TV ramblings

Why TV show remakes rarely seem to work.

I've given this a bit of thought over the past few years (NBC, sadly, I'm looking at you!) and I've come to the conclusion that remakes often don't work when the 're-makers' don't understand what fundamentally drove the original show, and thus try to capture the wrong thing in their new version.

Take, for example, "Ironside." Was the original '60s TV show really about a disabled police detective? I haven't seen an episode in years, but as I remember it, the fact that Raymond Burr spent the whole time in a wheelchair was largely a mechanism or plot device to get a team of young, smart detectives working for a slightly surly yet brilliant superior who didn't involve himself in much of the fieldwork…

…which actually sounds an awful lot like "House" - right? So I would argue that what made the original "Ironside" tick was the fun interplay between the action-packed young 'uns and the supersavvy-but-snarky older guy. I'm not saying that a show about a disabled cop making a difference isn't a great concept, but maybe this explains why the writers of the 'new' "Ironside" got lost, because they were trapped in a sort of middle ground that was neither the old nor a radically new version.

"Knight Rider" and "Charlie's Angels" were two more painful blasts from the past. In the case of "Knight Rider" they failed to grasp that - fascinating though the Hoff undoubtedly was - the show wasn't about a cool guy with an even cooler car. It was a buddy cop show, the heart of which was the dynamic between the laid-back driver and the more conservative computer that ran the car. Casting Val Kilmer as the latter, and directing him to channel 'Hal' from "2001: A Space Odyssey" was not  going to reignite the magic! (On a side note, the short-lived but highly entertaining show "Street Hawk" was another buddy show that revolved around a guy and a souped-up, crime-fighting vehicle - in this case a motorbike - but unlike Knight Rider the buddy dynamic was between the hip ladies man and adventure junkie who drove the bike and the nerdy guy who designed it and freaked out that it'd come back in pieces. It may only have lasted one season and had many cheesy moments, but the friendship between those two characters was pretty great. [And the Tangerine Dream theme tune was awesome! Seriously, google it!])

What about "Charlie's Angels"? The pilot included such gems as a satellite that could look sideways into a hotel room (seriously?) and numerous character oddities summed up by almost anything Minka Kelly's character said. In this case, I think the show failed because they thought women would tune in to watch powerful female characters, and men would tune in to watch sexy female characters. (The whole 'girl power' thing having determined that sexy = powerful. Uh, riiiight. Like that's how it works, or even how 99% of women want it to work, in the real world. Getting off-topic again, but according to most TV shows all female law enforcement personnel have makeup artists, hairdressers and stylists constantly on hand - no doubt hovering just out of the picture? Oh, and it's easy to chase down a suspect and kick ass in high heels, too. Let's just say I loved that Olivia Dunham in "Fringe" and Sam Carter in "Stargate: SG1" actually wore sensible clothes and shoes on the job. But I digress…) In reality, I think that the original "Charlie's Angels" worked because it was women getting to do the detective work / ass kicking / undercover stuff for pretty much the first time. Which was revolutionary… then. I'm not the first person to note this, either. So why did the films work in that case? Because the films were FUN! They had fun with those characters, they spoofed the whole concept in a way - as well as a ton of other movies - so they had their tongues firmly in their cheeks, and most of all they could be that over the top because they only had to keep us along for the ride for a couple of hours! In TV we love characters we want to come back to every week. In more recent times, "Xena" or "Buffy" were the strong action heroines who hooked us, because they brought attitude and heart-wrenching emotions to the table, and they weren't just former models doing action moves. (A case in point is Sarah in "Chuck": an action-packed female spy who frequently dressed up in sexy outfits for the task at hand. But could the show have revolved around that character? Of course not. Because she was a fairly 2D character whose main driving force, at least most of the time, was to do her job. We wanted to know about Chuck, and whether he'd end up with her or not, but that was really her main purpose, aside from [along with Casey] reminding us that she was a professional and Chuck was not.)

Next, we come to "Prime Suspect" - the US version with Maria Bello that - despite NBC's best attempts - lasted only one season (if that). This is actually, in my opinion, an example of where the re-makers did do a great job of making the show relevant for a new audience. It was brilliantly written, it was witty, the characters were wonderfully drawn, and I loved every episode I watched. Putting aside the fact that it failed, why did it work so well? Because they realized that - while the original UK version was made at a time when women often were discriminated against on the police force, and elsewhere - their remake was set in a present when women no longer experience that as the norm. I'm sure there are women all over the US who've experienced discrimination and sexual harrassment only recently… but for most of us it just doesn't happen any more - and when it does, it's maybe all the more horrifying because it's so unusual and bizarre. Hence the new "Prime Suspect" changed this to the kind of problem that still crops up in the modern world: resistance to change. The lead character is now targeted because (for the most part, at least) she's an outsider who's too 'by the book' and supercharged for anyone to be comfortable with. She wants to tear into things, make a big stink… and hey, who asked her to, huh? Yes, her being a woman and feeling sidelined played into it a bit - at least in the pilot episode - but it was more about her being a pitbull who wouldn't let things go than her being a woman. The writers wisely let that aspect go early on, probably before the pilot even concluded if I remember right. (And I'm not saying that Helen Mirren's original character was all about her being a woman in a man's world - if I'm remembering things correctly, she faced exactly the same issues of being the overly-tenacious outsider who people felt was a little too keen to take over a dead man's job. But my point is that the new version got the balance - between women's issues and something that could happen to any character - right for the modern era.) So… if it was that good, why did it get canceled? Maybe because it was called "Prime Suspect" and that instantly put off people who loved the original show, while not attracting new viewers? Maybe because it wasn't advertised the right way (or much at all?) A very good show on Lifetime - "Against the Wall" - was similarly canceled after one season, I think due to poor advertising which implied it was about a sex-obsessed female cop, whereas in fact the show wasn't about that at all. [Another side note: why does Lifetime - a network supposedly targeting women - have shows about sexy women and/or horrendously depressing 'true life' stories?? I DO NOT understand this. I'm a woman, and if you sat me down in front of their original movies for 24 hours straight I think I'd slit my wrists! Give us some strong emotions, angst-ridden heroes and heroines, and happy endings, for God's sake!!] 

Finally: I haven't mentioned a single successful remake in the above, have I? I know there are some (even if they don't immediately spring to mind…)  But I think the point is that - because the world, and the 'zeitgeist,' changes over time - a truly successful remake isn't actually close to the original at all. So sometimes a 'remake' is more of an 'inspired by' and it neither gets the same name as the original, nor the same description at all. (Note: had "Prime Suspect" US been called something else, might it have fared well? We shall never know.) In an attempt to prove my point, I'll end with a description of a TV show. A master-mind, grifter, hitter, hacker and thief set out to pull con jobs for good, not bad. The show is all about character interactions, with them working seamlessly when they're on a job, though experiencing the occasional amusing episode of rubbing each other the wrong way when they have the chance. "Leverage" - right? Well, yes. And no. Because I was actually thinking of a TV show from the '60s, a sort of 5-man "Dirty Dozen" called "Garrison's Gorillas" which saw 4 released criminals and their US Army Lieutenant 'warden' (Lt. Garrison, hence the rather unsettling name of the show!) going into occupied Europe to pull cons, heists, and other escapades to damage the Nazi war effort. Okay, so the 'hacker' was a safe cracker, but other than that the parallels are pretty exact. Amusingly, on the surface "Leverage" has a lot in common with a British show called "Hustle" which is another banter-driven TV show about 5 con artists… but there the similarities end. In "Hustle" it's mostly about them and their own greed - it's fun, but it's them versus the 'straights' 90% of the time, and that works for them. Whereas in "Leverage" it's all about the innocents they help - just as "Garrison's Gorillas" was about saving Europe from the Nazis. I've no idea if the creators of "Leverage" had ever even seen "Garrison's Gorillas" - but I'd love to know. And to thank them - even if it was sheer coincidence - for 're-making' a show I loved in a way that I would never have thought to do :-)