Of all the new fall series unveiled by the broadcast networks last week in New York, the title that got the most attention was familiar to anyone who trod grade-school corridors between, say, the Watergate hearings and the Tehran hostage crisis.
Some of today's most serious-minded career women once carried a metal lunch box bearing a scene from The Bionic Woman, the sci-fi/action series that ran on ABC and NBC from 1976 to '78.
The original lunch boxes, now battered and missing the matching thermos, can be had on eBay for $20. And then there was the Bionic Woman doll, with pop-open flaps on the forearm and thigh that revealed the biomechanical enhancements to heroine Jamie Sommers, the pretty, blond tennis pro-turned-cyborg and the once and future girlfriend to Steve Austin of The Six Million Dollar Man fame ($9.99 and that doll is yours online).
NBC will rebuild Bionic Woman (the network has dropped The from the original title) for this coming season. But can the long-suffering network actually make her, if not faster, at least better and stronger?
Katherine Pope, the NBC Entertainment executive vice president who served as an internal cheerleader for the new effort (and who copped to owning a Bionic Woman lunch box as a girl), admitted in an interview last week that the original series was "kind of cheesy."
But NBC Universal isn't simply chasing nostalgia; it's trying to pull off an excavation-and-salvage project similar to Sci Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica, another dated, damaged TV franchise from the 1970s that the company rehabilitated into an award-winning series that routinely lands on critics' best-TV lists.
The NBC line is that the new Bionic Woman is a "reimagining," not a remake. Executive producer David Eick, a Galactica veteran, believes that the familiar title and premise in fact might give the writers more room to monkey with the concept, paradoxical as that sounds.
"The title gives you permission to push in certain directions you couldn't without it," Eick said.
And push in new directions they did. Based on a cut of the pilot NBC provided last week - Pope said more special effects would be added before broadcast - pretty much only the bionics have survived from the original series. But even those are improved: This time, in addition to her super-sensitive synthetic ear, Jamie has a computerized eye with a built-in magnification function, much like Steve Austin's.
Comparing the new version with the old underscores how much the imperatives of TV drama have changed over the last three decades. Specifically, the new Bionic Woman reflects a broader industry trend toward darker, more complicated stories and characters than would have been imaginable in the three-network era. The pilot has a lot more in common, visually and conceptually, with 24 or CSI: Crime Scene Investigation than it does The Six Million Dollar Man.
Not everyone is welcoming this switch. On the Internet, fans of the original show are threatening a boycott of the new version. They might have some well-connected supporters: Kenneth Johnson, a veteran writer-producer who created The Bionic Woman in 1976, is not involved with the new project. Although he expressed admiration for Eick's work on Galactica, he's skeptical about "reimagination" projects in general.
"That's a big word in Hollywood," Johnson told me by phone. "If they're remaking something and want it to sound fresh, they say 'reimagination.' A sense of humor was important to the original Bionic Woman, Johnson said, adding: "I'm sorry to hear they went in that other direction."
Of course, that seems to be the entire point. The series that spawned all those plastic dolls and rust-susceptible lunch boxes seems more innocent than ever alongside the new, noir-ish Bionic Woman, which tosses '70s optimism (technology can make us stronger!) in favor of post-9/11 paranoia (technology can make us expire!).
This is a Bionic Woman for anxiety-ridden grown-ups, not lunch-box-toting kids.
As Jamie Sommers soon will learn, TV, like hemlines and hairstyles, has changed an awful lot since 1978. So how bionic is she? Will her reinvention prove the cultural breakthrough that makes the original a mere footnote? Or is the "reimagination" destined for cultural obscurity?
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