Under the stewardship of former HBO boss Chris Albrecht, US cable network Starz (of which Albrecht is CEO) has acquired the rights to adapt Australian crime series Underbelly in America. Says NY Mag “former HBO chief Chris Albrecht, who took over as CEO of pay cable network Starz last December, has acquired the U.S. rights to the Australian show and is making development of the project a top priority.“
Yesterday Des Monaghan, executive producer with Underbelly’s series producer Screentime confirmed the rumours saying that the American version “will follow the Australian DNA in that it’s based on actual events and it will name names“.
My question is this: Would the Underbelly formula translate?
Firstly, I don’t completely understand why Albrecht purchased the rights to Underbelly in the first place. He’s since revealed that Underbelly’s American counterpart will explore American characters and stories and the only discernible link Monaghan can provide is that they’re both “based on actual events” and will name names? Those aren’t attributes exclusive to Underbelly, hell they’re not even exclusive to True Crime as a genre. Why not give Truman Capote’s estate or whoever prints The Bible some money while you’re at it? Perhaps Albrecht wants to use Underbelly’s critical and commercial success as promotional leverage in America but unless its far larger (internationally) than we give it credit for, I can’t understand why Starz wouldn’t just develop a True Crime series on their lonesome.
Secondly Albrecht must find an American crime family that A) Is captivating B) Is real and C) Has never been explored on the small screen. According to NY Mag his team are currently researching options: “the network is currently researching various American crime families that they can build effective story arcs around … just as long as the clans aren’t from New York or New Jersey, which would invite calls of Sopranos copycatting.” Having said that, if Australia can provide at least three such stories, you’d assume that America has hundreds of stabby crime families tailor made for television.
Which leads us to the third issue. Considering his involvement in two of the best
crime dramas ever made (The Sopranos and The Wire, obvs) which hotbed of American crime can Albrecht mine without drawing comparisons to either? Or what crime narrative exists outside of the African-American and Italian-American culture that is compelling enough to flesh out an entire series? And how will inevitable comparisons to The Sopranos and The Wire affect audience views of the series? Holding a candle to the sun I know, but they’ll be juxtaposed no matter how disparate the subject matter.
Finally, despite speaking the same language and sarcastically hating the same country (England) there are still small but crucial cultural differences between Australian and American audiences. Especially when it comes to translating Aussie bogan culture. Let’s call this Exhibit A.
It’s an interesting move by Albrecht and an American incarnation of Underbelly should at least yield a compelling drama series. We’re just not sure why he needs the Aussies in the first place.