It’s never easy being a teenager; navigating the rough waters of adolescence while avoiding the tidal waves of crippling embarrassment. The strength of this nautical metaphor notwithstanding, high school can be a devastating voyage. This is not specific to American schools, but instead a universal truth. The British series The Inbetweeners speaks to this universality. The series made such an impression with fans that not only is it getting the big screen treatment — the film opens this weekend in limited release — it has also recently enjoyed an Americanized version on television.
But will we enjoy it? Appropriating British television and repackaging it for American audiences is certainly nothing new. NBC’s The Office can definitely attest to that. But the TV remake of The Inbetweeners seems a less wise endeavor not long for this world. Do yourself a favor; watch the original series, the first two seasons of which are available on Netflix’s Watch Instantly service. It should become quite apparent that while the film, with the same full cast, should work, the American version of the show faces an arguably insurmountable challenge.
The Inbetweeners follows the exploits of four boys suffering the torments and perpetual indignities of a British comprehensive school. Will, our protagonist and narrator, is a highly intelligent, socially awkward student transferring from a private school; the perfect recipe for being completely ostracized. Will is slowly folded into a friend circle that includes the lovesick Simon, amiably dull Neil, and the hilariously profane Jay. The quartet engages in a number of adventures that often see their impish designs for sexual gratification devolving into total disaster.
But wait — American teenagers like sex, so why would this not translate? The thing is that much of the comedy in this show comes not so much from what the boys get up to, but how they react to it. In particular, Will, despite his young age, often reacts with a sort of straight-laced cynicism that typifies British humor in general. He bottles things up until they boil over and he engages in ill-advised tirades. Not appropriately dealing with emotions has been a staple of British comedy for years, and has its roots in their cultural mores. American teens are also capable of flying off the handle, sure, but the snide stoicism leading up to those moments ring false from the young American actor portraying him in the new version. Michael Cera was able to pull this off on Arrested Development, but the difference between that show and The Inbetweeners is that the latter does not take place in so absurd a universe. Will’s demeanor is the only thing about The Inbetweeners that feels even slightly removed from the experience of the average high school kid. It’s an odd balance to strike, and one that is absent from Joey Pollari’s performance in the U.S. adaptation.
There also must be acknowledged the vastly different censorship standards that exist between American and British television. A trademark of The Inbetweeners is its colorful array of vulgarity that comes spilling from the mouths of its leads. It’s not simply a matter of the sonorously spiteful nature of British slang, but the way in which these kids string together their expletives that gives their crudity a musical quality. There are things said on The Inbetweeners that, while uproariously funny, would never fly on the much more oppressively regulated American airwaves. When watching the American version, you’ll notice several key invectives are bleeped; something doomed to wear out its welcome sooner rather than later.
Is it worth watching the pilot, even the first few episodes of the MTV Inbetweeners? Sure, if only to note the differences. But yet again, this is a case of unnecessary remake occurring when a simple port of the original series would have sufficed. What has happened in the translation is that much of the identity of the British Inbetweeners has been stripped down into something that woefully resembles painfully conventional high school TV fare, something in which we on this side of the pond have been drowning for years.
Spend an afternoon or two investigating the original series on Netflix. It won’t take long for the British progenitor to convince you of the coming collapse of its American offspring.
[Photo Credits: E4, MTV]