Photograph by Paul Drinkwater; Illustration by Christopher Sleboda
Who loves ya, baby? I’m prepared to believe that Ving Rhames might, with his earring, lollipop, and jazz licks. I was never entirely convinced that Telly Savalas did, in the original Kojak. Mostly, when he wasn’t flirting with the Queen of the Gypsies, or leaving a date behind at a Greek restaurant to rush to a crime scene, Telly restricted his love to victimized children and young women who had arrived by bus from the provinces with hopes of a theatrical career, only to be devoured by drug-dealing porn-biz pimps.
You may not remember that Savalas smoked vile black cigarillos before he switched, for symbolic as well as health reasons, to sucking Tootsie Pops—shrewdly signifying a benevolent paternalism. Who loves ya, baby? Like Edward Woodward’s Robert McCall, the retired intelligence agent and avenging angel a decade later in The Equalizer, Kojak was the father figure who promised to protect us, and actually did so! No wonder we voted for Reagan. And then got Al Bundy and Homer Simpson. Add to this Freudian psychodynamic the mean-streets cinematography and the multiethnic jumping beans, and what we saw was Serious New York.
So, too, is New York serious in the two-hour pilot of the Kojak remake—airing this Friday before moving to Sunday nights for an eight-week run—with Ving as Theo, Chazz Palminteri as Captain Frank McNeil, and Roselyn Sanchez as an assistant D.A. and designated hottie. A serial killer targets prostitutes with children, making them eat razor blades. You will not be amazed to learn that this guy has alma mater problems. You may be surprised that Theo wants to take care of all the leftover kids himself, probably because his own jazz-pianist father was murdered back when he was a boy. A couple of mildly interesting twists in an otherwise pedestrian script involve rules being broken in the higher cause of justice.
Alert viewers may recall Rhames in Holiday Heart, a 2000 TV movie where Ving first revealed this sentimental side, playing a gay cross-dressing Santa Claus. But as he’s shown in performances from Pulp Fiction to Don King, he’s so talented he can do what he wants. And it’s easy to see why the idea of a black Kojak intrigued him enough to sign on as executive producer as well as star.
The bald-yet-sexy crime-fighting father figure is as much of an American icon as are Batman and Wyatt Earp, or maybe Starsky and Hutch. What is more mysterious is why anyone wanted to remake the British series The Office with all American actors. Ricky Gervais, who created and starred in the British version, somehow channeled Harry Lauder’s music hall, Lawrence Durrell’s diplomatic corps, Arthur Miller’s dead salesman, Dilbert, and Napoleon. His David Brent, managing the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg paper suppliers, was a delusion of grandeur so embarrassing it was practically obscene. But it was performance art.
In the American facsimile, Steve Carell plays the almost identical part of paper-products regional manager Michael Scott to a point so slavish in the copycat premiere he seems to be counterfeiting, as if Ricky were a banknote. While story lines will diverge from the British original in future episodes, with Carell morphing into something less like Ricky’s eager beagle and more like a jerk, the supporting characters are the same (Pam instead of Dawn, Dwight instead of Gareth, Jim instead of Tim). And shouldn’t a remake have some other purpose than cashing in? Shouldn’t it differ, with irony if not respect? Goethe’s Faust talked back to Marlowe’s. From Peter Pan to Elvis, from Patrick Stewart as Ahab to Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter, we interrogate our sacred texts, not just copy them like medieval manuscripts. Think of the many Joans of Arc, according to Shakespeare and Shaw, Martha Graham and Otto Preminger. In one literary or political fantasy after another, she gets to be an Amazon, a saint, a sexual hysteric, or an eating disorderly. The only boring constant is that she always begins as a virgin and always ends as toast.
USA. Premieres Friday, March 25, 9 P.M. Regularly Sundays, 10 P.M.
NBC. Premieres Thursday, March 24, 9:30 P.M. Regularly Tuesdays.