In 2008 a British sitcom by the name of The Inbetweeners premiered on E4. It was the first comedy series commissioned for the channel, which mostly aired American imports. The show followed a group of male teenage social outcasts attending Rudge Park Conservative. The show’s premise was based around the typical male coming-of-age sex comedy and a lot of the basic content was rather standard fare. While the territory certainly wasn’t new, The Inbetweeners managed to breathe new life into the genre through its well fleshed-out characters and its over-the-top raunchy content. The series became extremely popular. It ran for three series, won several awards, and even spawned a feature film in 2011.
The series’ popularity did not stop in the UK. The show eventually aired in Australia, France, Canada, Belgium, Sweden, New Zealand, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Columbia, France, Portugal, Russia, the United States, Norway, the Netherlands, and Spain. While the series aired on BBC America in the United States, MTV decided that they would remake the series. It is no surprise that they wanted to remake this series. British series are the most popular television import in America (Mittel 443) and some remakes of these series, such as The Office, have been extremely popular. The first episode aired in August of 2012.
This paper intends to look at the similarities and differences between the two versions of The Inbetweeners. By discussing the differences and similarities in form and content, this paper also hopes to spread some light on the fundamental differences between the American and British television systems. Lastly, this paper also makes an attempt to understand just how the American version turned out so bad.
The original British series follows the misadventures of four friends: Simon, Neil, Jay and Will. This foursome is the titular group of friends. They exist in that awkward stage between childhood and adulthood. As such, much of the series focuses on the issues that are most important to teenage boys. These include: dating, attempts at virginity loss, masturbation, parental issues, school problems, drinking, drugs, and so on. Much attention is paid to the humiliation the boys experience in relation to these issues and situations. They are a group of losers trying to be cool or get the girl, and most of the comedy comes from the humiliation of them failing miserably.
One of the most distinguishing aspects of the show is its raunchiness. The show does not shy away from any of its subject matter. The characters are seen masturbating in a myriad of creative ways, engaging in sexual situations, drinking, doing drugs, and otherwise engaging in compromising scenarios. They also spout out every exploitative known to man. No word is too extreme for the characters to use and none of these words are censored in any way. The show also features a fair amount of nudity. The nudity in uncensored and is mostly the boys.
Channel 4 put out a list of the top ten Inbetweeners moments (“The Inbetweeners: Top Ten Moments”). They have been summarized and included here as a means to get an idea of the show’s content without wasting too much time:
1. Simon gets drunk and pukes on his crush and her little brother.
2. Will is infuriated by the fact that a group of people are allowed to cut in front of him while he is in line for a roller coaster. He spews out all sorts of nasty things about this group of people before he learns that they have Down syndrome.
3. Simon finally gets a chance to lose his virginity, but he can’t get it up. He gets frustrated and begins to verbally and physically assault his penis.
4. Will takes energy supplements so he can study for his exams. They take a toll on his stomach and he ends up “pooing himself” during one of his exams.
5. Jay tells everyone about his experience with motorcycles and offers to try Neil’s new motorcycle out. He promptly crashes it.
6. One of Jay’s other friends embarrasses him, making him the object of ridicule among his immediate group of friends. Jay has a total breakdown and ends the friendship with the other friend by jumping up and down on his car.
7. Will gets drunk and calls Neil’s dad a bumder, which is a British term for homosexual.
8. Jay screams “Bus Wankers” at a group of people standing and waiting for their bus. They catch up with him at the end of the episode.
9. Simon performs in a fashion show with one of his testicles hanging out.
10. The boys find themselves stranded on a boat and accidentally catch a fish. Neil does the humane thing and punches it to death.
The first two episodes of the American version follow the British version almost scene for scene. After that all of the storylines either borrow aspects from the British version or are completely new. Most of the newer storylines borrow heavily from American sitcom conventions. In one episode the boys start a cooking clubs to meet girls. Another episode turns into a who-dun-it as Will tries to figure out who started a trashcan fire.
Since the American version does use a lot of the British version’s storylines, the show is still raunchy. However, much of the content itself is toned down. The cursing is there, but it’s much less frequent and often bleeped. The British version got away with using words like “cunt” and “fuck” while the US version couldn’t say “god damnit” without bleeping out the word “god”.
Masturbation and sex are talked about, but usually not shown and certainly not to the extent they were in the British version. While the US characters are shown in bathing suits or underwear, none of the characters are even depicted as totally nude.
What are the reasons for the difference in content between the two versions? Firstly, Europe has no agency that controls television content (Medina-Abenoza). Agencies in Europe only have control over:
1. Advertising time and practices.
2. Time allowed to candidates during elections.
3. Time and content in children’s programming. (Medina-Abenoza)
In the US, the FCC does have control over content. Content that is deemed “obscene” may not be aired at any time. The FCC website states that:
It is a violation of federal law to air obscene programming at any time. It is also a violation of federal law to air indecent programming or profane language during certain hours. Congress has given the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the responsibility for administratively enforcing these laws. The FCC may revoke a station license, impose a monetary forfeiture or issue a warning if a station airs obscene, indecent or profane material. (“Obscenity Indecency, Profanity” para 1)
In order to be considered obscene, the content itself must meet three criteria:
1. An average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
2. The material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and
3. The material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic,
political or scientific value. (“Obscenity Indecency, Profanity” para 3)
Aside from obscene content, there is also indecent material. The FCC defines indecent material as, “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities” (“Obscenity Indecency, Profanity” para 4). Lastly, there is profane content, which is defined as, “…language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance” (“Obscenity Indecency, Profanity” para 7). Content deemed obscene may not air at all, while content deemed indecent or profane content cannot be aired between the hours of 6AM and 10PM.
Obviously, these criteria seem rather vague and certainly subjective. The fact of the matter is broadcasters need to make their best effort to adhere to these rules. If the FCC determinates a station has violated one of these policies it can “revoke a station license, impose a monetary forfeiture or issue a warning if a station airs obscene, indecent or profane material” (“Obscenity, Indecency, Profanity” para 1). In other words, broadcasters can get in big trouble for airing content that goes against the policies the FCC has in place.
Another issue that comes into play are the cultural differences between Europeans and Americans. Generally speaking, Europeans are more permissive when it comes to sex when compared to Americans (Medina-Abenoza). This contributes to what each determines as appropriate television fare and perhaps the amount of control they give their respective television regulatory agencies.
CommonSense Media, an American media watchdog group, says the following about the toned-down American version of the series:
“Parents need to know that The Inbetweeners is a raunchy comedy centering on four teen boys and their high school trials and tribulations. The four boys lust non-stop after women and indulge in some very dirty talk, which ranges from a discussion of whether one character’s father is gay to the advantages of having sex with “RV girls” who are usually “sluts.” In addition to talking constantly about sex in very explicit terms, the underage characters buy and drink alcohol, skip school, and sneak around visiting love interests without parents’ knowledge. But although the characters talk and fantasize constantly about sex, sex never actually occurs on screen, and female characters are presented as relatable, whole people instead of objects. Expect drug references and some bleeped language (“f–k,” “s–t”) and some audible cursing (“ass,” “bitch”).” (Slayton)
It is no surprise, then, that the content had to be toned down in the US version of The Inbetweeners. A scene-by-scene remake would almost definitely defy FCC policies. “Almost definitely” because the policies are rather vague. MTV played it safe because the alternative might have been facing an investigation by the FCC and potentially paying a large fine for airing content that may have gone against their policies.
There is also the issue of advertisers. Some advertisers do not want to be associated with certain content or broadcasters that air that content. If advertisers pull due to being uncomfortable with the show’s content, MTV loses money. Offensive content can also cause boycotts of the series/channel, public outrage, and negative publicity which, again, can lead to advertisers pulling out. Essentially, the content was toned down to avoid potential money loss and keeping in line with America’s view of sex.
In this section we will take a look at how the four main characters were treated in each version. For the most part, the characters themselves were kept almost identical. This section will give a short overview of each character and then discuss any major differences between the two versions of the show.
Will is the main character of the series. He is the smartest of the group and does the best in school as he plans to attend a top university. As he is the most mature of his group of friends, he often grounds the show and a large amount of the comedy comes from his response to the antics his friends talk him into getting into. Behind Will, Simon is the most sensible in the series. Most of his plotlines revolve around his never-ending crush on Carlie d’Amato and the disasters that ensue as he tries to pursue her.
Jay is the crudest member of the group. Anything and everything that comes out of his mouth relates to girls, sex, or masturbation. He is constantly telling lies about the number of girls he has had sex with and the multiple ways he has done it with them. He is always talking himself up and sharing experiences that never happened. Jay is also the least sexually experienced of the others in the group. Neil is the oddball in this group of misfits. He is the most gullible member of the group and often has no idea what is going on or the gravity of the situations he finds himself in. He is also an excellent dancer.
The US and UK versions of Will and Simon are virtually identical. They act the same, share the same history, and the actors portraying them even look similar. Even Neil is more or less similar, though they portrayed him as more of a stoner type than the slow-witted oddball in the British version, long hair and all. The biggest departure from the British version by far is Jay. With the exception of Neil’s hair change, the main characters in the American version all have the same physical features of their British counterparts. However, with Jay, they made him fat.
Now, the American obesity rate is higher than that of the British population (“Obesity Statistics”). It is possible that they were trying to make the character more relatable or realistic given the American version obviously takes place in America. It’s also possible that they liked the actor so much they did not mind portraying that character of being overweight. Perhaps the weight issue did not issue did not even cross their minds.
All of those explanations are certainly possible, but given the nature of Jay’s character the decision was probably intentional. Remember, Jay is the crudest member of the group, everything that comes out of his mouth is offensive. Since the content of the show already had to be toned down, how do you deal with the most offensive character of the show? Apparently, you make him fat.
The fact of the matter is, the kind of gross content that spews from Jay’s mouth would be read as far more misogynistic and offensive coming from an athletic-bodied person than an overweight person. Him being overweight not only makes his stories that much less believable, but also makes him less believable as a person. It turns him into a joke, a caricature.
In the British version Jay is more fully fleshed-out. The audience is made to realize much of his lying and general personality is a response to his relationship with his condescending father and his embarrassment of being sexual inexperienced. None of this is really touched upon in the American version.
Douglas Rushkoff coined the term “Mook” in his Frontline episode “The Merchants of Cool”. A Mook is a “…crude, loud, obnoxious, in-your-face character that can be found almost any hour of day or night somewhere on MTV. He’s a teen frozen in permanent adolescence” (“Tour This Landscape” para 2). Rushkoff contends that Mooks don’t exist in reality. “He’s a creation of marketers, designed to capitalize on the testosterone-driven madness of adolescence. He grabs them below the belt and then reaches for their wallets” (“Tour This Landscape” para 4). The American version of Jay definitely falls into the Mook category. By making him overweight and taking away the reasons for his lying and personality, the American Jay is becomes less mean-spirited and much marketable.
There is not much to say in terms of setting. The American version takes place in American and the British version takes place in Britain. Aside from the normal things that have to be changed (cultural references, slang terms, etc…) when a program moves from one country another, the setting did not have any real affect the show’s content, nor did the settings really change from one version to the other.
Form or What Went Wrong
The previous section of the paper set up the fact that the American version of the show had more or less the same (however much toned down) content of the British version of the show. Frankly, it is impossible to compare both versions of the show without discussing how awful the American version is. Using IMDB as a reference point, the British version has a rating of 8.5 while the American version has a 4.4. If the content is basically the same, it is the expression of the content, or the form, where the American version fails.
Runtime and Structure
Each episode of the British version of the show runs around twenty-five minutes. The American version runs for around twenty-minutes. The reason for this is simply because the EU has harsher advertising rules than the US. The American version can show more commercials, so it does. Thus, the show is shorter.
Both versions are similar in terms of structure. In most episodes there is one event that all of the boys encounter and then several smaller storythreads develop for each of the characters. Some of these storythreads are given more time than others, though the amount of attention each character’s individual storythread receives changes from episode to episode.
For example, in one episode the boys decide to go to an amusement park. Will is determined to ride a specific roller coaster and has to overcome several obstacles to make this happen. Simon ruins his new car on the way to the amusement park and needs to figure out for to get it fixed before he comes home. Both Neil and Jay receive minor storythreads in this episode. Neil works at the amusement park and has his clothes stolen, forcing him to walk around the park in a ridiculous outfit he took from the lost-and-found. Jay tries to meet girls at the park.
Editing and Style
Neither version of the show has much of a distinctive editing style or real “look” to it. None of the camerawork is especially complex or interesting. It is simple and works for the story. Any kind of defining style one could attribute to either series would be the stylized intro.
In the British version, most, if not all, of the transitions are simple cuts. The American version does something different, though. Montages have been added to a decent number of the episodes. These montages usually occur at the end of an episode and generally feature the main characters goofing off. In one episode the montage involves them cleaning up a mess they made and another involves them getting into a food fight. These montages also feature a song playing during them.
If one were to watch episodes streaming from MTV’s website, they would also see commercials for the music that played during some of the episodes, though this is not explicitly stated. What the montages amount to is a chance for MTV to advertise specific bands during the episode itself. MTV is pushing its product in the American version. While the British version also featured non-diegetic music in certain scenes and could very well be adverting music itself, it did not overtly end episodes with a pointless montage so it could sell music.
Acting and Final Product
The actors of the British version of The Inbetweeners do a great job of portraying their characters. Since the acting is believable the characters come alive and the audience is allowed to understand and ultimately identify with the characters. The audience can put themselves in the characters’ shoes. They sympathize and laugh at their misfortune. They can feel the characters’ embarrassment and humiliation.
The British version is very funny. For a comedy to be successful it depends on the writing, the actors who present the material to the audience, and the direction they are given to present it correctly. While comedy itself is subjective, the British series won two BAFTA awards for best situation comedy, so it was obviously doing something right.
The actors in the American version fail in comparison. Actually, they just generally fail. The acting in the American version is not very good. The bad acting makes it harder for the characters to come alive and it makes it that much harder for the audience to relate to the characters or situations. It makes it hard to enjoy the show.
The comedy suffers, as well. The first few episodes follow the British scripts almost exactly. There are the same characters performing the same jokes and they are just not funny. The writing is the same. The acting is much worse. It is hard to discuss what direction they were given, but it does not seem like they were given much. Even bad actors can pull off a joke here and there. The overall laughs in the American versions are very few and far between.
It is for this precise reason that the American version fails. The British version featured characters that felt like real people, which made the jokes funnier and the characters more relatable. The British version knew how to set up a joke and execute it properly. It paid attention to detail and knew how to let the humanness of the characters show through.
Watching the American version feels like watching emotionless cardboard cutouts going through the motions. Sure, the content is there, but the expression of it is so badly done it makes it difficult to watch. The American version is at its best when it branches off and develops its own plots and own jokes. The problem is that the show is such a train wreck that the occasional laugh here and there does not warrant the watch.
While the British version of The Inbetweenersis a great British sitcom, the American version just does not cut it. Despite the content being nearly the same, the show fails in its expression of the material. Of course, this is nothing new. According to Daniel Coleridge, “Britcoms adapted for American broadcast TV often can end up homogenized and lame” (para 3). This is precisely what happened here. Part of the British version’s charm was how far it pushed the envelope. MTV took the show, toned it down, hired bad actors, gave them no direction, and ended up with a horrible version of a really great show. Take a look at other American attempts to remake British shows, such as Skins, Coupling, The IT Crowd, Absolutely Fabulous, etc… It is nothing new.
Coleridge, Daniel R., “NBC’s Coupling Courts Controversy”. TV Guide. 3 Sept. 2003. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. < http://www.tvguide.com/news/NBCs-Coupling-Courts-41976.aspx>.
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