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"Emmy Brody: The UK’s Ally McBeal?"

Date of Article's Original Publication: February 28, 2001
Original URL of Article:
© Susan Karlin for BBC

A TV show about a 25-year-old American woman who works at the US Embassy in London is US network Fox’s new hope for a second Ally McBeal. Susan Karlin reports.

Are American audiences ready to learn that the rest of the world exists?

That's US TV network Fox's hope for Emmy Brody, thought to be the first American network primetime drama set in foreign soil since the flurry of James Bond-inspired spy shows like The Avengers and I, Spy, in the mid-60s and early 70s.

The show chronicles the professional and personal adventures of a young American woman, played by Arija Bareikis, of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo and Snow Falling on Cedars.

Emmy takes a job as a vice consul in the American embassy in London.

There, she juggles crises - from crimes to marriages to lost luggage - arising for any of the three million Americans passing through the city.

But its core is a comedic story of a woman’s discovery of self-identity - similar to the successful Ally McBeal format.

"We knew Fox wanted a show compatible with Ally McBeal and the creator, James Parriott, had always wanted to set a show in an embassy, because they’re fascinating places,” said John Landgraf, president of Jersey Television.

His company is producing the show in association with 20th Century Fox Television. Jersey’s parent company, Jersey Films, produced Erin Brockovich and Pulp Fiction.

"We decided on a woman in London, because it’s one of the most international cities, but were concerned that Americans generally don’t want to watch shows about people in foreign countries,” he added.

"Jim thought about it and came back with a series of letters he wrote from Emma to her best friend and parents.

"He got stationery from the American embassy and several hotels in London, and created a whole scenario for this woman's adventures through her letter-writing.

Several women read them and said they could not believe it wasn't a 25-year-old woman who wrote these letters. We took that to the network, which bought it instantly.”

Fox commissioned a pilot and will decide in May whether to show a series in the autumn in the US, with no sales yet made to the UK.

The pilot episode has Brody tracking down an American man who has kidnapped his 12-year-old girl in a custody dispute and hiding in London.

Brody has to find them and take custody of the child as the father is charged.

Sprinkled throughout are charmingly eccentric British characters, like her cross-dressing neighbour, and distinctly non-American problems, like her star-crossed flirtation with an ancillary member of the Royal Family.

The producers are currently casting in both countries and planning to shoot in London from 7-25 March.

"I'd like to cast out of the pool of actors in England and fly them to LA to guest star, because I don't think you get the same kind of authenticity if you don't use the real thing,” said Landgraf.

Sometimes a locale adds to a series, the way Hawaii and Miami did for Hawaii 5-0, Magnum, PI and Miami Vice.

But there are enough "clunkers” set in Hawaii and overseas like Assignment Vienna, Blue Light and The Man Who Never Was, to suggest that location isn't everything, said Alex McNeil, a Boston-based TV historian and author.

"Being set in London won't hurt the series, but I'm sceptical whether it's an enormous selling point, especially since London doesn't seem to have a reputation in the States as a sexy city, like Honolulu or Miami,” he said.

"You're not going to see too many people wearing thongs in London. Although I just read about a London man winning the right to walk around naked.”

Adrian Juste, the former Radio 1 disc jockey and chronicler of both nations' pop culture, believes a favourable British response depends on the show's approach.

"I think the British public would like it, so long as the Americans have a sense of irony and can send themselves up while they're in the UK,” he said.

"But they'll be fighting the American reputation of never bothering to get it right. We're still smarting from Dick Van Dyke's abysmal Cockney chimney-sweep in Mary Poppins.”

Landgraf is taking his cue more from Notting Hill, which captured the idiosyncrasies of both cultures.

"As an American, you're probably never more patriotic as when you live in a foreign country,” he said.

"At the same time, London has undergone a cultural and economic renaissance. It's a really happening place right now.

"So we want to go there, learn about the city and its issues, and bring that back to an American audience."