Re-imagined for TV: ‘Rockford Files,’ ‘Hawaii Five-0' and more
Kenneth Johnson has seen this show before. A major network excitedly re-envisions an original television series and trumpets its latest reincarnation as if it were the second coming of “Friends.”
As the creator of the original series “Bionic Woman” and “V,” Johnson knows sometimes the new vision works and sometimes it doesn’t. (NBC’s “Bionic Woman” didn’t. “V,” still on ABC and considered a bubble show for renewal next season, has so far.)
With little more than a month left before the major networks announce their new fall schedules, a slew of iconic “re-envisioned” shows from previous decades are being considered for next season. Three pilots that seem to be generating buzz already are NBC’s “Rockford Files,” CBS’ “Hawaii Five-0" and CW’s “Nikita.”
“ ‘Re-imagined’ is right up there with [the word] ‘Titanic,’ ” said Johnson, who was also behind the original television movies series “The Incredible Hulk.” “I think trying to take something that’s become truly iconic in the public’s mind and reinvent it is always a dangerous prospect. People remember the original projects often with such clarity and fondness for the elements that make them so iconic and successful, it’s very difficult to recapture that lightning in a bottle.”
Re-imaginations are running wild at other networks too. ABC is retooling its “Charlie’s Angels” pilot script for midseason. NBC has delayed its redo of the British crime series “Prime Suspect” due to problems casting the female lead. And TNT is still quietly developing a “Dallas” revival that could bring back J.R. Ewing and some of the 1978-91 CBS hit’s stars.
Meanwhile, Craig Silverstein (“Bones”) is moving CW’s “Nikita” -- last epitomized by blond Peta Wilson as USA Network’s “La Femme Nikita” in 1997-2001 -- into new terrain, casting Maggie Q, who is half-Vietnamese, as the film and TV franchise’s first non-Caucasian lead.
“Some of these remakes they just sort of jack the title up and put another idea beneath it,” said writer-producer Stephen J. Cannell, who with Roy Huggins created NBC’s 1974-80 “The Rockford Files,” about a quirky, ex-con private eye played by Emmy-winning James Garner.
Cannell has seen the reworking of his hit ‘70s show by “House” creator/executive producer David Shore and said it “definitely has the panache of the old show.”
“They have a sense for the character, a sense for what ‘Rockford’ was,” he added. But Shore is “looking at it as a completely fresh thing -- exactly the right way to do it.”
But how do you re-envision an entire series whose iconic star is the show -- or at least the embodiment of its indelible lead character and audience-beloved soul? Dermot Mulroney has big gumshoes to fill in Garner’s role. “They couldn’t have better people doing this,” said a well-wishing Cannell. “But it’s gonna be so hard to take out what basically is 50% of the equation -- which is Jim.”
Cannell speaks from experience: He wrote and produced an updated, Jack Lord-less “Hawaii Five-0" pilot shot for CBS in 1997. The reboot, teaming original cast members with Gary Busey as a new, offbeat lead character, never aired. (The series is now getting another look from “Fringe” co-creators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman -- who penned and executive produced 2009’s big-screen “Star Trek” -- in CBS’ “Five-0.”)
But even brand recognition, a big PR push and the co-creator of cable’s only hit reboot -- Syfy’s post-apocalyptic space opera “Battlestar Galactica” -- won’t guarantee success. In fall 2007, NBC plugged so much high-dollar buzz and expectation into David Eick’s dark, techno-slick “Bionic Woman” that the lighthearted, woman-empowering original became an overpowered machine that self-destructed.
“My goal was to attempt to answer the question, ‘Are the rules different for girls in genre storytelling?’ ” said Eick, who now helms Syfy’s “Battlestar” prequel “Caprica” with Ronald D. Moore. “There didn’t seem to be a unity of vision about that idea. Nor was there a tendency or willingness on the part of everyone to sort of surrender what their vision may have been in favor of one. Consequently, we lost our way.”
“Heart,” said Johnson, “was exactly the core of the Bionic Woman. The reason I hired Lindsay Wagner to begin with is she exhibited, as an actress and a person, all the aspects of humanity that were key to making the show work.”
Despite its big premiere numbers, the remake tanked after nine episodes. Jaime Sommers -- the barrier-busting super human whose portrayal won Wagner an Emmy, inspired a generation and sent NBC into overdrive 30 years later -- limped into oblivion.
“There was a great deal of hand-wringing and preoccupation and distraction and concern about everything -- far too much than was necessary,” Eick said. “Because it was called ‘Bionic Woman,’ it was going to be very expensive, have a very huge promotional marketing launch and be high on the radar of the advertisers [and] the corporate structure of the network. It had a lot more fingers in the pie than if it’d been called ‘Action Girl.’ ”
Eick said if he had properly executed his vision, viewers “ultimately would’ve found the heart would’ve been beating. It would’ve been the reason why you watched the show.”