By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist April 16, 2014 at 12:04PM
Even given that it was hitting just as interest in Jane Austen was hitting a peak, after the BBC's "Pride & Prejudice" and Ang Lee's film of "Sense & Sensibility," the idea of updating the novelist's "Emma" to take place in a Beverly Hills high school sounded like madness. But in the hands of Amy Heckerling, who'd previously been behind teen classic "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" (which also spawned a short-lived TV spin-off), the result was a delight, a sharp, funny high school classic that defined a generation in the way that John Hughes' films had done a decade earlier, or "Mean Girls" did a decade later. Alicia Silverstone became, however briefly, a big star after playing Cher, a sweet but superficial rich girl whose matchmaking skills backfire and see her own popularity blow up, only to find love with her former stepbrother (Paul Rudd, in an early breakout role). Warm, sharp and quotable, it's still something of a touchstone for the genre, albeit one that both Heckerling and Silverstone have struggled to escape the shadow of since.
A TV spin-off with an atypically close relationship to its big-screen sibling, "Clueless" hit ABC screens barely a year after the release of the movie, created by Amy Heckerling herself, and produced by superproducer Scott Rudin (his last foray into TV until "The Newsroom" a decade-and-a-half later). And while the burgeoning stardom of Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd meant that they (and Dan Hedaya, who'd originally played Cher's father) didn't make the transition, much of the movie's cast, including Stacey Dash, Donald Faison, Elisa Donovan, Wallace Shawn and Twink Caplan, did reprise their roles. The likable Rachel Blanchard stepped in for Silverstone, and the series was sort of bright and occasionally funny, but generally felt like a dumbed-down, less satisfying cousin to the original. (To wit: the gay character Christian didn't make the transition, presumably in deference to broadcast network tastes at the time, though "Will & Grace" would prove a big hit only two years later.) The series was cancelled by ABC after only a single season, but when re-runs proved popular in the ratings, fledgling network UPN stepped in and commissioned another two seasons, though Heckerling mostly left it behind after that point. The result felt like it strayed even further from the source material, though it did last another two seasons before being cancelled due to dwindling ratings.
"Friday Night Lights" (2004)
An adaptation of writer Buzz Bissinger's seminal book (directed by Bissinger's cousin, helmer Peter Berg), "Friday Night Lights," the movie edition, was that rarest of beasts, a smart, grown-up, mostly cliche-free sports movie with more in common with "Hoop Dreams" than, say, "Varsity Blues." Berg's film—starring Billy Bob Thornton as the coach of the Permian Panthers, and Lucas Black, Garret Hedlund, Derek Luke and Jay Hernandez as some of his players—sticks closer to the events of the book than the subsequent series, and it's this sense of realism that sets it apart. Sports in the movies tends to be about the glory and the victory, but Berg captures what exemplifies so much of real-world sports: the brutal disappointments and crushing losses, even for a team as successful as the Panthers. The director captures with docudrama precision the way that the games come to dominate life in Odessa, and the effect that being small-town celebrities has on his players, and the glimpses of personal life, particularly when it comes to the relationship between Hedlund and his bullying father (Tim McGraw), are all strong and searing. Gorgeously shot and scored, we should be so lucky to get a football movie as good as this one again.
"Friday Night Lights" (2006-2011)
Or indeed, a TV spin-off as remarkably good as this one. Arriving on NBC only two years after the movie, the small-screen "Friday Night Lights" departed substantially from the text (moving the setting to the fictionalized town of Dillon), but kept the spirit intact, with the same sense of quiet desperation and hidden triumph. Berg returned to helm the pilot, and as a result, it might seem a little over-familiar to those who know the film well: he carries across the same look and feel, and more than a few plot points recur. But as the series goes on, and showrunner Jason Katims (who's had substantial luck with making the movie-to-TV transition work—see below) gets his teeth into the material, the story, all anchored by Kyle Chandler's Coach Taylor and Connie Britton's Tami (Britton also played the coach's wife in the movie) becomes as nuanced and powerful as its big-screen counterpart. Berg again proved to be a strong talent scout, with performers like Scott Porter, Taylor Kitsch, Aimee Teegarden, Minka Kelly, Zach Gilford, Jesse Plemons, Gaius Charles, Adrianne Palicki and Michael B. Jordan all being showcased on the series. It did take a wrong turn over its five years (surviving for the last three after NBC partnered on the low-rated show with DirecTV), most notably the infamous season two murder storyline, but never in a big enough way that it became unwatchable. Mostly the reverse, in fact: looking and feeling like nothing else on network TV (or really, cable), "Friday Night Lights" was one of those dramas that started to kick off the debate over whether TV had superseded the movies. And on the evidence here at least, there was an argument to be made, because the show is the rare example that's superior to the film.
“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989)
The film Steven Spielberg made to “apologize for the second one” according to a Premiere interview from 1988, ‘Last Crusade’ did certainly give us our Indy back after the odd digression of ‘Temple of Doom’ (no amount of contrarian opinions on the matter can convince us that was anything but a misstep). Not just that, but it expanded on the Indiana Jones we knew by bringing his father along for the ride (the awesome casting of Sean Connery is a masterstroke) and also by giving us a flashback detailing the origin of Indy’s hat, bullwhip and fear of snakes. But really what ‘Last Crusade’ proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was that there was a definite appetite for more Indy, with the film raking in more than $474m, far surpassing the take of 'Temple of Doom.' But by spinning a critical and commercial success out of returning to the ‘Raiders’ wheelhouse of relics of religious significance and supernatural, divine power, and the need to keep them out of the clutches of conniving Nazis, ‘Last Crusade’ also showed that Indy’s popularity was as much about tone and setting as it was about the character. It was the “Boy’s Own” adventure stylings of the archaeologist hero that audiences responded to so strongly, and that would prove both the making and the unmaking of the eventual TV show.
“The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” (1992-1993)
The flashback in ‘Last Crusade,’ which starred River Phoenix as young Indy (he’d already played Harrison Ford’s son in “The Mosquito Coast”) is widely believed to have been the catalyst for putting the idea of a young Indiana Jones TV show together in earnest. Indeed, in the film, the segment plays like gangbusters, and it’s almost a wrench to leave it and come back to the ‘present day.’ The story goes that George Lucas wrote the outline for roughly 70 episodes of the show (about 30 of which were used), detailing the rough plot and who Indiana would meet in each adventure—it’s one of the pleasures of the TV show (and there are many) how ‘real’ history and historical figures are woven into Indy’s back story. So we get T.E. Lawrence, George Patton, Pablo Picasso, Winston Churchill, Louis Armstong etc., etc., a cavalcade of historical characters that sometimes admittedly felt shoehorned in or only glancingly characterized, but nonetheless were a fun and, dare we say it, educational addition to the series’ mythology. Because the show was unabashedly aimed at the younger segment of the Indiana Jones fanbase, and if it sometimes made the plotting a little obvious for older viewers, still the series’ considerable production values and epic sweep mitigated that. Employing no fewer than four actors to play Indy at different lifestages, Ford made an appearance in one episode, with a very aged George Hall playing Indy as a 93-year-old, Corey Carrier playing the 8-to-10-year-old and Sean Patrick Flannery taking the main duties as the late-teen version. The series also attracted some terrific behind-the-scenes talent, including Frank Darabont, Nicolas Roeg, Mike Newell, Carrie Fisher, Terry Jones and Joe ‘First Avenger’ Johnston. Aside from its occasional predictability, the show is still mostly a pleasure to watch because of the input of so many talents, but also because of the reason it would eventually prove non-viable: it was, and looks like a very expensive production, and so despite 12 Emmys (from 27 nominations), ABC cancelled it in 1993, though The Family Channel did produce four more 2-hour TV movies, which aired between 1994 and 1996.
Now established in the pantheon of classic films by great auteurs, it’s hard to imagine that Robert Altman was not first choice to direct the Palme d’Or-winning “MASH” (several directors had already passed on it) and that the lead actors, Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland especially, were so wary of his unorthodox techniques that they tried to get him fired on several occasions. Perhaps that difficulty stems partly from watching the film: the loose-limbed, lived-in vibe that comes across so well and gives the film such a sense of authenticity and immediacy seems like it can’t have come from anything but the most harmonious of sets. But then, that is a hallmark of Altman’s style, which he refined with “MASH” and which would characterize the rest of his career, more or less. Along with the pioneering use of overlapping sound techniques, Altman's fondness for big ensembles and for films that rather than a classic plot structure seem to amble from one event to the next in deceptively organic ways, can be traced back to “MASH” and were arguably never put to better effect. Set in a hospital unit during the Korean War, but widely read as a statement about Vietnam, the film also came at the dawn of the '70s and feels now in retrospect like part of the Golden Age of Independent Film’s vanguard: it’s sprawling, messy, and totally inconclusive, yet also full of life and wit and intelligence and absolutely uncompromising about the complexities of war and the ambivalences and ambiguities of the people who wage it.
Given that many of Altman’s films sprawl in a multi-stranded narrative in a given milieu and tend to encompass a series of smaller events and stories rather than one huge arc, and given its immediate and immense success, it’s not surprising that “MASH” the film spawned “M*A*S*H*” the TV show. It’s more shocking that not every one of Altman’s films got the same treatment (though arguably, ‘Downton’ has beaten any potential ‘Gosford Park’ TV show to the punch, and 2012’s “Nashville” did end any hopes of er, “Nashville” on TV.) Because what made “MASH” work so well as an atypical, mold-breaking movie is exactly what made it so perfect for television and what led to one of the most enduring popular TV shows of all time (leading to the most watched finale ever at that point). In fact, one could argue that even the subversive edge of the original film was sharpened purely by virtue of the fact this often bitingly satirical take on U.S. militarism was piped weekly into people’s homes under cover of being a prime time comedy. Perfectly cast (with Alan Alda proving a more affable, less wolfish Hawkeye than Donald Sutherland in the film) and genuinely terrifically well written—the writing absolutely holds up to this day—“M*A*S*H*” is the rare TV show that equals, and at times transcends the (very good) film on which it is based. No wonder, then, that this serious-minded comedy (also pioneering the compromise use of a “chuckle track” rather than the laugh track producers wanted), while taking an often critical look at 20th century American history, has itself become such an indelible part of it.
“The Odd Couple” (1968)
Premiering on Broadway in 1965 and running for a pretty impressive 964 performances, Neil Simon’s play was more or less an instantaneous success, netting Tonys for Author, Director and Actor for Walter Matthau, who originated the role of Oscar Madison on stage, opposite Art Carney as Felix Ungar. And it’s easy to see why it proved so instantly popular: the opposites-attract hook is hardly pioneering, but spun into a male friendship as opposed to a heterosexual love affair, and spiced up with Simon’s acerbic, anti-sentimental writing, the story is a perfect example of character being everything. Though it’s difficult to imagine now, Matthau, however, was not a done deal when the film version was first mooted, and Matthau’s Broadway replacement, Jack Klugman, as well as starrier names like Mickey Rooney, were bandied around, as well as Jackie Gleason (to star opposite Frank Sinatra as Felix at which the mind boggles, then goes “actually, come to think of it…”). And for Felix, Dick Van Dyke and future TV Felix Tony Randall were considered. But just a few years before, Matthau had won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in “The Fortune Cookie,” for which Jack Lemmon had insisted he be cast (over, coincidentally, other choices Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra!). Their chemistry was undeniable, the syncing up of their personas with the roles seemed impossibly perfect, and Lemmon was thankfully cast, consolidating simply one of the most indelible screen partnerships of all time. Over the course of their 10 films together (including the ill-advised sequel “The Odd Couple II,”) Matthau and Lemmon arguably returned time and again to riff on the dynamic established here, this archetypal relationship of opposites: the haphazard, pragmatic, cantankerous Oscar and the neurotic, neat freak, nebbish Felix.
“The Odd Couple” (1970-1975)
So technically the TV show was based on the play, but it was the success of the film that made it a viable prospect. And so the casting roundabout started back up again, with Art Carney, the original Felix to Matthau’s stage Oscar, back in the mix, along with Dean Martin, before that role went to Tony Randall, who had also played it on stage. Jack Klugman beat out Martin Balsam to fill Matthau’s shoes (as he had done frequently on stage), and the small-screen incarnations of Oscar and Felix were born. But perhaps because of the film’s success, the TV show, which eventually ran for five seasons, was slow to find an audience (indeed it never did particularly well ratings-wise), with Neil Simon himself initially rejecting it too. But as time wore on and the show created its own identity (as often with movie-to-TV transitions, the bristliness of the film is filed down to something smoother and more palatable for TV), it found its place, and indeed, the domesticity of the setting and the contained nature of the supporting cast (hangover’s from its stagebound origins) actually made it perfectly suited to episodic television. But its relative disposability means that the TV show, while still intermittently enjoyable to a modern eye, has not worn quite as well as the film, or rather the film’s period-specific feel for masculine relationships seems charming, where the TV show is creaky. Still, it ultimately lived or died on the chemistry between the leads, and Klugman and Randall do a fine job with that, putting it up to Matthew Perry (Oscar) and Thomas Lennon (Felix) for the new version which is throwing its hat into the ring (only for it to be picked up and replaced by Felix, presumably) for CBS this 2014 pilot season.