MTV’s “Inbetweeners” Premiere Greatly Exceeds Expectations; Still Not Great

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Adaptations of British television shows epitomize the “be careful what you wish for” adage.

As American audiences often do not discover British series until they reach the end of their runs, there is a natural desire for more episodes. Television fans might increasingly rely on DVRs and Netflix for viewing, but they ultimately still appreciate the notion of following a show as it unfolds. And if they happen to catch a show after its run concludes, there is a part of them dying for the chance to relive the experience in real-time.

Unfortunately, when the network working to let American viewers visit “The Inbetweeners” all over again is the same one responsible for high-brow cultural wonders like “Jersey Shore,” panic justifiably sets in. Fans of the overseas hit were undoubtedly anxious to see more “Inbetweeners,” but is this really what they wanted?

“Be careful what you wish for.”

In the period leading up to the show’s premiere, MTV and the show’s producers admitteldy worked hard to qwell much of the concern.

“Arrested Development” writer Brad Copeland signed on to write the script, which undoubtedly represented a great development for comedy fans. And while the show was moving through the production process, the network debuted acclaimed original series like “Awkward” and “I Just Want My Pants Back,” which proved the network could capture teen and young adult life from a more nuanced, intelligent, sharp perspective.

Maybe this was going to work after all.

Then came the abysmal trailer and preview clips, which portrayed the series as a hollow, poorly-acted rip-off of the original. Most of the iconic moments and dialgoue from the original first few episodes were there, but the show, quite simply, did not look good. All of the credibility MTV seemed to be building for the launch went out the window.

Agreeing to watch Monday’s premiere therfore felt like a betrayal of the original, but it was likely hard for passionate “Inbetweeners” fans to refrain from watching, if for no other reason than to see how significantly MTV’s adaptation would tarnish the show’s legacy.

While it is unlikely ratings were too massive–the show did not seem like it would appeal much more broadly than unsuccessful MTV offerings like “The Hard Times of RJ Berger”–those who did watch were treated to a pleasant surprise: the show was not terrible.

Make no mistake, the American “Inbetweeners” does not hold a candle to the original. The acting is not as nuanced. The characters are not as well-defined. The show does not as warmly embrace the cringe-worthy. The “British” tone does not perfectly translate to an American setting.

But the one thing pessimists likely discounted is the sharpness of the writing. Though this script would have undoubtedly been more effective if performed by the original actors, it was far funnier than it had any right being. Copeland tightened up some of the original gags and even integrated a few new bits, such as one involving a “molester van” that found itself quoted and referenced across various social media platforms late Monday night.

Convincing fans that an adaptation improves on the original is among the most daunting tasks a screenwriter faces; not even the US version of “The Office,” which emerged as a bonafide classic television comedy in its second and third seasons, managed to completely escape the shadows of Ricky Gervais’ original.

The best for which a writer can hope when adapting a popular British original is to entertain new fans without enraging the old ones, and based on how well the premiere played Monday night, it is likely Copeland and company achieved that objective. It was easy to write this off as a travesty based on the abysmal trailers, but those “Inbetweeners” fans who watched had no reason to despise this show as the work of the devil.

Like its British counterpart, “The Inbetweeners” follows former prep student Will’s integration into a group of social “inbetweeners”–high schoolers who are neither popular nor total geeks–at his local public school. Will’s awkward manners, faux-maturism and stiff wardrobe make him a theoretically easy target for bullies, but as he cares enough about superficial impressions to conduct himself competely in everyday situations, he avoids becoming a total outcast.

If for no other reason than the fact that the American drinking age of 21 makes it impossible for the show to convincingly recreate the original pub scene, the US premiere mostly skips forward to the events of the British series’ second episode, in which the gang–Will, Simon, Jay and Neil–embarks on a ditch day. And that means Simon, the reasonably good-looking but very unconfident “heart” of the show, takes center stage in his pursuit of crush Carly (changed from the original Carli for some reason).

Save for some different banter and changes in the logistics of how the gang skips school, that storyline plays out like a mirror image of the British arc. Simon gets drunk, spraypaints his affections for Carly on her driveway, embarrasses himself when he gets caught, and yet elicits enough of her pity and sympathy to score an evening invitation to her house.

As this is, sadly, the furthest Simon has ever gotten with Carly, the group naturally concludes it was the alcohol that fueled his success, and they plan to get him even drunker ahead of the evening visit. He does, and he shows up completely wrecked–to a far more slapstick extent than in the original–and ultimately ruins the conversation by spewing aggressive sexual invitations and then spewing aggressive amounts of vomit all over Carly and her kid brother.

The adaptation is undoubtedly a dampened and dumbed-down version of the original, but it is not without its success in the script. The dialogue, though not delivered well at all times, is effective, and Copeland found a way to infuse new lines that are organic and funny rather than desperate attempts to escape the shackles of the British version.

We do not, for instance, get the infamous “bumder” line to describe Neil’s allegedly gay father, but we still get a steady stream of insulting banter that is both funny and believable as repertoire for raunchy high schoolers.

Where the show’s approach is less successful is in the actual chacterizations and performances. It is always questionable to harshly critique the character development in a 22-minute pilot, but it makes sense to harp on those problems that appear inherent and thus doomed for persistence in the coming weeks.

As noted, “The Inbetweeners” is not a subtle series, but there was still a refreshing level of depth in the construction of the characters. While Will and Simon, though not portrayed by Joey Pollari and Bubba Lewis as well as they were by Simon Bird and Joe Thomas, are reasonably faithful recreations of the original, the writers seemed to miss the boat on what made Jay and Neil such effective characters.

Though Zack Pearlman’s Jay, like the British original, relishes in lying about his experiences with sex, drugs and alcohol, the character here is far more overtly crass and obnoxious, more along the lines of Jonah Hill’s “Superbad” character than the more vulnerable, insecure version created by James Buckley.

The Neil characterization is even less effective, as Mark L. Young’s American version comes off more like a “dumb stoner” than a hopelessly naive simpleton.

The key female characters were not spotlighted in the premiere, but neither did much to excite in their limited showcases. Thanks to her exotic look and palpable charm, Alex Frnka makes for a great Carly D’Amato in theory, but she cannot yet contend with Emily Head’s delivery and sense of timing.

Will’s mom, meanwhile, comes across as far too sexy and ditzy for a believable matriarch. Instead of going for the “MILF” vibe, Christine Scott Bennett simply plays Holly (particularly in her introductory car scene) as “hot.”

One ongoing challenge for the series will be its ability to integrate more of the original’s signature “cringe” humor into the mix. Two pivotal recreations in this week’s episode–the unathletic Will accidentally throwing a football into a handicapped kid and Simon throwing up all over Carly and her brother–were played far too prominently as slapstick physical comedy, and that undermined both sequences.

Make no mistake; the English versions of both scenes also relied strongly on physical comedy. But the true brilliance of those scenes was the manner in which they poured on the humiliation; when original Will struck the handicapped girl with the frisbee, he followed up by wrestling with her to reclaim the disc, which revealed how brilliantly the show could succeed in finding humor from discomfort.

A guy throwing up on his high school crush and her little brother will never be an unfunny gag, but the American version seemed to suffer from tunnel vision, viewing the vomit itself–rather than the entire, cringeworthy situation–as the comedy.

That the writers made a mistake in Will and Simon falsely deflecting the day’s antics by crying about bullying rather than a sexual advance from Neil’s father is obvious; for a show that had no trouble being crude and no trouble incorporating the original format, why stop short of the grimace-inducing awkwardness that made “The Inbetweeners” so special?

With one episode in the books, “The Inbetweeners” given viewers enough reason to spend a half-hour each week on MTV. But its truest legacy will hinge on the manner in which it embraces the tone that made the UK show so special.

Will MTV’s show find a sincere way to Americanize the show’s “British,” cringeworthy elements and prove that such a comedy can work on domestic shores? Or, will it move further away from the uniqueness of the original “Inbetweeners” and become a weekly, episodic version of “Superbad?”