Thursday, July 03, 2008

TV remakes are the new British invasion

So, here we are, 232 years after our Declaration of Independence from the British Empire. But we still haven’t gotten over our fascination with virtually all things British.

With the exception of meat pies, which are disgusting. We’re over them. And the same goes for everything else the British pass off as edible. Seriously, the only reason London is now the world’s food capital is because of all the immigrants who brought their native dishes with them. But I digress.

Certainly, American interest in what is, culturally if not literally, the mother land has waned somewhat with the death of Princess Diana. The royal family just isn’t as interesting without her. Even the scandals have lost their luster. And there has been nothing in the past 40 or so years to compare to the British invasion of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Still, the United Kingdom is the first place we look to find television shows that can be re-tooled for American consumption.

“The Office” is a prime example, as well as a rare example of a British import that has staying power in its nicer, Americanized version. Personally, I prefer the original, darker model, with series co-creator Ricky Gervais as the loathsome David Brent, versus Steve Carell’s merely clueless Michael Scott. But you can’t deny NBC’s success in finally adapting a British series to the sensibilities of us less jaded Yanks.

Now, AMC is having a go at remaking a British 1960s cult classic, “The Prisoner.”

This is a much trickier proposition. The original “Prisoner,” created by and starring Patrick McGoohan (“Braveheart”), is one of the most revered TV shows ever produced. And it has a small but vocal following — including me — that will not look kindly on any remake that fails to remain true to McGoohan’s deeply personal, philosophical vision.

A surreal blend of science fiction and Cold War spy drama, “The Prisoner” follows a former secret agent, known only as Number Six, as he attempts to escape from the Village, a seemingly pleasant seaside community that is really a prison for people who know too much. During just 16 episodes, the series explores themes like the individual vs. society, freedom vs. conformity, humanity vs. technology and privacy vs. surveillance.

How much do I love this show? Currently, the desktop theme on my computer is emblazoned with one of Number Six’s most memorable quotes: “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.”

Words to live by.

Each week, McGoohan’s Number Six matched wits with “the new Number Two,” the expendable bureaucrat charged with running the Village for the mysterious and unseen Number One. Almost every week, there was a new Number Two, replacing last week’s, who was presumably reassigned after failing to pry loose Number Six’s secrets. Only two Number Twos got second chances, most notably the one played by the late Leo McKern (“Rumpole of the Bailey”), who appeared three times, including in the final two episodes.

The lesson of the revolving Number Twos was simple: It doesn’t matter who is in charge. The problem is the system.

AMC’s remake will be a six-episode miniseries. Earlier this week, AMC announced that Jim Caviezel (“The Passion of the Christ”) will portray the lead role of Number Six opposite Sir Ian McKellen (“The Lord of the Rings”) as Number Two.

AMC’s record doesn’t inspire confidence. The former American Movie Classics is the Holy Roman Empire of cable channels — it’s not strictly American, it doesn’t show only movies, and it rarely airs classics. But at least AMC is working in conjunction with two British companies, ITV, which aired the original series in the ’60s, and Granada.

With AMC playing junior partner to its British co-producers, the “Prisoner” remake should at least retain its Britishness. But whether it’ll be good, much less a worthy successor to McGoohan’s masterpiece, is an open question.

The end product could end up as appetizing as a meat pie.

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