Only American Fools and Horses
It showed up in the news here over the weekend that ABC is set to do a remake of Only Fools and Horses. It’s not worth getting into a discussion of remakes. There’s a vast history of good ones, and a vast history of bad ones. The bad ones hold a special place in my heart, of course, because they’re what got me to do some life-changing writing.
Instead, what hits me is just how long it took for the remake to show up. As one of the UK’s most iconic sitcoms, why has it taken so long for a US version to crop up?
Most remakes have been contemporaneous. The successful remake is a reflection of the times — Til Death Do Us Part and All in the Family both drew on a time of cultural expansion, increasing diversity, and financial difficulty. Both (all) versions of The Office are fundamentally grounded in a specific type of workplace that is intrinsically tied to its era.
Despite the fairly recent run dates that show up in any encyclopedic entry on the show (the most recent special, not including the prequel TV movies, aired in 2003), the programme is very firmly set in an earlier decade. It reflects the social and economic realities of 1980s Britain. The Trotter family gets by how it can, whether entirely legal or not. This is a show that is not only set in a recession, but requires a recession. It is not a programme of aspirational characters; rather, it’s a programme of making do and getting by.
So what does it say about 2012 America that now is the time for a remake?
The 1980s of America was a different place. That’s the 1980s I experienced, and, as difficult as it was living under the ridiculous economic policies of Reagan, it was still relatively flush. Just enough wealth trickled down to convince people they were doing well. There were no strikes that shut down day-to-day operations (the reasons why is a whole other topic, and most certainly isn’t the result of affluence under Reagan).
It makes sense that it wasn’t remade at the time. The American 80s was still a decade of aspirations and bootstrapping. There was a near blackout on negative television. Sitcoms were not a reflection of life as it was for the struggling working class. This was a time for family values and positive ideals. The sitcom was a place for reinforcing the social part of Reaganomics. Family discord was allowed, but only in the most superficial way. Alex and Mallory Keaton could disagree about shopping and politics, but every episode reinforced a specific value system. And, at it’s base, that value system required the possibility that anyone could and would be in a big detached house with no financial worries.
Now, though, it’s a more open time for sitcoms in America. It may be that the remake of Only Fools and Horses is possible because audiences don’t expect to see an idealized version of life on television any more. It may be that simple — a shift in audience expectations.
But there’s another possibility. In 2012 America, economic recovery is slow. Maybe now’s the first time a show about two shady street traders is accessible. That’s slightly worrying in a way that goes far beyond the concerns of whether or not a sitcom will be successful or true to its original.
What’s even more worrying is that should this remake get pulled together in time for the Fall 2012 television season, it’s got the potential to show an America that isn’t recovering in an election season. Only Fools is a sitcom about the struggle to get by in an economic downturn. It requires that setting, but that setting could be politically damaging. It can easily be turned into an anti-Obama propaganda piece, disregarding the utter economic horror that was the Bush years.
Time will show how it pans out, and indeed whether it actually gets made. I’ll be ready for it, though. Hopefully the Democrats will be, too.