Smoking, swearing and drinking to excess. Hey, it happens. People do all three. Mostly, on TV, they do it on British TV shows.
For long and many the day, the behaviour of people on British TV series was a thing to behold. People lit cigarettes and knocked back a stiff whisky and, amazingly, nobody stepped forward to tell them they were a) killing themselves and b) setting a bad example. This was one of the key elements that appalled some viewers and entranced others.
Then along came American cable dramas and comedies featuring people swearing, smoking and drinking to excess. In fact, the raw reality of life is presented with such gusto on cable dramas that Brit TV started to look tame. These days, most British TV looks sedate, sitting glumly in the shadow of what HBO, Showtime, AMC and other cable channels create and air.
Still, there is always the temptation on the part of U.S. studios and channels to remake a British hit. It's an ignoble tradition, one with a history of more failures than successes. The explosion of cable channels in the last decade has complicated matters in more ways than one. Why would anyone want to watch an American remake when the original Brit series can be seen on BBC America or some other outlet? It's a complicated matter. Rather like David Beckham moving to the LA Galaxy to play soccer, but every year insisting on returning to some place in Europe to play soccer there too. Somehow, the American version of the game seems less authentic to him.
Recently, reality shows Dancing With the Stars and American Idol have been very successful copies of U.K. originals and that, along with the success of The Office on NBC, have caused another spurt of interest in remaking British series. But of all the shows to serve as temptation for an attempted American remake, surely Shameless seems the least likely to succeed. There is just so much smoking, swearing and drinking to excess. Plus sex on grubby kitchen floors.
Shameless (TMN, Movie Central, 8 p.m.) does indeed succeed in a U.S. setting, but only on the surface. The opening episode tonight is a remarkably faithful recreation of the first episode of the acclaimed and much loved original. It's just that it all happens in Chicago, not Manchester. We meet the Gallagher family. It's led by its alcoholic patriarch Frank (William H. Macy). Elder daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum) acts as the mother figure, the mouthy teenager Lip (Jeremy Allen White) is constantly in trouble and his gay brother Ian (Cameron Monaghan) is as confused and sulky as the original Ian in the U.K. version. It's a poor family trying to get by on wit, humour, petty theft and self-reliance.
And yet there's something missing. The roughness if the original has been softened in subtle ways. Frank Gallagher - who doesn't appear much in the first episode - is merely a self-indulgent drunk, while the original Frank was a mad, ecstatic drunk whose energy never flagged. Rossum is a wonderful Fiona but this Fiona is too beautiful and too needy. The other kids are far too ostentatiously weird-cute. What's missing is the unflinching honesty of the original - the reverberating rage that is tempered by moments of tenderness. On this Shameless, for all the shocking antics, the tenderness between characters is upfront, and there is too much of it. In Manchester, the antics and activities of the Gallagher family were plausible. In Chicago, they are not. What was dark in the original is mere farce in this well-intentioned remake.
Here's the thing - you can put all the smoking, swearing and drinking to excess in a U.S. version of Shameless, but you can't make it ring true. Because Americans aren't Brits. People in Chicago are not clones of people in Manchester.
Still, it's fascinating to see an American version of Shameless (creator Paul Abbot had a hand in it but it is mainly the work of John Wells, veteran producer of countless shows, from ER to Southland) and the main reason is the obviousness of the inescapable gulf between the culture in Britain and the culture in the USA.
That gulf is deftly made the main subject of Episodes (TMN, Movie Central, 9 p.m.), a satiric comedy that mocks both British and U.S. sensibilities in the TV racket. In fact, it puts Shameless in perspective and is far more rewarding viewing.
It' all about Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig), a married English couple who have a big hit series in the U.K. Out of the blue, they are approached by a weasely U.S. network executive (John Pankow) about coming to the United States to adapt their school comedy Lyman's Boys for American audiences. They are told the U.S. version won't change anything, but within hours of arriving in L.A. they discover that the key character - an elderly, witty headmaster - will be played by Matt LeBlanc. Yes, Joey from Friends.
LeBlanc turns up in Episodes, playing a version of himself. One thing leads to another. The English couple is charmed and repulsed by Hollywood. LeBlanc and the network play bizarre games with them. It is very funny, very weird comedy because it rings true - because it plays on the difference between the U.S. and Britain. And the differences are true. We can all drink to that. The swearing and smoking are your own business.
Check local listings.