Sunday 4 December 2016

Serial thrillers

A successful movie does not always translate to the small screen -- for every 'M*A*S*H', there is a 'Clueless'. As the classic gangster film 'Goodfellas' hits TV, Declan Cashin looks at the hits and misses

Declan Cashin

Published 15/01/2011 | 05:00

Fans of the mob movie 'Goodfellas' have every right to be in two minds about the recent announcement of tentative plans to turn the Martin Scorsese classic into a TV series.

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On the one hand, it would be a welcome return for the glorious anti-hero Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta in the movie) as he lives out his remaining days in a witness protection programme. And, given the movie's status as a modern great, as well as the success of the similarly themed 'The Sopranos', it's a good bet to do well with at-home audiences.

On the other hand, regular television viewers will be all too aware that the track record of hit movies being turned into successful TV series is mixed at best.

It seems that Nicholas Pileggi, the author of 'Wiseguys' -- the original book that inspired 'Goodfellas' -- is on board to write a pilot episode.

However, it seems unlikely that Scorsese will be involved, busy as he is with both a movie career and his own new TV project, 'Boardwalk Empire'. There's no word on whether any of the movie's stars, such as Liotta, Robert De Niro or Lorraine Bracco, would be interested either.

Therein lies the fundamental problem with many movie-to-TV projects. More often than not, the TV version cannot recapture even a fraction of the chemistry or the magic of the big-screen original, and not only because these shows will almost inevitably be missing the director, stars and writers that made a movie such a success to begin with.

There has also been talk about developing a small-screen spin-off of the hit movie 'The Kids Are All Right', about a lesbian couple who meet the sperm donor who fathered their two children.

Most TV spin-offs flop because their makers and producers over-interpret box-office success and/or audience affection as proof that there is limitless life or potential in a given story or character, all the while ignoring the possibility that a movie only ever worked because of its time-constrained, two-hour deadline.

The annals of television history are clogged with great, steaming turd-shaped evidence to back up that argument. Sandra Bullock might be the most powerful actress in the world today, but, back in 1990, she was the star of a clunky TV continuation of the 1988 movie 'Working Girl', stepping into Melanie Griffiths' role. The show lasted 12 episodes.

One of Bullock's own later movies, 'The Net', about an on-the-run computer hacker, also got the small-screen treatment in 1998 but only lasted one little-watched season.

Does anyone recall the TV spin-off of the teen comedy 'Clueless'? There isn't much to remember, though it still managed to last three seasons (1996-1999) -- despite the absence of the movie's leading lady, Alicia Silverstone, who turned down the work to focus instead on a then-blossoming movie career.

Over the years, there have also been ill-fated attempts to cash in with TV versions of the Coen Brothers' Oscar-winning 'Fargo', which only made it to the pilot stage in 1997 with a then-unknown Edie Falco in the Frances McDormand role, as well as 'Ferris Bueller' (lasting 13 episodes in 1990), 'Dirty Dancing' (running for 11 episodes in 1998 and starring Melora Hardin, who later appeared as Jan in the US version of 'The Office'), and 'Look Who's Talking' ('Baby Talk', which aired for two series between 1991 and 1992).

Meanwhile, the less said about the seven-episode train-wreck 'My Big Fat Greek Life' (2003) -- Nia Vardalos' spin-off from her own surprise hit movie 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' -- the better.

All that said, there have been a handful of movies that transferred brilliantly to the small screen to become worthy artistic enterprises in their own right. 'M*A*S*H' -- developed from the 1970 movie -- ran for 11 years, winning dozens of awards and cultivating such a big fanbase that its 1983 finale attracted more than 50 million US viewers -- the second most-watched primetime event in American broadcasting history.

The much-loved 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' -- itself being mooted for an ominous-sounding reboot without the involvement of creator Joss Whedon -- spun off from a 1992 movie starring Luke Perry, Kirsty Swanson and future Oscar-winner Hilary Swank. With Sarah Michelle Gellar cast in the lead role, 'Buffy' ran for seven seasons and remains one of the most critically adored, if under-appreciated, TV shows of the past 20 years.

In a similar vein, 'Friday Night Lights', a criminally under-watched drama revolving around the travails of a Texan high-school American football team, derived from an acclaimed 2003 movie starring Billy Bob Thornton. Adapted for the small screen in 2006, 'FNL' is now in its fifth and final series, a remarkable feat considering its low ratings.

That 'FNL' has survived at all is a tribute to its rabidly passionate fans, as well as some extraordinarily positive critics' support. When the show picked up two well-deserved acting nominations at the Emmy awards last summer, the 'Los Angeles Times' enthused that 'Friday Night Lights' "may be the best dramatic series in the history of television. That's right: history".

Elsewhere, the recent, short-lived 'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles' had its moments, while the most recent TV incarnation of 'Nikita' seems to be doing well. 'Parenthood', adapted from the 1989 movie and starring 'Six Feet Under' alum Peter Krause and 'Gilmore Girls' Lauren Graham, is now into its second series in the US and is slowly building its audience.

Last, it's worth remembering that the movie-to-TV trend goes in the other direction too. Past and current TV series such as 'The Naked Gun', starring the late, great Leslie Nielsen, 'Firefly' (filmed as the 2005 movie 'Serenity'), and both 'South Park' and 'The Simpsons' have all enjoyed big-screen success.

There are also plans to develop movie versions of the TV series '24', 'Entourage' and, most exciting of all, 'Arrested Development', the Emmy-award-winning comedy about a messed-up wealthy family that was unceremoniously axed from the TV schedules in 2006, after just three critically acclaimed but low-rating seasons.

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