Friday, January 04, 2008

Two countries, separated by a common celebrity culture

So, it was Christmas, so I watched the last ever Extras. Twice. The BBC version, and the one shown in the States, on HBO. This isn't a case of a no-holds-barred remake, as happened to The Office, but a few gentle tweaks to the script to make it more palatable to a Stateside audience.

First, the scene in the department store. In the original, we heard a Jade Goody doll emitting a racist tirade; on HBO, for the benefit of those unacquainted with Ms Goody, she is replaced by Michael Richards (aka Cosmo Kramer), who had a similar fall from grace a while back. This is just about feasible, as Seinfeld was pretty popular on the east side of the pond. But then the manager's line about Same Difference (Brit reality show act) is replaced by one about Sanjaya (US equivalent, but without the slightly iffy incest overtones, and not from Pompey, apparently). I know this isn't documentary realism, but one of the strengths of Gervais's shows is that they are at least grounded in observation and recognition. It's not just that a British shop wouldn't stock a Sanjaya doll: nobody in the scene, Andy, Maggie nor the manager, would have the faintest clue who Sanjaya was.

Things get even dafter towards the end. In the Big Brother house, June Sarpong claims that she wants to become a proper journalist, but then looks stupid because she doesn't know who Kate Adie is. Except that, for North American viewers, Adie is replaced by Katie Couric. Why would a British TV performer be expected to know the anchor of the CBS Evening News? What purpose does this serve.

I don't want this to turn into an "Americans are stupid" post, because they're not, or no more than the Brits or the Belgians or the Bhutanese, at least. But Americans exist in a media environment which appears to have very low expectations of them, and this can't fail to have an effect. First, there is no appeal to a sense of curiosity. Of course American viewers would be unfamiliar with Jade Goody. Lucky them. But they're never put in a position where they have to find out who she is, even via the simple task of keying her name into Google.

Moreover, American viewers will get a skewed perception of the rest of the world, and will end up believeing that the rest of us know and care about Katie Couric or Sanjaya. The funny thing is, lots of foreigners do know about Couric and Sanjaya: not necessarily because they watch CBS News or American Idol, but because the US product they do see is not adapted for their market, so any such references appear, unamended. So they Google them. Not necessarily the primary use for which this wonderful technology was intended, but hey, wuddeva. The thing is, if America is to remain the sole hyperpower (a status that may come under threat in the future, but we're not there yet), this monocular idea of what's going on beyond the nation's borders can only be unhealthy.

Oh look. Mike Huckabee just won the Republican caucus in Iowa. Point made, I think.

PS: More Huckabee stuff here.


9/10ths Full of Penguins said...

I'm often infuriated by the US need to spoon-feed theirs and everyone else's brains.

However, there is hope. Yes, Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucus for the Republicans. But Barack Obama won for the Democrats.

(crosses fingers and hopes for the best)

Geoff said...

Are you 'avin' a laugh, Tim?

If the boot were on the other foot I probably wouldn't Google the American X-Factor winner/newsreader. I'd just let it go over my head. But I certainly wouldn't want Seinfeld namechecking Frank Bough. It wouldn't really ring true.

Portsmouth, eh? Didn't you get a tingle of pride?

Billy said...

They should have left the original names in, but then a flash appears at the side of the screen tells you who they are. Or they should have remade the whole thing.

Rog said...

I'm glad they kept the Carphone Warehouse in.

And hopefully the joke: "Fish Stew? No, it was only a first date."

Rimshot said...

I can never tell when you're sincere or taking the piss.

Are you trying to say that there is a world outside the continental 48 that has something other to do than obsess over the U.S. of A.? Infeasable! As far as I knew, British accents only existed so we could tell who the bad guys are in the movies.

Tim F said...

9/10: Too many people are comparing Barack to Bobby Kennedy. And you know what happened to him...

More than a tingle, Geoff. Before them, all we had was Joe Jackson. Oh, and Simon Dupree and his Big Sound.

Billy: The flash thing sounds too much like subtitles. People don't like subtitles. Too much like reading.

Murph: Ooh, I'll need to check whether Fish stew stayed intact on HBO. Must admit, I did laugh at that one.

Rimshot: Oh, I always sincere. Except for this bit.

FirstNations said...

i've seen the same thing countless times. switching back and forth from CBC to CBS is an interesting and enlightening experiment in 'social spin'. the joke only gets funnier once a news program comes on.
lots funnier. not necessarily funny 'ha ha', though.

rock ON, tim.

dinahmow said...

'way Down Under...we don't know who half the UK stars are. We do, however, know which American popsy has a mole on his/her butt, who has been caught in flagrante with whom and how often, why nobody who has not been on Oprah (interesting twist on grammar here!)can possibly win an Oscar/Presidential nauseum.
Sometimes, late at night, I wonder if Dubya would have got away with the invasion if more Americans had actually read real news reports...

Happy New Year, Tim!

Tim F said...

Not necessarily funny 'ha ha', FN? But surely for the last eight years we've had to laugh to keep from crying?

Dinah: I can't think of a country where the majority of the population reads 'real news' with any great enthusiasm.

llewtrah said...

My main gripe is the US adverts reused over here. "Urge to 'erbal" - am I going to buy a product that makes me sound like an uneducated guttersnipe? The street furniture in Gaviscon and Celebrations ads is all wrong, even if the voices have been redubbed. It jars.