Saturday, May 23, 2015

Made (Not) in America

Article originally published as Made (Not) in America on Blogcritics.

It seems like there’s nothing new any more. The number of old shows being rebooted has skyrocketed in the past year (Coach, The X-Files, The Muppet Show, Full House, Boy Meets World, and Twin Peaks, to name just a few). But while restarting canceled American series is the current fad, the lack of originality is not confined to this arena.

Not long before this trend, remaking foreign shows had been the rage, too. Some of the more famous examples are Homeland, which was adapted from the Israeli series Hatufim, American Idol, based on Britain’s Pop Idol, The Killing, from Denmark’s Forbrydelsen, The Office, which became The Office, and Gracepoint, a remake of Britain’s Broadchurch, which even starred the same actor. Less successful examples abound: Life On Mars, Skins, Kath & Kim, and multiple attempts at Coupling. Even the U.S. classic All in the Family can trace its roots overseas, as it owes its DNA to the UK’s Till Death Do Us Part, not to mention Sanford and Son!

Although conventional reboots tend to copy the source material pretty directly, with series of foreign origin creators often get a little more creative. Americans don’t tend to watch other countries’ broadcasts (although the rest of the world watches our shows), and those not in English acquire even smaller U.S. followings. When American shows adapt, it tends to be with an eye toward bringing the series in line with “our own sensibilities,” or whatever executives think those are this week.

A_cheeky_billboardThis has me wondering: what if other countries did the same thing? What if Lost was reset in Scandinavia? Or 24 in the Middle East?

So, without further ado (note: yes, these play on stereotypes, and no offense is intended.)

Lost: Denmark Style ~ A bunch of strangers are thrown together on an island. They don’t know each another, and their actions are steeped in mystery. The plot is often dense and confusing. Come to think of it, with darker lighting and slightly less humor (like, say, removing Hurley), the remake would be pretty much the same as the American version.

Law & Order: UK Style ~ This police and courtroom procedural is just like the American version, except with powdered wigs and fewer episodes per season. Each week, officers of the law work together to put a common criminal away. I don’t think anyone has done yet, right? I’d better run a Google search to make sure. (Oh, and fewer guns involved!)

Grey’s Anatomy: Mexico Style ~ At a hospital, a group of unnaturally hot doctors spend more time sleeping with one another than treating patients. Some of their number die in freaky, unbelievable accidents, and others learn of unknown siblings or hidden affairs at inconvenient times. Actually, just add a filter and some more dramatic music, and they can reuse the footage from ABC.

24: Israel Style ~ A single-minded hero goes after the enemies of the state, who are portrayed as flat, one-dimensional villains. Politicians get in the way, but the writers know what the viewers really want to see is action and torture in the name of patriotism. So it would differ from our 24 because, oh, um…

Hmm. Maybe we’re not so different after all.

All kidding aside, though, there are as many differences as similarities, if not more so. When Everybody Loves Raymond was sold internationally, changes had to be made to the material in order to make the laughs translate. Can you believe that the Russian writers didn’t even understand what a restaurant booth was because they don’t have them there?

American dramas tend to sell better than comedies overseas. Everyone can understand deep emotions, laughter, tears, and romance because these are universal concepts. Humor is much more subjective, and much of what we watch contains pop culture and societal references that aren’t echoed in other lands. If you’ve ever spent any time with British sitcoms, you’ll see what I mean. You may enjoy them, but it’s pretty obvious there are layers going on that we just don’t get with our frame of reference. Or, at least most of us don’t.

Globalization has started to blur or erase these lines. Every country has internet and every country has cell phones, at least to some extent. Developed, first-world nations have similar life styles, with shared technology and products. We are becoming more homogenous overall.

And yet, I Survived A Japanese Game Show, in which citizens of the U.S. underwent crazy challenges that would seem run-of-the-mill on Asian television, didn’t play well here. Residents of a country share a history that built world views a certain way and drives interests. As much as we may think we’re shaping our national conversation, its shaping us, too. People like the familiar, and if we’ve always done one thing a certain way and some place else has done it differently, there’s a fundamental chasm that must be bridged before understanding can happen.

Why bring this up now? On recommendation, I recently checked out Smartling, a translation software company, and they have a very cool service for businesses and websites. (No, they're not paying me to say this.) Connecting with people the world over has never been more important. Even more than finding a way to translate a humorous point of view, it's vital that the customers you're communicating with understand the words you are saying. Smartling can help with this, and as we get more and more global, this is definitely the type of help we all need in order to bring our services and products to a variety of places and people. They help drive this incredibly pertinent conversation.

I look forward to international television enjoyed the world over, but we have a long way to go before we really reach that point. For now, American studios rarely even give us the chance to get used to foreign styles, preferring to just remake a solid story with a bend towards what is already popular and known in this country. I don’t think TV is the medium that will bring us together, but will be very helpful to spread artistic masterpieces once that common mindset is found.

For now, I’d just settle for BBC America airing more than a small number of British programs and more foreign networks joining my cable package. If our producers can’t find a new idea, let’s try looking else elsewhere in the world, not just for inspiration, but to actually see what other people think. I think this is the easiest path back to freshness, at least for awhile. And it would do some of us good to read a few more subtitles.

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