TV dramas' foreign accent

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

Scott Wallace
courtesy of david balcells/lincoln center
'The ex list': Elizabeth Reaser (seated) stars in a new CBS comedy adapted from an Israeli show.

As the broadcast television networks face rising costs and dwindling audiences, studio executives are scrambling for new ways to cut expenses. Increasingly, they are turning to their foreign counterparts, mining TV dramas, comedies, and unscripted reality and game shows from such faraway airwaves as Japan, Israel, Colombia, and Britain. Of the 24 new shows debuting this fall, 25 percent are adaptations from other nations, according to TV Tracker: "Life on Mars" (ABC, from Britain), "The Ex List" (CBS, from Israel), "Kath & Kim" (NBC, from Australia), "The Eleventh Hour" (CBS, from Britain). Even premium cabler, HBO, is getting into the act with its upcoming adaptation, "Little Britain USA."

"We are having a very different dialogue now," says Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment. "It's a global playground," she says, adding, "even writers and directors are bringing product to us from overseas."

All the networks are responding to the lure of lower costs and the appeal of new voices, says Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment. "You're going to see more of that."

But despite its growing popularity, this is no surefire strategy. The networks have witnessed the painful demise of projects that appeared to be shoo-in hits, notably "Coupling," a British ensemble comedy, remarkably similar to a certain American TV landmark show about a group of footloose, um, buddies who spent most of their time in a Manhattan coffee shop. Even NBC's "The Office," which is a retooling of its British predecessor, was not an instant hit and required several years of modest ratings to build into both a ratings and critical success for the Peacock network, anchoring its Thursday night comedy lineup.

Successful translation from one culture to another is more art than science, says Brian Gianelli, producer for Yahoo! TV, who adds that though the idea is to trim budgets, the more successful shows take the time to analyze the essential elements of the source material. "You have to get to the heart of the story," says Mr. Gianelli, "the gist of what makes the original show work, and then look for the equivalent situation in American life."

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.

"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."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.