Why do so many old TV shows become lousy movies? Blame many dreary nights at the multiplex on misplaced trust in ''The Comfort of Crap''
Will Ferrell, Nicole Kidman, ...
Credit: Bewitched: John Bramley

Why do so many old TV shows become lousy movies?

They keep on coming out — and, like lemmings, we keep going to them. Or at least pretending to get excited about them. Bewitched. Starsky & Hutch. The Mod Squad. Lost in Space. The Beverly Hillbillies. The Flintstones. The Avengers. Maverick. I Spy. S.W.A.T.

Or The Dukes of Hazzard. Depending on your vantage point, Dukes was either the latest witless, vile, one-note travesty of an attempt to transform a television series into a movie, or it was the exception that proved the rule. As one of the only critics in America who enjoyed it, I stand, to my everlasting infamy, by my review, but I can’t really deny the rule. More often than not, in fact just about every time, movies based on old TV shows suck.

Yet even as I say that, the moderate late-summer popularity of Dukes, along with the release of Michael Mann’s deluxe retooling of Miami Vice (set for July 2006), is likely to open the door to a new era, a new generation, of readily adaptable television fodder. Welcome, late ’70s and big ’80s! At last, the eternally delayed big-screen version of Dallas can get made! How about Dynasty or, while we’re at it, Saved by the Bell? Unless I’m miscalculating, there’s a vast and eager audience out there that is only too happy to get fooled again.

So what, finally, is the attraction that will not die? And why is it that these movies, successful as they can be at the box office, are virtually never any fun?

For openers, they represent the trivialization of trivia. The madness may have begun in 1979, with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a TV resurrection of near-liturgical tedium, yet I still recall, as vividly as a root canal, the throbbing dull pain of the comedy that, more than any other, truly kick-started the genre, becoming the seminal bad-movie-out-of-television experience. It was Dragnet (1987), with Dan Aykroyd doing his strenuous, should-have-been-a-four-minute-sketch impersonation of Jack Webb as a repressed LAPD droid. The original show, in its way, had a cathode-tube noir minimalism, but the movie reduced it to a gag, a shtick, a lobotomized running-on-empty routine. It falsified what people liked about the series in the first place. (Jack Webb speaks in a robot monotone: Please laugh for 100 minutes!) Yet Dragnet the film, ghastly as it was, became a midsize hit, and it more or less set the template for movies based on television shows. One way or another, they would all be rituals celebrating the transformation of pop culture into kitsch.

It’s telling that nearly all of these films are based on mediocre shows. Our hindsight fondness for bad TV is almost religious — not despite the mediocrity, but because of it. We’re nostalgic for the pleasantly brainless, detached-but-superior mood into which those series delivered us when we were growing up. What we’re out to recapture when we go to a TV-into-movie remake isn’t quality, exactly. It’s something junky yet ineffable: the Comfort of Crap.

That’s the feeling stoked by Nick at Nite reruns, and by VH1’s I Love the 70s (and 80s), which invented an entire new attitude: to smirk with love. In the I Love the… shows, no pleasure is truly guilty. As the quipster-comics and fading bit actors think back, with a happy sneer, upon the mass entertainment they grew up with, what’s really being celebrated is the cushy, wonderstruck passivity of youthful middle-class American viewing habits. It’s that sugar-high state of grace when you turn on the TV and all of this…stuff just sort of comes out, flowing your way.

I, for example, grew up during the 1960s, and so my youth was awash in the bizarro-world vaudeville that had overtaken prime-time comedy. I Dream of Jeannie, Green Acres, Get Smart, Petticoat Junction, Hogan’s Heroes, The Addams Family, The Beverly Hillbillies — these weren’t just sitcoms, they were mind-draining exercises in plastic Dada that might have been hatched by a collaboration between Neil Simon and Ionesco. You watched them not because they were good, exactly, but because they were on.

Yet how do you capture that airy, time-killing sensation of passive acceptance in a movie made 35 years later? A movie that’s stuck in a repetitive loop of madcap Irony? The irony isn’t organic, the way it is in a movie like Ghost World. It’s imposed, as if it had been plastered there by a studio suit gazing down at yesterday’s trash, all too eager to repackage it as today’s mock-trash concept.

Of all those ’60s comedies, Bewitched was the one with a glimmer of soul. It emerged from Elizabeth Montgomery’s playful sensuality, and from a premise that spoke to women because it asserted, with a certain trickster literalness, that this was American marriage: a big-chinned idiot slaving away for his boss, and a wife who pleased the idiot by refusing to use her witchy (i.e., womanly) powers. Much has been made of Bewitched as a proto-feminist fantasy, yet with its soufflé of silliness and cleverness, its ”social commentary” posing as surreal fancy, even this show made sense, and provoked laughter, only as an expression of its time. When you strip it away from its era, as Nora Ephron did in her busy postmodern revamp, what you’re left with is the premise without purpose, the ”show” without a center.

Then, too, as I watched those clips of Elizabeth Montgomery in the Ephron film, I was struck by how much the essence of a television show comes down to its performers. Will Ferrell as a stuck-up star playing Darrin acted like…Will Ferrell. I missed the persnickety whine of Dick York and Dick Sargent, two actors so bereft of personality they were literally interchangeable. Buddy Ebsen’s soft-shoe hick charm as Jed Clampett, the virginal twinkle of Barbara Eden’s Jeannie, even David Soul’s himbo hostility as Hutch — these weren’t good characters, they were vapid characters lent an indelible imprint of personality by the actors who inhabited them.

I’d be lying, of course, if I claimed that all movies based on TV shows are terrible. Every so often you see one executed with wit and dash, and it tickles your memories in an agreeable way. Addams Family Values had a kooky macabre panache, M:I2 a Bondian flair, and The Brady Bunch Movie achieved the I Love the 70s feat of turning kitsch back into pop art.

Yet almost no one, in Hollywood or the audience, has ever shown much interest in movies adapted from shows that are recognized to be great. Yes, there was The X-Files movie, in which David Duchovny stared until he made the audience sleepy, very sleepy. But did anyone ever yearn to see a movie version of All in the Family or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, thirtysomething or Cheers, Columbo or Seinfeld or NYPD Blue? Our whole relationship to a dramatically rich and vivid television series, the way that we live with the characters for 5 to 10 years, their quirks and wrinkles deepening week to week, isn’t really translatable to a movie. It’s no wonder the film version of Dallas has taken so long to get made. That most iconic of prime-time soaps thrives in our memories as a layer cake of sex and money and duplicity, literally a series of evenings. The producers must sense (or fear) that to jam all of that into two hours is to offer the audience something freeze-dried.

What’s certain is that the flow of kitsch served up between ironic quote marks is only likely to continue. If you want to feel old, just try and imagine the day Beverly Hills, 90210 gets turned into its own movie. It’ll be here sooner than you think. And wouldn’t Justin Long be rad as Jason Priestley?

Do you agree with Owen’s take on movies based on TV shows? Post your list of favorites and flubs below.

Get more: EW.com’s list of the best and worst movies based on TV shows