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TV dramas' foreign accent

This fall a quarter of the new dramas will be adaptations of shows from overseas.

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As with any move from one culture to another, every adjustment has the potential to create unintended consequences. Producers of the new CBS cop drama, "Life on Mars," about a modern-day detective suddenly and inexplicably transported to 1973, found that while the British series was set in the significantly smaller city of Manchester, England, the decision to set the US version in New York required all sorts of character adjustments. The men required tougher personalities to reflect the demands of a much larger, more cosmopolitan city police department. But, say producers, the lead female detective required cultural adjustments as well.

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"Our Annie is going to be a little stronger," says Josh Appelbaum, the executive producer, "a little more connected to the women's lib movement, a little more outspoken than she was in the BBC version."

The team behind ABC's breakout hit, "Ugly Betty," a serial drama about a nerdy, but bright young Latina from Queens who suffers ridicule when she goes to work at a fashion magazine, say they looked for universal themes. It's a classic Cinderella story, they say, one that can be adapted from one culture to another.

"The original telenovela was made in Colombia," says actress and executive producer Salma Hayek, "and it was a phenomenon in Colombia, and I think that it was groundbreaking because it's about the fish out of water, probably the person that is not conventional in the way they look or the way they talk. But they are incredibly smart and hard workers and they get ahead in life using that." The show has been adapted successfully into some 30 international markets, says producer James Parriott, because it taps into some deeply universal truths.

"Part of the intent of the original author [in Colombia] was that Betty was the moral center in an immoral world," he says. "Colombia at the time, because of the drug trade, was a very corrupt society and Betty, as a character in that society, was this morally pure center."

Humor is typically the most complicated element to translate, says Kevin Knight, a linguist and professor at the University of Southern California. Take, for instance, a simple joke, he says: "Hear about the new restaurant on the moon? Great food, no atmosphere." The comedy depends on the double meaning of the word atmosphere. Any effort to find another way to talk about air on the moon would descend into clumsiness, ruining the delicate lightness comedy requires.

"You'd probably have to come up with another dumb joke, entirely," says Professor Knight, "in order to capture the spirit of the moment instead of the literal reference." Americans tend to be more open and individualistic, he says, which makes the sort of social strata and peer pressure issues of other more stratified cultures more difficult to convey.

"Often that sort of humor requires a broader approach," says Gianelli. In addition, when it comes to the insecurities that underlie much comedy, each culture has its own recipe for laughs. "In Britain, the kinds of things that make people awkward are very different than in the US," he says, so for instance when "The Office" came over, they had to retool the details significantly.

Technical issues can affect the way a show evolves in the move from one culture to another. Shows in the US tend to open with the expectation of a long, open-ended run. In most other countries, shows have limited runs.

They only did 16 episodes of the British import "Life on Mars," Mr. Appelbaum says. "We hope to do 16 seasons, so it will be about deepening those characters as we move on."