Tuesday, May 12, 2009

You can't kill a good series. Not the first time, anyway.

It was announced last week that NBC's fall lineup will include a one-hour series based on the 1989 Ron Howard film Parenthood, which centered on the extended Buckman family and its many problems. Some of those problems were comical, while others weren't—the film is fondly remembered by fans like myself for mixing comedy and drama with ease, leading to quietly devastating moments like the one in which Jason Robards, as the Buckman patriarch, lets his biracial grandson "Cool" know that his gambling-addict father, played by Tom Hulce, isn't coming back for him.

Steve Martin headed up the film's large cast, which also included Mary Steenburgen, Dianne Wiest, Rick Moranis, and a young Joaquin Phoenix, back when he was being billed as "Leaf Phoenix." The new series is headed up by Peter Krause, the star of previous series like Sports Night, Six Feet Under, and Dirty Sexy Money, but the Buckmans are now the Bravermans, and Gil (Martin) is now Adam (Krause).

Parenthood has already been converted into a TV show once before, though it met with little success: debuting in August 1990, also on NBC, the half-hour version was canceled after 12 episodes. Ed Begley Jr. played Gil Buckman, and a 15-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio played Phoenix's part. (NBC also debuted a small-screen version of Ferris Bueller's Day Off that fall, costarring Jennifer Aniston. It too was quickly canceled.)

Remakes of movies are common—and expected by audiences—and TV-series adaptations of hit movies aren't uncommon either (M*A*S*H and Clueless, for example, though Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a series was much more popular than the film it was based on). But when a series that was canceled after a handful of episodes is brought back years later by its creator, albeit with a new cast playing the original characters, that's not so common.

A recent example is Cupid, which aired on ABC during the 1998-'99 season and was canceled after 14 episodes. It starred Jeremy Piven (Entourage) as a man convinced he's the god of love, and Paula Marshall (Gary Unmarried) as his therapist. The series' short life was profiled in David Wild's 1999 book The Showrunners.

In March the new version of Cupid debuted, also on ABC, with Bobby Cannavale (Will & Grace) and Sarah Paulson (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) playing the leads created 11 years earlier by executive producer Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars). The new Cupid airs its sixth episode tonight, but it's not expected to be renewed for next season due to low ratings, so the series' second coming will most likely end next week with episode number seven.

Cupid's revival reminded me that back in 2000 the David Frankel-created series Grapevine was dusted off and given a new cast on CBS, which originally ran it as a summer replacement series in the summer of '92; in fact I still have one of those episodes on tape. Grapevine 1.0 was fun, breezy summer entertainment, with Frankel, a New Yorker, channeling Woody Allen's wit but setting his stories about modern romance in Miami rather than the Big Apple. Three main characters would talk to an offscreen interviewer in each episode about their various friends' love lives, with the narration setting up scenes of the friends—Paula Marshall guest-starred in one episode—flirting, dating, going to bed with each other, cheating on each other, etc. (Frankel must really like Miami: his feature-film directorial debut was 1995's Miami Rhapsody, and he filmed parts of his most recent film, last December's Marley & Me, in the area.)

It's probably for the best that Grapevine only lasted six episodes in '92; its half-sitcom, half-anthology hybrid format had its charms, but it may have grown tiresome over an entire 22-episode season, with viewers wondering "Who are these people, and why are they so eager to gossip about their friends' love lives in front of a camera?" But in the spring of 2000 Grapevine was revived, possibly because Frankel missed Miami, or maybe because CBS wanted a show like Friends that featured lots of good-looking twenty- and thirtysomethings cracking jokes and hooking up. (In this version Steven Eckholdt played the character of David, whereas eight years prior he played Thumper, David's younger brother. Only on TV will you ever meet a man named Thumper—twice.) I remember seeing only one episode of Grapevine 2.0, but the original version's charms were gone. The second coming lasted only five episodes.

Parenthood, Cupid, and Grapevine are rare examples of TV writer-producers getting another chance to rework an old idea that either didn't live up to its full potential the first time around, was the victim of a bad time slot—Cupid 1.0 aired on Saturday nights—or didn't have the right casting. The temptation to revisit a good idea that could've become a great show must be strong, even if 19 years have passed, as is the case with Parenthood. But are there even more regrets for the shows' creators the second time around if the idea still doesn't court favor with the public? Grapevine is long gone and Cupid is almost gone. Time will tell if Parenthood's "do-over" on TV gets a similar reaction, but it's doubtful any of them will receive a green light for another go-round based on their creators' pitch to the networks that "the third time's the charm."

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