It's a new year, and that usually means new comedy shows for Friday nights on telly. So how about this one, which'll be starting on January 4th? It tells the story of Sandy Grünwald (Britta Horn), the newly-appointed head of the IT department at Bornholm AG. Her team consists of the lovable rogue Tom Zacher (Sebastian Münster) and the ultra-nerdy Gabriel Baumann (Stefan Puntigam). All Sandy has to do is keep control of them, and make sure her boss Oswald Bornholm (Sky Du Mont) never finds out how little she knows about computers...
Yes, you're right, this is sounding a little familiar. Das iTeam - Die Jungs an der Maus (to give it its full title) is a German shot-for-shot remake of the UK sitcom The IT Crowd. Its first episode is showing on Germany's SAT1 channel this Friday night at 9.45pm.
Das iTeam is being pitched towards an entirely different audience from The IT Crowd, of course. A whole other nation's comic traditions and televisual grammar are at work here. It would be monstrously unfair to compare the two shows with each other. So let's do it.
In the past it was an open secret that UK telly programmes were being reshot for foreign markets, of course. But most of those remakes never made it onto the screen over here, except for the odd English-language one - and even those were usually buried deep in the schedules, where they couldn't be confused with the originals. (Like the American version of The Office, which is a huge primetime hit on NBC but hidden away on ITV2 and Paramount Comedy over here.) Which makes the probability of Das iTeam ever turning up on British television precisely zero.
But in one of those amusing ironies, it's IT that comes to our rescue here. Because SAT1 have obligingly made a preview of the first episode available on the web, and haven't done anything silly like block access to it from non-German IP addresses. You can see it in two parts: here and here. Be warned, though, that it may disappear from the web some time after transmission: at least if the Channel 4 web previews of The IT Crowd in 2006 are being used as SAT1's model. Still, you know how these things work nowadays, so the equivalent British pilot episode can be seen on YouTube in three parts: here, here and here. It looks like the German version is missing a lump in the middle, but there's enough there for comparison purposes.
I suspect The IT Crowd is one of those shows that gets by on a lot of affection from its audience: it looks like thin fare when held up against writer/director Graham Linehan's best-known work as co-creator of Father Ted. (But then, what doesn't?) Its characters are cartoony and inconsistent, its gags sometimes misfire, its various subplots make ugly grinding noises as they're forced to intersect with each other. But those of us who enjoy it do so because we want it to work, and when it does work - usually in wholly unexpected ways - it's a lovely thing.
It's difficult to say how well the verbal gags in Das iTeam work - from the limited amount of the language I know, it sounds like most of the key lines from the UK pilot are in the German one, with a couple of curious local variations. I guess they don't have dual editions of Harry Potter in Germany, which explains one change: but retitling the episode from Yesterday's Jam to Brötchen vom Vortag kills the scene where the title is explained. ("That doesn't really work as a thing, 'cos jam lasts for ages" doesn't really work when you're talking about bread rolls.)
We're on surer ground comparing the sight gags, where it suddenly becomes apparent that Graham Linehan is a much better comedy director than we may have realised. Some of the best laughs in Yesterday's Jam come from silly bits of visual nonsense, and it's fascinating to see the number of different ways in which Brötchen vom Vortag cocks them up. Linehan himself has already commented on his blog about the opening shot - a closeup of Bornholm (Denholm in the UK version) sitting at his desk, from which the camera pulls back in an unexpected way. Watch that shot in both versions, and notice how with a simple change in camera angle you can remove most of the reason for the shot existing in the first place.
The main problem is that iTeam director Heinz Deitz is trying to shoot it like a realistic sitcom, where the idea of one of your characters staring directly into the camera would be strictly taboo. Most of his bad decisions in the show come from taking the direction down conventional routes - allowing us to see Tom throwing missiles at Gabriel rather than having them come unexpectedly from off-camera, zooming in on Tom's head injury to make sure we see it, things like that. The worst example may be Sandy's final line in the episode, which is followed by several seconds of smirking reaction shots to emphasise it's the end of the show. Linehan's choice in the UK version is an incredibly hard cut to black immediately after the line, not even allowing us to hear the audience reaction - because that's all we need. And it makes the line funnier, which doesn't appear to be high on Deitz's list of priorities.
So, yes, it's a right old mess. But there's no denying the curiosity value in watching this if you know the original, and trying to reverse engineer a definition of the German sense of humour from it. From the SAT1 episode guide (or a rough translation of it) it looks like Das iTeam will be following series 1 of The IT Crowd with similar precision throughout. So we can look forward to seeing Sandy buy her Traumschuhe, Tom going on a date with Schokolade auf der Stirn, and Gabriel trying to find out more about Sandy's Tante Rosa. No idea yet if future episodes will appear on the SAT1 site, but I'm sure there will ways to get hold of them from elsewhere if you're curious.
In the meantime, once of the few unchanged things in the show reminds me: I must buy one of these.