Thanks to other losers like ''The Mod Squad'' and ''Lost in Space,'' Bruce Fretts says it's time to turn off this trend

By Bruce Fretts
Updated July 08, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Moviemakers channel yet another old TV show with ”Wild Wild West”

While Congress debates bills designed to eliminate excessive violence from movies and TV shows, I’d like to propose a ban on an even more insidious form of evil within the entertainment industry: Movies based on old TV shows. Why do I offer up such a draconian piece of legislation? Because I, like millions of other Americans last weekend, suffered through the unwatchable ”Wild Wild West.” And when it comes to films this godawful, there oughta be a law.

”WWW” represents everything wrong with the made-from-TV movie genre that has become increasingly, inexplicably prevalent in the past decade. Problem No. 1: It wasn’t a great TV show to begin with. CBS’ horse-opera/sci-fi hybrid ran for four seasons in the late ’60s, but its gimmickry wore thin quickly. Why do moviemakers choose such small-screen mediocrities as ”WWW,” ”The Mod Squad,” and ”My Favorite Martian” to remake? Probably because they know they could never improve on such genuine classics as ”Gunsmoke,” ”Hill Street Blues,” and ”All in the Family.”

Yet these moldy TV titles have a built-in name recognition, so Hollywood figures it’s less risky to put Will Smith in ”WWW” than to try to create an original Western around him. The trouble is, Smith doesn’t fit the character of James T. West, so the screenwriters have to throw in a lot of distasteful racial humor to address the anomaly of an African-American agent protecting Pres. Ulysses S. Grant. Trying to shoehorn a modern movie star into an old TV role almost never works, as Steve Martin’s ”Sgt. Bilko” so painfully proved.

Studios also hedge their bets by lavishing millions of dollars worth of special-effects on stories that were often better served by TV’s tiny budgets. ”Lost in Space” lost all its rinky-dink charm once the robot looked real. (Thank God no one’s remade ”The Flying Nun” using digital technology yet.) That 80-foot mechanical tarantula in ”WWW” is certainly spectacular, but the money would’ve been better spent coming up with a clever, coherent script.

Okay, I’ll admit there have been a couple of good movies based on vintage TV shows — ”The Fugitive” and ”The Untouchables.” Their single-thread story lines were more easily adapted into features than episodic series like ”Leave it to Beaver” or ”The Addams Family.” I’d even count ”The Brady Bunch Movie” as an exception to the rule if ”A Very Brady Sequel” hadn’t belabored the joke. But one decent movie a decade isn’t worth enduring ”The Avengers,” ”McHale’s Navy,” ”Car 54, Where Are You?,” ”Dennis The Menace,” ”The Beverly Hillbillies”….

What would this legislation save us from? It’s too late to stop the sequels to ”The Flintstones” and ”Mission: Impossible,” or ”Dudley Do-Right” (which might as well be a sequel to ”George of the Jungle,” since it’s also based on a Jay Ward cartoon and stars Brendan Fraser). But we’d be spared a slew of preproduction projects, including Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz in ”Charlie’s Angels,” Nicolas Cage in ”The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” and Mel Gibson in ”Hogan’s Heroes.” Mel, did we learn nothing from ”Maverick”?

Wild Wild West

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Barry Sonnenfeld