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Wayback Wednesday: Bionic Woman

June 3, 2009

What with Land of the Lost opening on Friday – watch for a review at the Screengrab in Exile – I thought I’d reach into the archives for this look at another reboot of a ’70s TV show. This was the first installment of my short-lived Shuffleboil column The Recycle Bin.

Welcome to the debut of the Recycle Bin, a new column dedicated to the proposition that pop culture will not only eat itself, it will regurgitate itself and then immediately begin eating itself again.

My apologies if that’s not the image you wanted to start your day with, should you happen to be reading this over your morning coffee and donuts. The truth can be unpleasant, which brings us to the topic of this inaugural edition: NBC’s new Wednesday night action-drama, “Bionic Woman.” As you television historians are no doubt aware, the show is a remake – or “re-imagining,” if you must – of the 1976-78 series “The Bionic Woman,” which was itself a spinoff of “The Six Million Dollar Man.” This makes it an especially efficient piece of recycling: a re-boot of a retread.

Let me make one thing clear at the outset: I have no problem with the notion of remaking mediocre shows from the 70s. In fact, I subscribe to the theory that it is better to re-invent a bad thing than a good thing. The good thing is already good; you’re probably just going to ruin it. The bad thing can’t be ruined, but there may be something worth salvaging – an intriguing concept, poorly executed but still holding promise. I’m not necessarily calling for all-new takes on “CPO Sharkey” and “The San Pedro Beach Bums” (…or am I?), but you need look no further than the 21st century version of “Battlestar Galactica” to see that it is indeed possible to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

In fact, one of the producers of the revived “Battlestar,” David Eick, is the mastermind behind the resurrection of Jaime Sommers, the aforementioned bionic woman. In her first incarnation, Jaime was a tennis pro and old flame of Steve Austin, the astronaut rebuilt as a cyborg superspy after a near-fatal crash landing. Shortly after rekindling their romance, Jaime was seriously injured in a skydiving accident. Steve pulled some strings and got her patched up with some nifty new bionic extremities, but her body rejected them and she died anyway. That is, until the ABC suits saw the ratings and realized she was worth more to them alive and filling another hour on the prime-time schedule.

I have no particular allegiance to the original Bionic Woman. If anything, my loyalties lie with the Six Million Dollar Man, an iconic figure who loomed over my childhood like few others. Many an afternoon was spent running around the yard in slow-motion, or rolling up the rubber “skin” of the Steve Austin action figure’s arm to reveal the bionic implant underneath. (I once lost the implant and, distraught, wrote to Kenner Toys explaining my plight. Soon thereafter, an entire new bionic arm arrived in the mail. To date, this remains my best ever experience with customer service.) I coveted the Oscar Goldman action figure, with his plaid jacket and briefcase full of very important papers.

Steve Austin has somehow escaped the recycle bin; a few years ago, there were rumors of a big-screen “Six Million Dollar Man” starring Jim Carrey, but mercifully, it never materialized. The series has never even made it to DVD, and here we are in an age when two seasons of “Too Close for Comfort” and every episode of “Silk Stalkings” are readily available through Netflix. Maybe it’s for the best. The people behind the new “Bionic Woman” have made a point of distancing themselves from the first incarnation, which they describe as cheesy and campy. Star Michelle Ryan insisted there would be no bionic dogs on the new version, as if we all agree this is a good thing.

Instead, they all claim, this new series is “dark.” Well, if they mean that literally, they’re right: most of the action sequences are shot at night, preferably in a blinding rainstorm so as to obscure the stunt performers and laughable wirework. The offices of the shadowy organization that employs the bionic woman are a windowless, dungeon-like labyrinth, as is the style in your contemporary spy thrillers. But prepare to scoff at any notion that the plot, themes or characterizations are dark in nature.

The revamped Jaime Sommers, played by British actress Ryan with a serviceable Yank accent, is a San Francisco bartender whose boyfriend Will is a scientist secretly employed by a quasi-governmental security agency. After a horrific car accident, Will rushes Jaime to the underground facility, where he surgically replaces both of her legs, an arm, an eye and an ear with sophisticated cybernetics. In a sure sign of inflation, the cost is given as $50 million. Since Jaime’s tip jar won’t quite cover that, she is more or less forced to work for the agency as a super-spy.

A genuinely sophisticated show might be able to milk some creative tension from the agency’s ‘ownership’ of Jaime’s new parts, but the show settles for quips like “I find your whole proprietary attitude about my body to be deeply inappropriate.” It’s creepy that her bosses can view everything she sees and does on their desktop monitors, but Jaime seems more annoyed than outraged over such intrusions. She’s also saddled with a kid sister who lives with her and knows nothing of her secret life, resulting in all sorts of tiresome domestic melodrama about trust and family. This is the stuff that’s supposed to make Jaime a well-rounded three-dimensional character, but it’s so rote and repetitive, it can’t be taken seriously.

As Sommers, Ryan is cute and non-threatening, a weightless onscreen presence. But as it turns out, Sommers is not the first bionic woman; that would be Sarah Corvus, played by Katee Sackoff. It’s clear from the first episode that the series has hitched its wagon to the wrong bionic woman. Sackoff has a magnetic, feral presence, and as an added bonus, her Sarah Corvus is crazy. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t know what to do with her (partly because Sackoff’s day job is playing Starbuck on “Galactica”), so all the potential of this reboot is trapped in the periphery.

After a couple of episodes, it’s clear that this series isn’t a remake of “Bionic Woman,” anyway – it’s a remake of “Buffy” and “Alias” and “Dark Angel” and all the other “ass-kicking chick” vehicles of recent vintage. That the show wants to be taken seriously only makes it more ridiculous, since it refuses to have any fun with the bionic concept that is its sole reason for existing. Honestly, who wants to see Jaime pursue the same kidnappers and bio-terrorists found on every other primetime show when she could be tangling with evil fembots?

The original “Six Million Dollar Man” was no model of sophisticated storytelling, and no one ever accused it of being “dark.” Its makers seemed well aware that it was kid stuff, and this knowledge allowed the show to inhabit its own little zone of weirdness. It was not enough for Steve Austin to do battle with Bigfoot – it had to be a bionic Bigfoot assembled by aliens from another galaxy.

As part of my exhaustive research for this piece, I viewed a couple of the show’s early episodes through nefarious underground methods. In “Operation Firefly,” Steve tracks down the inventor of a laser gizmo by wooing the scientist’s psychic daughter with his bionic mariachi skills. Their hunt leads to the Everglades, where he wrestles the world’s fakest alligator and traps his enemies in a pit of quicksand. (You just never hear about quicksand anymore; truly the 70s were a magical age.) In “Day of the Robot,” John Saxon guest stars as an evil mechanical duplicate of Steve’s old NASA buddy. The climactic showdown between bionic man and robot plays almost like an experimental Sam Peckinpah short – an endless slow-motion ballet of poorly choreographed swings and misses, accompanied by ping-pong sound effects and electronically distorted roars. It’s all very strange, and I haven’t even mentioned Steve’s penchant for colorful jogging outfits and wide-collared leisure suits.

The new “Bionic Woman” clearly boasts better actors, writers and production values, but it has no quicksand. It wants to be dark, but it settles for dreary.

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