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How America ruins British TV shows

Compared to Coupling and Free Agents, the otherwise-middling House of Cards seems like a smashing success

On its instant streaming site earlier this month, Netflix debuted House of Cards, a mini-series based on an acclaimed British three-parter from the 90s about corrupt lawmakers and political shenanigans. And in the less-than-grand tradition of American adaptations of U.K. shows, the U.S. version of House of Cards received mixed reviews. Yes, some were glowing. ("A backstabbing procedural delivered in a sophisticated style," wrote Troy Patterson of Slate.) Others, not so much. ("One must be anesthetized for the series to have its desired effect," wrote Nancy DeWolf Smith at The Wall Street Journal).

Over the years, a few British shows have successfully taken hold when adapted for the U.S. (We're looking at you, Shameless, The Office, and Being Human.) Maybe House of Cards will turn out to be one of them. But that's no guarantee, as the rather vast number of duds is equally notable. Here, a brief history of recent U.K.-to-U.S. failures:

1. Coupling
This British show was a raunchier (and frequently funnier) rip-off of America's homegrown sitcom Friends, which makes it curious that the U.K. show would then be copied and sent right back to America. The third iteration of the six-friends-hanging-out trope didn't quite work out, and the U.S. version was yanked after four episodes. Here are some representative clips:

U.K. version:

U.S. version:

2. Free Agents
A 2011 American version of the workplace comedy Free Agents used a number of the same jokes as its British counterpart, and even recycled an actor — Anthony Head — for the same role. David Hinckley of the New York Daily News, writing in October 2011, was not sold. Referring to the British version, he wrote: "It's funnier. The same jokes are funnier. And while the U.S. producers tried to replicate the actors by casting Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn as the leads in the NBC production, original Brit leads Stephen Mangan and Sharon Horgan are also funnier." The American version was canceled after four episodes.

U.K. version

U.S. version: 

3. Life on Mars
Life on Mars is one of those rare transplants that actually debuted to critical success, but then failed to capture the same kind of audience as its predecessor. The British version of the series starred John Simm as a cop who gets in a car accident and then finds himself transported back to the '70s. Here is that climactic scene from the pilot:

But despite boasting Jason O'Mara as a beefcaked-up protagonist, the American version saw a continuous decline in its ratings. The show's marketing probably didn't help, since it sometimes veered into bad action movie territory, complete with a deep-voiced, dramatic narrator.

U.S. action promo:

4. Skins
It seems natural that an American version of a show about sex-crazed teens would have found a home on MTV. But though the British version of Skins will have run for seven seasons when it finishes up this spring, America's take just got one 10-episode season. Here's a side-by-side comparison, which pretty clearly gets  at the U.S. version's biggest problem — the acting:

5. The Thick of It
This satire of bureaucracy and British lawmaking centered around the fake Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, and featured Peter Capaldi as the profanity-spewing director of communications Malcolm Tucker. The 2007 American version would have looked at the similar trials and tribulations of a low-level congressman and his staff — but failed to even make it to air. A current HBO show, Veep, by The Thick of It's creator Armando Iannucci, carries on the government incompetence torch in America. But one clip of the U.K. version offers a glimpse into why the iconically combative character of Malcolm would probably not have translated to network TV:

6. The Inbetweeners
MTV gave British teen drama another try with The Inbetweeners, also a profane series about adolescence, which ran in the U.K. for three seasons. The MTV version, however, was canceled after just one season due to low ratings. David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle chalked up the show's failure thusly: "It's really sad to see such a great show dumbed down to this extent, and with the apparent cooperation of the original show's creators, Damon Beesley and Iain Morris, who serve as executive producers for the American travesty." Judge for yourself with this side-by-side comparison:

Despite these failures, there are currently at least three more American adaptations of British TV shows in the works: The Tomorrow People, The Syndicate, and Metropolis. Clearly, the Dream Factory is undeterred. Stay tuned.

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