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Robo-James' Time Machine: The Trouble With Remakes

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What’s the next generation of network TV dramas? At least some executives think that it’s the last generation of TV dramas, or the one before that. Among the pilots ordered up lately at the broadcast networks have been remakes of Prime Suspect, Hawaii 5-0 and, at NBC, one of that network’s classics, The Rockford Files. Great show. And a lousy idea, I suspect, for a remake.

Now, there are two reasons why I could see NBC thinking a new Rockford would be swell. For one thing Rockford-style shows, broadly defined, are doing really well right now for NBC’s cable cousin, USA (as well as some other cable networks). With the likes of Burn Notice, Royal Pains and White Collar, USA has made a brand out of light dramas starring rakish heroes or antiheroes. And the down-and-out, picaresque Jim Rockford, played by the menthol-cool James Garner in the ’70s, is the granddaddy of all such heroes.

Second, the thing that makes remakes such an easy sell, at network pitch meetings anyway, is that they’re recognizable entities. It is harder to lose your job, at a network, when you fail by suggesting something that was a success before. (Ben Silverman arguably did at NBC, with the likes of Bionic Woman and Knight Rider, but he failed on so many levels that it’s hard to blame any one thing.) People will be drawn in by a brand name they recognize, goes the thinking, so it makes the show easier to launch and more likely to get sampled.

That’s the theory. In practice, the theory sucks. Yes, every now and then we get a successful “re-imagining” of an old-time show like Battlestar Galactica. But the past several seasons we’ve seen one remake after another bomb or fizzle: the aforementioned NBC projects, Melrose Place, 90210, and, going back in time, the like of The Fugitive (a failed Tv remake of a successful movie remake of a TV show).

The reason it’s difficult becomes clear if you watch just a few minutes of the clip above. How do you replicate Rockford: the insouciance, the playing off TV-cop tropes, the humor, the lowlife charm, the rogueishness of James Garner? Answer: you don’t. You never will. You can only disappoint anyone who compares your new show with the original, while gaining exacty nothing with anyone who hasn’t seen it. Whereas you could easily make a Rockford-like show, give it a different title, and even if it doesn’t match the original, get credit for recapturing something of its spirit. (And don’t get me started on Prime Suspect: I will be stunned if an American broadcast network can create a female antihero as memorably and starkly flawed as Jane Tennison.)

Remakes can succeed, and if the new Rockford ever gets on the air, I may end up eating my words. But most remakes like that are proof that what makes good TV pitches is not always the same as what makes good TV. Still, as long as it’s in fashion: what would you like to see a network remake next season?