NBC ordered a pilot based on British sitcom Red Dwarf in 1992 in the hopes of translating a successful Britcom for American audiences. The pilot didn’t sell but NBC asked for a reworked, partially recast presentation, hoping to salvage the project. It didn’t work, either, and the series never materialized.
Britcoms Become Sitcoms
Television networks in the United States have a long history of purchasing the rights to British series and reworking them for American viewers. Sometimes that involved making drastic changes. Two of the most popular sitcoms of the early 1970s were based on British sitcoms (or Britcoms): All in the Family was based on Till Death Us Do Part (BBC One, 1965-1968; 1970; 1972-1975) and Sanford and Son was based on Steptoe and Son (BBC One, 1962-1965; 1970-1974). NBC’s Lotsa Luck was based on Britcom On the Buses (ITV, 1969-1973) but was far less successful.
Three’s Company was also based on a Britcom, Man About the House (ITV, 1973-1976). In fact, even the two spin-offs of Three’s Company were based on British spin-offs of Man About the House: The Ropers was based on George and Mildred (ITV, 1976-1979) and Three’s a Crowd was based on Robin’s Nest (ITV, 1977-1981).
In February 1983, ABC debuted Amanda’s (based on Fawlty Towers, BBC2, 1975; 1979) starring Bea Arthur in her return to series television. The sitcom lasted just four months. Another ABC sitcom, Reggie (based on The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, BBC One, 1976-1979) fared even worse, lasting just over one month.
NBC had better luck with Dear John (based on Dear John, BBC One, 1986-1987) starring Judd Hirsch, which premiered in October 1988. It would stay on the air for four seasons, ending in July 1992. NBC’s attempt to turn Red Dwarf, a sci-fi Britcom that premiered on BBC Two in February 1988, resulted in both a full-length pilot and a reworked presentation but ultimately failed.
Created by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, Red Dwarf followed the misadventures of the crew of the mining ship Red Dwarf. In the series premiere (originally broadcast February 15th, 1988 on BBC One) an accident kills all but one member of the crew and in order to save him, the ship’s computer puts him in stasis. For three million years. When he awakes, Dave Lister (played by Craig Charles) is the only human left in the universe.
In addition to Lister and the computer (an artificial intelligence named Holly, played by Norman Lovett), there was a hologram named Arnold Rimmer (played by Chris Barrie), and a creature evolved from a house cat named Cat (played by Danny John-Jules). Joining the cast in its third season were Robert Llewellyn as Kryten, a robot, and Hattie Hayridge as Holly, replacing Lovett.
Red Dwarf USA – Pilot #1
In 1992, NBC decided to turn Red Dwarf into an American series and ordered a pilot from Universal Studios . The creators of Red Dwarf crossed the pond, as did one of the series stars, and the pilot went into production at Universal Studios .
The NBC pilot was a retooled version of the first episode of the British series, with one key difference. The character of Kryten, not introduced until the third season of the British version, would be present in the American version from the start.
Craig Bierko was cast as Lister, Chris Eigeman as Rimmer, Jane Leeves as Holly and Hinton Battle as Cat. Robert Llewellyn returned to his role of Kryten. Translating the series for an American audience meant revising jokes so they would be understood in the U.S. and cutting the pilot script to fit a half-hour commercial time slot on an American network.
With the opening credits included, the American pilot clocks in at twenty-five and a half minutes, still shorter than the average Britcom. Roughly half of the pilot takes place before Lister is placed in suspended animation, introducing Lister and his relationships with other crewmembers on the ship.
Red Dwarf USA – Pilot #2
NBC wasn’t thrilled with the pilot but also wasn’t ready to give up on the concept. Rather than shoot another pilot, the producers were asked to put together a short promotional reel that would attempt to sell Red Dwarf as a workable series. The most significant change? Cat was now female .
Chris Eigeman and Hinton Battle were replaced by Anthony Fuscle and Terry Farrell, playing Rimmer and Cat, respectively. Farrell’s cat was sexy and feisty and completely confused by humans. This second “pilot” runs close to fifteen minutes and includes footage from the British series, the first American pilot, and a few new scenes.
The promotional reel was unsuccessful in prompting sufficient interest in the series and NBC never picked up the series.
Red Dwarf Continues
Although it failed in the United States, Red Dwarf continued in its home country. After its sixth season the series went on hiatus, returning in 1997 and again in 1999. A decade later, it was revived for a short ninth season (technically a three-part miniseries called Red Dwarf: Back to Earth) in 2009 and a tenth season in 2012.
American networks continued trying to launch sitcoms based on Britcoms. In September 1996, CBS premiered Cosby (based on One Foot in the Grave, BBC One, 1990-2000) starring Billy Cosby. It lasted four seasons. NBC’s Men Behaving Badly (based on Men Behaving Badly, ITV, 1992-1998), also premiered in September 1996 and was successful enough to warrant renewal for the 1997-1998 season only to be cancelled six episodes into its sophomore season. CBS tried its hand at translating Fawlty Towers in the U.S. with Payne, starring John Larroquette. It premiered in March 1999 and was cancelled after eight episodes.
In September 2003, NBC premiered a U.S. version of Coupling (BBC2, 2000-2004) to much hype. It was a collosal failure and was off the air after just four episodes. NBC finally found success in translating a Britcom with The Office, which premiered as a mid-season replacement in March 2005 and lasted for 200 episodes, ending in May 2013. But lightning didn’t strike twice for NBC: it premiered Free Agents (based on Free Agents, Channel 4, 2009) in September 2011 and cancelled it in October 2011 after airing four episodes.
2 Salem, Rob. “Britcoms Get Lost in Translation.” Toronto Star. 14 Mar. 2005: E02.
3 Knight, Chris. “British Laughs Don’t Translate into American: U.S. Version of Red Dwarf Tanked Before It Started.” National Post. 19 Mar. 2005: TO30.
Originally July 6th, 2006
Last Updated April 26th, 2018