4 Great American TV Shows Stolen from the British

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If British TV shows are so darned great, why do U.S. producers insist upon remaking them instead of showing the originals? There are plenty of reasons! For one thing, the shows make reference to political situations, local celebrities and places that are unknown to most Americans, so a lot of the jokes would fall flat. And then there's that pesky pronunciation thing "“ Left Ponders may not realize it, but they speak with a slight accent that some folks on the this side of the Atlantic find difficult to understand.

But we're really not criticizing the Brits, honest! Just take a look at how many of their great ideas we've "borrowed":

1. All in the Family

When All in the Family debuted on January 12, 1971, a nervous CBS ran a disclaimer prior to the opening credits, explaining that the purpose of the series was to demonstrate how absurd prejudice was. And the dialog was pretty shocking for its time "“ until then, no sitcom character had dared use derogatory terms like "spade" or "Hebe." But if Archie Bunker pushed the envelope when it came to discussing minorities, Alf Garnett licked it and stamped it. Alf Garnett was the main character on the British sitcom Till Death Do Us Part, the show on which Norman Lear based AITF.

Alf used more epithets than Archie ever dreamed of, and was far less loveable. However, there were similarities between the two characters: Alf called his wife Else the "Silly Old Moo," while Edith was Archie's "Dingbat." Alf despised his Liverpudlian son-in-law, whom he described as a "randy Scouse git;" Archie declared that his daughter's Polish-American hippie husband was a "Meathead" ("dead from the neck up"). Alf was devoted to the West Ham United football team; Archie loved midget wrestling. Both shows were huge hits in their home countries, with Till Death running 10 years and AITF nine. Compare and contrast a typical Alf/Archie discussion on race relations:

2. Three's Company

Man About the House debuted on Britain's ITV network in 1973. The sitcom was controversial from the get-go due to the plot: two young single women find a drunk man passed out in their bathtub after a party, and after finding out that he could cook and needed a place to live, they offered him their spare bedroom. The girls knew their landlord would frown on non-married tenants of the opposite sex sharing an apartment, so they hinted that their new roommate was gay. Sound familiar? Four years later ABC launched Three's Company, pretty much a play-by-play re-creation of its British parent. Even the names weren't changed very much to protect the innocent: Robin Tripp became Jack Tripper, Chrissy Plummer (along with her bustline) morphed into Chrissy Snow, and the landlords were still the Ropers. Despite the basic similarities between the two shows, the British version relied more on crisp writing and witty dialog than the slapstick and "jiggle" used to attract the American audience.

3. Sanford and Son

Steptoe and Son was a British sitcom about an aging, somewhat cranky but always wise "rag and bone man" and his argumentative son. The two lived together and even though the son had an occasional delusion of grandeur, he remained a partner in his father's junk business. Wilfrid Brambell played the scheming Albert Steptoe, whom his son often dismissed as a "dirty old man." (This running joke was referenced when Brambell played Paul McCartney's grandfather in A Hard Day's Night; it was often observed during the film that he was "very clean.")

When the show was revamped for American audiences, it became Sanford and Son, and while Redd Foxx's Fred Sanford was just as irascible as the elder Steptoe, the characters' personalities were reversed a bit in order to exploit Foxx's comedic abilities. His son, Lamont (lovingly referred to as "you big dummy" by his father), was usually the voice of reason when his father fell victim to a new con game or "get rich quick" scheme.

The Office

The pilot episode of the US version of The Office was a duplicate of the BBC series, with some minor changes in dialog (a reference to Camilla Parker-Bowles was changed to Hilary Clinton, for example). The reviews were decidedly mixed, with most critics dismissing it as a pale copy of the British series. As time went on, however, additional writers were brought on, the cast was expanded, and the overall tone took on a more American flavor. The British Office has an air of crushing depression; all the employees feel stuck in dead-end jobs, but luckily they find humor in their hopelessness. In the U.S. version, however, there is always a subtle undercurrent of hope among the workers. Even the lowliest drone likes to believe that if he at least gives the illusion of productivity, he can work his way up the corporate ladder.

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Have a comment on which show ended up better- the British or American version? Is there another show we've borrowed that you think should be on the list? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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March 5, 2009 - 5:51am
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