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Speaking English, of a sort

British actors star in numerous TV shows, most notably House. Why? Why not?

By Eric Deggans, Times TV/Media Critic
Published July 30, 2007


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Hugh Laurie isn't willing to take the full rap for TV's latest trend.

But Laurie, the British actor who has piled up awards and big ratings playing the cranky American doctor on Fox's hit medical drama House, did admit advising one other English actor on playing a Yank.

Among his words to Damian Lewis, star of NBC's fall cop drama Life: "If the show succeeds and it's going to be on the air, it will probably be because it's a good piece of work," said Laurie, winner of two Golden Globes and two-time Emmy nominee for his work on House.

He couldn't say why so many other new shows this fall feature Brits playing Americans. "I can only assume that we're cheap," he joked. But he agrees he has lots of company. "We could form a cricket team, or something."

This fall, at least seven series feature European stars. Among them are the leads on NBC's Bionic Woman remake, Fox's Terminator-inspired Sarah Connor Chronicles and CBS's vampire drama Moonlight.

It's all part of a time-honored network TV tradition: repeating what has worked before. In fact, copycatting was the biggest trend to emerge from the annual TV critics' tour in Los Angeles.

In addition to this latest British invasion, network TV's other major copycatting this season involves shows about nerds and shows about the supernatural.

The goal: Give viewers more of what they like - without making them sick of it.

"People (are) kind of chasing the big ideas after Lost came on and exploded," said ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson. "I think we've got to be careful; just because a Heroes works in season one, that (doesn't mean) 10 shows like that can work."

Accenting the positive

Scottish actor Kevin McKidd, Lucius Vorenus on HBO's popular British adaptation of the Julius Caesar saga, Rome, insists the confluence of European actors this fall is a coincidence.

"I think there's a lot of people at the moment thinking there's a story there, thinking there's a pattern, and there isn't," said McKidd, starring this fall as a time-traveling American journalist in NBC's Journeyman.

But McKidd's boss, NBC co-chairman of entertainment Ben Silverman, noted solid showbiz reasons behind the influx.

"These British actors have tremendous experience and talent, but they aren't yet famous," said Silverman. "So they kind of fall in a great space for television. . . . You don't have to pick the 21-year-old kid who just fell off the bus as he entered L.A. And the fact that they're not really known by the audience allows them to be discovered by the audience."

As any fan of House knows, sounding American is not a problem for these imports. Onscreen, the actors' cadences are flat as a Midwestern turnpike; in real life, their lilting accents bring visions of rolling English countrysides and a steaming cup of Earl Grey.

Besides McKidd and Lewis, the roster also includes Alex O'Loughlin and Sophia Myles of CBS's Moonlight, Michelle Ryan of NBC's Bionic Woman, Lloyd Owen of CBS's Viva Laughlin (itself an Americanized version of a British show, Viva Blackpool) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of Fox's New Amsterdam.

Laurie's work on House proved a skilled British actor could be popular with American audiences; he recently earned his second Emmy nomination. It doesn't hurt that film opportunities in England are thinning.

"In England, at the moment, our government isn't putting money into film," said Myles. "As an actor, you have to travel where the work is."

But Lewis (Dreamcatcher, Band of Brothers), who can draw gasps by switching seamlessly from his British speaking voice to an American accent in mid sentence, offered a simpler explanation for his move.

"I read a lot of unbelievably crappy film scripts . . . so it was nice to get a decent one for this show," he said. "And why are there a lot of Brits here? Because you keep asking us. Thank you very much."

Copycatting, Part II

The stars of his show are socially challenged intellectuals who can calculate complex equations, yet can't ask a pretty girl on a date.

But don't dare imply the heroes of Chuck Lorre's new sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, are nerds.

"I started this out with the goal of writing about remarkable minds . . . and somehow, that gets categorized as nerds and geeks and whatnot," said Lorre, who saw his showbiz cachet rise as creator of CBS's hit sitcom Two and a Half Men. "The fact that that's kind of happening in the culture right now . . . we kind of find ourselves caught up in it."

Lorre can resist the term all he likes, but geeks are cool on TV again. A short list of the evidence includes the misfit who becomes the devil's bounty hunter in the CW's Reaper and the geeky slacker who becomes a valuable CIA asset when secrets are downloaded into his brain in NBC's Chuck.

The heroes of Reaper and Chuck, both in their mid 20s, are shown in a "quarter life" crisis; working stultifying jobs in big box stores, worried that they are wasting their youth.

"I think everybody in the audience sees themselves in a character like Chuck, and as Chuck succeeds, it gives you the sense maybe (you) could succeed," said Josh Schwartz, executive producer of Chuck.

"You talk about Spider-Man or (The Matrix's) Neo . . . that's just a very appealing part of the pop culture mythology right now."

USA Today recently noted the rise of nerdy comic book and fantasy-friendly "fanboys" as moviegoers, adding up to $50-million to the revenue of a film pitched to them. Thanks to the success of geek-friendly characters such as Masi Oka's Hiro on NBC's Heroes, TV creators have tried to add these characters to prime time.

Similarly, at least eight new series featuring supernatural fantasy or science fiction films are debuting next year - from a covertly immortal cop in Fox's New Amsterdam to a man who can raise the dead with a touch in ABC's Pushing Daisies. Once again, it seems we can blame shows such as Lost and Heroes for the trend, convincing producers that the time for fantastic concepts is at hand.

But Oka, who snagged his own Emmy nomination this month, isn't so sure.

"I know that next year's season is often based on what worked in the past," he said. "And if we inspired someone, that's great. It's about time that nice guys don't finish in last place."

See live reports, podcasts and more from Eric Deggans' Los Angeles trip on the Feed blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

[Last modified July 27, 2007, 16:15:34]


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