x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Foreign ingredients don't necessarily cook up a new TV show

In fairness to the Chinese sitcom accused of copying the US show Friends, it's almost impossible to be completely original. People have been writing comedy scripts since Aristophanes.

Once, a few years ago, I was on a long trip through Central Asia. The reasons I picked up a bag and headed out to Uzbekistan aren't complicated - another show had been cancelled; I was still under a lucrative contract with a studio; I needed to sulk a little bit - but in between hard overland travel, getting arrested, bribing border officials, and spending a night on the boat crossing the Caspian Sea, I missed out on one of the real pleasures of travel: watching local television.

Anyone who has been to Japan and has, jet-lagged, surfed through the weird dream-journal quality of their game shows knows what I'm talking about. Television in foreign countries - and by "foreign" I mean any country that is not your own — seems like what I imagine aliens from another planet will look like: familiar, but with stuff sticking out in the wrong places and too many eyes.

Sometimes, of course, this is all part of a business arrangement. Television companies across the globe swap and sell show formats to each other all the time. I was once astonished to see an almost perfect replica of the long-running American sitcom The Jeffersons on Turkish television.

Phil Rosenthal, the ferociously talented creator and producer of one of the very best sitcoms ever produced, Everybody Loves Raymond, made a terrific documentary about the trials of bringing his hit comedy to Russia.

Everybody Loves Raymond was a show about a family, and families are pretty much the same mix of exasperating and irritating mess no matter where you live. But it was a lot harder than he expected.

The fact that the Russians were paying him a lot of money to do it made the experience a lot easier to take.

Sometimes, of course, identical shows pop up in other countries without the nicety of money changing hands.

In China, for instance, right now, there's a show on about a group of young people who all live close together in the big city - in this case, Shanghai. It's called, with that off-putting almost-English quality of a lot of Chinese names, iPartment.

And its fans in China have noticed that iPartment is a lot like - maybe too much like - an American show about young people hanging out in the big city. You may have heard of it. It was called Friends.

The Chinese friends on iPartment live in (you guess it) an apartment - which is about as nice and unaffordable in real life as the apartment the American Friends lived in, and they apparently share a lot of the same traits as the American Friends.

But they also have distinct and undeniable echoes of other popular American sitcoms - two of which are still being produced, The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother.

The result, according to viewers who have seen it, is a pretty obvious - and awkward - rip off.

The producers of the Chinese show, naturally, deny everything. It's a different world, though, because Chinese television viewers have seen those American shows, on the web or satellite or just the way that young people manage to see everything somehow - and they're hip to the copycat ways of iPartment. And they're complaining.

"Many lines and scenes have been completely ripped off from American shows," an anonymous viewer told the state-run Global Times newspaper.

"I thought it was shameful to do this. It is an insult to the American TV producers and an insult to the screenwriters and producers of original Chinese TV shows."

Well, yeah. I mean, yes, of course, it's not right to steal jokes or scenes. As a working writer, I'm pretty easy to satisfy: you can do whatever you want to my work, as long as you buy it first.

Although I have yet to meet an American television writer who hasn't, at some dark moment in the middle of a tough rewrite, or halfway through a tortuous production week, thought to himself: "Didn't they do a story like this once on the old Dick van Dyke show? Aren't there some scenes or jokes in that old episode that no one's seen for a while?"

It's almost impossible to be completely original. People have been writing comedy scripts since Aristophanes, and it's unlikely that there's a joke or a situation that hasn't been explored by someone else first.

To be fair to the Chinese television producers, a show about young people in the city isn't really groundbreaking.

Even before Friends appeared on American television, there were at least three other series on the air dealing with the same age group, the same basic characters, and a similar unbelievably expensive apartment.

Families, young people, complicated romances - that's pretty much what you have to work with when you're writing comedy.

The anonymous complainer in the Chinese newspaper said that the only reason she complained was to help promote originality on Chinese television.

Hao yun as they say in Mandarin. Or, Good luck.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood. On Twitter: @rbcl