AMC’s series “The Killing,” based on the Danish show “Forbrydelsen” (The Crime), joins a sturdy collection of American TV product adapted from foreign originals.
MTV has “The Inbetweeners” and “Skins,” both from the U.K. Showtime has “Shameless.” HBO had “In Treatment,” now gone. And ABC, which successfully borrowed “Ugly Betty” from Colombia, is said to be developing an American version of British spy drama “MI-5.”
Just how easy (or hard) is it to take a show from outside the U.S., Americanize the language, actors and setting, and present it as something new? It depends on the show.
“I couldn’t take my eyes off” the Danish version of “The Killing,” says Joel Stillerman, AMC’s senior VP of original programming. “I felt it was well-suited to our audience. There didn’t seem to be too much heavy lifting necessary to change the show.”
Still, adjustments needed to be made. Audiences the world over love good stories, but their sensibilities aren’t always the same.
“The Danish version, if you can believe this, is tonally even darker than our version,” says Stillerman. “In that sense, it’s sort of European and very Danish. Copenhagen, although a beautiful city, is an intense, hard backdrop for that show. I think our show is a little more balanced tonally, and we picked a city (Seattle) that has a significant amount of rainfall and is known for its gloomy demeanor.”
Writer-producer Brad Copeland had long wanted to pen a show about high school and teenagers. When he saw the British sitcom “The Inbetweeners” (they’re not the cool kids, but they’re not the nerds either), he was smitten.
“Teenagers are universal creatures,” he says. “They have a lot of the same experiences and live in the same hierarchy.”
But Copeland and his team wanted to put their own creative imprint on the show, and with the assistance of Iain Morris, one of the original show’s producers, whom Copeland playfully describes as “a British me,” they added some American touches.
“There’s a lot of drinking in the British version,” Copeland says. “We’re touching on drinking as well. The difference is that the British kids are allowed to drink.”
The American producers also smoothed over some rough language. “When we put that into the mouths of American actors, it felt fake, like adults putting words in kids’ mouths,” he says. “We didn’t want to be crude for crude’s sake.”The result: “Our version is a little more John Hughes, more like ‘Superbad’ meets ‘Wonder Years.’ I don’t want to say the American version is sweeter, but it’s less gritty and edgy.”
After appearing in “In Treatment” — adapted from an Israeli series — and now “The Killing,” Michelle Forbes has become quite knowledgeable about U.S. skeins adapted from other territories. She says she didn’t watch the original show in either case because she wanted to approach her characters without pre-conceived notions.
“Grief is a very human thing,” she explains of her role in “The Killing” as the mother of the victim. “I came at this from a different perspective. I was fortunate to have done crime dramas in different countries (including) ‘Messiah,’ a very slow-moving BBC show, as well as a Canadian crime series called ‘Durham County’ that was also very brooding and slow-paced. And I did ‘Homicide’ here in the U.S. So that’s very familiar territory for me.”
Emmy Rossum, one of the stars of “Shameless” and a big fan of British comedy, identified the common thread between a show in the U.K. and the U.S.: “You have to find the show’s heart and the character’s heart. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter what accents are in it.”
She notes that while some foreign shows might be harder to adapt for American auds than others, the reverse could also be true. “I wonder if you tried ‘Mad Men’ in Britain, what that would look like?” she asks.
Some American versions of foreign shows may soar. Others may flop. But expect the trend to continue.
“I can tell you that we’re seeing more international series coming to the U.S. for adaptation,” says AMC’s Stillerman. “I think a lot of people in other countries are able to think differently about the world of scripted dramatic TV. There are always bound to be a few sparks that are right for U.S. audiences.”