Technically, it’s all here: the deathless soundtrack, the swiveling pelvises (pelvii?), the wild summer romance. Somehow, though, this earnest, anodyne remake has managed to surgically extract the magic — leaving the story and signature lines intact while suctioning out all the subtlety, charm, and lead chemistry that defined the iconic 1987 original.
It’s not news that network TV is in the business of taking beloved entertainment properties — Hairspray, Peter Pan, The Sound of Music — and turning them into Major Television Events: hectic stunt-cast bonanzas with enough novelty updates (live simulcasts! New musical numbers! Christopher Walken tearing a hole in the space-time continuum!) to nominally justify a reboot. And as much as they become real-time magnets for social media, every show also offers the promise of something endearingly corny and almost obsolete in TV’s fragmented contemporary landscape — old-fashioned, all-in-the-family entertainment.
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But how do you solve a problem like charisma? Instead of the indelible Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, we have Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine, Scream Queens) as sheltered daddy’s girl Francis “Baby” Houseman, and improbably named newcomer Colt Prattes as smoldering, wrong-side-of-the-tracks Romeo Johnny Castle. Together, they dance like nobody’s watching, and kiss like strangers trying not to get mono. (Seriously, it is hard to understate how little electricity there is between them, considering how much screen time they share. Potatoes have more sexual dazzle than these two.) And it doesn’t help that while Prattes moves like the highly trained (if hardly Swayze-y) professional he is, Breslin is no kind of dancer, dirty or otherwise. A huge part of Grey’s story arc was watching her transform believably from shaky novice to mambo queen who totally nailed the lift; here, even Hamilton choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler can’t make Baby’s wan kick-ball-changes come alive.
Without a compelling love story to hold the center, the rest of the cast is left to float aimlessly around our two little root vegetables — Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger makes Penny, the tough but gold-hearted showgirl, a pretty blank in capri pants, and Modern Family’s Sarah Hyland does what she can with Baby’s barely-sketched sister Lisa, a dippy aspiring housewife who just might discover first-wave feminism by the third act. Debra Messing, as the sexually and emotionally frustrated Mrs. Houseman, and Katey Sagal, as Vivian Pressman, a proto Mrs. Robinson with zero hangups in the sex department, do get to add a little more heft and backstory to their traditionally sidelined roles. And the script tries hard to bring some circa-2017 wokeness to its 1963 setting (the aforementioned lady empowerment, an interracial-love subplot so abbreviated it could fit in a tweet), though what they mostly succeed in is thudding symbolism.
It’s tricky, too, to say exactly who the audience should be, outside of bored babysitters and millennials too young to even know Havana Nights. Hate-watchers will be wasting their time, because none of it is nearly awful or camp enough to be fun. And viewers who don’t know any other Dirty Dancing probably won’t get their angry tweets anyway. But as long as the original does live on — you can still find it on pretty much any streaming platform, and you should — this Baby belongs in the corner. C–