Sunday, February 9, 2003

Retro TV: Same in name only

Networks renew old shows - 'Dragnet,' 'Tarzan,' 'Lone Ranger' - but tweak characters, story lines for younger audience

Just the facts, ma'am:

ABC's new Dragnet (10 p.m. today, Channels 9, 2) lacks the humor and tone of Jack Webb's old police series. Ed O'Neill doesn't look or sound anything like Webb's Joe Friday. His partner, Ethan Embry, is young enough to be Friday's son.

On WB's The Lone Ranger (Feb. 26), the famous masked hero (Chad Michael Murray from Dawson's Creek) will be a 20-year-old Boston law student, not a Texas Ranger.

Young Tarzan - in the works at WB, along with Young MacGyver and a new Courtship of Eddie's Father - will be set in Manhattan. (It's a jungle out there?) Calvin Klein model Travis Fimmel will play Young Tarzan, who lives with his uncle, falls in love with a New York police detective, and wears normal clothes, not loincloths.

Him Tarzan? Me confused.

So here are the facts: TV executives are convinced the best way to revive an old show is to make sure it doesn't look exactly like the predecessor. In other words, they want the name for marketing, without being saddled with replicating every detail of, say, The Twilight Zone.

Dragnet (ABC): Ed O'Neill (Married ... with Children) stars as Joe Friday. (10 p.m. Sundays, Channels 9, 2)
Star Search (CBS): Arsenio Hall, who handed out four $100,000 grand prizes Thursday, returns with a second round of CBS' live talent and modeling competition Feb. 19 (8 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, Channels 12, 7)
The Twilight Zone (UPN): Since September, Forest Whitaker has greeted UPN viewers to a revival of Rod Serling's sci-fi anthology series. (9 p.m. Wednesday, Channel 25)
The Lone Ranger (WB): Chad Michael Murray (Dawson's Creek) stars as Luke Hartman, who dons a mask to avenge the death of his brother, a Texas Ranger. (8-10 p.m. Feb. 26, Channels 64, 26)
Family Affair (WB): The Gary Cole-Tim Curry series about a businessman and butler raising children returns in a new time period Feb. 27 (8:30 p.m., Channels 64, 26)
Let's Make A Deal (NBC): Monty Hall hands over his game show to Billy Bush from Access Hollywood. (9 p.m. March 1, Channels 5, 22)
Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi Channel): A casting announcement is expected before March for a four-hour miniseries-pilot from writer Ron Moore (Roswell), based on the 1978-80 Lorne Greene space series. (To air in December).
Young Tarzan (WB): The Greystoke estate brings young Tarzan (Calvin Klein model Travis Fimmel ) to live with his uncle in New York, where he falls in love with Jane, a New York police detective. (Possible fall series pilot.)
Young MacGyver (WB): Henry Winkler, a creator of Richard Dean Anderson's 1985-92 series, is producing a pilot about MacGyver's nephew. (Possible fall series pilot.)
The Courtship of Eddie's Father (WB): No casting has been announced for this update of the 1969-72 Bill Bixby sitcom about a widower and his son. (Possible fall pilot.)
Quantum Leap (Sci Fi Channel): A remake of the 1989-93 Scott Bakula series remains in development. (No timetable.)
Their primary target audience is viewers (18-34) who likely have never seen the original series, not the baby boomers who grew up loving the old show, TV executives explain.

"We're sharing the name (Dragnet), but ... there is no question, Ed O'Neill ain't doing Jack Webb," said Dick Wolf, executive producer of ABC's new Dragnet and NBC's three Law & Order dramas.

Wolf uses words like "homage" and "reconceptualization" to describe Dragnet, the old radio series that aired on TV 1952-59 and 1967-70.

The contemporary Dragnet has the same setting (Los Angeles), police procedural style and Joe Friday's voice-over, Wolf points out. But ABC's new Friday speaks more dialogue and sees more grisly crimes.

"Times have changed since then. People are changed. Killings are different," says Embry, who had never seen the old Webb series when hired for the role. But he did know O'Neill, with whom he made his film debut as a child in 1991 in Dutch.

Pairing O'Neill, 56, the former Married ... with Children star, with Embry, 24, is not strictly a ploy to attract young viewers, Wolf says.

"We just thought it would be more interesting. The dynamics seem very good," Wolf says. "A lot of detectives are in their 20s."

Here's another fact: The reconstituted Dragnet formula is working. By debuting last Sunday at No. 23 in the weekly ratings, it is ABC's highest-rated scripted series - although it trails Monday Night Football, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette in the overall rankings this season.

`Family Affair' failure

For the WB, retro TV shows are a way of reaching beyond the network's 18-34 target audience by appealing to that group's parents.

Big ratings for the premiere of WB's Family Affair remake last September proved that young and old viewers alike would tune in, says Jordan Levin, WB Entertainment president. But young viewers quickly tuned out because the Gary Cole-Tim Curry comedy was too much like the 1960s Brian Keith-Sebastian Cabot sitcom.

"The title got them there," Levin says. "The problem was that the show was really soft ... too traditional, to be relatable to younger viewers."

So WB will take many liberties with The Lone Ranger, Young Tarzan, Young MacGyver and The Courtship of Eddie's Father. The fact is: WB's reinterpretation of Superman - the Smallville drama about a teenage Clark Kent - has passed 7th Heaven as the network's highest-rated show this season.

WB's The Lone Ranger, based on the old Clayton Moore western (1949-57), will be played with a love triangle: the ranger (Murray), sidekick Tonto's sexy sister (newcomer Anita Brown) and her tribal chief, WB says.

The two-hour movie (8 p.m. Feb. 26, Channels 64, 26) could become a weekly series in the fall, if ratings are good. But that's a very big if.

"Trying to introduce what has traditionally been an older genre to a younger audience is an experiment, and we'll see what happens," says Levin.

Female-friendly `Tarzan'

He says Young Tarzan, being developed as a fall series pilot, will be approached as another Beauty and the Beast, the 1987-90 series about a New York prosecutor (Linda Hamilton) in love with a man-beast living in caverns under Manhattan.

"It's a very female-friendly show, this fantasy of: Do I choose this very stable man with whom I'm in love with, or do I go with my heart with this very animal, natural bond with this guy?" Levin says.

  Here are highlights for this week of sweeps programming:
Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives: An all-star cast reads oral histories from former slaves (8 p.m. Monday, HBO).
Judging Amy: Sharon Gless reunites with Cagney & Lacey co-star Tyne Daly by playing her old friend and former co-worker (10 p.m. Tuesday, Channels 12, 7).
Survivor: The Amazon: For the first time, Survivor teams are split by gender. (8-9:30 p.m. Thursday, Channels 12, 7).
Will & Grace: Demi Moore guest stars as Jack's (Sean Hayes) childhood baby sitter (9:15 p.m. Thursday, Channels 5, 22).
A Charlie Brown Valentine: A repeat of the "Peanuts" gang special (8 p.m. Saturday, Channels 9, 2).
Criminal cases investigated by Jane the police detective, who has not been cast, will provide the story-telling "franchise." And while she's battling crime, Tarzan will be protecting her, he says.

Young MacGyver has been kicking around WB for several years because Levin's twentysomething staffers say the Richard Dean Anderson adventure series was "the cool show," he says.

WB's pilot, also in contention as a fall series, will be produced by Henry Winkler (The Fonz from Happy Days), a creator of the 1985-92 ABC series.

"Every year we've developed it, people haven't been inventive or creative enough with the gadgetry or solutions. And Henry Winkler came in and said, `Hey, we want to do Young MacGyver,' " Levin says. "I don't know what will happen, but it certainly felt it was a good bet because it was a show our audience is really intrigued with."

On the other hand, it could be a plus that WB's core audience has never heard of Bill Bixby's 1969-72 portrayal of a widower in The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Levin says.

"Ideally teens would like the show on their own, a show (with the premise of) The Courtship of Eddie's Father," he says. Family Affair, which returns Feb. 27 (8:30 p.m., Channels 64, 26), proves that curious adults will tune in "to see what they did with the show" for the remake, he says.

"Even though our marketing guys have loved to sell the Dawson's Creek kids or Felicity, or Buffy (the Vampire Slayer), the No. 1 show on our network has been 7th Heaven, and this year Smallville," Levin says.

"If we can have a show like 7th Heaven, Smallville or Gilmore Girls, which gets both the parents and their kid to the TV set, that's a real home run for us," Levin says.

And that's a fact.


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