The Best and Worst of Retro Remakes for the Big Screen and Small

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It’s been all over the Bionic press for years:

Mark Wahlberg will take the lead in The Six Billion Dollar Man, a theatrical motion picture based on the original 1973–1978 ABC-TV series, The Six Million Dollar Man, which featured Lee Majors as the super-human cyborg Col. Steve Austin.

This past holiday season, ABC once more rebooted an episode of the 1970s sitcom, All in the Family, as they had earlier in the year. The first time, they paired that iconic, ground-breaking show with a remade segment of The Jeffersons which, like All in the Family, also debuted in the 1970s, and was introduced to TV-landers by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin (who never gets properly credited for his contributions to/in the history of the medium).

The second time ABC re-ran with All in the Family, they paired it with Good Times, yet another staple from the Lear/York stable.

For my money, all of these Lear/York re-dos were dreadful. The contemporary actors involved seemed obsessed with (and poorly directed to) mimick the original classic TV stars of All in the Family/The Jeffersons/Good Times, instead of creating their own interpretations of the actual characters on those shows.

The result: the new take on Family/Jeffersons/Good Times played more like skits on Saturday Night Live…in its bad years.

Over the past few decades, television remakes appeared on the big and small screens. Reimaginings of Knight Rider, The Bionic Woman, The Munsters, and Ironside, among others, have failed to win-over home-viewers, while a new Wonder Woman did not make it past event the pilot stage. At the movies, classic-TV-to-feature-film adaptations have done hit (Mission: Impossible, Charlie’s Angels, The Fugitive), and miss (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Lone Ranger, Dark Shadows, the latter two featuring Johnny Depp in heavy white-face make-up).

Only a few in this unique genre have triumphed, both at the home and theatre box office, as well with the critics, such as the new TV edition of Battlestar: Galactica, and the numerous big and small-screen extensions of Star Trek (which itself is once more returning to television — in January 2017 — on the CBS All Access network, as is a new FOX-TV edition of ABC’s Greatest American Hero).

One of the most popular TV-to-film remakes in the history of the genre remains The Brady Bunch Movie, released in 1995. Because of the satiric nature of this film, many big-screen TV-remakes have since presented themselves as comedies, even when the original TV shows from which they sprang were originally-conceived as dramatic in nature (Starsky & Hutch, The Lone Ranger).

Most classic TV remakes in any form, however, do not succeed, mostly because they fail to cater to pertinent criteria; germane vital concepts that made the original material a success. Many would like to follow in the footsteps of the Star Trek franchise (on all platforms), as opposed to the insubordinate performance of, for example, the not-so-successful 1996 feature film, Sergeant Bilko (Steve Martin’s big-screen redo that was based on the classic Phil Silvers TV sitcom).

The issue is this: once an image has been created and embedded in the psyche of American pop-culture, said image should then be nurtured, embraced and celebrated throughout eternity, utilizing said image as a marketing tool for an all-new feature film or TV show based upon the beloved original creation; as opposed to making a poor attempt at re-creating said image with a completely different vision that no one will care about or “buy” into.

The most important thing to remember when “re-emerging” a TV show for the small screen in particular: The home viewers must not be cheated. However, the creative team behind (or in front of) the cameras of any TV-remake, for the big-screen or small) must not only cater to the initial fans who fell in love with the concepts that made the original given TV program a hit but succinctly comprehend the reasons why those fans fell in love with the original TV show in the first place.

Any new adaptation must respect the memories of the original show while adding fresh, winning elements into the fold. Into this mix it’s best to in some way bring back at least some of the original actors who were involved with the TV series for cameo roles in the updated edition. Original and new audience members love to see a glimpse of them (i.e. Lee Majors could play Walhberg’s father or uncle in the new Six Billion Dollar movie).

Conversely, popular new actors from today’s thriving talent should of course always be utilized, along with a top-notch director and team of writers. Success is always attained from a solid combination of factors.

Some years back executive producers Aaron Spelling and David Ladd disregarded such criteria with 1999’s TV-to-big-screen transfer of The Mod Squad. Spelling (who produced the original television Squad) and Ladd (once married to Cheryl Ladd, who Spelling hired to replace Farrah Fawcett on his an original Charlie’s Angels TV series) opted to ignore the vital-concepts theory in bringing Mod to the movies. Original Mod stars Peggy Lipton, Michael Cole, and Clarence Williams III were nowhere to be seen in the new Squad. The fun, pulsating musical theme from the TV show was silent. The plot was not up to snuff.

The Hollywood Reporter said it best in 1999, claiming the Mod filmmakers churned out “a dull, stone-faced, listless approximation of the original minus the Nehru collars, the Afros, the groovy music and other happening touches that gave the otherwise generic comedy series its pop flavor…Stripped of its spirit and weighed down with countless scenes of mind-numbing introspection, this Mod Squad will likely have to amend its old no badges, no guns creed with the words, no audience.”

Is the same fate destined for Mark Wahlberg as the new big-screen Bionic man?

Will the new TV Picard/Star Trek spin-off go as boldly where previous Stars, for the big screen and small, have gone before? Will the new Greatest American Hero trip over his cape as pristinely as the original Greatest American Hero — or be as dreadful as the latest big-screen presentation of Charlie’s Angels?

Only time will re-tell. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt if, when producing these new re-dos, the creative powers at hand retain the original mythology, with key plotlines and characters each falling into place logically within the logic (or illogic) of the given platform and precepts established by the original and beloved material.

And for the love of heaven, if ABC decides to once again remake an episode of All in the Family, and pair it next time with maybe a re-ignited segment of say, Maude (another Lear/York production), please, please…cast the right actors (casting is EVERYTHING), and instruct them to create their OWN all-new, fresh interpretation of classic characters instead of rehashing horribly the performance of the original thespians.

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Herbie J Pilato writes about pop-culture, stays positive, and hosts THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, a TV talk show on Amazon Prime and Amazon Prime UK.

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