7.3

From Its BBC Roots to a New CBS Adaptation, Ghosts Remains a Genial Comedy

TV Reviews Ghosts
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From Its BBC Roots to a New CBS Adaptation, <i>Ghosts</i> Remains a Genial Comedy

It is at this point dead (ha) normal for American studios to mount remakes of popular British shows. Some find runaway success—The Office, American Idol, Veep, Three’s Company, Dancing with the Stars. Others, meanwhile—Coupling, Skins, or (to my specific eternal disappointment) Taskmasters—prove to be absolute flops. Most, though, land somewhere in the middle. Being Human? Fine. Getting On? OK. Sirens? Yeah, sure, why not.

Still, for as unremarkable as the American British remake has generally become over the last several decades, today’s Anglophilic audiences have something that their counterparts over the last several decades, critically, didn’t: HBO Max.

Well, more broadly, today’s audiences have streaming, which comprises a wide enough variety of services that just about anything can be accessed, from just about anywhere in the world, so long as you’re willing to shell out for another monthly subscription. If what you want to keep up with is British comedies (that aren’t Fleabag), though, HBO Max is the place to be. And this month, if what you want specifically to keep up with is a running tally of all the creative decisions CBS made in translating the BBC One sitcom, Ghosts, for its primetime American audiences, HBO Max is *especially* the place to be.

Originally developed by half a dozen members of the comedic team behind Horrible Histories and Yonderland—Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard, and Ben Willbond—the BBC version of Ghosts has a much broader sensibility than American audiences (who are more recently used to the drier, more cerebrally deadpan humor of Catastrophe, This Way Up, or Starstruck) might anticipate. More “house-share” sitcom than anything, Ghosts follows the misadventures of young (living) London couple Alison and Mike Cooper (Charlotte Ritchie and Kiell Smith-Bynoe) as they move into Button House, the dilapidated country manor Alison inherits in the pilot’s opening act from an elderly and very distant posh relative she never knew she had. The catch? Button House just so happens to also be haunted by a whole heap of ghosts from just about every historical era imaginable.

These ghosts—having, by the time we and Alison first meet them, already spent decades (if not, in some cases, centuries) getting on each other’s nerves—form the backbone of the sitcom’s “house-share” humor. Played by the entirety of the series’ creative team (with an assist from Lolly Adefope and Katy Wix), the spirits of Button House allow, collectively, for pretty much every type of comedically ripe personality clash imaginable. In one corner you have Martha Howe-Douglas’s buttoned-up Lady Button, forever admonishing her housemates for their lewd manners and uncouth language. In the next you have Adefope’s friendly-but-naïve Georgian noblewoman, Kitty, who literally doesn’t know the meaning of the word “boundaries.” There’s also Lawrence Rickard’s chess and chaos-loving caveman, Robin, and Jim Howick’s ‘80s-era scout leader, Pat, who’s never met a mouse he’d be willing to scare. As for Mathew Baynton’s failed Romantic poet? Eternally on the nerves of Ben Willbond’s austere (and closeted) WWII Captain, to whom romance itself feels like war.

On their own, the Button House ghosts make for solid enough sitcom fodder. It’s the addition of Alison and Mike, though—the former who gains the ability to interact with her new ghostly housemates after taking a nasty, near-death fall out a second-story window—that makes the series worth watching. With Alison and Mike around, the narrative can have real, tangible goals—the repair of the East Wing plumbing, say, or the installation of a new roof. With their entire life savings wrapped up in the property, the story takes on real stakes, leaving the Coopers on a constant hunt for potential income streams, any one of which the ghosts’ antics might, at any given moment, put in jeopardy. That Alison almost immediately assumes an attitude of aggrieved resignation in the face of her new role as living-dead intermediary only makes the set-up more compelling. There is nothing scary about the ghosts in Ghosts, save for the fact that at any minute, Simon Farnaby’s disgraced, half-dressed Julian Fawcett, MP, might accidentally (or not) flash his junk.

Aside from the fact that CBS feels like the weirdest possible fit for a series like this, full-stop, the American version of Ghosts—which will be sandwiched on the network between a Young Sheldon and United States of Al double-header alongside the Season 6 (!) premiere of Bull—is nevertheless a fair imitation of its British predecessor. Dilapidated old country estate? Check. A pile of eccentric, bickering ghosts stretching back to the continent’s earliest recorded history? Check. A young, big city couple suddenly in over their financial heads? Check. A near-death bonk on the head that renders the wife a spiritual intermediary? Check!

This makes sense: Alongside series writers Joe Port and Joe Wiseman, the entire BBC One creative team—e.g., Baynton, Howick, Farnaby, Rickard, Willbond, and Howe-Douglas—are on board as executive producers. That said, while the DNA of the American Ghosts is more or less the same as its British forebear, the texture is surprisingly different. Some of this has to do with the ways in which they’ve rearranged the ghosts’ personal details; whereas it’s Baynton’s Romantic poet who pines over “fair Alison” for the BBC, it’s Asher Grodman’s pants-less ‘90s Wall Street bro, Trevor, who catches feelings for “the hot chick” on CBS. (In addition to Grodman, the ghostly American cast features Brandon Scott Jones as a Revolutionary War commander, Richie Moriarty as the ‘80s scout leader, Rebecca Wisocky as the estate’s buttoned-up former owner, Sheila Carrasco as a spaced-out hippie, Danielle Pinnock as a Prohibition-era crooner, Roman Zaragoza as an as-yet-unspecified 16th-century Native American, and Devan Chandler Long as a pre-Colonial Viking.)

Even more of this textural change, though, I think comes down to how the network has reimagined the very energy of its two central (living) characters, Sam (Rose McIver) and Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar). Which is to say, rather than putting its core couple on the same life-goal page from the start—as the BBC version does with Alison and Mike, who jump at the chance to take a(n admittedly ill-advised) plunge into DIY B&B ownership together—the CBS version goes full-on House Hunters, immediately pitting McIver’s bullishly cheerful Sam against Ambudkar’s reasonably skeptical Jay. What this means in practice is that, while Alison and Mike get to present a united front against whatever obstacle faces them at Button House (making their partnership a useful tool to a wide variety of external conflict), Sam and Jay are stuck constantly butting heads in Upstate New York, all their conflict kept depressingly, exhaustingly internal.

On the one hand, I get it: House Hunters is such an American institution, it would almost feel weird if a show with Ghost’s “young couple takes on a major reno project” premise didn’t immediately acknowledge it. On the other hand, though, the least fun part of watching House Hunters is seeing so many couples that not only shouldn’t be buying a house together, but also probably shouldn’t even be married. And nothing was broken about the Alison/Mike dynamic in the original—the only reason it feels like they changed it for CBS is that, well, they were changing it for the CBS audience. Which is to say, it feels like they don’t trust us dullard Americans to root for a sitcom couple that actually, you know, gets along. (See, on this note, everything about Kevin Can F**K Himself.)

Unfortunately, it’s not just this de-evolution of the core couple’s characterization that lends itself to the argument that CBS doesn’t have much faith in its own audience, as both the visual style and pace of its take on Ghosts casts its presumed viewership in an unflattering light. Whereas the British version relies on a more documentary, cinéma vérité style of camerawork whenever the POV shifts to Alison or Mike—adding a refreshing element of naturalism to what is otherwise a very broad, schticky comedy—the CBS version sticks to the same flat (if slick) primetime dramedy look throughout. In terms of pace, meanwhile, the British original is more than willing to take its time to get to a joke, or to leave long stretches of silence when a scene calls for it. And that is great; as any jazz musician worth their salt would tell you, good improvisation is as much about the silences and held notes as it is about the clever rat-a-tat runs. The CBS version, alas, is having none of that. McIver is all breathless rat-a-tat energy, and the show has her pull Ambudkar and the rest of the ensemble with her.

Still, it’s not like the CBS take on Ghosts is a bummer to watch. It’s fun! I mean, it’s incredibly cheesy, but it is still fun. And while its first two episodes track so closely to the British version that it’s all but impossible not to draw comparisons, the third episode (the last provided for review) diverges so wildly that it’s all but impossible to draw a single comparison at all. And honestly, given how different the ghost characters are in the two versions—not to mention, how much longer American broadcast seasons are—the two shows are more likely to keep diverging than they are to come back together. Which, with a cast as broadly charming as CBS has put in place, can only be a good thing.

Just, if you’re listening, CBS: lose the HGTV vibes. McIver and Ambudkar have enough skill and charm to handle their ghosts without it.

Season 1 of Ghosts (the American version) premieres Thursday, October 7 on CBS. Seasons 1-3 of Ghosts (the British version) are streaming now on HBO Max.



Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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