Found in translation

Globalization can be seen as a curse or a blessing, but in the television business, it’s been a welcome business model. The thought came to me as I was catching up to the Franco-British TV crime drama The Tunnel, which had two short series runs for a total of 18 episodes on Sky Atlantic in the U.K. and Canal+ in France beginning in late 2013. In this bullish era of prestige TV with so many superb offerings through network, cable, and streaming services, I was only able to get to The Tunnel after polishing off the final, wrenching episode of the HBO miniseries The Night Of. Though I was watching these programs in the good old U.S.A., the two shows were fine examples of cross-pollination in the international video market.

The Tunnel concerns a dead body found exactly at the midpoint of the EuroTunnel under the English Channel, within the jurisdiction of British and French police departments alike and forcing a cavalier U.K. cop (Stephen Dillane, Game of Thrones) and an emotionally damaged French cop (Clémence Poésy of the Harry Potter movies) to work together to solve the murder. In a notable wrinkle, it was preceded a few months earlier by The Bridge, a Mexican-American interpretation of the story, set between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico after a corpse is found in the middle of the bridge that links the two cities. Demián Bichir (The Hateful Eight) played the Mexican detective on the case with his usual mix of subtlety and gusto, and the German-born actress Diane Kruger (Inglorious Basterds) acquitted herself beautifully as the American policewoman. Both series are polished and compelling, and deal with sex slavery and drug crime while addressing the killings that trigger the investigations. Despite their similarities, they are different in setting, cultural issues, tone, and certain plot elements, which justifies watching the two variations.


The truly remarkable thing about The Bridge and The Tunnel is the fact that each series was a remake of a Swedish-Danish co-production titled The Bridge (in Danish, Broen; in Swedish, Bron), which has been shown in more than 100 countries to date. There must be something so clever and resonant about the plot and characters of the Scandinavian version of The Bridge that it has a certain universal appeal that also lent itself to adaptation or reinvention. The same goes for The Night Of, which was developed from the 2008 debut season of the British crime series Criminal Justice. The latter starred Ben Whishaw (The Hours) as a young man accused of murder in London after he steals his father’s cab to attend a party and picks up a young woman on a bender. The Night Of changes the locale to New York City and reimagines the young man from a white working-class college kid to a collegiate Muslim-American, giving the show an extra layer of topicality.

It’s an interesting turn of affairs after numerous stateside shows have been dubbed or subtitled in other languages and exported overseas since the Golden Age of TV in the 1950s. I have to say it’s pretty hilarious to see an old episode of I Love Lucy with Lucy and Ricky Ricardo arguing in Japanese, or, in a worldwide hit of more recent vintage, Homer Simpson strangling Bart while blurting out an invective in Italian. And having watched an installment of Raumschiff Enterprise — sorry — the original Star Trek dubbed in German, I can tell you that there was a concerted effort on the part of the production company in Germany to find actors who actually could emulate the distinctive-voiced histrionics of William “Captain Kirk” Shatner and the coolly even tones of Leonard “Spock” Nimoy.


Certainly, America has been entertaining the world since the early part of the 20th century, exporting the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Mouse to appreciative audiences worldwide. Good ideas appear to travel well. So do bad ones, evident in the success of (and excuse my bias against reality-TV programming) America’s Got Talent, American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Big Brother, Wife Swap, The X Factor, and The Voice — all of which were reworked for the U.S. market from foreign TV shows. I’m not impressed there, though that should not diminish the value of the turnabout when it comes to quality drama and comedy.

The Great Britain to America export-import paradigm has existed for a while. In the early 1970s, producer Norman Lear scored his first across-the-board sitcom triumph with an across-the-pond reinvention, transforming the domestic class-war humor of the U.K. series Till Death Us Do Part into the controversial, thoroughly American ratings giant for CBS, All in the Family. Lear followed that with the junkyard hijinks of Sanford & Son, adapted for NBC from the BBC show Steptoe & Son. Apparently, the model worked. There were less profitable takes such as NBC’s attempt to do a U.S. version of the randy Brit hit Men Behaving Badly in the 1990s. Not every imitation can have the staying power — for better or worse — of ABC’s Three’s Company (inspired by the English sex-com Man About the House).


It’s conceivable that the runaway success of NBC’s The Office, based on creator-actor Ricky Gervais’s U.K. workplace comedy of the same name, reopened the floodgates (and, for the record, spawned variations in France, Germany, Canada, Chile, Israel, and Sweden). In the past decade, we’ve seen the Israeli terrorist-espionage drama Prisoner of War turned into Showtime’s popular Homeland; the subtle French zombie show Les Revenants become A&E’s The Returned; the politically charged Danish mystery Forbrydelsen shifted to a Seattle setting as AMC’s The Killing (enhancing the careers of its co-leads Mirielle Enos and Joel Kinnaman); Sweden’s A.I./sci-fi drama Real Humans get a British makeover as Humans, now airing in the U.S.; Venezuela’s Juana la virgin give birth to the CW’s Jane the Virgin; and the Columbian soap opera Yo soy Betty, la fe spun into ABC’s winsome dramedy Ugly Betty.

There are further examples, particularly in the U.K. to U.S. pipeline: trans-Atlantic editions of House of Cards, Shameless, Being Human, Skins, Life on Mars, and others. I’m particularly partial to HBO’s sharp-toothed all-American political comedy Veep, which was inspired by the BBC’s even more scathing romp through the corridors of Parliamentary power The Thick of It. This is more than a trend. It’s a worldwide revolution, and the viewers are winning.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, via, Roku, and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster