MTV’s new raunchy, boy-teen series The Inbetweeners probably isn’t as dull as it appears to be. It’s probably a delightful little comedy that resonates with its intended demographic. What stops me from appreciating the show? It’s a remake of a British series and fails to match the edge or spirit of the original.
This import is the latest in a recent string of scripted MTV fare that moves the network further away from whatever its format was when it was first launched (something about music? But really, who can remember that far back?) and the second British to North American remake—last year’s Skins was quickly axed after the Parents Television Council made a big stink about the depiction of teen sex. The Inbetweeners is a high school sitcom about four friends—lovelorn Simon, prim Will, loudmouth Jay, and himbo Neil. They’re all standing on the precipice of adulthood and floundering socially.
The coming-of-age mischief is distinctly male, with all of their bawdy misconceptions about girls and sex and the all-too-common constant razzing being the crux of the show’s humor and appeal. In the first episode, the boys skip school because they think it will help them get laid (girls love rebels!) and relentlessly tease dimwitted Neil about his maybe-gay father. In theory, The Inbetweeners is a nice complement to MTV’s witty, female-centric comedy Awkward and a perfect addition to this channel for the teenage set. But two episodes have aired and so far it is practically a shot-for-shot copy of the original, which aired 2008-2010 and spawned a 2011 film that will be released in the U.S. next week. So, why does this new show even exist?
Actually, there are a few striking differences between the American and British Inbetweeners, one being that visually, the new series is glossier—it has that hip MTV sheen. Perhaps, for some that prettiness is reason enough to justify a remake. The most significant point of divergence, though, is that the young cast just isn’t as effective as their predecessors.
Each episode is narrated by Will, a former prep school student who’s thrust into the wilds of the public education system after his philandering father, who’d been paying his tuition, abandons the family. In both versions of the show, the character is mildly snotty and entitled but vulnerable and eager to fit in. His dry delivery and sarcastic commentary on the mortifying situations that the boys find themselves in is supposed to drive the show, and out of the mouth of English actor Simon Bird, it does. Bird a former member of the Cambridge University Footlights (a comedy-minded theatrical club that counts half of Monty Python, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Richard Ayoade, and Emma Thompson amongst its alumni) is an artful comic actor—his dialogue zings. Joey Pollari, who has taken on the role, seems flat in comparison. Recycling the British stories only brings attention to the American series’ flaws.
This MTV remake raises the familiar issue of the necessity of American remakes in general. There are going to be aspects of any foreign produced series that don’t translate. With the original Inbetweeners, there were things about the English school structure and slang terms that were unfamiliar but that didn’t stop me from understanding the humor or identifying with the adolescent naïveté of the four protagonists. That’s generally true of most shows produced across the pond. Americans, and not just Anglophiles, are perfectly capable of accepting a British show in its original packaging—something that, in recent years, has been especially true. There’s, of course Doctor Who and its ardent worldwide fan base, but also Downton Abbey, which is about as British as things come—the drama revolves around one of those imposing, English castle-like estates and a class system that’s didn’t exist in U.S.—but that hasn’t been an obstacle for American audiences who’ve embraced the Countesses and tuxedoed footmen with a fervor that had previously been reserved for naked vampires.
While it’s difficult to be totally gung-ho about any remake, this sort of cultural appropriation can work when the source material is re-imagined. Greg Daniels’ pilot for The Office borrowed heavily from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s original and is one of the weakest episodes of the entire first year of the series. As the show began to deviate from the British version, it improved.
Hopefully, something similar will happen with MTV’s Inbetweeners.