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When British TV flies across the pond

By Ridge Rooms, Special to CNN
April 6, 2012 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
The American version of
The American version of "The Office" has been a big hit in the United States.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • British TV shows have been rebooted and imported to the U.S.
  • Some have had success while others have not
  • Fox will try this summer with a remake of dating show "Take Me Out"

(CNN) -- The British invasion continues.

Fox recently announced a new show airing soon -- "Take Me Out" -- from the producers of "American Idol" and "X Factor." The dating reality show premieres in June and marks yet another remake yanked from the tellies of the United Kingdom.

Although it follows other British reboots ashore, the journey over can be choppy.

When Adam Ferrara emerged from his broken '76 Coupe de Ville on the first season of "Top Gear USA," his co-hosts Tanner Foust and Rutledge Wood raised their hands ... to bestow upon each other a round of enthusiastic high fives. For many fans of the wry attitude of "Top Gear" Classic, this show of dude-ly appreciation was a cringe-worthy moment.

The U.S. edition of the world's favorite car show has been gaining in viewership on History, yet continues to be a point of controversy with hardcore fans of the British original, which airs here on BBC America. As one of the most popular TV shows worldwide (with men and women alike), many questioned the need for a high-fiving American overhaul.

It's part of a bigger debate found everywhere from newspaper columns to online trending topics.

When rumors flared up of a possible "Doctor Who" movie, showrunner Steven Moffat -- whose other hit "Sherlock" is under threat of a knock-off as CBS's "Elementary" -- tweeted: "To clarify: any Doctor Who movie would be made by the BBC team, star the current Doctor and certainly NOT be a Hollywood reboot."

Not that a UK-to-U.S. conversion hasn't ever worked. "Three's Company," "Sanford & Son," and "All in the Family" had great casts and excellent writing, but they also benefited from the originals not being readily available for comparison. For a remake to thrive in the Internet age -- and in a crowded market where both UK and U.S. versions air on competing channels -- it has to pave its own road.

The American version of "The Office" didn't click until it worked through the original scripts and settled into its own routine. The characterizations made more sense too: where Ricky Gervais' David Brent was belligerent and mean-spirited, Steve Carell's Michael Scott was merely awkward and sometimes even kind. Scott was a more relatable boss for the American workplace; Brent wouldn't survive one season stateside without being sacked by HR.

But the recipe is delicate.

The forced comedy of "Coupling" didn't land. "Skins" was deemed too smutty for U.S. standards. "Prime Suspect"— which starred Maria Bello (and a fabulous hat) in place of the legendary Helen Mirren — turned ITV's sleeper procedural into a weekly one-hour version of that scene in "Pulp Fiction" where Jules and Vincent "hang back" to debate foot massages before busting in on the main action.

Bill Young, keeper of the Brit TV blog Tellyspotting, as well as VP of programming for KERA/Dallas -- the very PBS station that set "Monty Python" loose on the American public in 1974 -- feels the key to a successful translation lies in subtlety.

"There seems to be a feeling that with American audiences you need to lay everything out on a platter so that the audience doesn't have to think. British television takes the opposite approach," which he explained had to do with pacing, meticulous casting, and relatable locations.

For anyone who grew up quoting Basil Fawlty, watched "Doctor Who" when only the math geeks did, or gambled on the color of Mrs. Slocombe's hair with their dorm mates (pink was a safe bet), there has never been a more exciting time for a British TV invasion. PBS period charmer "Downton Abbey" is a cult phenomenon, Idris Elba's "Luther" kicks down doors as a new style of gritty detective, and "Doctor Who" is oh-so-very cool now. "Top Gear" host Richard Hammond is even filming a new show -- in America, for America -- as part of an original-programming experiment by BBC America.

It might be time to just let the Redcoats in. (Preferably with Hammond's cohort Jeremy Clarkson manning a beach-bombing Ford Fiesta.)

Multiple channels are importing original British programming. Online streaming service Hulu has steadily been adding free programs close to their UK airdates, including the cult action/sci-fi hit "Misfits" (currently undergoing a U.S. pilot treatment by "Chuck" creator Josh Schwartz) and the award-winning comedy "Spy." They've recently begun streaming the UK version of "Skins."

Although as Young pointed out, stateside reality hits "Antiques Roadshow," "American Idol" and "Dancing with the Stars" did all originate as British creations, which could mean good news for "Take Me Out."

"Maybe it's just comedy and drama that have difficulty traveling across the pond. Which is odd, because comedy should be comedy no matter where you are," Young said.

Speaking of translated transatlantic comedy, the industry is in on the joke: Matt LeBlanc -- currently the fastest Star in a Reasonably Priced Car on the British "Top Gear" -- won a Golden Globe for Showtime's "Episodes" which is a series about the American bastardization of a popular British sitcom.

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