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Hear, Here

January 27, 2011

“Skins” (based on a BAFTA-winning British series extremely popular with the 16-24 year old demographic) is experiencing a meteoric descent on MTV.  The show lost more than half of their viewers between weeks one and two.  Perhaps they just went to the kitchen for a snack.  More likely, “Skins” is just another example of an English series lost in translation.  And it’s not just because “aluminum” has five syllables over there.  Culture affects the lens through which we view events.  A television script is no exception.  You only have to look as far as “The Office” to see a successful example of small changes that made the audience nod and smile rather than reach for the remote.

A simple way to experience what I mean is to watch “Law & Order: UK.”  “L&O” is the first US dramatic series to be adapted for British television, so the cultural influence is on the other foot, so to speak.  The initial 13 episodes are based on scripts from the original series.  Since I’ve seen each of the originals four or five times, it was easy to run them side-by-side in my head.  I will not say one is better than the other.  Any show with Jamie Bamber is almost guaranteed at least one green thumb on my TiVO.  I will say that the modifications made by Chris Chibnall and his writing team are fascinating.  Obviously, plots had to be tweaked to adhere to British laws and add technological developments such as cellphones.  But it was the subtler changes in story that caught my attention and clarified my thinking on the role culture plays in winning television adaptation.

(SPOILER ALERT) Take “Alesha,” which aired as episode 7 at the end of season 1 in the UK.  This script was based on “Helpless,” which aired a third of the way through the third year of the American series.  In the original, Dr. Elizabeth Olivet is raped by her gynecologist.  In the British retelling, it is Prosecutor Alesha Phillips who suffers this traumatic experience.  By having the incident happen to a more central character, they could explore the aftermath more deeply.  They show her boss fretting about her and her colleague thrusting her into the spotlight in court to help her regain her inner strength.  They also show a conversation between her and detective Matt Devlin that alludes to their long-term friendship.  While the show still focuses on the case, these are exchanges drawing on backstory, something seldom seen in the original.

The shorter season (frequently 6 or 7 episodes to our 20 or 22) no doubt played a role in the acceleration of character interaction.  But it also seems an adaptation to British cultural norms.  The English tend to be far less direct in their communication than Americans. One can imagine them needing days, even months, before having a conversation Lennie Briscoe pulls off casually with the nearest hotdog vendor.  Alluding to an established relationship provides the right conditions for Alesha to express herself.  Additionally, the British generally need more discussion time before leaping into business than we go-go Yanks.  The scene in which James Steel and George Castle discuss Alesha’s likely mental state is very short.  However, it provides an appropriate basis for their resulting action plan, which might otherwise be perceived as unseemly.

“Law & Order: UK” has been well received on ITV1 and BBCA.  If our networks want to see more success when drawing on material from across the pond, they would do well to put on the right lens before putting pen to [Dunder-Mifflin] paper.

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