When US Remakes Of Euro Shows Go Bad – Lost In Translation From Look! It Moves! by Adi Tantimedh

Adi Tantimedh writes,


I don't know if you're tired of hearing critics and pundits talk about the Golden Age of Television that we're supposedly living in right now, but things are pretty interesting right now, and not always in a good way.

While the US has Breaking Bad, The Wire and Mad Men, Europe has had a resurgence of Danish TV shows like The Killing, Borgen and any number of other UK and Euro shows that have gotten a lot of buzz in the last few years. Danish noir shows have been such a hit in the UK that they even inspired Chris Chibnall to create a British equivalent, Broadchurch, a runaway hit on British TV but which came and went on US TV with barely any fanfare.

TV is big business, even bigger business than ever before with hundreds of cable channels that need to fill airtime, and the networks competing for hits. And Hollywood will of course look to popular and acclaimed reality shows and dramas from overseas to remake. That can be tricky. It can mean culturally specific nuances and details that gave the original shows their edge, that made them interesting in the first place, might get smoothed over, shaved off to create something much more generic and far less interesting.

I was thinking lately about the US remake of The Killing. The original Danish show was all the rage in the UK and Europe but never shown in the US. Anglophiles and Europhiles imported the DVDs to watch on all-region players and it earned enough of a cult following from an upmarket audience to get write-ups about the rise of European TV shows and Scandinavian noir in the New York Times and The New Yorker.


Then there's the US remake of The Killing. The first season largely followed the original first season of the Danish show, transplanted to Seattle. It was beat-for-beat almost identity, then went in a different direction in subsequent seasons that embodied many things wrong with US TV writing. In the UK, Sarah Lund has become a classic iconic cop character for her flawed but stoical single-mindedness. Not so her American counterpart Sarah Linden. The writers felt the need to burden the character with a history of mental instability, which makes her weaker and more vulnerable than Sarah Lund, and in subsequent seasons she came off as much more erratic and rather stupid, especially when the plot required her to be. Where the second and third seasons of the Danish show were more overtly political, the US version lapsed into mawkish melodrama and dumb plots full of holes. No wonder the ratings dropped despite a fan following. But then those fans don't seem to have seen the superior Danish show. And for some reason, the original Danish show is still no available in the US. I wonder if some kind of contract had been signed to keep it off the air here.


The Bridge is another hit Danish crime show remade in the US. Where the original was set on the bridge that links Denmark to Sweden and teamed a laid back Danish detective with a Swedish policewoman with Asperger's Syndrome, the US remake is set on the US-Mexican border to hit on current hot-button issues involving drug cartels and illegal immigrants. It also added a meandering subplot about an American woman who discovers her late husband's involvement with illegal activities across the border. Where the main high concept of a brilliant policewoman with Asperger's felt in keeping with the liberal, progressive atmosphere of Denmark, the same character feels oddly incongruous in the US version.


Like The Killing, the US remake of The Bridge goes off in its own direction from the European original after the first season. Where the Danish show deals with an ecoterrorist plot in its second season, the US show veers into its ongoing cartel plot. This might show the difference between the preoccupations of Denmark and the US. Denmark is concerned with environmental issues and terrorists, America continues to express its anxieties about race, gang violence and corruption. The worst change is that the US version this season reduces the heroine to a damsel-in-distress for the hero to rescue.

There's a pattern here in these two remade shows. It's as if Hollywood just can't kick the habit of reducing its female characters to women in distress or "vulnerable" and unstable characters that need men to prop them up. I wonder why the writers choose to go that route. Is it insecurity? A need to control strong women? It's like an attempt to resist the increasing prominence of women in the general culture.


Then there's Low Winter Sun. Where the original UK version was a two-part, five-hour miniseries that was one of the tightest, darkest pieces of Scottish noir of the past decade, the US remake sets it in Detroit and attempts to stretch out the story to a long season packed with clunky social commentary on the state of post-crash Detroit and how it symbolises the fall of the US economy in an attempt to make the show as profound as The Wire. The US version showed all the signs of network executive memos imposing ideas that failed to come together. Where the UK show was tight, precise and devastating, the US version ended up flabby and imprecise. And Mark Strong, the star of the UK version gets to play the vastly different US version of the same character in an instance of odd metatextual juxtaposition. It's probably the biggest recent example of a botched remake of a European TV series. The recent US version of the Danish cop series Those Who Kill was apparently so terrible (I didn't watch it) that the cable network yanked the show after the first few episodes aired, not even broadcasting the entire season.


Next there's Broadchurch, the UK's runaway success at the formula established by The Killing, featuring season-long story about the ripple effects of a murder on a small seaside town that indulges in a British version of the emotional miserabilism of The Killing and other Danish crime dramas. It won awards and was hailed as a new standard for British drama. It became a major cultural talking point and touchstone last year.


Broadchurch has been remade in the US into Gracepoint, airing this autumn. Like Low Winter Sun, it has its original star, David Tennant, playing an American version of the same character in the US remake. I've been told the pilot episode is a beat-for-beat remake of the first episode of Broadchurch. I'll be curious how the rest of the series will go. The makers have been at pains to hint that the answer to its whodunit might be different from the UK version's in order to entice viewers to watch it. Broadchurch was a kind of downbeat state-of-the-nation allegory about uncertain times, I wonder if Gracepoint would be as potent with that theme when there have been many US shows with the variations on that same theme already.

To those of us who have seen the European versions of these shows, the US remakes feel not only inferior, but also duller and redundant. The originals were major talking points when they were broadcast in Europe, but their remakes have barely made a blip in the US. It's interesting to study them and note the differences, deconstruct what works and what doesn't work in the remakes, but where the original versions felt essential, the US remakes tend to feel like more generic products created to fill up airtime on busy channels struggling for eyeballs.

The original European shows felt like Art. Their US remakes feel like just business.

Getting a US remake at lookitmoves@gmail.com

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Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh

About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.

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