The critic Robert Warshow once suggested that the reason Americans flocked to gangster movies and westerns in the 1940s and ‘50s was because those pictures depicted a reality the audience implicitly understood but weren’t allowed to talk about openly. The films showed a world defined by violence, loneliness and loss: “The ‘no’ to that great American ‘yes’ which is stamped so big over our official culture and yet has so little to do with the way we really feel about our lives,” according to Warshow.
So… what does this have to do with two charming little sitcoms about ghosts?
Thanks to the writers’ and actors’ strikes — now blessedly resolved — CBS is about to start filling in some of its primetime schedule with the original BBC version of Ghosts, beginning Thursday, November 16. The American Ghosts remake, which started airing on CBS in 2021, has been one of the network’s surprise hits through its first two seasons, routinely landing among the Top 10 scripted shows in the weekly Nielsen ratings. But when fans of the CBS Ghosts tune in for the BBC version (dubbed Ghosts UK), it may not be quite what they expect. The two shows are superficially alike; but there are some deep-rooted cultural differences, beyond the accents.
For those who’ve never seen either of the Ghosts, here’s a quick primer. Both shows are about a pleasant but restless woman in her mid-30s — Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) in the U.K., Sam (Rose McIver) in the U.S. — who has a dream opportunity fall into her lap when a distant relative dies, leaving her in possession of a crumbling old country mansion. While surveying the new place, each of these women suffers a near-fatal injury; and when they regain consciousness, they find they can see and hear ghosts.
That’s the basic premise, which plays out mostly around the heroines’ respective estates, where the ladies interact with a house full of the restless spirits who died on the properties across the centuries. The ghost ensembles in the two Ghosts series aren’t an exact character-for-character match, but they do share some traits and backstories. (A closeted gay British WWII military officer becomes an American Revolutionary War officer on the CBS version, for example.) It’s how Sam and Alison deal with these ghosts – and the way they try to make the most of their windfall – that really sets the two Ghosts apart.
In both, Alison and Sam try to turn their old place into an upscale inn, with the help of their respective husbands. But while Sam has Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a nerdy but capable business partner, Alison is saddled with Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe), a lovable oaf who tends to break more than he fixes. Unsurprisingly, while Sam and Jay get their bed-and-breakfast looking spiffy by the end of one TV season, Alison and Mike have struggled through five seasons, with nearly every moment of triumph followed by a disaster.
It’s important to note here that each of Ghosts UK’s five seasons is only six episodes long, with a handful of Christmas specials sprinkled in. That five-year run has so far only produced 33 episodes, while the two years of the U.S. show has produced 40. So in a way, Alison and Mike haven’t had as much time as Sam and Jay to get things done. But let’s be frank: The British show wouldn’t really work if Alison and Mike were thriving.
That’s because the overall vibe of Ghosts UK is more reminiscent of a whole subset of American sitcoms — fading from the airwaves of late — where no matter how hard the characters try, they can’t seem to get ahead. Think The Honeymooners. Think Sanford and Son. Think Married… With Children. Some TV fans derisively say shows like these “hit the reset button” at the end of every episode, wiping out any gains the characters may have made so the next episode can start with them back at square one. But actually this is part of a longstanding comic philosophy (shared with a lot of U.K. sitcoms, in fact), rooted in the idea that failure is funny because it’s relatable.
When did American TV comedy start drifting away from this? There’s no single watershed moment; but it’s worth noting that over the course of its long run the American version of The Office gradually shed the prickliness of the British original and became more about relationships and accomplishments. The success of that show presaged a whole wave of sitcoms — like Modern Family, Parks and Recreation and The Big Bang Theory — where the characters’ struggles are more fleeting and the narrative arc bends toward happy endings. These series don’t just make audiences laugh; they’re also a comfort.
To be fair, the British version of Ghosts does have plenty of sentimental moments, as the ghosts reflect on their lives, deaths and regrets. But in general, Ghosts UK is darker. The obstacles in Alison and Mike’s way can seem genuinely insurmountable. Also — and this matters a great deal — the ghosts are often a real problem. They wear on Alison’s nerves.
In the U.S. version, meanwhile, Sam is much friendlier with her spirits. She treats her ghost-talking abilities more like a superpower than a burden. And though Jay can’t see or hear the ghosts, he learns enough about them from Sam to become their pal by proxy. The ghosts in the U.S. Ghosts handle their own business better; and over the course of the show’s two seasons they exhibit phenomenal personal growth. The remake is a happier show overall. If Warshow were alive today, he might say it’s more American. (“America, as a social and political organization, is committed to a cheerful view of life.”)
This doesn’t mean that the U.S. Ghosts is inferior. The U.K. version is a bit sharper and funnier (provided you're okay with comedy steeped in embarrassment); but the U.S. version has featured a wider variety of stories and comic ideas, and has developed its ghost characters a lot more fully. The new Ghosts has been a wonderful showcase for some talented American actors and comedians — especially Danielle Pinnock, whose performance as the Jazz Age singer Alberta Haynes has been full of life and emotion and historical specificity, justifying the whole idea of resetting the show in a different location.
But there’s something to be said for the crankiness of the original Ghosts, which invites the audience to admire these characters’ stubborn optimism while also depicting them as seriously overmatched by their problems. There’s nothing wrong with escapism; and Ghosts UK is escapist in its way, given that it’s filled with kooky dead people. But it’s also set firmly in a world of “no,” where so many current American sitcoms — the CBS Ghosts included — are all “yes.” The jokes Ghosts UK hit harder, because they’re coming from somewhere more real.
Ghosts UK premieres Thursday, November 16 on CBS at 9:00 PM ET. Ghosts Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming on Paramount+. Join the discussion about the U.S. show in our forums.
Noel Murray is a freelance pop culture critic and reporter living in central Arkansas.