structure.
“It just seemed like such a great format, and they had these wonderful sketches, and the work was the subtlety that I loved to do when I started out working with Chris Guest and Rob and ‘Spinal Tap’ and the stuff we did at ‘SNL,'” he said. “So it felt like a total package to me. Why go elsewhere? We already have this beautifully constructed theme to play, which was this different point of view about comedy. Just seemed like a perfect setup.”
“The Comedians” is only using that basic format — the show has been completely rewritten to satirize Crystal and Gad (who play heightened versions of themselves). But inspiration has to come from somewhere; unless, of course, you…
Just Import The Thing
Imports have been the initial raison d’etre of entire networks like BBC America, which only in the last few years has dug into making its own shows; before then, the American face of the Beeb fought with PBS to be the nation’s number one legal source for British television.
But they’ve also proven helpful in building up smaller networks in search of quality scripted content; Pivot is a striking example of this. The very young network created by Participant Media has proven itself more interesting over its first two years for what it’s imported than what it’s created: News/talk show “Take Part Live” and Joseph Gordon-Levitt-hosted crowdsourced variety series “HitRECord” aside, its most high-profile projects are probably the charming Australian dramedy “Please Like Me” and upcoming British series “Fortitude.”
“Fortitude,” which premieres tonight, might be the first time people feel truly compelled to search out Pivot, thanks to a cast that HBO or Showtime might envy. Stanley Tucci, Christopher Eccleston and Michael Gambon are just a few of the names involved, and the intriguing murder-in-a-tiny-town premise has been getting positive reviews. It takes more than one or two great shows to make a network, but “Fortitude” is a promising place to start.
And Then There Are the Co-Productions
Truly digging into the complexities of how most television shows get financed requires advanced business degrees, so let’s just stick with one specific example: the show “Schitt’s Creek” (yes, a title you could typically only get away with saying on FX or HBO). The comedy about a very rich family that finds itself suddenly poor will be premiering in the U.S. on Pop TV (the network formally known as the TV Guide Network) this February, and stars comedy legends Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara and Chris Elliott.
But Levy and son Daniel (who co-stars and co-created the series) have been deliberately vague about where the small town of Schitt’s Creek exists. The reason being that the show is originally a Canadian production, commissioned by the CBC. Pop TV, however, came in as a co-producer and ultimately the essential ingredient in making sure the series happened on a sustainable level. “It would have been considerably more difficult for Dan and myself,” Eugene Levy told Indiewire in a sit-down interview earlier this month. “Not that we don’t like working for nothing, but it was going down that route.”
But with Pop and other international distribution on board, the show was a lot more feasible — and added to the concept as well. The exact location of Schitt’s Creek might be vague, but that just means that, according to Daniel Levy, “anyone who watches the show can feel like it’s in their backyard.” Which is how something foreign becomes familiar.
The interesting thing in digging into all of this is discovering how rare the fully American-born, fully original series is these days. Of course, they exist: Right now, “The Americans,” “Togetherness,” and “Parks and Recreation” are all rocking the airwaves. But they’re in the mix with a far more diverse spread of shows than we’ve ever seen before.
And while it feels vaguely traitorous to our natural inclination to celebrate original voices in this exciting medium, the fact is that this boom accompanies this Golden Age of Television, almost as if the Golden Age of Television is fueled by this cross-pollination of diverse voices… Well, it says something, and it doesn’t matter what language or accent it might use. It says something.