File this under stupidity. NBC will remake the Rockford Files. Set to run the show is “House” co-creator David Shore (“Law and Order,” “Family Law”). NBC has no clue. A remake, destined to fail, of one of the all-time great TV shows, when NBC cancelled an existing show that had great promise (“Life”) as well as one of the most engaging and tough characters on TV (Damien Lewis’s “Charlie Crews”)
Failed attempts to revive “Knight Rider,” and “the Bionic Woman” have not taught NBC a thing. Both shows were light-hearted male-oriented science-fiction oriented (though not strictly science fiction) action romps that depended on being light and bright and untaxing to gain an audience. A talking, intelligent car helps a cop with a new face, backed by a billionaire, bust crime. A woman gets bionic implants and gains superpowers to … fight crime. Lesbian one night stands and random threesomes do not a boy’s show make, nor do complex and indecipherable “government conspiracies.” Which is exactly what both “Knight Rider” and “Bionic Woman” were. If anything, the overly edgy/dark/violent remake of “Bionic Woman” was even worse. Both failed. Miserably.
This is because today’s Hollywood creative teams cannot replicate what those thirty years ago could, which is make light, fun shows that attract young men and boys. From Glen A. Larson (the original Knight Rider and Battlestar Galactica) to Kenneth Johnson (Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman, the Bill Bixby “Incredible Hulk”) the creation of light-hearted male oriented shows was something done as a matter of course, and executed well.
The Rockford Files remake is doomed to failure. There’s no actor who can even come close to matching what James Garner did, arguably at the peak of his career. None with his charisma, masculine presence, wry humor, and patiently honed acting ability. Not even (“Life,” “Band of Brothers”) Damien Lewis can pull that off. Certainly not the “updated” (read, man-boy pretty face) actor certain to be casted. Nor can the supporting actors of Joe Santos, Noah Beery, and Stuart Margolin be equaled. Certainly not when Hulu has the real deal available for free, online.
What’s interesting of course, is that the “Rockford Files” itself was a remake but of a failed TV show. The 1968 “Outsiders” created by Roy Huggins (“Maverick”) starred Darren McGavin as an orphaned ex-con Private Eye who lived in a trailer, and had to hustle to solve the case and collect from his clients. Sound familiar? It lasted one season. Huggins teamed with Stephen J. Cannell (“the A-Team,” and “Greatest American Hero”) to retool the concept, make it lighter, give the character a family and friends and connections, and make the character and show more optimistic, with the character mostly winning rather than losing. Even the end of the opening credit photos transitions from Rockford being arrested to fishing with his father at the end of a pier. A triumph all it’s own.
What made the Rockford Files great (and you can see for yourself at the link above at Hulu.com) was the cheerful cynicism of the lead character. Forever convinced that a con was in the works (it always was) and the venality, rashness, and stupidity of the bad guys leading to their undoing (which was generally the case). Both Huggins and Cannell studied the failure of “the Outsider” (and McGavin was no mean actor himself, as his continued cult popularity in both “the Night Stalker” and “Christmas Story” prove) carefully to avoid the same fate with Rockford Files. Even the different (and humorous) messages left on Rockford’s answering machine in each opening credits was there to grab viewer’s attention.
And while the show itself had no lack of female fans who appreciated the matinee idol quality of Garner’s leading man looks and sheer presence, the show itself was absolutely male. The character was not the female fantasy of the powerful, brooding bad boy (“Angel,” “Forever Knight,” “Dexter,” “Moonlight”) nor that of the uber-Alpha guy (“Mr. Big” in “Sex and the City,” “the Mentalist,” and “Gossip Girl”). The character lived in a trailer, never had much money, while the person he loved the most and trusted the most was his father, who was constantly wanting him to quit being a Private Eye and become a trucker. While women were in and out of his life (Rockford was a good looking guy) they were mostly out, and the character was resigned to a lack of any real romance or love in his life. The character still mostly won over the bad guys, even if he himself didn’t profit and took a beating doing it.
The Rockford Files was very, very male. Something NBC and the current crop of creative people simply cannot understand, much less replicate.
Far better for NBC to copy failed but interesting shows, with obvious but fixable flaws. “Tenspeed and Brown Shoe” (from 1980) with an upright, straight-laced accountant teaming with a con man (Jeff Goldblum, Ben Vereen respectively) to become Private Investigators. Or “JJ Starbuck” (from 1988), with an older billionaire (Dale Robertson) traveling the country seeking to help the helpless after his wife and son die. Both were light-hearted, both had obvious but fixable flaws, neither are remembered, and both are different enough from what’s on today to stand out in the clutter. Both have the ability to appeal to older as well as younger viewers, an important feature in today’s declining youth cohort that is switching to online, streaming media anyway.
For “Tenspeed and Brown Shoe” (it doesn’t matter what the remake would be called), the relationship between the two friends needs to progress, with the account better at improvising cons, and the con-man better at being a straight-laced diligent fact-checker. For JJ Starbuck, less folksy sermonizing, and more scenes like the one where Starbuck, after a low-level worker is fired for helping him right a wrong, gets on his phone and buys the entire company, forcing the manager to re-hire the worker. At a higher pay.
But the creative teams in Hollywood, from executives to writer-producers, are incapable of seeing the obvious and learning from past successes. Instead, we’ll probably get John Cusack (in full mope mode) as a sexually ambiguous Private Eye with a sado-masochistic streak uncovering a season long conspiracy by oil company executives to “warm the planet” or some-such nonsense. That’s about all Hollywood can do these days.
If NBC really wanted to revive it’s fortunes, it would bring back “Life” to the schedule. A show with an existing following and the potential for strong male appeal, if properly and patiently promoted.