MTV sitcom 'Inbetweeners' loses bite of British version

David Wiegand / San Francisco Chronicle /

MTV is apparently gun-shy about remaking edgy British shows for American audiences after its version of “Skins” was loudly criticized for its frank depiction of teenage sexuality.

That’s the only way to explain the almost intolerably bland version of “The Inbetweeners” premiering tonight on MTV. The characters are similar to the quartet of teenage outsiders who anchored the cheeky British series from 2008-10, and Joey Pollari, as mega-nerd Will McKenzie, even looks a bit like that show’s star, the great Simon Bird. But the heart of the British show has been lost in translation, along with much of the inoffensively coarse language and almost all of its humor.

Comparing a remade show to its source material isn’t always necessary to render a judgment, but it is in this case, because everything in the original show that Brad Copeland (“Arrested Development”) has bowdlerized is absolutely essential to why it was such a cult hit.

Both shows are about high school losers who band together for moral support against the rigid teenage social pecking order of high school. Will is the new kid in school, showing up on the first day toting a messenger bag and wearing a blazer — enough to cause him to be instantly and permanently categorized as a secondary-school untouchable. He’s so socially toxic that even the other losers don’t want anything to do with him, but Will soon forms a tentative bond with Simon Cooper (Bubba Lewis), the cute one; Neil Sutherland (Mark L. Young), the happily stupid one; and Jay Cartwright (Zack Pearlman), full of detailed tales of all of his entirely fictional sexual conquests.

The four boys are desperate to erase their loser status. Most of all, they’re desperate to lose their virginity.

Pollari is pretty good as Will and, for that matter, the other actors aren’t bad either, unless you stack them up against the Brits who played their roles and who had far better scripts. In particular, James Buckley just killed episode after episode bragging about his fake sexual escapades, and Joe Thomas managed the near impossible with Simon Cooper, playing a guy whose looks should have given him far more self-confidence than he was ever able to manage.

But the immediate problem with the MTV version is the language. It’s not that we need to hear bad words for the sake of hearing bad words: It’s that the only thing these boys have to pump themselves up are dirty words. Since they can’t get near a girl, and no one in the cafeteria wants to sit with them at lunch, they fall back on all kinds of elaborate cuss words in a vain attempt to convince themselves they aren’t the losers they know, in their sad hearts, they really are.

Without the language, the boys in the American “Inbetweeners” come off as four bland kids with obvious and uninteresting personalities and only a few fleeting moments of humor.