Saturday, July 9, 2011

Translating Australian comedy to the US

Wilfred has proved a surprise hit in the States, premiering to an audience of 3.8 million viewers last week. The show, about the friendship between suicidal loser Ryan (Elijah Wood) and a dog named Wilfred (played by Jason Gann in a dog suit) garnered the highest premiere rating ever for a program on the FX network.
It's surprising for a number of reasons; there is a dark streak to Wilfred that would seem to sit uncomfortably with American audiences' tastes in humour, while the show's whole premise is too left-field for many viewers to quite grasp. And even in its original format in Australia (where it ran for two seasons in 2007 and 2010, winning three AFI Awards in the process) it was hardly what you could call a smash hit. I think I'm the only person I know who watched it regularly, and most people barely seem to have heard of it.

So is the US version actually any good?

Well, yes, although I still think the Australian version is better. Despite it's deliberate edginess, in many ways the US version pans out like a typical odd-couple bromance; Wilfred may be coarse and seedy, but he "completes" Ryan and pushes him out of his comfort zone to be a better person (although its not quite as cheesy as that sounds). The original Australian Wilfred had a far more sinister character; aside from his undying loyalty to his owner Sarah, he was manipulative, cruel and entirely self-centred. The American producers obviously found this too dark and have tried to make it a bit more like the film I Love You, Man, with Wilfred as the Owen Wilson character.

That said, it's nice to see some better production values (the Australian version was as unglamorous as you can get), and nice to see that the concept originally birthed by Gann and Adam Zwar has found the appreciative audience it deserves. Keeping Gann as the titular character makes a huge difference; it is one of those cases where the lead actor is the show. As an example, while Steve Carrell does a creditable job in the US version of The Office, he is barely a patch on the toure de force that is Ricky Gervais in the original.

The relative success of Wilfred sits in marked contrast to the last Australian comedy that was adapted for US screens.

Kath and Kim was a huge hit in Australia. Not what would be termed sophisticated humour, but what it did, it did well. The US version was utter garbage and was thankfully put out of its misery after 1 season. Aside from it being completely unfunny, the problem was that the producers seemed to completely miss the point of what made it work.

The key theme of Kath and Kim - the contrast between one's real and imagined class - is emphasised by the Australian series' low production values, and a cast whose lack of physical attractiveness is played up by "bogan" accents, and deliberately bad hair and fashion. Yet the US version has a good-looking cast and a glossy set, and the social class aspect is downplayed. The original Kim character is dumpy and style-deficient yet is convinced of her own hotness (emphasised by co-creator Gina Riley being considerably older than the character). But Selma Blair as the American Kim actually is hot.

Kath & Kim Episode 10 - News by JumpinJollyHolly

It's hard to imagine a translation of Kath and Kim to the US ever being truly successful, but it's harder still to imagine how they could ever get it quite this bad.


  1. Thanks for the article. It was really helpful. I was trying to work out whether to watch the Australian version of Wilfred or the US version.

    Duncan from Ukraine

    ps. I tried posting with my google account but it didn't work

  2. @ Duncan: Thanks, I've had the same problem with my google account when using Internet Explorer. I don't seem to have the same problem when using Google Chrome though.