Retreads Try to Tread New Ground
Remakes have been a TV staple for years, but the withering economy and network ratings erosion has added pressure to come up with shows that instantly stand out in viewers' minds.
Some are remakes of other shows. CW follows last year's 90210 with its spinoff Melrose Place, premiering Tuesday (9 ET/PT). ABC's V, premiering Nov. 3 (8 ET/PT), is based on the hit 1983 miniseries.
And ABC's Eastwick (Sept. 23, 10 ET/PT) and NBC's Parenthood, whose debut has been delayed till later in the season, are contemporary spins on 1980s films.
"We were going through that big debate: Should we be doing a lot with remakes?" says Suzanne Patmore-Gibbs, ABC's scripted-series chief. "We don't want to appear derivative, but then you see something like Battlestar Galactica" remade well, she says. "You kind of can't say no out of the gate."
Remaking a series or adapting a film is a risky proposition; the benefits of familiarity can be outweighed by the burden of expectations and realities of execution. NBC's Bionic Woman and Knight Rider failed after early, nostalgia-fueled interest; 90210 has seen modest ratings.
But ABC ordered a script last month for a possible redo of another '80s film, St. Elmo's Fire, along with this summer's The Time Traveler's Wife, and CBS remains interested in resurrecting two older TV crime staples, Hawaii 5-0 and The Streets of San Francisco.
"You're dealing with limited marketing budgets, and there's a level of (built-in) awareness of a successful show," says CBS Television Entertainment Group chief Nancy Tellem, who oversees CBS and CW. And for foreign broadcasters who buy U.S. shows, "they know the title already. There's a lot of cachet regardless of what the new series is about."
Those foreign sales, topping $2 million an episode for 90210, were more than enough to offset that show's total production cost and made it profitable even with modest ratings on CW. CBS, a partner in CW, already owns the rights to the shows, originally produced by Aaron Spelling for Fox.
Balancing old with new
"Creating our own show based on that concept is absolutely a huge advantage in the marketplace," says Melrose producer Todd Slavkin of the iconic courtyard-with-pool apartment building. "We wanted to pay a tribute to the old show but really create our own show with our own group of characters."
But much as 90210 brought former cast members Jennie Garth and Shannen Doherty back to school, the quest for originality didn't stop Melrose from trying to draw in fans of the original.
Former Melrose stars Laura Leighton and Thomas Calabro are featured in the new series; Josie Bissett and Daphne Zuniga have signed for guest roles. Slavkin hopes Melrose's biggest star, Heather Locklear, will change her mind and pay a visit. "The door is always open."
Eastwick hopes to reap the marketing advantage of The Witches of Eastwick, the 1987 film starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Cher. (The new show stars Rebecca Romijn and Lindsay Price.) Yet other changes are designed to freshen the dated material, and the new version aims for the light comedic tone set by Desperate Housewives.
"In the movie, the magic is sort of ephemeral," says executive producer Maggie Friedman. "In this version, each of the women has a very specific power that she's dealing with that reflects back on her life's journey. It's a very different world but, hopefully, evocative of the same sense of fun and sex."
Reptiles with an agenda
ABC's V is based on a 1983 NBC miniseries that spawned a sequel and a short-lived weekly series. Both versions center on a reptilian race of aliens, disguised as humans, who visit Earth on spaceships. Though they at first appear friendly, their agenda is more sinister.
"The original series, to me, felt very much like a military show," says executive producer Jeffrey Bell. "It was resistance and gunfights, and there was a very clear and present enemy. They wore uniforms, and it was the Cold War."
Adds Patmore-Gibbs: "The subtext was all Nazis. We wanted to find a contemporary equivalent, which was to look at terrorism and sleeper cells, war and religion and faith."
In the new version, the "visitors" seduce (figuratively, at least) earthlings with a utopian society, promising technology and healing in exchange (or so they say) for water supplies.
Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost's Juliet) plays FBI agent Erica Evans, a newly single mom whose teenage son is entranced by the V's; Joel Gretsch is a skeptical priest; and Scott Wolf is Chad Decker, an ambitious TV journalist who sees career advancement in furthering the propaganda campaign led by the visitors' charismatic ambassador, Anna (Morena Baccarin).
Erica "has a little bit of a hero complex," says Mitchell, who also will reappear on Lost this season. But "her joy and her love and her true affection is with her son, and the fact that he is in imminent danger (makes it) fun to play."
Erica is part of a group of resistance fighters wary of the visitors. And it's not always clear where allegiances lie, prompting a kind of global paranoia.
"We have humans, we have humans who are traitors, we have visitors who have a nefarious agenda, and we have visitors who are heroes," Bell says.
The risk of any remake, especially sci-fi, is incurring the wrath of devoted fans, even when you've stocked it with stars from Lost, Firefly and The 4400. "Anytime you try to do a remake, there are going to be fans dubious of your efforts, no matter how you treat the material," says executive producer Scott Peters. "We don't want to - no pun intended - alienate viewers of the original."