Between “The Office,” “Coupling” and “The Kumars at No. 42,” maybe it’s time to declare a moratorium on U.S. knockoffs of British comedies, as something seems to be getting lost in the transition, if not translation. After Fox ordered and shelved “The Ortegas,” BBC America finally offers U.S. auds a chance to see its inspiration — and, not surprisingly, it’s brighter, more clever and just plain funnier, a giddy exercise in celebrity chat, even if some of the guests lack widespread recognition on this side of the Atlantic.
The peculiar conceit is that the talkshow takes place in the home of the Kumars, an ebullient Indian family living in North London. Son Sanjeev (Sanjeev Bhaskar) hosts the program in a studio that his parents have constructed behind their home, complete with audience and house band, with guests stopping by the house before the show-within-a-show begins.
Sitting in for the interviews are Sanjeev’s somewhat embarrassing parents, Madhuri (Indira Joshi) and Ashwin (Vincent Ebrahim); and his really embarrassing horny grandmother, hilariously played by Meera Syal, who’s actually half the character’s 80 years. Think Emily Litella with an overactive libido and the same childlike ability to ask truly pointed questions.
For all the blather about hybrid TV formats, few work this well. Somehow, the show’s mix of talk, improv and situation comedy mostly clicks — a balancing act that clearly toppled “The Ortegas,” which relocated the premise to L.A., with a Mexican-American family at the center and a younger “host.”
By contrast, Bhaskar plays Sanjeev as being frequently mortified by his family (he’s likened the show to bringing a girlfriend home to meet his parents) and more than a little bitter; still, he’s especially quick-witted, and the barrage of non sequiturs coming from the cheap seats are occasionally hilarious. Granny, for example, lusts after Brit host Michael Parkinson, who she says is toying with Sanjeev “like a silver-haired mongoose with an overweight cobra.”
The bizarre surroundings also prompt unexpectedly funny turns by the guests, including Donny Osmond, who dances with an adoring Granny. “That shifted some phlegm,” she announces.
Watching the original, it’s still puzzling how Fox’s aborted version could prove so pallid, just as NBC’s “Coupling” wasn’t quite as bad as advertised but, like the net’s pilot for the upcoming “The Office,” simply didn’t measure up to its Union Jack predecessor.
British formats have thrived here for years, of course, but beyond more easily adaptable unscripted concepts, it’s a long way back to “All in the Family,” with casualties like “Mr. President” and “Cracker” littered in between.
Now that BBC America exists, in fact, perhaps U.S. networks should focus on crafting their own sitcoms and dramas, instead of making a lot of sow’s ears out of silk purses. Now there’s an idea even more novel than a talk-comedy-improv hybrid.