Fall TV: Remade in the USA

With a half-dozen new imports this fall, American TV is a diversified global marketplace. Too bad some of them are Yugos

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Trae Patton / NBC / Everett

Selma Blair and Molly Shannon in NBC's Kath and Kim

God bless the American TV industry! While the rest of corporate America is outsourcing, this fall, television is aggressively insourcing, remaking shows from other countries and populating them with red-blooded Yanks. It's not a brand-new strategy: All in the Family was adapted from a British show, and Ugly Betty and The Office are remakes of international hits. But with half a dozen new imports this fall alone, American TV has firmly established itself as a diversified global marketplace.

Unfortunately, with every Toyota or Lexus, you're going to get a few Yugos--like NBC's Aussie adaptation Kath & Kim (Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. E.T.). The premise: single fortysomething Kath (Molly Shannon) has her life disrupted when her dim-bulb daughter Kim (Selma Blair) leaves her husband and shows up at Kath's doorstep. Like the British Absolutely Fabulous, it's a comedy of grotesques. Kath is a clueless ninny, Kim an inarticulate walking id.

AbFab pulled this off by reveling in its characters' crudeness. Kath simply insults them, for their clothes, their pop-culture obsessiveness, their eating at Applebee's. It's unwatchably badly written. Selma Blair's Kim is a cartoon idiot ("It's over!" she declares of her marriage. "O-V-U-R!"), and while Shannon does her best with what she's given, the mother-daughter dialogue plays like bad Oscar-presenter patter.

CBS's adapted Britcom Worst Week (Mondays, 9:30 p.m. E.T.), meanwhile, is pretty much lifted from a Ben Stiller movie: hapless Sam (Kyle Bornheimer), just engaged, tries to impress his future in-laws, but every attempt ends disastrously. (In the first episode, he accidentally convinces his fiancée's family that her father is dead.) It's game if unambitious, with physical comedy involving the violation of poultry. By the second episode, there are signs that the premise may not sustain for long (the title itself gives it only a week), but it still shows that a good pratfall is the universal language.

In CBS's dramedy The Ex List (Fridays, 9 p.m. E.T.), adapted from an Israeli show, single gal Bella Bloom (Elizabeth Reaser) is told by a psychic that she will get married within a year to one of her ex-boyfriends--but if she doesn't find him in that time frame, she will never marry. In each episode she tracks down one ex.

The concept may be outlandish, but The Ex List is also raunchily funny (a scene in the pilot compares feminine-waxing choices to historical figures--the "Hitler," the "Gandhi"), and Reaser is adorable. If you can check your skepticism at the psychic's bead curtain, it's a charming, undemanding escape. Praise for it needs an asterisk, though, because the original producer-writer, Diane Ruggiero, recently quit the show in a creative dispute with CBS, which she said resisted the changes she wanted to make from the original series.

That brings us to the major challenge of Americanizing many of these shows. As with our restaurant portions and children, we make our TV bigger in the U.S. Whereas an overseas series may run a dozen or so episodes in its entire life, an American show will air 22 or more a season. Plots must be stretched, subplots multiplied, and some adaptations find that once they run out of source material, they've got nothing.

The fall's most promising import is also the most potentially susceptible to this problem. The premise of ABC's Life on Mars (Thursdays, 10 p.m. E.T.) is ludicrous but irresistible: New York City cop Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) gets hit by a car and does a reverse Rip Van Winkle, coming to 35 years earlier. Awakening in 1973 wearing a collar with the wingspan of a 747, he returns to his precinct and finds himself working a case directly connected to the one he was on when he was run over.

Is he alive? Can he go home? And what does it have to do with the David Bowie title song? The pilot doesn't explain, but the real fascination lies in how the show plays off the techno-expectations about police work that CSI has bred. With no computers or lab work, Sam has to chase his case '70s-style, with shoe leather and--as his new boss, Lieutenant Gene Hunt (Harvey Keitel), demonstrates--a healthy disregard for search warrants.

The highly praised British Life on Mars, however, resolved its story in only 16 episodes. Can this American Life avoid becoming ridiculous as it expands the story over dozens? That will depend on how well it rethinks the closed-end British story line. Ultimately, like Archie Bunker and all of TV's other Ellis Island inductees past, it will have to learn a new dialect if it wants to thrive in its new home country.