Although its version of "Skins" may have been an epic botch, MTV hasn't given up trying to transform a hit U.K. teen show into a stateside success. Last night, the network unleashed "The Inbetweeners," an Americanized version of the acclaimed and award-winning British comedy about a quartet of sex-obsessed teen boys dealing with the humiliations of high school life. The original series ran for three seasons on the E4 network and spawned a 2011 movie that became a big worldwide hit (it opens here in two weeks).
We're happy to report that MTV seems to have learned from the "Skins" fiasco, because "The Inbetweeners" is overall a pretty solid adaption of the still-superior original. That may not be entirely obvious from the premiere, which hews a little too closely to the original show's first episode (which is the same problem that plagued the pilot of the American "Office," by the way) but having seen a few of the subsequent episodes, the U.S. "Inbetweeners" does begin to establish its own identity. That said, there are definitely a few kinks to work out. Here's what's brilliant -- and what's bollocks -- about the Americanized "Inbetweeners":
Brilliant: The School Is a Star
While no one would accuse the U.K. "Inbetweeners" of being a cinéma vérité guide to the English public school system, the series did do a great job of making Rudge Park Comprehensive an actual character as opposed to a generic location where wacky and horribly embarrassing things kept happening. MTV's version also puts an emphasis on creating a version of an American public high school that feels both authentic and just exaggerated enough to allow for the more over-the-top gags. In that respect, the network was wise to tap New Zealand director Taika Waititi to helm the pilot. In all of his work to date (which includes several episodes of HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" as well as the low-key comedy features "Boy" and "Eagle vs. Shark," both of which are well worth seeking out), Waititi has specialized in playing outsized comic moments against very real-world backgrounds. This is the style that the show's other directors will hopefully continue to follow going forward.
Bollocks: The Voiceover Vexes
Ninety percent of the time, voiceover is little more than white noise cluttering up the soundtrack. But somehow the British show made it an integral part of the comedy -- maybe chalk it up to the appealing pitch and timbre of star Simon Bird's Woody Allen-by-way-of-Surrey accent. His American doppelgänger, Joey Pollari, has a considerably less distinctive voice, which makes it too easy to just tune him out. Pollari is an ineffective replacement for Bird in other ways as well. For one thing, he's too "TV dorky" (i.e., he's got the mannerisms of a geek, but model-type looks) to be completely believable as an outcast, and both he (and the show) seem overly concerned with keeping Will likable, whereas Bird wasn't afraid to play him as a giant prat. Cable dramas love anti-heroes; time to see more of that in their comedies.
Brilliant: Simon and Carly 4EVAH
If the new Will disappoints, his love struck pal Simon has crossed the Atlantic without a hitch. Musician/actor Bubba Smith steps into the role originated by Joe Thomas and makes it his own. This Simon is gawkier and less comfortable in his own skin (which, in fact, would be great qualities for Will -- any way Smith could clone himself and play both parts?), which leads him to make such extreme social faux-pas as showing up at the house of the girl he's had a crush on since age 8 -- that would be Carly (the very appealing and very attractive Alex Frnka) -- stinking drunk and then proceeds to vomit all over her, her kitchen, and her little brother. This scene is lifted directly from the U.K. series, but Smith and Frnka bring their own distinct energy to it. What we've seen of the show's subsequent episodes confirms that the Simon and Carly saga is one of "The Inbetweeners"' strongest and funniest ongoing storylines and may arguably the one element that's an improvement on the U.K. version.
Bollocks: Jay Walking
In the early days of the American "Office," Dwight Schrute seemed destined to end up a pale shadow of Gareth Keenan, the creepy troll that Mackenzie Crook so brilliantly played in the U.K. series. As the series went on, though, Rainn Wilson and the writers developed an all-new mythology around Dwight that transformed him into the show's breakout star and the potential recipient of a spin-off series. Here's hoping that a similar transformation happens with Zak Pearlman's too-broad interpretation of Jay, the group's resident self-styled sexpert ... who has never actually had sex (James Buckley played the part on the U.K. series). In bringing the character to America, the producers decided to make him into a Jonah Hill type, and Pearlman's performance so far feels like an extended Hill impersonation, minus the motor-mouthed profanity. Buckley always managed to hint at the sadness beneath Jay's brash, boastful exterior, but so far anyway, the American Jay is in search of another note to play. Maybe Rainn Wilson can be brought in as a special advisor to Pearlman if that Dwight spin-off falls through.
Brilliant: It's a Hard PG-13
The biggest question mark with the American "Inbetweeners" was always going to be how far MTV would manage to push the salty talk and sexual situations -- two things that the original is famous for -- before bumping up against basic cable restrictions. And it's true that this version is noticeably tamer than its predecessor, which would easily merit a hard-R rating if it were released in theaters. (Not surprisingly, the MPAA has already slapped the "Inbetweeners" movie with an R.) But within the confines of American TV, "The Inbetweeners" gets away with a decent amount of monkey business. While we'll probably never see Will hopelessly flopping about on top of the girl he's trying (and failing) to lose his virginity to, we do hear Jay explain what a "renob" is, and Simon drunkenly invites Carly to "Sex me" before vomiting everywhere. It may not be "American Pie," but it's definitely racier than, say, "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." And at least with this show, we won't ever have to worry about Bristol Palin dropping by as a ratings stunt.
Check out the trailer for "The Inbetweeners" below:
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