Ghosts US review – remove the original sitcom’s best bits and you have … this

Ghostly visitation … Alberta, a 1920s jazz singer (Danielle Pinnock), pops in on Samantha (Rose McIver) and Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar), the living couple who have inherited the haunted house.

Ghostly visitation … Alberta, a 1920s jazz singer (Danielle Pinnock), pops in on Samantha (Rose McIver) and Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar), the living couple who have inherited the haunted house. Photograph: Bertrand Calmeau

This American remake of the BBC comedy is less thoughtful, less nuanced, less … good. But the brilliance of its premise means it’s still fun

Ghosts is a British sitcom that was destined to be remade in the US. That is because remakes are about buying up formats and so much of what makes the show good is in the cleverly constructed premise. A young city-slacker couple move into a crumbling country house they have inherited unexpectedly, only to find it haunted by the spirits of people from various historical eras who have died there. The woman can see and hear them but her other half can’t. Bingo: it’s a gang/houseshare comedy, a historical romp and an imaginary-friend farce all in one.

It was the perfect vehicle for its creators, the British troupe previously known for Horrible Histories and Yonderland. Can it work for a phalanx of little-known US comedy actors? Yes and no: Ghosts US (BBC Three/iPlayer) is a decent showcase for its cast and it can’t kill the charm of the original, but what was delightful in the original show is now just pleasant and what was unique is generic.

With a wide array of characters requiring Americanisation, most have undergone changes. Fanny, the censorious lady of the manor, is transferred more or less intact as Hetty (Rebecca Wisocky), while Pat, the scout leader with an arrow through his neck, has become Pete (Richie Moriarty), a scout leader with an arrow through his neck. But Robin the caveman is now Thorfinn the Viking (Devan Chandler Long), whose more advanced English makes him a bit less interesting. The conversion of Julian, the Tory MP who died with his trousers off, to Trevor (Asher Grodman), a Wall Street trader who popped off without any pants on, also feels like a downgrade: Trevor is a fairly standard sitcom horndog who could have wandered in from Two and a Half Men.

Characters who were peculiarly British, and so had to be binned, have been replaced more than once with less nuanced ones. Isaac (Brandon Scott Jones), the Revolutionary war soldier who in the UK version was the Captain, a second world war veteran, has had the pomposity of a self-appointed group leader dialled up. The denial gag about his sexuality is more obvious, too: what was a tenderly understated trait is now loudly to the fore, so Isaac harks back to sitcoms of about 30 years ago when gay characters started to appear regularly, but being gay was more or less the entire role.

Perhaps the best ghost in the original show, Mathew Baynton’s lovesick 19th-century poet, Thomas, has gone, although US viewers would surely understand him. Also junked are the witch-trial victim Mary and jolly Georgian Kitty. Brand new are the 1920s jazz singer Alberta (Danielle Pinnock), whose bullish self-aggrandisement makes her a lot of fun, and a 1960s hippy, Flower (Sheila Carrasco), whose repeated references to polyamory … don’t. Plus there is Sasappis (Román Zaragoza), a Native American who died 500 years ago but talks as if he were alive in the 21st century. Generally, the show is less thoughtful than the British Ghosts with regard to what the ghosts know or the idioms they use.

This is what snobby British viewers assume all US comedy remakes will be: the original with the kooky rough edges – the best bits – sanded off. Even the house is less scarily derelict, and the living couple who move in, played by Rose McIver and Utkarsh Ambudkar, lack that hint of slobby-teenager fecklessness that Charlotte Ritchie and Kiell Smith-Bynoe brought to the roles.

Other familiar annoyances from so-so US comedies, such as cultural references that will go stale quickly (“Halloween pics are already coming in on the ’gram! Ugh, there’s gonna be a lot of Carole Baskins hooking up with Baby Yodas this year”) are present, a symptom of the characters not being richly imagined: instead of saying and doing things that could only come from the unique world created by the show, lines creep in that could be from any sitcom.

All this, however, is because Ghosts US has a different remit. There are only 20 minutes of story an episode because it airs on a mainstream US network (CBS) and has to stop in the middle for ad breaks, so it sometimes feels perfunctory and rushed. But while British sitcoms are made as six episodes and then have a year off to recover, Ghosts US’s first season has 18 episodes and does successfully establish the machinery to crank them out smoothly.

Later instalments expand the geography of the show more ambitiously than the UK version has had time for, too. In the end, it is still Ghosts so it is still good – even if it is a pale imitation.

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