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Americans Can't Do Anything Right

By Dustin Rowles | TV | January 11, 2011 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | January 11, 2011 |

I usually have little compunction about judging an entire series on the pilot episode. That was certainly true of “The Cape,” a two-hour premiere that suggested that it was probably the best that the series had to offer. But there are certain shows that do provide modest pilot episodes that only show a fraction of the promise of the entire series. “Terriers” comes quickly to mind; that was a pilot episode that I didn’t love, but it provided enough promise to stick with and the payoff was well worth it.

Both “Episodes” and “Shameless,” which premiered on Showtime last Sunday, are shows that I don’t feel comfortable judging based upon their first episodes. They were both mediocre, at best, but for different reasons, they both hold a lot of unfulfilled promise.

“Episodes” was the one I was most excited about, based mostly on the early promos from a full year ago. The show is a behind the scenes look at a successful British television show being translated into an American one (and fittingly, it’s co-produced by Showtime and the BBC). It stars two very successful British television stars, Tamsin Greig (“Green WIng,” “Black Books”) and Stephen Mangan (“Green Wing,” “Free Agents”), as well as Matt LeBlanc. The premise is brilliant: take a smart, witty British television show and see how badly American television can fuck it up.

The big joke here is that Matt LeBlanc is playing himself, and he’s allowing himself to be the punchline to the entire series. When you think of erudite, intellectual headmaster, Joey from “Friends” is the last person you’d imagine, but that’s just the sort of casting an American translation would make. The problem with premiere episode, unfortunately, is that it was all set up to the Matt LeBlanc joke. Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Mangan and Greig, respectively) agree to bring their show to America, only to realize that the network executive (John Pankow, “Mad About You”) has every intention of Americanizing it, which means rejecting the British originator of the headmaster role (Richard Griffiths) because he’s “too British” and replacing him with LeBlanc, re-entering television for the first time since “Joey” was cancelled both in the show and the show within the show.

It wasn’t that funny. But, I think that once LeBlanc gets involved, it will be.

There’s a certain irony to following “Episodes” with “Shameless,” because it’s a clear example of exactly what “Episodes” is mocking: The American translation of a beloved British television show. “Shameless” doesn’t exactly have the huge American following that the UK “The Office” had (in fact, I’m probably only one of three Americans who watches the British “Shameless”), but the premiere episode of “Shameless” suffers from the same problem that pilot episode of the American “The Office” did. It’s a scene-for-scene recreation, minus the British sensibility, which is what makes the UK “Shameless” so successful.

I wish I could unsee the British “Shameless” because I was completely incapable of divorcing the American version. It just felt like American actors doing a very poor imitation of the British pilot. The difference between the opening titles demonstrates everything that’s wrong with the American version:

Shameless UK Opening

Shameless American Opening Narration

The American version, even with William H. Macy, lacks the personality of the British show. It says all you need to know that the role of Steve, originated by James McAvoy, is now being played by this tool. The only American counterpart that even begins to do justice for the original character is Emmy Rossom, who plays Fiona, the older sister asked to look after the giant ghetto family saddled with a drunk father (William H. Macy) and missing its mother (who disappeared). Macy and even Joan Cusack are so far unable to breath new life into the roles, and everyone else are sad, sad imitations. To me, it’s like the British “Shameless” has been turned into “Party of Five.”

Nevertheless, Showtime’s “Shameless” is getting decent notices from some television critics, no doubt ones less familiar with the British version. It’s for that reason — and the hope that the entire series isn’t a carbon copy of the first season of the British version — that I’ll stick it out for a few more episodes. The talent is there, and obviously, so are the character sketches. The storylines, too, are phenomenal (at least for four seasons, at which point the British series ran out of steam), they just need to provide a reason for those of us who’ve seen the UK version to stick around.

Or not. For everyone else, it’s new, I guess, and without a superior show to compare it to, maybe it gels. And for those worrying that Macy and Cusack didn’t get enough screen time, worry not: If it follows the British series, their roles will expand considerably in coming episodes.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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