A few days before the announcement came out that BBC’s Luther, starring Idris Elba in the daunting title role, was going to be picked up for another two-episode season, news was broadcasted that America’s FOX was going to be taking their own stab at the series. What a shocker.
TV has gotten out of hand with its attempts to measure what constitutes “good television” from “number of successful offspring shows.” This is far from a novel concept—take the current superhero trend. Television has been in the remake business for years now, to the point that it’s almost become an inevitability—like with British shows getting Americanized: basically common practice. What makes these repetitive motions more glaring lately is the turnaround time.
Take FOX’s Gracepoint. An epitome demonstration of this speedy (re)production assembly line at work, it simply didn’t make sense when FOX included it in its fall line-up this season. Based off of the BBC drama, Broadchurch, it only took a year and a half for America to buy the rights to the serial mystery series and rewrite the ending so they could call it their own. Even more unprecedented, they decided not to recast the male lead but rather stick with beloved former Doctor Who actor David Tennant to play another demon-plagued detective. Sure he had a new name and accent (because that always goes over so well), and sure he was joined by the resplendent post-Breaking Bad Anna Gunn (filling in for the equally superb Olivia Colman) but Broadchurch hasn’t even gotten to show its second season yet.
Before, the original flagship show usually got the chance to end first before ten copycats popped up on competing networks. These days scheduling overload is the norm, where instead of getting to see one Sherlock portrayal at a time we have to deal with two going on simultaneously: BBC’s Sherlock and ABC’s Elementary. Some would say this gluttony of performances is a gift. Certainly with an iconic role like the overly observant detective new takes on the part by a vast variety of actors has not been unprecedented. But, having watched Sherlock first, with Benedict Cumberbatch as lead, I’ve found myself not wanting to have anything to do with Johnny Lee Miller’s led, Elementary. My basic reasoning has been when you’re happy with the detective you’ve got, why cheat? But I often question whether I’m being fair in my compulsion to choose rather than watch both, pledge my loyalty to one rather than divide my affections accordingly to both.
I suppose a readily available excuse is human nature’s inclination to compete, especially when a beloved program is involved. As soon as word gets out that a show has a pair there’s an instant impulse to revert into comparison mode. This realization sometimes happens late when it’s a non-British show America has ransacked. While the British to American trajectory is arguably the more obvious example, that’s not to say we don’t steal concepts from other countries as well. We totally do (The Bridge from Scandinavia, The Returned from France, etc.). The only difference is awareness that a theft (code-named adaptation) took place is generally more widespread when the doppelganger programs aired in the same language. Unfamiliar with the preexisting source material, many don’t realize what they’re watching is a derivative unless there are more clear ties (Jane the Virgin is loosely based off a Venezuelan telenovela of the same name and plays with the genre on the show). This consciousness changes as access to foreign shows and imports grows through digital retailers and DVD releases. Still, the likelihood of Homeland being based on Israel’s Prisoners of War becoming popular knowledge soon is slim.
When it does though, not passing judgment is going to be pretty difficult. It’s the American way to declare one version better than another, and more often than not it comes down to the simple fact of which one you watched first. I’ve encountered a multitude of stringent believers in the superiority of the UK version of The Office, and while it is a very funny show, I continue to stand by the US’ hilarity. Likewise, I recently watched the pilot of Shameless: UK. Virtually identical to the premiere episode of the US’ Shameless, I couldn’t shake the feeling UK was the repeat despite the fact that chronologically it came first. For me it was my second introduction to the Gallagher clan so there was a different reaction. On the opposite side, I adore the UK’s Life on Mars and Queer as Folk and could never imagine traitorously tuning in for their American counterparts.
Yet time has worn down some of my initial trepidations to enjoying more than one program of a similar nature. For example, is there a limit to how many vampire shows a person can take to heart before the whole blood drinking issue gets old? There was a long period when I thought that answer was “yes.” In fact it’s an initial conclusion evidenced in my very first article for Loco Mag, where I declared Buffy the superior vampire love triangle program while putting down two shows I had never watched a single episode of (stand by my conclusion on Twilight—can’t change having read the first book but can forever avoid the movie). This summer, however, I broke with tradition and gave both True Blood and The Vampire Diaries a chance.
As the one I saw first, I’d probably still argue for Buffy being my favorite but man did those quick judgments on the other two keep me away from two fantastically addicting shows. Yes, do all three share a broody vamp and a bad-boy/misunderstood awesome vamp (not to be partial…) who’ve fallen for the same young female? That’s pretty clear from the promotional posters. What I hadn’t known is how different each’s ones take on the genre was going to be.
Indubitably that’s how all of these shows get away with mirroring aspects of each other—by adding their own twists on the subject or story. Yet sometimes, at least I know personally, in a rush to declare teams I find myself quick to call “imitation” when a new show that sounds familiar (or is in fact a familiar brand) gets made. This happens even knowing that advertisements make a point of focusing on these tropes, in anticipation of catching the attentions of desirable demographics. But beyond the romantic foundation of each show, Buffy has its title character saving the word from apocalypses while the citizens of Sunnydale display short retention spans on the existence of monsters. True Blood has politics both inside the vampire community and outside, as the freshly public species tries to secure rights for themselves in a government where tension between the two parties is a given. Vampire Diaries explores the origins of the different supernatural races they depict, in a town where every founding family member has a secret and there’s never a shortage of reasons for a local function. These are all very different setups beneath the “which guy will she choose” dynamics that are normally at the forefront of fandom (which let’s face it, are also quite gripping). They are also setups that get missed when assumptions and dismissive conclusions get in the way.
While it’s easy to say that the stigmas against shows that try to walk in the footsteps of popular predecessors aren’t always deserved, it’s another to approach them with an open mind. I have a history of stubbornness when it comes to this area but maybe, slowly, over time, it’s one I can past. Emphasis on the “maybe, slowly, over time” part.