Bionic Woman

Bionic Woman

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The common complaint about remakes is that the new version doesn’t hold up against the original. But maybe the original wasn’t all that great in the first place. While I loved The Six Million Dollar Man as a kid, some of the episodes really stretched credibility. I vaguely recall watching Lee Majors, dressed in his very best red tracksuit as “bionic man” Steve Austin, grappling with Bigfoot himself in several episodes. It seems that the hairy creature was acting as an intersteller bouncer for aliens from another dimension! Still, I loved the show and even had a 12” Steve Austin doll that drowned tragically in a lake because of my lack of bionic skills. The doll was quite popular at the time and a good indicator of what it was that made the show so effective: Steve Austin, a character so interesting in his man or machine plight that the series could weather absurd adventures involving aliens and Bigfoot and even spawn a popular spin off of its own. In a way, the original Bionic Woman was already a kind of remake, only with a feminist bent. While Lindsay Wagner never got to fight anything as wild as Bigfoot, she had to contend with slightly less hairy men who tried to control her, sell her, or simply plug and unplug her. NBC’s new Bionic Woman, then, is a remake of a spin off, but its biology is more genetically complex than that. It dots the i’s and crosses the t’s in creating parallels to the original program but it mostly wants to be edgier and darker to match the perceived current zeitgeist. The new Jaime Sommers (Michelle Ryan) is no longer a former tennis pro turned schoolteacher and bionic super agent following a terrible accident, but a bartender with a mysterious past who’s had some tough breaks and is responsible for raising her younger sister, Becca (Lucy Hale), by herself. She’s engaged to a cool scientist, Dr. Will Anthros (Chris Bowers), who turns out to be into bionics just like his madman father (Mark Sheppard), who’s locked, Hannibal Lecter-style, in some underground cell in Northern California. In the massively over-plotted pilot episode, a shocking car “accident” causes Jaime to lose her legs, an arm, an eye and an ear, thus compelling Will to rebuild her since he has the technology. Apparently, the good doctor was not only keeping his job a secret from Jaime but also the fact that he’s really been profiling her for some time as a potential bionic candidate. In the episodes that follow, Jaime tries to find a balance between her personal life with Becca and her professional one as the bionic woman but discovers that a double life never remains double for long. The first hour of the pilot episode moves by so quickly there’s barely time for any of the characters to register or for a coherent tone to be established. Instead of dealing with Jaime’s reaction to having her body violated, her trust broken and life transformed, the script piles on incident after incident in the hope that something—anything—will appeal to the short attention spans of the show’s perceived demographic. The following episodes slow down a bit to try and build Jaime’s relationships with her new colleagues but the writers are playing catch up with a runaway story. The introduction of a major character played by Isaiah Washington in the second episode is also distracting, taking precious screen time away from the development of the characters previously established. Even worse is that the serial structure of the program works against its effectiveness by rendering everything and everyone cryptic and mysterious. Since we’re made to wait until the following week to learn more about the characters and story, it’s hard to invest emotionally in the show now. Once upon a time, the weekly series was king, allowing for a new standalone adventure to be played out each week based on the basic dramatic situation. The original Bionic Woman was a perfect example of the classic format which only existed because of the need to capture a primetime audience week after week without too much backstory. TV producers treated backstory like the plague in the days before Tivo and the Internet. The well-known credit sequences of both Bionic Woman and Six Million Dollar Man laid out the whole story in seconds. Richard Anderson’s famous voiceover (“We can rebuild him. Faster, stronger, better.”) left no doubt as to what the show was about and allowed anyone to pick up the show at any time without confusion. But today the serial is the hot trend and shows like Lost and Heroes have built strong fanbases for more complexly plotted, continuing adventures filled with secrets which seem to perplex and mystify the writers as much as the patient audience. Serials require a never ending supply of mystery and intrigue in order to cast its spell over the audience. Not just one mystery, but as many as possible running at the same time. As one mystery is resolved, another one is begun. It’s like giving a junkie just enough of a fix to desperately need the next one. The original Bionic Woman had no secrets, and any mysteries introduced were solved by the end of each episode. In order to fit the new version into the serial format, a more appropriate model had to be found. Which is why the show is as much a remake of Bionic Woman as it is of J.J. Abrams’s Alias. Alias is the perfect model for the new show, what with its high kicking superagent heroine haunted by her past and surrounded by sprawling plots of cross and double cross. Bionic Woman‘s writers must have studied it carefully because much has been lifted wholesale: the patriarchal government agency with its secret headquarters, the sinister boss with his own agenda, the geeky technology expert, and the veteran agent who’s seen it all are taken virtually verbatim. Alias provides the mournful tone as well, with the new Jaime matching Sydney Bristow in stoical suffering. But even with all the intended similarities, the key difference is that Alias kept itself from drowning in a sea of subplots by never losing the thematic thread of Sydney “coming of age” in a world of lies and deception. Like Wagner’s original bionic woman, Jennifer Garner’s character was interesting enough to keep her head above water. Ryan tries hard to make Jaime a believable character but it’s no use because she has nothing to do except look angry or confused, often both at the same time; the tidal wave of story wipes her out and renders her character a trivial afterthought. The show only comes to life whenever the mysterious Sarah Corvus enters the story. As she tells Jaime, she’s the first bionic woman, a failed predecessor whose sanity cracked under the pressure of bionic testing and experimental science. As played by Katee Sackhoff from Battlestar Galactica, Sarah is everything Jaime is not: mysterious, intriguing, charming and dangerous. Sackhoff’s stylized, nearly eye-rolling performance clashes with everyone’s solemn realism but it actually matches the cartoonish dialogue and contrived storytelling perfectly. She’s right and the rest of the cast didn’t get the memo. So far, the new Bionic Woman seems unable to find its footing. It’s really not a matter of whether or not the new show holds up against the old one. This Bionic Woman does not fail to live up to the original, it fails to live up to all of the other programs it wants to emulate instead. Constructed from spare parts in a bionic writing room, the show has the arms and legs of Alias and Heroes but without a heart and brain of its own.

Airtime
NBC, Wednesdays, 9 p.m.
Cast
Michelle Ryan, Chris Bowers, Will Yun Lee, Molly Price, Isaiah Washington, Lucy Hale, Miguel Ferrer, Mark Sheppard, Katee Sackhoff