Judge Jeff Andreasen Steele fears that he is actually an invented character, and wishes Pierce Brosnan would agree to play him on TV.
Cynically marketing this DVD collection to take advantage of the current furor over Pierce Brosnan's retirement as 007.
Try this for a deep, dark secret: I enjoyed watching this first season of Remington Steele! I'd seen a few episodes here and there over the years in syndication and vaguely remember actually watching it during its initial run (my mom, like most other women of the day, swooned at the sight of the dreamy Pierce Brosnan, so the family television was blocked off for at least one hour every week), and remember it being pretty harmless fare. In watching Remington Steele: The Complete First Season, three things crystallized for me: 1, this was a thin show…very thin; 2, Stephanie Zimbalist's faux accent is really distracting; and 3, this is a perfect example of early '80s television.
Facts of the Case
The series made its bow in 1982 alongside such hairy-chested fare as Matt Houston, The Fall Guy, Magnum, P.I., Simon and Simon, Knight Rider, and Hart to Ha…uh, well, it had a lot of competition. The brainchild of writer/director Robert Butler (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), Remington Steele had its genesis in a pitch to MTM Studios as a series based around the misadventures of a petite young woman trying to make it in the manly world of private investigation. Our heroine quickly deduces that she won't succeed as a woman in this brawny vocation and decides to invent a superior, a classy and robust guy with ass-kicking credentials around whom she can build an agency. Creating the persona of Remington Steele from the names of a typewriter and a football team, she fashions Remington Steele Investigations around this fictional he-man and soon has all the work she can handle. The conceit of the series, Butler proposed, was in the hijinks ensuing from her handling of the case du jour whilst striving to maintain the illusion of her being the flunky of a superhero who didn't actually exist.
Sometimes, a good idea is only half the dream. The executives at MTM thought this premise a little too shallow to keep audiences swimming for long, though it intrigued them enough to bring a real writer in to take a look and offer some insight. Enter Michael Gleason, who came on board and immediately thought, "I think the guy should actually show up one day." A-ha! Light bulbs sputtered to life over executive noggins at MTM. Ink wetted contract paper. Typewriter ribbons stockpiled in writers' closets. And a series was born.
With Pierce Brosnan and Stephanie Zimbalist on board as the title character and his more-than-capable "assistant," Remington Steele hit the airwaves in October 1982 against Friday ratings juggernaut Falcon Crest and its lead-in Dallas. That's a tough row to hoe. The show was moved to Tuesday nights to give it some breathing room and a chance, and it remained there until its cancellation after the 1985-1986 season. The highest Steele ever ranked in the Nielsen's was 26th, during the 1984-1985 season. It wasn't in the top 30 at any other time during its run, though it did generate a loyal fan base and considerable publicity for its debonair star.
And boy did Pierce Brosnan have his fans. His dashing appearance in the series, always sporting tuxedoes or tailored suits, along with his devilishly handsome features and that enticing smirk, inveigled countless women to his cause. Despite having no lead experience, with parts such as "Last Victim" or "First Irishmen" festooning his resumé prior to noteworthy roles in The Manions of America and Nancy Astor, and virtually no exposure in the United States, Brosnan landed the star-making role.
Like most other shows on prime time in the early 1980s, Remington Steele was about as deep as a Robert James Waller novel. Vying for supremacy alongside such challenging fare as The Dukes of Hazzard, The A-Team, and TJ Hooker, Remington Steele needed an angle to distinguish it and got it by infusing every episode with farcical hijinks reminiscent of the noir and comedy films of the 1940s and 50s that it so dutifully paid homage to every week. Pierce Brosnan proved himself an impeccable comedic talent, and rose to the challenge of shouldering the pratfalls and playing intellectual second fiddle despite his character's position as the suave head of a renowned detective agency. Opposite his scenery-chomping was Stephanie Zimbalist's Laura Holt, who was the straight "man" on this comedy duo and the character who did nearly all the actual sleuthing and took on more than her fair share of rough and tumble action.
Playing the woman who invented Remington Steele, Zimbalist was considered a premiere television actress, and she did have a pretty good resumé, with roles in Centennial and The Golden Moment: An Olympic Love Story prior to landing Remington Steele. The daughter of actor Efram Zimbalist, Jr. (77 Sunset Strip, The FBI, the voice of Alfred on Batman: The Animated Series), Stephanie was supposed to be the lead in the series, and does indeed have top billing over the unknown Pierce Brosnan during the first season. But as Brosnan's star waxed and others in the television and film industry noticed his potential, Remington Steele became his show, and rumors stirred of rancor between the two stars. After four years and little development of the main characters, the shtick's charm waned with viewers and the show was canceled. However, it was revived for a brief and crib dead fifth season after interest in summer reruns was piqued by Brosnan's consideration for the role of secret agent James Bond after Roger Moore mercifully retired from the role. Ironically, in exercising its option to yank back its stars to cash in on this juicy speculation, NBC torpedoed Brosnan's chance at 007 and flushed the actor's chances at the BIG time…for the moment. Zimbalist's career, too, took a beating from this mercenary move by the studio. She had been up for the role of Officer Anne Lewis opposite Peter Weller in 1987's Robocop, but had to withdraw when NBC exercised its option.
There's a lot to like about Remington Steele: The Complete First Season. First, it comes presented on four double-sided DVDs secured in two slipcased DigiPaks, à la the Law & Order DVD series, a manner I prefer to see my television season collections presented in. Second, some nice extras here enlighten the viewer about the creative process and the history of the show. Third, it's just a fun show to watch, with noir drama, light comedy, and farce, which really makes for an easy and enjoyable sit.
The four DVDs present the entire first season of the show in its original 4:3 full frame aspect ratio and in their uncut entirety. The lineup includes:
As you can see, there's a cute affectation of titling all the episodes with some variation of the Steele brand name. Some are painfully forced ("A Good Night's Steele," "To Stop a Steele"), though most work just fine. It just adds to the show's charm.
The audio is nothing special, Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural, but its simplicity doesn't cost the viewer anything in terms of missing information. All the gunshots and tire screeches are here and all the quips and snappy patter are readily apparent. You don't have to step back for something you might have missed due to crummy sound.
The extras available here are decent. Pierce Brosnan is present in the featurettes, but not in the commentary tracks. If he were absent altogether I daresay Steele fans would revolt. Stephanie Zimbalist is MIA, as is James Read (Murphy Michaels), though Janet DeMay (Bernice Foxe) speaks out in the featurettes for fans who miss her.
On disc one, side A, there is commentary on "License to Steele" by creators Michael Gleason and Robert Butler. Tidbits include NBC's originally wanting to start with episode six, jumping right into the series but, after buying it, balking and deciding they wanted the pilot, and that Zimbalist wearing her fedora sold the studio on hiring her instead of looking elsewhere. Butler and Gleason mention liking James Read (a good character actor), but thinking it was unfair to keep him aboard just to be the distant second fiddle. Embarrassing moments occur when the two lose track of which episode they're watching. "Was that in the pilot or was that in this one?" They congratulate each other on their decorative sense and laud Zimbalist and Brosnan as "great farceurs." Neither this nor the commentary on "Tempered Steele" offer many earth-shattering revelations for die-hard fans, but there is enough trivia to make either one worth the listen.
More worthy is the commentary for "Vintage Steele," by Michael Gleason and writer Susan Baskin. As always, the writer gives the most intriguing commentary, revealing plot ideas, alternate suggestions, and the reasoning behind the philosophy of the episode. Baskin talks about her and her husband's trip to Napa Valley inspiring the episode and her desire to give more to Laura to do. She also tries to wax important about injecting "subtle and sophisticated" comedy into the series, but it mostly winds up being fairly unimaginative double entendres.
The featurettes are quite short (no longer than 10 or 12 minutes), but are actually more informative than the episode-long commentaries. On disc three, side B, we have "Comedy and Old Movies," and learn that Brosnan, as a devout John Cleese fan, modeled his performance as Steele after some of Cleese's various Monty Python characters. The featurette reiterates the roots of Remington Steele in the caper comedies of the 1940s and that Brosnan, as a rabid fan of the oldies, was perfectly suited for and enthusiastic in jabbering on about Humphrey Bogart, The Thin Man, and all manner of cinematic lore as Steele.
"Remington Steele: Season One," on side B of disc one, revealed more of how Butler and Gleason generated the finished product, going from the original Laura-only premise to Gleason's epiphanic "wouldn't it be great if he showed up and made her crazy?" idea. Brosnan reminisces about him and his late wife Cassandra Harris ("Thou Shalt Not Steele") mortgaging their house and pinning everything on his ability to land a breakout role in the United States. Interestingly, Assistant Director Janet Davidson opines that Stephanie Zimbalist chafed at being in the lengthening shadow of an emerging superstar, though Brosnan refutes rumors that he and Zimbalist didn't get along. Still, the amount of "Stephanie was the best, she was the biggest professional, she was beautiful, smart, and a real trooper" sort of gives the impression that everyone involved is trying to soothe somebody's ego.
Character profiles of Remington, Laura, Bernice Foxe, and Murphy Michaels are on disc two, side B, though these are more or less extraneous. Steele and Laura Holt's characters are fully fleshed out in the actual episodes and in the other featurettes, while secretary Foxe and Steele-rival Michaels didn't have much character to profile. Neither character had much shelf life or potential. Bernice was the secretary with the promiscuous quips and Murphy was the odd man out, the jilted lover, so to speak, who has to do what he can to combat Remington's growing attachment to Laura. There wasn't much mileage there in a series not designed for that sort of drama. The studio axed both characters when it was decided to renew Remington Steele for a second season. Still, it's nice to see the extras remembered, though they are slighted on the packaging.
All in all, Remington Steele: The Complete First Season is a pretty comprehensive package though, like anything this side of The Lord of the Rings extended editions, it lacks in some areas.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's nothing in Remington Steele outside of Pierce Brosnan that will stay with you for long. The cases that confound Steele and Laura here wouldn't keep Encyclopedia Brown up past his bed time and there is a real dearth of memorable supporting characters. The incessant allusions to old films are delightful at first, but the unrelenting roll call of old movies gets tiresome. That said, the idea of the main character, a character with such a chest-thumping name as Remington Steele, being more or less a pansy and having to constantly look to his petite female companion for not only mental but also physical assistance was an inspired twist. From his mannerisms to his faux bravado, Brosnan's Remington Steele was every inch the wannabe he-man. True, he always got the girl, but only because they flaked out over his incredible charm and classy accent, and because he was shameless enough to horde the lion's share of credit for someone else's endeavors and ingenuity. To cast a rogue as your main character and have him actually be a rogue was daring and it worked.
Unfortunately for Remington Steele, catering to half of half the population (working age women) was not particularly inspired, and the show's quirky, farcical charm wore even on the demographic it was intended to impress. Still, it did last for four full years and a short fifth season. Not a bad run by any stretch of the imagination, and it did launch the career of a bona-fide superstar.
This first season was pretty flimsy fare, favoring witty banter and the romantic intrigue that producers hoped would keep the show going for a long time over its threadbare plots. But basing a show on sexual tension invariably leads to the quandary, "Will they or won't they?" If yea, it dooms the show because the sexual tension is lost and the show utterly loses its appeal and its direction. If nay, viewers weary of the constantly unchanging situation and, again, the show is doomed. Moonlighting stumbled and fell when Maddie and David got together. Remington Steele failed when Remington and Laura didn't. Case closed.
As for the DVDs themselves, the presentation is good enough, and it's nice to see all these episodes under one roof and in their entirety for the first time ever. But…good God!…when will studios realize that investing a little time and money on some basic restoration would only benefit their package (see the Star Trek: The Original Series complete season DVDs). Fans will pay a little more for these television collections and will appreciate their favorite shows being overhauled with some video and audio updates to iron out some of the grain and bleeding colors; or putting a little more punch in the sound than the lamentable Dolby 1.0 mono soundtrack. Sure it was released in 1982 as such and sure it looked and sounded fine on television at the time…but that was over 20 years ago! Not only are today's viewers more discriminating (technically, anyway), but they have the hardware and software to demand high-end performance from their video entertainment. Studios therefore must deliver high-end bang for the buck, and here Fox has failed with Remington Steele. The series, as presented here, neither looks nor sounds any better than in 1982, and that is a shame.
The box menus are something of an irritant as well, as they do not delineate where on the DVDs the special featurettes are or their titles, thereby necessitating some digging on the part of the viewer. A pet peeve that was also present on the Airwolf: Season One collection is the maddening decision to use anachronistic images on the box covers. On the back cover of the slipcase, we see Remington and Laura flanking…Mildred Krebs?! For the record, Mildred did not appear until the second season, and is neither seen, heard, nor heard of in the first. Where are James Read and Janet DeMay, who were present throughout the first season, and who probably deserve to be visible on the packaging showcasing their work?
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of this DVD is that, while Pierce Brosnan is present in the featurettes and reminisces quite fondly of his Steele experiences, it would be a genuine treat to have him on an audio commentary track. And where is Stephanie Zimbalist? Throughout the commentary tracks and the featurettes, there is a nauseating amount of adulation poured on Stephanie Zimbalist's name. True, she was an integral part of the show, and true, she is a good actress, but so much fawning smacks of someone trying to rebuild some bridges or pave some very rocky road, and, having read no accounts of the true relationships between Zimbalist, Brosnan and the rest, I wonder just what these people are trying to smooth over. Might we see or hear Zimbalist on future commentary tracks or featurettes? Time will tell, I suppose.
Listen to the jury in there! Raging like Ed Begley and Lee J. Cobb in 12 Angry Men (MGM, 1957)! I smell a hung jury, and it's in times like these that the law needs someone stronger to step up, someone like Paul Newman from The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (Warner Brothers, 1972). That being the case, I hereby decree this DVD to be not guilty! And anyone's got a problem with that, they can take it up with Bean. There's nothing wrong with taking advantage of the moment, especially when it's to give us an '80s gem like Remington Steele. Unfortunately, there's plenty of less-deserving television series out there that have been given far better treatment than Remington Steele, and for that the court should sentence Fox to be shot. Or hung. Or shot and hung. But the stuff that is present is okay (more or less), and the court is pleased that at least one of the headliners of the series made an appearance in the extras. This defendant is free to go, as long as there will be second, third, and fourth seasons forthcoming without delay. It's one thing to take advantage of the moment, but it's quite another to Steele from fans that have been waiting for this series for years. And Steele are.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Series Creators Michael Gleason and Robert Butler on "License to Steele" and "Tempered Steele"
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