Monday, September 26, 2016

The New MacGyver Reboot is Lame (and I am Not Just Saying That Because They Did Not Include My House)

A few months ago, my in-law's house was taken over for the shooting of a pilot for a reboot of the classic show MacGyver. For those unfamiliar with it, MacGyver features a genius secret agent, who manages to make all kinds of useful things on the fly from what he finds about himself. My in-laws got to live in a hotel for a week. Since we live in the guest house, we got to stay. It was cool to go outside and see the production. Everyone we encountered was really nice for letting us watch and not complaining that we got in the way. The episode was supposed to feature a wedding, shot in the garden. Miriam and I were married in that garden. How cool was it going to be to say we got married in the same place as a television wedding. The interior of the house itself was supposed to be MacGyver's house.

I was looking forward to seeing the show and being able to pick out what stuff was shot at the house. In fact, an early trailer featured a sequence shot on our front steps. It turns out that the original pilot was scrapped. So far it seems that MacGyver is going to be living at someone else's house. No hard feelings. It was a fun experience. What I find more frustrating, having become invested in the show, is that it is pretty terrible. The show's flaws are worth examing as an exercise in what can go wrong with an action/comedy.

It does not take much to imagine this show being pitched as a 24 with a tongue and cheek sense of humor, something like Chuck. If I were that producer, I am sure I would have been tempted to greenlight the project. The problem is, as my father once taught me, comedy is the hardest kind of acting to do. The material can sound great on paper, but you get out there and it just does not work. With drama, you can save some entertainment value even if things fall apart. There is no saving comedy that is simply not funny. What is particularly perilous about comedy is that it is all too easy to try saving a failed drama by deciding it is a comedy. You find the story stupid; well you do not appreciate that it was supposed to be funny.

This is exponentially the case when doing tongue and cheek. The temptation is to take material that lacks the laughs to be a comedy and lacks the plot and characters to be drama and call it tongue and cheek. To do tongue and cheek comedy properly you need something that works both as drama and as comedy. The difference between successful and failed tongue and cheek is the difference between Joss Whedon's Avengers and Zach Synder's Justice League or the original Star War films and the prequels. In both cases, the superiority of the former is matched by the difficulty in explaining why, particularly for anyone working on the project, not seeing the final product. With the later, we simply do not care about the characters or what happens to them so when they say something that is supposed to be funny it just sounds dumb.

The first episode of MacGyver (and here is to hoping it improves) featured plenty twists, turns and moments of peril mixed with banter packed into forty minutes that should have made it a fun ride. I mean MacGyver's love interest gets killed in the first few minutes in an operation gone south. The team needs to capture a biological weapon before it causes global mayhem. As it turns out, the love interest was a double agent who faked her death, leading to an intense standoff with MacGyver. In terms of action and peril, this episode probably outdoes most episodes of 24. On top of that, MacGyver has a sardonic older military side-kick and a clueless black roommate, telling jokes. So why do I think the show was a waste of time? Someone thought that peril and jokes could substitute for characters we care about when peril and jokes only work if we care about the characters. It is useful to compare the plot of MacGyver to 24. Season one of 24 ended with the revelation that Nina Myers had been a double agent the entire time and she murders Jack Bauer's wife. This was dramatically effective because we spent an entire season liking Nina and becoming invested in her complex relationship with Jack. She is his tech support and the main person he trusts at CTU even as they once had an affair and Jack is now trying to repair his marriage. Nina returns in seasons two and three and is an effective villain precisely because we get how she brings out Jack's anger and guilt. This emotional foundation allows Nina to be a formidable physical danger as well, capable of getting the edge on Jack.

I can easily imagine the material for the MacGyver episode working over the course of several episodes. After spending an entire season becoming invested in MacGyver's relationship with his techie, in a season-ending cliffhanger, she dies in a mission and MacGyver is left floating in a lake with a bullet in his shoulder. We pick up the next season with the bad guys still having their WMD and MacGyver coming back into the field. This would have provided some actual emotional heft for him to find out out that his love betrayed him. This would be a conflict with intrigue. Give me that and I might even start laughing at some of the jokes.

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