[This is a review of the MacGyver series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
A great deal has been made over CBS’s reboot of MacGyver. The original show was well received for the most part but it was never a monster hit or regarded as anything other than a TV series with a clever twist. Over time, the interest in Angus “Mac” MacGyver seemed to stem as much from ironic satisfaction as it did genuine interest in one man’s ability to do amazing things with little more than every day items and his engineering knowhow. The show even benefitted from a tangential second life when MacGruber, Will Forte’s unsurprisingly bizarre Saturday Night Live skit spoofing MacGyver took off and eventually went on to become a feature film in 2010. In other words, in an industry that values recognizable IP above all else, a reboot of MacGyver was bound to happen, and it doesn’t matter if the recognition of that IP is ironic or so sincere there’s cause for concern over the exclusion of Richard Dean Anderson.
That being said, it’s almost as hard to gauge expectations for the series as it is to anticipate what angle the series plans to take. Advertising seems to be borderline tongue in cheek with taglines like “No man has ever done more with less,” while star Lucas Till parachutes away from an explosion with a bizarrely self-satisfied smirk on his face. It also doesn’t help that the pilot was completely reconfigured after CBS had already ordered the show to series. That’s not necessarily unheard of in the business of television, but some of the details suggested the show would now take a decidedly more action-oriented approach to its central storyline.
Surviving the cast purge was the aforementioned series star Till and co-star George Eads, who underwent a character change when director James Wan stepped in to reboot the reboot. The result (other than a haircut for Till) is ‘The Rising,’ a pilot episode that does sturdy work in setting up a series that doesn’t need much in the way of setting up (it is a reboot after all), and still manages to establish some of the parameters of what to expect from the series ahead.
What to expect, then, is an action-heavy reimaging of the original series and one that doesn’t necessarily put as much of a premium on MacGyver’s improvisational skills as it does on his team’s ability to function like any other covert operation you see in television shows and movies where the world is at stake from one week to the next. The result of this is a series that doesn’t seem as interested in what MacGyver can do, but that his skills really impress the people around him. It’s just too bad that most of the time, what he does has been seen in any spy movie made in the last 20 years or so.
The opening sequence of the series is mixture of getting to know the cast and setting up the basic plot of the series/premiere. But it also turns MacGyver into an amalgam of True Lies and Mission: Impossible, as the sequence involves the characters moving around a high-class party looking for a McGuffin (or is that MacGuffin?) that can’t fall into the wrong hand or – you guessed it! – the world will be in jeopardy. So while Mac is playing suave spy, he gets to talk to his two buddies, the aforementioned Eads as Jack Dalton, but also former Revolution star Tracy Spiridakos as computer whizz Nikki Carpenter (because every one of these shows has to have a computer whizz who can do all sorts of cyber magic to push the plot along), and finally Sandrine Holt (who was last seen being tazed by Darlene in Mr. Robot) as their boss Patricia Thornton. As it turns out the group is a clandestine organization known as DXS, which poses as a government think tank (obligatory nod to the original). And just to add some extra spice, Mac and Nikki are an item, until she is killed in the opening sequence – but not really.
There are the standard action sequences and Mac’s quick thinking that gets him past things like security devices and what not, but none of it feels MacGyver-like. All of Mac’s improvisations and solutions to problems are something a low-rent Vegas magician can pull off to impress a date or they’re just about exploiting a major loophole in technology that’s masked by a bunch of jargon. This is a common concern with reboots like this. Because of the period in which the original took place, there were certain technological limitations that made the things Mac did seem amazing and fun. Granted, this MacGyver could probably ease up on the CSI: Cyber “computers can literally do anything in a matter of second if you have someone who had memorized the right keystrokes” way of thinking, but it also needs to infuse a sense of wonder into what it is Mac can create on the fly. It’s not important that MacGyver is crazy enough he’ll jump onto a moving plane (á la Mission: Impossible again) so that he can disable the landing gear with his Swiss Army Knife and force it to land. That’s not interesting; and the text on the screen telling the audience what his options are doesn’t make Mac seem any more intelligent or capable than anyone else on the DXS team. Little improvisational techniques to jump from sequence to sequence are fine. Mac conjuring up non-toxic (really?) smoke from some cleaning agents and a ball of tinfoil is great, but if that’s the extent of his in-the-field ad-libbing, then the show has a problem.
It is hard to believe the fandom surrounding MacGyver (both ironic and not) is interested in seeing him be a badass super agent stopping terrorists from releasing biological weapons in major cities by conventional badass super agent means. The series already has one of those in George Eads and he, like everyone else in the series, is just fine at what he’s doing. What the series needs is to make MacGyver more like MacGyver. Yes, it sounds like the typical cry of someone bemoaning the existence a remake, but if you’re going to remake something, just go ahead and remake it. The urge to infuse an older IP (ugh) with more action to make it more appealing to general (i.e., younger) audiences is understandable. But that infusion can’t come at the expense of what made the IP valuable in the first place.
MacGyver continues next Friday with ‘Metal Saw’ @8pm on CBS.
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