Emancipate from England once more


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The British TV series “Skins,” a scripted comedic drama about the unruliest of unruly teenagers from across the pond, garnered such indie cred here in the U.S. that MTV immediately ordered their own version.

Well, the trailer for MTV’s Americanized “Skins,” an attempt to move from reality shows to original — well, in this case “original” — scripted content, hit the Internet this week.

It looks similar to a shot-for-shot remake of the original British pilot with the same name but this time set in New York and without a trace of a British accent.

Nevermind that MTV and show insiders have publicly insisted that after the pilot the show will veer from its source material and tell truly original stories — the damage has already been done.

The Internet is decrying the trailer as evidence that MTV can’t be trusted to develop quality scripted television and that British television in general is of a higher quality than American TV.

The fetishization of all things British here in America is by no means a new phenomenon. Our twisty historical and political relationship with Britain has resulted in a bizarre love affair with pop culture from the other side of the Atlantic.

Any kind of British accent — including, hilariously, the kind of Cockney accent that the British themselves look down upon — connotes in America a sense that the product is upmarket fare, highbrow, dry and sharp as a tack. 

That connotation is something American networks are positively gaga for at the moment. Simon Cowell’s buzzy “American Idol” successor, an American adaptation of his massive British hit “The X Factor,” is scheduled to hit FOX in September. And an alleged remake of “Prime Suspect,” which starred everyone’s favorite mature actress, Helen Mirren, in the UK, is in development for NBC.

Perhaps the most famous American remake of a British series is “The Office.” Rather infamously, the show got off to an awkward, clunky start in its short first season.
The first few episodes were near direct transpositions of the British series’ first episodes, and they were unlike anything most American viewers were used to.

It was only later when the show developed original stories and softened some of its harder visual edges that it took off and became a cornerstone for NBC’s programming.  
I think there’s a reason that American adaptations need to quickly shed some of their British-ness in order to find success and establish themselves on their own merits.

In terms of aesthetics, British television looks quite unlike American television; it favors a sort of verite-flavored photography and frequently attempts to make lighting look ambient or naturalistic. 

These stylistic cues indicate quality above all else, and in combination with a British accent, they are formidable codes for American viewers.

This, I think, is why the Internet is having such an intensely negative reaction to MTV’s “Skins” pilot.

Regardless of the actual quality of the show (because, to be fair, no one has actually seen the full pilot), it’s seen as inferior because it mixes up codes of British and American television — it’s a shot-for-shot remake of the original. But the lack of British accents makes it seem inauthentic at best and pandering at worst.

And since the original “Skins” was lauded for its “authenticity,” this is the worst sin the show could have possibly committed. MTV will still run it regardless and may even give it a second season.

I mean, they gave one to the truly awful “The Hard Times of RJ Berger,” so it’s not as if the network has high standards. But the network and executive producers of the show need to work fast to differentiate it from the original text and make it stand on its own merits.

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