Amber Waves of Self-Esteem

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Few things have made me feel as proud to be an American as the NBC debut of "The Weakest Link." For those of you fortunate enough to have been in a coma these past few weeks, this hot British import game show features quizmistress Anne Robinson, a dour, love-to-hate-her Brit who belittles failing contestants with acerbic putdowns and is chiefly known for a much-publicized catchphrase, which, just to be ornery, I am not going to repeat here.

The show proved a disappointment, if one can use "disappointment" to describe a show so overhyped that any reasonable person would both expect and hope that it would stink. The problem was the one element that was meant to elevate the show from being the blatant "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" rip-off it otherwise was: Robinson herself. Her stinging reprimands, and the players' comebacks to them, seemed labored and forced; to work, this kind of banter needs to seem effortless, but you could see the gears grinding in the medieval torture instrument of Robinson's mind.

The entire pace of the show seemed off, in part because of the editing, in part because Robinson's thick British accent often kept contestants from understanding her rapid-fire questions. By the final round, it seemed someone had taken her aside and told her to slow down and enunciate, which she did so exaggeratedly she seemed to be hosting a quiz for three-year-olds speaking English as a second language.

But it's unfair to blame Robinson entirely. Her real problem was that, through no fault of her own, her dominatrix schtick simply does not translate well. The British version of the show is dull enough after a few minutes, but at least its campy sadism worked there. Why? Because the contestants are British (major cultural generalization alert): meek, stoic and genially accepting of the lash.

Not so NBC's American players, whose typically indomitable, presumptuous optimism and self-esteem made for an irreconcilable tonal clash. Americans are acculturated to believe that we're as good as anyone else, even if we're not, and to spin our basest failures as successes. So the contestants, in banter with Robinson and in their grating post-game interview segments, rarely seemed chastened; with few exceptions, they blamed their expulsions (a player is voted off a "Link" team at the end of each round) on their team's jealousy or foolishness. Being American means never having to say you're an idiot.

Which left Robinson often glowering futilely as her insults rolled off these preternaturally self-pleased Yanks. The audience was no help either. The British version depends partly on the audience's playing along with the show's somber, inquisitorial mood. But the studio audience, like any other crowd of California tourists, was determined to have a good time — again, it is our birthright — and they undercut Robinson over and over, forcing laughs at zingers that just weren't funny, sometimes hooting almost like a Jerry Springer audience. All of which left poor Anne looking like she knew she was bombing, alternately on the verge of shushing the crowd and breaking out in flop sweat, counting the minutes until she could wing back to London and insult the Welsh among a populace that could appreciate her work.

All of which raises a question: When will we finally realize that no one makes American television better than Americans? (My international readers will say this is nothing to brag about, and they may be right, but I invite them to show me the American armored division that forced Europeans at gunpoint to watch "Ally McBeal.") It was probably "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" that forced this crisis in confidence; after it barreled across the Atlantic and took over the airwaves almost two years ago, "It's a hit in Europe!" became a more sure-fire pitch than "It's 'Friends,' but with Jenny McCarthy!"

Some of these imports have been huge hits. But "Weakest Link" reminds us that they work only when they've been thoroughly Americanized. "Millionaire" wouldn't have survived the trip without an avuncular über-American like Regis Philbin hosting. "Survivor" — notwithstanding its expat producer Mark Burnett — caught on with a storytelling style out of "The Real World" and casts heavy on American brashness. Whereas CBS allowed the European producers of "Big Brother" to handle the show's transplantation, and instead of the caged, voyeuristic powder keg we expected, they produced a goofy, bland, antiseptic Mentos commercial.

Sure, overseas culture has spurred some of our best TV, "All in the Family" being a classic example. But in general, and especially recently, quality overseas TV translates especially poorly into Yankee. Showtime's "Queer as Folk" was based on the brief run of a groundbreaking British drama about gay life, and when it premiered last fall, it was, if not spectacular, a fresh, cheeky transplant. That is, until the creators ran out of British scripts on which to to base their own, after which it soon devolved into a mechanical relationship drama that reminded us its producers were the same people who brought us NBC's anemic "Sisters." Even the award-winning movie "Traffic," based on the British miniseries "Traffik," lost a fair amount of subtlety in the hands of Yank filmmakers. As for NBC's dud "First Years," a young-pretty-lawyer show loosely based on the acclaimed British "This Life," the less said — and seen — the better.

The ratings may well prove me wrong, and "The Weakest Link" could be the Beatles and Regis rolled into one. But my guess is it needs to fix its tone, and quick, to meet NBC's unbelievably high expectations of it. And that may, alas, ultimately mean sending Robinson home to flog willing Britons and finding a new host whom Americans can learn to properly hate, American-style. Kathie Lee, call your agent.