Breeality Bites

Your New Friends?

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"Not bad, then, is it?" Sue Vertue says of the publicist's hype letter. At the moment, she's talking about how you "Americanize" a show that's already pretty damned American. For months, the Coupling discussion board on the BBC America Web site has been clogged with naysayers posting nasty, doom-saying missives. They're terrified their beloved series will be sanitized--you might even say castrated--for must-see TV; without having seen a single second of the pilot, already they insist NBC has ruined the show by casting American Breckin Meyer (star of NBC's deservedly short-lived Inside Schwartz) and by eliminating its essential "Englishness." They insist that if Friends can run in England as-is, why can't bloody Americans accept their Coupling without the redo. Of hundreds of posts, this one pretty much sums up the attitude of fans on both sides of the Atlantic: "I just know NBC is going to ruin it. I hope Mr. Moffat got a check up front and cashed it."

All of which makes Vertue laugh, as she often does by way of punctuating her sentences.

"If you're going to go to a mass market, I think you probably have to Americanize it," Vertue says. "However successful Friends is over there, Friends picks up only slightly more viewers than we get here, d'ya know what I mean? There's not much difference when you consider how big Friends is over there and how talked about it is over here. American shows still stay on the smaller channels here. They're still never watched by millions of people. 24 was never watched by millions of people--well, millions, but it didn't go on BBC1. I think maybe if the mass audience is going to watch it, to start they want it in their own accent, really. The sexual content isn't changing. That's going as-is."

And change is inevitable, really: The Brit Coupling runs eight minutes longer than American sitcoms, which means it would have to be trimmed regardless. And NBC couldn't pick up Coupling straight from the BBC because there aren't enough episodes to fill out an entire season. See, Britcoms only run for six to nine episodes a season, not two dozen as in the United States. This means one person can write the entire show and preserve his or her vision throughout--and it kind of limits what's available to the American networks when they pick up a show.

"I hate it when I have 12 episodes of something to sell," Cromer says, "but Fawlty Towers is the perfect series, and John Cleese only did two seasons of six episodes. And when you do it this way, the quality of the scripts doesn't suffer. If you're the only writer and wrote 12 episodes, you can say, 'I've said all I have to say and want to move on to a different set of characters.' Luckily, Steven likes these characters and wants to go on to a fourth season."

If anything, this is where Coupling fanatics have every right to worry: NBC will likely have to round up more writers, since Moffat can't do a whole season alone. And, as Universal Television chairman Michael Jackson recently told the London Guardian, American networks do want their imports "more of a gag fest" and less of a farce, which is what Coupling really is beneath its familiar guise.

"And I don't think it will work if you have eight people sitting around chucking in jokes, because it's not a gag show," Vertue says. "When we were shooting it over there, there was no point in having millions of writers on the floor trying to think of another funny line. You're gonna cut it later anyway. Quite often British series are taken over there and there's no involvement from the British side. They send over the format, and everybody carries on, and it's very hard to know what the nub of a show is if you're just given the show. Because we're so involved in it from this end and Steven's so involved in it, it's easier for us to explain who these people are and what makes them tick. I know this sounds obvious, because if you see the show, you know what makes it tick, but quite often what you have to tell them is all the stuff you tried earlier and we cut out." She laughs. "I think because we're so involved, that's why there's a good chance of it working. And if it doesn't, then this article will come back in my face, right?" Again, Vertue laughs.

This Brit-to-Yank transition isn't a new phenom; it's a trend now only because American network TV ran out of good ideas around the time Kelsey Grammer had a full head of hair. It dates back decades, to such shows as Till Death Do Us Part and Steptoe and Son, which would evolve into, respectively, All in the Family and Sanford and Son; only now history is starting to repeat itself--like a Swedish porn loop. Already CBS is working on adapting Manchild, a sort of male Sex and the City starring Anthony Stewart Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Giles), while being shopped around is the brilliant and biting mockumentary The Office, in which writer-director Ricky Gervais plays the boorish, racist, sexist, sleazo head of a stationery manufacturer. And depending on who you read, a handful of other shows are awaiting their immigration papers at the docks, from mock-talk shows to Sopranos-like dramas to game shows (do you still want to be a millionaire?) to talent shows, à la American Idol (itself an import known in the U.K. as Pop Idol).

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky