Test Pilot #20: Remington Steele
Debut date: October 1, 1982
Series legacy: A well-made production and a somewhat forgotten forerunner to series like Moonlighting; Probably known best for launching Pierce Brosnon’s career and little more
Authorship is a really tricky thing and perhaps no more so than in the world of television. Numerous scholars have discussed the problems with analyzing television with an authorship slant with all of them rightfully pointing out that any production has countless cooks in the kitchen, within individual episodes and across multiple efforts just the same. With so many writers, directors, producers, co-producers, executive producers, story editors and everything else, it is difficult to say that a series is reflective of one person’s sole vision. Even an egomaniac like Matthew Weiner doesn’t do everything on Mad Men, no matter how much he might think he does.
But despite the complex issues related to authorship, the MTM Enterprises book edited by Jane Feuer introduces an intriguing concept of “corporate authorship” wherein a collective (featuring those from both production and business) can produce something of a corporate signature that reflects certain ideals, standards and expectations. In the case of MTM, Feuer argues that the production power of the ’70s and ’80s reflected a signature of quality, not unlike the way HBO and AMC co-opted those ideas of taste and distinction for their respective cable channels years later. These ideas of authorship and quality really stuck with me and inspired me to dive into the MTM oeuvre for this quartet of Test Pilot files. The two things I want to discuss are 1.) this idea of “quality” and whether or not, at least from my perspective, the MTM series are “quality” and 2.) How MTM did or did not put a specific stamp on some of the series it produced, comedy or drama.
Today, our look back at MTM Enterprises comes to a close. I thought a lot about what series to finish with (and again, some of that is screwed up by the fact that I’ve already covered Hill Street Blues and The White Shadow elsewhere) and although we could have tackled some of the lesser-known MTM properties that come out near the end of their run, Remington Steele was just sort of out there, readily available on Hulu, staring me in the face. Plus, Remington Steele, like St. Elsewhere, debuted in 1982, a year after the critical and artistic success of Hill Street Blues. Last time, we discussed how St. Elsewhere did (or did not) follow in the “quality” shoes of Hill Street Blues, so I thought it would be interesting to take a look how Remington Steele did (or again, did not) grab hold of the Hill Street Blues model and create “quality.” So here we are.
Joining me this week and filling the veteran viewer role (see, I can still bring those kind of people in!) is Paul Rodriguez. Paul Rodriguez is a longtime consumer of all manner of entertainment & information. He’s blogged about pop culture since 2005 at ThePopView.com and briefly wrote a regular column at Spot-On.com. He also blogs professionally at CableTechTalk.com as part of his regular job as Senior Director of Social Media at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. You can follow Paul on Twitter. Paul, take it away:
We live in an age of ‘shipping. “Will they or won’t they?” is the question of the day, when it comes to potential relationships between couples on television.
But it’s useful to recall that this is a relatively recent phenomenon, viewed on the grand scale of television’s history. Many of the TV couples in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies were married or already steady partners. As I’ve written on my own blog, before the advent of serialized dramas – distinct from nighttime soaps like Dallas (1978), Knots Landing (1979) and Dynasty (1981) – programs didn’t carry over elements from week-to-week in a way that would encourage the steady progression of a potential relationship. Two characters might occasionally make goo-goo eyes at each other, but you wouldn’t have the steady accumulation of detail that makes up a budding romance.
It was MTM’s 1981 series Hill Street Blues that essentially created the “sequential narrative” for American television. The next year, MTM delivered Remington Steele, the series that (along with Cheers, which also started on NBC at the same time) created the suspense of potential romance on TV.
Since one of the central purposes of this series is to examine the “corporate authorship” of MTM seriess, let me take a moment here to set some context. The MTM hour-long series of the 1970s seem to me to have identifiable characteristics. Three for the Road, Lou Grant, The White Shadow, and Paris are all about different subjects, but there’s a certain consistency of intelligence and humanity to them. The 1980s brought us Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, which have their own similarity of tone and structure. Remington Steele is something else.
In his autobiography The Last Great Ride, Brandon Tartikoff (the head of NBC’s Entertainment Division in the 1980s) freely admits that Remington Steele is reminiscent of Hart to Hart, a series about married amateur detectives that had started on ABC in 1979. But Hart is derivative of McMillan & Wife, and they’re all ripped off from Nick & Nora Charles from The Thin Man. The common theme is frothy mysteries solved by a couple in love.
Steele was created by Michael Gleason and Robert Butler. In Butler’s original conception, the series was about a female private investigator that creates a male boss in order to be taken seriously. Gleason added the twist that the fictional agency head actually shows up to complicate things.
All of which is to say that Remington Steele is in a different class from most of the other MTM dramas (Naturally, the company’s sitcoms are a different matter).In comparison to a White Shadow or Hill Street, it’s the viewing equivalent of cotton candy. But NBC recovered from its ratings disasters of the late Seventies not just by such creative fare as The Cosby Show and Miami Vice, but also on the back of Knight Rider, The A-Team and Hunter.
The pilot for Remington Steele is not named “Pilot” (in the usual convention), but has an actual title: “License to Steele.” This punning method would be used for all the episode titles, such as “In the Steele of the Night” and “Steele Away With Me.” This is one of those initial episodes that focuses more on establishing the premise of the series, rather than existing as a typical story. Right from the very beginning, it will probably be clear to the alert viewer where the episode is going. This is because, as was typical in the past, the episode actually begins with a short montage of the action that will follow (similar to the way that series today usually start with a recap of the previous episode and end with a preview of next week). Then we get the opening titles (which you can see here), in which Laura Holt (played by Stephanie Zimbalist) explains how she created her fictional boss Remington Steele: “I invented a superior, a decidedly masculine superior.”
Soon, we meet a mysterious character (played by Pierce Brosnan) who calls himself Ben Pierson. Holt, backed by her assistant Murphy Michaels (James Read) and secretary Bernice Fox (Janet DeMay), has a strict policy of clients never meeting the secretive Mr. Steele, but their latest client insists on doing so. It seems inevitable that Brosnan’s character will become the fictional detective, but it’s still managed in a rather clever fashion. The real Ben Pierson shows up and the deception still isn’t discovered for a period of time, with the grateful client finally calling up “Mr. Steele” to receive accolades at a public function.
Unfortunately, with all the farcical machinations, there isn’t really much of a crime to solve. Two thugs are pressuring Brosnan’s Pierson/Steele to hand over some jewelry; a body turns up; the jewels are later stolen. The murder is solved in minutes, as is the theft. The whole thing plays more as adventure than mystery.
Two elements are established from the beginning: the homages to classic film mysteries and the attraction between Holt and her invented detective. Brosnan’s mystery man (I’m not sure that we ever do find out his real name) holds a series of fake passports; each name is taken from a character played by Humphrey Bogart. There are also elements taken from Forties movies, such as fedoras and a female bellhop delivering phone messages in a hotel lobby. As the series continued, the homages (direct and indirect) became even more pronounced and was a popular feature of the series. (In fact, in the second episode, the murderer is revealed at a dinner party, exactly as in The Thin Man.)
The romantic element is right there from the start, when Holt lays eyes on her soon-to-be boss. She’s definitely attracted and Brosnan delivers plenty of suave charm. But they also soon fall into conflict. After all, she created “Steele” because no one would take her seriously as the head of a detective agency and she now has to play second fiddle to her supposed male superior. In addition, this new Steele is clearly a liar and a con man (and a suspected murderer at one point). Holt does seem to trust him, despite his masquerades.
All in all, the pilot is very satisfactory. Watching a few more episodes to jog my memory (I did watch the series as it originally aired in the 1980s) reveals that the quality quickly improved. By the third episode, the series has gotten a lot funnier and the mysteries more solid. Interestingly, while I’ve argued that Steele is the first modern “relationship” series, Holt and Steele actually have a very comfortable connection in the early episodes. She makes it very clear that she’s attracted to him; he expresses his admiration and respect for her talents. They won’t go further, wanting to keep things business-like, but they’re not at arm’s-length either.
In short order, ABC asked one of the Steele writer-producers to develop “a boy-girl detective show,” which is how Glenn Gordon Caron came to create Moonlighting, a series which took the relationship struggle to a much higher level (but also established the myth that such relationships axiomatically doom series). In an interesting bit of synchronicity, Moonlighting‘s pilot was directed by Robert Butler, creator of Remington Steele; other MTM employees joined Moonlighting‘s production staff, such as Roger Director (Hill Street Blues), Charles Eglee (St. Elsewhere) and Karen Hall (Hill Street Blues).
It’s also very easy to see the influence of Remington Steele‘s romantic element in such series as Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Castle, and Chuck. The tension created by such potential relationships is typically cheered on by fans and analyzed by others. Remington Steele successful walked this tightrope for a while, but then ran into challenges. The couple had a phony marriage at the end of season four; the series was cancelled and then revived; brought back as a series of specials, with a rival to Steele added to the mix; then that abbreviated season ended with the couple together at last.
In addition, the second season changed when Read and DeMay were dumped as office staff and Doris Roberts brought in as a new secretary. It’s also worth noting that it was at the height of the series’s popularity that Brosnan was proposed as “the new James Bond,” but he was unable to take on the role, due to his contractual obligations to the TV series. In 1995, he finally did assume the 007 mantle with GoldenEye.
As a final note, it was difficult to assess how MTM insiders viewed this series, but Caron is quoted here as claiming that Remington Steele was a series “which they had the least invested in, in terms of the culture of MTM.”
I feel like a grouch. When we took on St. Elsewhere, I spent a lot of discussing how I felt like it tried too hard to ape the Hill Street Blues style/feel/approach and ultimately paled in comparison because of this. And then as I watched Remington Steele for this entry, I started to think about how this series completely disregards the formula, style and feel of Hill Street and St. Elsewhere and at first, I was kind of disappointed. Apparently, I am very, very hard to please when thinking about MTM and authorship.
There’s always a danger with going back to watch a series that starts a trend you mostly hate — in this case, the “boy-girl detectives” as Paul hilariously pulled from ABC — but Remington Steele still felt relatively “current” and enjoyable, at least in this initial episode. This pilot does a really great job of avoiding too much of the sexual tension stuff and smartly focuses on the constant reversals and twists in the plot. Steele, in pilot form, is pretty fun and both Pierce Brosnan and Stephanie Zimbalist are really good. Their chemistry reminded me of the early episodes of Chuck (you know, before Chuck and Sarah started getting angsty and somewhat annoying at times). This pilot looks really good as well, with an interesting retro visual pallet that certainly assists in its ability to stand out amid all the other MTM dramas I have watched recently. And unlike with St. Elsewhere, I actually wanted to watch another episode of this series once the pilot was over. That’s sort of the most basic and obvious praise I can give something.
But I did not come up with this theme to discuss just how fun these MTM series are or how good the performances are. If I can return to the whole “corporate author” thing again, I think it is obvious that Remington Steele does not really fit the Hill Street Blues or St. Elsewhere (or even Lou Grant and White Shadow) mold. Feuer refers to the formal and thematic similarities between those series as part of the “MTM style,” but Remington Steele discards and ignores all of them. Instead of the gritty, grimy feel of those other series, Remington Steele is glossy, shinny and sort of luxurious (you’ll be shocked to know that Jaime Weinman has written something about this). The cast of characters is much smaller, the wit and humor is more overt and present and thematically, Steele couldn’t be more different from something like Hill Street.
Generally speaking, there isn’t a problem with this. If I criticized St. Elsewhere for staying too close to the Hill Street formula, I should probably laud or at least not criticize Remington Steele for straying pretty far from it. But through the prism of corporate authorship, the series is certainly a problematic outlier of sorts. And based on the fact that it didn’t receive the same kind of critical or awards attention as some of the other MTM Enterprises products, it is apparent that the industry didn’t hold Steele in the same kind of regard either. Yet I’m wondering: Does this really matter, like at all?
There’s no question that Remington Steele was a relatively successful television series. It had four seasons and a few television movies*, almost made it to 100 episodes. But before I started doing the introductory research for this theme, I didn’t even know it was produced by MTM Enterprises and when I read that it was, I was kind of confused. As Weinman points out in that post I linked to, people remember Moonlighting first because it was more innovative and postmodern (and arguably had a more appealing duo at the front). Not every television series, even the ones that last a while, become all-timers. However, there’s definitely something missing from Steele that makes it not only an outlier in the MTM stable, but perhaps not as good as it could have been.
*(Almost like The Cape.)
If I can bring back the dreaded “q-word” for a second, what would a “quality” series about a male-female detective team look like? We tend to conflate quality with grit, complexity, realism, etc. and for the most part, those terms and concepts don’t quite match up with a program like Remington Steele. Perhaps Brosnan’s character could have had a more overt darkness and complication to him? Maybe Zimbalist’s Laura Holt could have had more obvious personal issues of her own that shaped the stories? Perhaps the cases could have been more political and complex instead of fairly straightforward and less important? Honestly, I cannot even wrap my head around how a darker, grittier male-female detective series would progress. In this pilot, there are some smaller markers of substance that get critics and scholars riled up. There is a political element to the case and there is certainly something interesting about Holt creating the fictitious Remington Steele so that she avoid gender bias and discrimination. But those issues fade to the backdrop pretty quickly so that Steele can focus on Pierce Brosnan being charming and its fun, cunning script.
This is diving further and further down the rabbit hole, but what the hell: Shouldn’t we probably shift our perceptions of what make a quality program? If critics have realized that Remington Steele was a pretty good program and actually played a major role in the development of a certain kind of television story (again, this male-female team type of trope), doesn’t that actually mean more than just being another product of the MTM Enterprises Factory of Quality (like St. Elsewhere happens to be, in my opinion)? This is a series that doesn’t have the traditional markers of quality, but it offers other things have that have been important in the development of television. To me, that is pretty important.
Ultimately, I think this theme has reaffirmed what I think already knew (confirmation bias, FTW): looking at anything through the authorship and quality prisms are simultaneously difficult and dangerous. On its own, St. Elsewhere is probably a really wonderful series and it probably deserves all those accolades it garnered during its time on the air. But when analyzed with an authorship-centric eye, it feels like a carbon copy of a series that I like quite a bit more (and watched first, which surely plays some role in how I feel). On the flip side, something like Remington Steele looks like a non-quality outlier that doesn’t fit any markers of quality and distinction when looked at in comparison to the rest of the much-lauded MTM dramas. In the most general of senses, it probably isn’t as good as St. Elsewhere or Lou Grant or maybe even The White Shadow. But separated from the rest of the production company’s programs of that era, Steele is fun, enjoyable and mostly smart television that helped start a different kind of trend in the industry.
MTM Enterprises certainly produced a lot of great television, most of which we covered here has a tight character focus and some more realistic, human thematic concerns. And all that’s all well and good, they should rightfully be lauded for those achievements. But even though Remington Steele doesn’t do those things (or at least doesn’t do them as overtly in the pilot episode), the series isn’t a failure.
*Note: Lynn Reed provided some quality information on Steele and you check out a section of an essay written on the series here
Conclusions on legacy: Better — and perhaps somewhat more influential — than we remember