There have been many attempts to translate successful British sitcoms for US audiences over the years, with variant levels of success. At least two all-American classic TV comedies, All in the Family and Sanford and Son, were based on UK series. But typically, the narrative (from an audience perspective) of the news that a show is being adapted is one mostly of concern that the adaptation will somehow “ruin” the source material. Lots of UK sitcoms get US pilots made. Some (Coupling, all of the attempted Fawlty Towers remakes) manage to get a few episodes on the air before getting cancelled. But every once in a while, the translation works.
This year, HBO debuted Veep, a satirical series about politics starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Veep is unique in that it’s more or less a US adaptation of an existing British series but is simultaneously completely different from that series.
The Thick of It, the political satire on which Veep is loosely based, recently started airing on BBC America–which is in and of itself a massive joke. BBC America, like most other basic cable channels, is averse to especially not-family-friendly content. Anyone who saw In The Loop, the Oscar-nominated (and totally robbed in my opinion) film adaptation of the show, will be familiar with central character Malcolm Tucker and the show’s penchant for creative swearing (apparently scripts are specifically sent to writer Ian Martin, the show’s “swearing consultant”).
In fact, a previous attempt at a US adaptation of the show for ABC in 2007 found the show’s creator and co-writer Armando Ianucci dismissing, citing the lack of swearing as one of its many flaws.
The ABC pilot is hardly without its credentials–it reportedly starred, among other, Oliver Platt, Alex Borstein, and Michael McKean, was executive produced by Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz along with Ianucci, and was directed by Christopher Guest. To my understanding, this was a more straight-forward adaptation involving politicians who would have roughly the same amount of authority as The Thick of It’s hapless cabinet ministers Hugh Abbott and later Nicola Murray. By Ianucci’s account, the show’s issues largely had to do with its network. ABC was never going to be the home of this cynical, incisive political satire. Far better for the show to move to HBO, who effectively let Ianucci bring his creative team over, including his The Thick of It writing staff and directing five of the season’s eight episodes himself (two were directed by Tristram Shapeero, who in the UK has directed Green Wing and Peep Show and the best (or, if your sensibilities won’t allow for that, most controversial) episode of Brass Eye and in the US has worked on Community, Happy Endings, Parks and Recreation, Bored to Death, and Children’s Hospital. The remaining episode was directed by certifiable comedy genius Chris Morris). The show also boasts a cast of comedy legends, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tony “Buster Bluth” Hale, and Matt Walsh, one of the founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade. It’s not a surprise that this adaptation is fantastic.
Veep as an Adaptation; Its Similarities and Differences
Outside of differences in episode plots (at least in part due to differences in the political systems), there is one key difference between The Thick of It and Veep. It’s a question of competence.
Both shows have an ensemble cast, but the de facto protagonists are the cabinet ministers and the the vice president. Of the ministers (for the fictitious Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship–Malcolm notes, “I don’t know what it means, but it spells SAC”), first is Hugh Abbot, who is painfully out of touch and clearly inept, and second is Nicola Murray who at best is naive (at worst is every bit as inept as Abbot, albeit in a different way). Often Malcolm Tucker, the PM’s director of communications, is the show’s only obviously competent figure. He is a clear threat to everyone in DoSAC.
Veep has an equivalent figure–someone in the President’s office who regularly stops by to check on the VP. Jonah, the White House liaison, is Malcolm Tucker’s equivalent in role only. He is ineffectual, mocked by everyone in the office, treated more or less exclusively as a messenger rather than someone in a position of power. In fact, the show’s only obvious reflection of one of the many scenes in which Malcolm uses his position and savvy to threaten and/or manipulate someone to get the result he wants places Selina herself in his position. Despite her bumbling, Selina is still an authority figure and is extremely capable, moreso than any member of her staff.
Changes to Suit a US Audience and The Office
The issue of career competency was also addressed in easily the most successful UK to US adaptation, The Office. When asked how David Brent reached his position of power when he clearly had no idea what he was doing, creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant very honestly stated that this was something they’d observed in the real world–including at the BBC. People somehow reach positions of power despite being completely incompetent.
The US Office’s Michael Scott is a very different story. He started out as more or less an exact Brent replica (understandably, the pilot is more or less the exact same script as the first episode of the original), with one notable difference being established early on: Michael is a terrific salesman. It’s an answer to the “how did he get into this position of power?” question, which was purposefully left unanswered (or at most, answered as “he just did”) before. The idea is instead that his strengths as a salesman don’t translate to a managerial position–but this is occasionally undercut by his overwhelming desire to create a “family” atmosphere and be liked by all of his employees, which occasionally manifests itself in genuinely reaching out for help from some of his more competent employees (Jim and Darryl, among others). This is again in contrast with Brent, who doesn’t want a relationship with his employees the same way Michael does–both men describe themselves as “friend first, boss second. Probably entertainer third.” For Michael, this is true. For David Brent, this comes across as an attempt at seeming like a kind, caring boss for the cameras. He almost certainly thinks of himself as an entertainer first and foremost. He wants the good opinion of all of his employees, but is only interested in forming friendships with some of them. Typically, everyone on the US Office is nicer, more sympathetic, generally more likeable. It’s hardly a surprise that some people who were familiar with and fans of this version of the show first have a hard time enjoying its source material.
The Office is a pretty straight-forward workplace comedy, though. Merchant and Gervais admitted that the second series saw them making Brent a bit more buffoonish and thus more likeable or at least easier to watch–the US adaptation’s extremely capable developer/show runner/executive producer Greg Daniels (a former Simpsons writer who, it must be said, freely admits to bearing a strong resemblance to Milhouse), claims Gervais and Merchant suggested that following through on this trajectory would be good for the adaptation which clearly worked out. It’s an easier-to-adapt format and while I will always prefer the original, the adaptation certainly has a fanbase that holds it up as a seminal series the same we snobs do with its source material.
Network Television vs. Premium Cable and Adaptation
The same is clearly not true of Veep. An incisive satire can’t be made more friendly. It features one individual character who is slightly less realistic and slightly more joke-y: Tony Hale’s Gary, the VP’s personal aide, but he is barely more outlandish than Terri, DoSAC’s director of communications in The Thick of It’s third series. Selina is more competent than her UK counterparts, but is, rather than a senator or congresswoman, the vice president–referred to in the show as a bit of a dead-end for an ambitious career politician like herself. This makes some of the futility of her position more emphasized than Hugh or Nicola’s.
American network shows live on mass appeal because they rely on advertisers. HBO makes its money from subscriptions and caters to a cultivated niche audience of people potentially more interested in Great Art than just likeable, funny shows. So it doesn’t inherently matter that pretty much every character on Veep is at best morally grey and primarily out to save their own skin, working to further their own careers without too much regard as to what this means to the public as a whole. Cynical satire like The Thick of It–directly described as the anti-West Wing–was never going to work on network television. This is something that inherently required a lot of creative control from someone with a very specific vision of what it should be. I expect Veep to be a continually successful program and am hopeful about its chances (or at least Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s chances) at Emmy nominations. I am curious to see how this show grows and changes–especially with the US Office here and with many quality seasons, being successful for almost precisely the opposite reasons.
To Be Continued
As evidenced by the length of this post, there’s a lot more to be said about what does or doesn’t make a successful adaptation or even a successful means of marketing a series from the UK to the US (or vice versa, I assume). I’ll address this topic more in the future–for anyone following along at home, likely next time discussing film adaptations again with The Thick of It and its film counterpart In The Loop and both the series and film version of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s The Trip.