Friday, November 25, 2011

Nostalgia Theater: The Untouchables Edition

One of the most valuable currencies in Hollywood is the power of brand recognition. This is at least partially to blame for the long-lived trend of taking old TV shows and turning them into feature films. Pre-existing awareness of a title means that much less time the studio has to spend fostering said awareness from the ground up. Of course, the brand itself doesn't mean anything if what we end up with is no good, which is why, for every flick like Maverick or The A-Team that takes its premise and really does something fun and engaging, we get forgettable crap like The Dukes of Hazzard and Wild Wild West.

Another trend we've seen, albeit less frequently, is when a TV property is translated to film, then subsequently reverse-engineered back to the small screen. The most recent example of this phenomenon is ABC's Charlie's Angels reboot this fall (developed by Smallville's Al Gough and Miles Millar), which has the distinction of being the first casualty of the 2011 season. But rather than spend this "Nostalgia Theater" mocking also-rans, I wanted to look at an entry in the TV-movie-TV sub-subgenre that grabbed ahold of the ball and ran with it creatively (though not so much commercially -- we'll get to that in a second): the 1990s revival of The Untouchables.

(That's the first part of the first ep -- I'm sure you can follow the breadcrumbs from there.)

Freely adapted from Brian De Palma's 1987 feature, itself adapted from the iconic Robert Stack TV series of the 1950s, The Untouchables premiered in January of 1993 and starred Tom Amandes as go-getter G-Man Eliot Ness and William Forsythe as his eternal nemesis Al Capone, running for two seasons of first-run. The '93 model Untouchables also featured John Rhys-Davies (as a version of Sean Connery's Oscar-winning "Malone" character from the film), as well as former Superboy John Newton and future JAG David James Elliott as member's of Ness' team of crime-busters.

And while Amandes and the rest of the various white hats all did a good job, this really ended up being a showcase for Forsythe's devious, calculating, surprisingly sympathetic take on Capone, whose background was fleshed out and given far more development than in either previous version of the story, and whose rivalry with Ness was woven tightly into a battle of wits and wills that had real potential to play out over the series' life into something truly epic. Unfortunately, that life was cut drastically short due to a number of factors which can all be boiled down to the almighty dollar.

While The Untouchables garnered a lot of eyeball traffic during the first season thanks to it being shopped by distributor Paramount to local stations as a package that would air in conjunction with first season episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, when unhooked from the Trek skein for its second year, it ended up shuffled off to either late, late night or early, early morning by affiliates. And while the period setting and extensive location shooting made for one of the best looking shows of the era, they also made it a very expensive investment for Paramount. Given the smaller audience, the studio decided to cut anchor after the second year.

Sadly, since its cancellation in May of '94, The Untouchables has been almost entirely forgotten (I know of several die-hard fans of the movie who had no idea this even existed). Its too-short, 42 episode lifespan wasn't enough for much of a syndication package, so reruns have been non-existent, and even with practically every other TV series under the sun coming to DVD, no home video offerings are on the horizon either. I do hope it comes to DVD at some point, as the strong cast and strong production values make 1993's The Untouchables a rare, forgotten gem that's extremely worthy of being rediscovered.

1 comment:

The Mad Swede said...

Count me in among the die-hard fans of the film that had never even heard of this series before now.