“You’ll always be young, you’ll always be beautiful”

January 31, 2011
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There have been a lot of conversations lately about US remakes of UK television; some of the more high-profile examples are addressed in Kyra von der Osten’s discussion of Skins, Alyssa Rosenberg’s review of Being Human, and Matt Zoller Seitz’s critique of Shameless. Aside from wondering why these great shows need to be re-imagined, translated, and–dare I say–tamed, my question is why and how certain shows gain a new life in US incarnations while others fail. Contrast, for example, the US versions of Life on Mars and The IT Crowd, which flopped, with the remakes of The Office and Queer as Folk, which were as–if not more–successful than the original UK series.

One aspect that tends to be translated is geographic place, even though the original places are overdetermined with cultural resonances–none of these shows and characters can simply be placed in another setting and still retain their central dynamics. I hope, for example, that Shameless moves into its own story lines quickly, because class functions so fundamentally differently in the two nations that I can’t see the characters, their stories, situations, and attitudes translate properly. The cultural associations of places are also worth examining: how does Manchester translate into Chicago in Shameless, but into Pittsburgh in Queer as Folk? And why is Slough best represented by Scranton in The Office?

Place, however, is intimately connected to time as a cultural framework, and it is time that I would like to focus on. Rosenberg bemoans Being Human‘s remake as coming too soon when she claims that “the remake will be forever haunted by the original, simply because they are airing so close together.” In the following I want to look at one of the more successful remakes, Queer as Folk, in order to examine how and why it managed to work in its American setting. While the two Queer as Folk versions were close together in era, I’d suggest that the temporal situatedness of both shows excuse the remake from that particular reproach. Stuart Alan Jones’ life in Manchester 1999-2000 may be not unlike Brian Kinney’s life in Pittsburgh 2000-2005, but their environment, their friends, and the issues they face in terms of queer visibility and gay rights are very different. Or rather, the way the show creators choose to represent these issues illustrates different cultural responses.

I recently rewatched both shows, and what strikes me most about the US version is the way it simultaneously celebrates ahistoricity as a form of eternal youth through its central focus on gay dance club Babylon and the unchanging pulse of that particular aspect of gay life and its music, and a deep immersion into the debates specific to the early 2000s. Watching the show as it aired, I was immersed in those conversations as well; watching it nearly a decade later, it has clearly become a distinct historical moment. The contemporary issues that are addressed in the show range from gay bashing and police harassment to AIDS, STDs and cancer; to drug and sex addiction; to same-sex parenting, adoption, and marriage. In contrast, what struck me most when watching QAFUK was an ever-present focus on class, something that could have been included in the US version given the characters’ diverse backgrounds and incomes, but ultimately wasn’t.

In the case of the US version, it is the last issue, marriage, that resonates most strongly for me. When I think back to 2004, the two things most present in my memory are the same-sex marriage debates and the elections. In my experience, the two were not independent of one another, as in my deeply redneck of the woods, I saw many people hating the cultural liberalism they feared the Democrats would bring and reacting to that fear by committing us to four more years of Bush. Among my friends, the so-called gay marriage debate was omnipresent, both in practical terms as San Francisco issues the first legal marriage licenses spring of 2004, and theoretically as queer scholars debated the issue.

As I was watching same sex marriage debate unfold within the series, I couldn’t help but view Brian’s adamant opposition as a particular philosophical moment in time, possibly best represented by Michael Warner’s 1999 book The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. In it, Warner passionately opposed same-sex marriage, advocating an ethics modeled on queer life and approaches to sexuality, one that resists shame, values diversity, and is based fundamentally on respect and honesty. Brian Kinney’s speeches to his friends as they marry and move to suburbia could have been lifted directly from Warner.

The final episode of the US version of the show brings to a head these opposing dynamics within the gay rights movement, as the two main characters cancel their wedding–an event which clearly had gone against everything Brian believed in–and return to their alternative model of love and commitment. Claiming that they “don’t need rings or vows to prove that [they] love each other,” they refuse to sacrifice their dreams to adopt the ties of marriage. Whereas most of the show’s emotional arc focused on Brian slowly overcoming his inability to grow up, to commit, or to express his feelings, QAFUS refuses to let him prove this emotional maturity via marriage. In its stead, the show returns to its thread of timelessness embodied by the night club, ending with a club dance scene that could have occurred at any point during its five year run. In so doing, QAFUS tentatively explored Warner’s hypothesis; while narrative judgment is withheld from both Brian’s choices and those of his married best friends, the show offers viewers a temporally embedded yet simultaneously timeless moment.

Returning to the subject of failed adaptations–and those we might fear will fail–I suggest that we not only look at place but also time as a central category whose uniqueness impacts a show’s success, as well as the necessary factor of any successful remake stepping away from the original in order to engage a new audience.


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2 Responses to “ “You’ll always be young, you’ll always be beautiful” ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on January 31, 2011 at 7:00 PM

    Great post, as always, Kristina. Good stories come at the right time, after all, as you note. Just as a great ghost story should be saved for the right moment, rather than shared on a public bus at noon on a sunny day, it is interesting to see when adaptations and retellings forget the cultural factors that made a story resonant in the first place.

    • Kristina Busse on February 1, 2011 at 8:57 AM

      Your comment reminds me of my thoughts on Sherlock and AUs, on adaptations in general, and how it isn’t the details and facts as much as the underlying spirit that needs to be kept (and/or translated).

      I wonder if the shift from class in QAFUK to sexuality in QAFUS as central cultural force hints toward something larger in terms of politics and culture in both nations–and I do wonder what that means for Shameless and its US adaptation…