Nostalgia TV: The producers of the new ‘Charmed’ and ‘Magnum P.I.’ discuss the process of rebooting fan favorites
If there’s one truism in this era of too much television, it’s this: Old TV shows never die — they simply get rebooted (or revived).
The 2018-19 season has a new crop of shows from yesteryear making a comeback. Among them a re-imagining of “Magnum P.I.,” the popular crime procedural from the ’80s that starred Tom Selleck in his signature role as the charismatic mustachioed detective. The new version from CBS — hailing from Peter Lenkov, who is also behind the network’s updates of “Hawaii Five-0” and “MacGuyver” — features Jay Hernandez (“Scandal,” “Hostel”) in the titular role.
Over on the CW, the time machine has taken a shorter trip, to the late ’90s, early aughts. The network has updated “Charmed,” the cult favorite about three sister witches that starred Alyssa Milano, Shannen Doherty, Holly Marie Combs and, later, Rose McGowan. The contemporary version, helmed by Jennie Snyder Urman (“Jane the Virgin”), boasts a Latinx cast: Sarah Jeffery, Madeleine Mantock and Melonie Diaz.
We connected Lenkov and Snyder Urman for a conversation about the work that goes into making old TV new again.
Lenkov: Were you a fan of the original [“Charmed”]?
Snyder Urman: Yes, yes. Huge fan of the original. I watched it as it came out. And then when CBS [Television Studios] told me they were interested in rebooting it, I was excited about that, and also really wanted to find the writers to bring it to life who are also really big fans of the original. That was sort of the most important starting point for me, and that’s why I asked Jessica [O’Toole] and Amy [Rardin, both executive producers on the series] to adapt it. It was a show that they loved: loved what it stood for, loved the idea of sisterhood and keeping those themes alive.
Snyder Urman: How about you?
Lenkov: When I was a kid, I used to draw cartoons of Magnum. I used to put words in his mouth, so it was really something that, ever since it aired, I wanted to write for this character.
Snyder Urman: How long did you guys debate whether or not to use the mustache?
Lenkov: From the beginning, I just thought, “I cannot do a Tom Selleck clone.” He was so good in that role. He brought his aesthetic, which included that mustache. I don’t think anybody can re-create that, so I felt like we wanted to sort of have our own Magnum. Our Magnum has a goatee.
Snyder Urman: Jay Hernandez is great. I’ve been a huge fan of his for a while. It was really fun watching him take on this part.
Lenkov: It’s interesting, because when we first met with him, everything that we described about the character, we saw in him. He was just charming and just a really likable guy. That’s what Magnum was. That’s hard to find, somebody who’s that natural and has that charm and ... I guess people say he’s very easy to look at.
Can you expand on how crucial casting is when you’re doing a reboot?
Snyder Urman: Yeah, you have shows in your mind and you have the original in your mind, and then you have your script and your iteration, but you really can’t fully differentiate it, I think, until you know who you’re writing for.
In the case of “Charmed,” we didn’t want to do an exact replica of the original, because the four women were wonderful and [the show is] still on Netflix. You really want to find people who can create their own roles and bring something new to it. A lot of “Charmed” is about the chemistry between the sisters, because, as I said, that’s at the root of the reboot ... is that these are three women who love each other and will do anything to protect that bond.
Lenkov: We wanted to do a very modern version of the show. I think we wanted to get the best actor for the role. Jay came in and sort of blew us all away. I love the fact that it’s a diversity-forward show. We saw everybody. He just sort of stood out to us as the perfect Magnum.
Snyder Urman: And Higgins was originally a man [played by John Hillerman], and now she’s a woman [played by Perdita Weeks].
Lenkov: Yeah. I felt I couldn’t re-create that relationship as [well] as the original. And I also felt the show, the original show, was such a boys’ club. It needed a female voice.
Snyder Urman: What do you think that adds to it in terms of feeling like a boys’ club or not feeling like a boys’ club? The central bond is still with those four, now three, guys.
Lenkov: No, no. She’s very quickly sort of becoming family to the three of them.
Snyder Urman: Is it gonna work on a romantic angle too?
Lenkov: I think it could get there, maybe one day down the road, and it’s not something that we’re thinking about right now. I think we’re just thinking of them being great partners and feeding off each other’s skills.
These are both shows that are Latinx-fronted reboots. In what way did that shape the staffing of the writers room? Peter, at a recent press tour, you faced criticism for saying you had no Latinx writers in the room because they’re hard to find. (Lenkov later clarified that there was a Latinx writer on staff.)
Lenkov: Here’s the thing, I made an unfortunate mistake not understanding a question, and all of a sudden, it sort of spiraled ... on all three shows [“Magnum P.I.,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “MacGuyver”], I think we’ve really had a great sort of diverse writers room and I think inclusion has always been a big part of our sort of existence. Sometimes when you’re sitting up there with those lights on you and you’re somebody who is used to sitting behind a computer, you mess up. And I messed up on a big stage
Was it a teachable moment?
Lenkov: It just reminded me that we could all do better. And as much as I feel like we do well in our writers room, we could always do better. I made a connection with the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and they’d introduced me to some great writers. We started meeting some of them, and it just reminded me that I could do better. So it was a very teachable moment.
Snyder Urman: On “Charmed,” we had originally been thinking about a prequel, and that’s when Jessica and Amy came on. I want to say after the election happened, all the things that we wanted to say about witchcraft and the place of women in society and the way that things are looked at suddenly, it felt like we had to move that into the present, because it felt like it was something vital that we were struggling with now. Once that happened, we had to look: Jessica and Amy and I are all white women. So a huge, huge part of when we got into staffing, once we cast Madeleine and Sarah and Melonie, was making sure that our room was inclusive and had Latino writers and black writers and Asian writers.
What is it about these shows that make them worthwhile to revisit now?
Snyder Urman: It’s definitely a pilot born out of this moment. I don’t think the same story would have been written 20 years ago, because this is very much dealing with what we’re dealing with now and our own cultural awakening or reawakening. For us, that was incredibly important in terms of justifying the need for a reboot and really feeling that we wanted to see a story of three women who are fighting bad guys, taking down the world, taking down demons literal and figurative, as we’re all struggling to do in our lives. Also, we’re just in a culture right now where you hear the word “witch hunt” constantly, every day, the president tweets about it, and that’s all born out of the history of fear of female power.
So it’s a really empowering thing for us to take that term and say, “You’re using the word ‘witch hunt’ out of fear, and here’s some of the things that you might be scared about.” And then also thinking like, “What if it’s true? What if these powerful women could take over? What would that look like?” And that was all an exciting playing ground for us.
Lenkov: That’s what I loved about your pilot. It felt so timely. It felt so relevant. For me, I’ve been trying to do this for a long time, but I realized when I was writing it that there was no better time to do it. The thing I always loved about the original “Magnum” was the positive portrayal of veterans returning home from the Vietnam War. There’s not a lot of stories out there that are showing positive portrayals of our vets returning home now. And I realized when I was starting to sort of figure out how to pitch it, that that’s really at the core, the essence of the show, which for me as a kid was they were heroes.
Did either of you feel confined to the universe? Were there limits to where you could take things?
Lenkov: By not putting the mustache on Jay, I already blew that. We’ve stuck very close to the source material, I think, other than the mustache, which I think people are mixed on whether Jay should have one or not. I think we’re very close to the mythology of the show but really more so the spirit of the show.
Snyder Urman: When you’re taking on a property that so many people have such an intense connection to, you really think about those questions all the time. It’s a lot to try to please everyone, the people that loved the original and want it exactly the way it was versus people who don’t want you to touch any of the original. For us, what we came to ultimately and in making those decisions was that the original had such a complete mythology. It had eight seasons. You saw the Charmed Ones’ children. It existed as its own complete story. And for us, the way that we thought we could be the most respectful of the existing material was to do a reboot as opposed to anything that would change what they did. So, it’s a different family. It’s different sisters. We didn’t want to infringe upon what they already did. That said, we really wanted to answer the question, “Then, why is it ‘Charmed’?” What are those central conceits and central ... What makes it what it is, and what are people going to respond to? We took a lot of their mythology, because the mythology was amazing… the fact that the witches are coming through this incredible matriarchal line, and the fact that even though they have these amazing romances, the central love story was between the sisters. The idea that they have to protect innocents. So we took all of the bones and all of the things that we thought really defined the world in such a unique, interesting and provocative way, and then using those bones, we tried to put our own spin on it and create new characters, new dynamics and make it feel of this moment.
“Magnum P.I” premieres Sept. 24 on CBS. “Charmed” premieres Oct. 14 on the CW.
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