My friend and co-author Matt Zoller Seitz would always respond to news of someone remaking a classic movie or TV show with a groan, followed by his familiar but always entertaining treatise on how the smartest thing anyone could choose to remake was something that was mediocre, or worse, but had a great core idea that hadn't been properly exploited. He liked to point to David Cronenberg's '80s version of The Fly, or later the Edward James Olmos incarnation of Battlestar Galactica, as proof that there was more room to maneuver when the original didn't make the most out of what it was about.
The original MacGyver doesn't quite qualify for Matt's theory, but it's close. The '80s ABC drama – starring Richard Dean Anderson as a spy of sorts who could solve any problem with a combination of basic science knowledge, his trusted Swiss Army knife, duct tape, and maybe a paper clip – is fondly remembered, but more for MacGyver's improvised gadgets and weapons (turning pine cones into hand grenades, or a racing bicycle into a blowtorch) than for the stories it told. But his ingenuity took on a life of its own, turning the show's title into a verb of sorts understood even by people who'd never seen a minute of it, and inspiring one failed reboot (a Young MacGyver WB pilot starring Jared Padalecki that never aired), one ubiquitous SNL parody (MacGruber, which was later spun off into a film), and one unofficial remake of sorts (Burn Notice, whose most entertaining moments almost always involved Michael Westen playing MacGyver and doing things like making a car bullet-resistant by lining the doors with phone books). Plus, it was subject of a long-running Simpsons gag, as Patti and Selma's favorite TV show.
MacGyver's central gimmick aside, the show was a competent example of '80s TV action and suspense, but with enough room for improvement that an official remake could have done great things bringing the basic framework into 2016. It wouldn't need to be some kind of morally ambiguous Peak TV anti-hero drama, but even standalone television storytelling has the potential to be much more complicated and ambitious than it was in the days when Anderson's mullet was the height of male fashion.
Unfortunately, CBS' new MacGyver (it debuts tonight at 8) isn't an example of how to build on the original idea for a remake, but a bumbling piece of intellectual property management that frequently misses the point of what people loved about the show in the first place. It's less MacGyver with better production values than a bad 24 retread (with a hint of imitation Shondaland DNA) that occasionally pauses for duct tape.
Our MacGyver this time is Lucas Till from the recent X-Men movies, sporting more fashionable hair, and more apt to make a smarmy quip. In the opening scene, he praises a female colleague by noting that “no one's better on a keyboard,” followed by a cut to a flashback of them having sex on top of her computer. This MacGyver still narrates his adventures some of the time, and still cobbles things together out of what he has on-hand, but instead the enthusiastic mini science lectures Anderson offered (or that Jeffrey Donovan did on Burn Notice), the new MacGyver tries to dispense with the geeky stuff as quickly as possible by using on-screen chyrons to identify the materials MacGyver is using. And though the Till version shares the original's disdain for using guns, he's much more of a traditional action hero overall, looking confident and at ease whenever a fight breaks out.
The rest of the show has been similarly glammed up. In the original, MacGyver's frequent sidekick Jack Dalton was a lumpy comic relief character who tended to get our hero into at least as much trouble as he got him out of; here, Jack's a buff special forces type played by CSI alum George Eads. (MacGyver's boss Pete, an older man who eventually suffered from glaucoma, has gotten a gender flip to Patricia, played by willowy model type Sandrine Holt.)
Again, the original show isn't some sacred text that can't or shouldn't be changed in any way, but nearly every tweak made here in this rushed production feels cynical and almost irritated by the science component. There's a mysterious rival agency causing trouble for MacGyver and Jack as a quasi-serialized element, plus a terrorist plot that adds a ticking clock element to the story that allows Jack to torture a suspect with a staple gun while MacGyver looks on approvingly. CBS has defended picking up this show – even though the original pilot was scrapped, and everyone but Till and Eads fired, including the original showrunner – because of their faith in those two remaining actors, new producer Peter Lenkov (Hawaii Five-0), and, as CBS entertainment president Glenn Geller bluntly put it at press tour, “that IP.” But that torture scene so fundamentally gets wrong everything that people liked about MacGyver that it's almost counter-productive to apply that title to this show.
The time is absolutely right for a new MacGyver. Thanks to shows like CSI and MythBusters, the TV audience is way more science-nerdy than back in the '80s, and a show that embraced what was fun in the original show while tweaking the structure a bit for modern times could be a treat. This one thinks borrowing the names and rushing through the wizardry is enough to bring back the warm fuzzies of that time Richard Dean Anderson's MacGyver made a defibrillator using nothing but candlesticks, a microphone cord, and a rubber mat. It's not that easy.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org