If “Melrose Place” was never “Hamlet,” it was always uniquely “Melrose Place.” But now, you can’t even say that.
Primetime TV is once again in the throes of remake fever, with the CW’s “Melrose” only one of the latest, alongside ABC’s “Eastwick” (based on “The Witches of Eastwick”) and midseason entries “Parenthood” on NBC and “V” (based on the 1980s sci-fi mini) on ABC. Each project starts out with name recognition, and in the stormy weather of broadcasting, allows networks to try to catch lightning in a bigger bottle.
It all comes with a price. A remake requires rights fees that include per-episode costs of $5,000-$50,000.
And as much as they raise a new show’s profile, revivals of famous titles on TV also raise hackles. Many of the viewers most likely to have an interest in the series are also most likely to judge it harshly.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Maggie Friedman, showrunner on ABC’s “Eastwick,” says. “You do have people for whom the book and movie holds a beloved place in their heart, and they’re waiting for you to screw it up.”Further, the perception that a network lacks the originality to try something different can turn off those who don’t have a natural inclination to watch the remake.
“There’s this prejudgment,” says Todd Slavkin, who is exec producing “Melrose” 2.0 with Darren Swimmer. “Are we creatively bankrupt? Can’t they come up with anything new? But once they look at the show, we feel we can hook them.”
While networks might overestimate the marketing bounce a familiar title brings, others might underestimate the creative value in reinventing a past property.
For example, there’s something about a rich, ready-made, battle-tested universe that is appealing not just to marketing execs, but showrunners themselves.
“I love the world (of “Eastwick”), which is why I wanted to do it,” Friedman says. “I love the sense of magic. I love magic realism. I love how sexy it was and the mix of the funny and the scary and the magical, all that stuff you can continue to draw on for years.”
Adds Swimmer: “You’re lucky enough in these situations to be able to learn from the original show. In the case of the original ‘Melrose Place,’ it was obvious how the show had changed over the first two seasons. The premise itself is what made the original show so successful, and having that premise helps episode to episode.”
Having worked on CW’s “Superman”-inspired “Smallville” for the better part of the decade, Slavkin and Swimmer are experienced in handling cherished mythology without upsetting old-guard fans.
“We’ve treated ‘Melrose Place’ with great reverence,” Slavkin says, “and we don’t want to disappoint or anger old fans of the show by going in directions they would scoff at.”
At the same time, rather than being bound by the show’s past, Slavkin and Swimmer feel it’s a launching pad for a contemporary approach. Same with Friedman and “Eastwick.”
“The book takes place in the ’60s, and it’s about the sexual revolution and women’s liberation — that obviously is not as current right now,” she says. “Women’s issues are very interesting to me, but not in the context of the ’60s. And the movie is very ’80s. It’s a story that has a beginning, middle and end, and I had to create a world that could run for years.”
Combining the original show’s bona fides with above-average curiosity levels about the remake, the bar for success might seem easier to reach for such shows.
That being said, reinventions hardly have been a cure-all for TV networks. For every niche success like CW’s “90210” or Syfy’s “Battlestar Galactica” (the latter a critical fave as well), you have flops like “Knight Rider” (2008) and “Bionic Woman” (2007). While those latter projects did have a high initial tune-in (in the case of “Knight Rider,” as a two-hour film that served as a backdoor pilot), interest quickly faded.
In fact, TV remakes of “The Witches of Eastwick” and “Parenthood” (scheduled for midseason on NBC) have each been sallied and scuttled in the past. A 1992 “Witches of Eastwick” didn’t make it past the pilot stage, while NBC canceled its 1990 stab at “Parenthood,” featuring Ed Begley, Jr. (and Leonardo DiCaprio at the outset of his career), inside of three months.
Even “90210,” which begins its second season next month as a relative success story for CW, was a rocky ride.
“I think with ‘90210,’ we struggled the first year finding the right tone,” CW entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff says. “But we found the show, and certainly the voice of the show in (showrunner) Rebecca Sinclair, who came on toward the end of last season. When you see the show this year, it’s like a different show.”
Ostroff adds that she thinks CW, which has placed a high priority on familiar titles in its series selections, “learned a lot in developing ‘90210,’ so we had a couple of shortcuts when developing Melrose.”
Those kinds of lessons help make the financial risks worth taking for network execs.
“The cost per episode (for ‘Parenthood’) to us is not insubstantial,” NBC Entertainment/Universal Media Studios chairman Marc Graboff said, “but we believe that the value that we’re getting from the underlying title and the good will associated with it and Imagine/Ron Howard/Brian Grazer/David Nevins’ involvement (including their producing expertise) is worth the money we’re adding to the cost of that show.
“We said, ‘Yeah, we think one plus one will equal three.'”
It’s also worth noting that while the 20-year-old “Parenthood” might not resonate much with today’s auds, Howard’s name is part of the marketing.
Whatever happens with “Eastwick,” “Melrose Place,” “Parenthood” and “V,” remake fever won’t be cured anytime soon. Among recent development deals signed are TV versions of ’70s series “The Rockford Files” and ’80s film “St. Elmo’s Fire.”
Obviously, the owners of an original property have an interest in seeing it reborn. But neither Slavkin and Swimmer nor Friedman fret over not being show creators.
“It’s like the price you pay,” Slavkin says. “To be able to use this built-in franchise … that doesn’t come without a price.”
Adds Swimmer: “The ‘developed by’ credit is not a bad credit.”
However much the finer points of remaking a title are debated, there is agreement that a familiar name only takes you so far.
“It also has to be a good show,” Graboff says, “no matter what you call it.”