The TV shows we remember from the 1980s aren’t Emmy-winning dramas; they’re shows like MacGyver. The light-hearted series is being revived by CBS this September, with Lucas Till (X-Men) taking over for Richard Dean Anderson as a handsome adventurer who can make weapons out of ordinary household objects. If the series succeeds, it could revive an entire subgenre that dominated television 30 years ago: the action drama.
People who grew up in that era remember The A-Team, where the heroes blew things up without killing anyone, or The Fall Guy, about a daredevil stuntman who moonlights as a bounty hunter. These shows didn’t have a lot of depth, but they had plenty of explosions and helicopter chases.“If you are doing an action show,” says TV writer Lee Goldberg (Martial Law), “it’s a given that the bulk of your budget is earmarked for stunts and effects.”
Despite its popularity, this kind of show has been mostly absent from North American TV for a long time. Instead, popular drama has been dominated by mystery procedurals like the CSI or Law & Order: series that spend most of their time indoors, with characters arguing over clues and motives, and don’t have the self-mocking campiness that ’80s action shows were famous for. Even superhero shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Flash de-emphasize stunts in favour of soap opera complications—unlike a stunt-dominated series like MacGyver, or The Dukes of Hazzard, where the title characters’ souped-up car was more popular than they were.
One reason the action show died out may simply be that it was incredibly expensive to produce. “The various action shows I produced all had significant budget deficits and problems,” says Larry Brody (The Fall Guy). Stunts and chases require a second filming unit, not to mention a lot of cars that can be destroyed. Brody says action series sometimes had to cut corners with stock footage: “On The Fall Guy, we actually started buying previously unseen stunt footage shot for major films, putting our stars in matching costumes and driving matching vehicles.”
But no matter how far over budget an action show got, it could hardly ever be as good as its equivalents on the big screen. “Action is very expensive and most TV shows can’t top what the movies can deliver,” Goldberg says. “Why watch a TV action show, with limited production values, when you can easily stream a $150-million budgeted action movie instead?” A CSI-style mystery story, or even a science fiction drama like Netflix’s nostalgic ’80s throwback Stranger Things, can match feature films by focusing on character and suspense, rather than special effects. But a car chase on a TV budget often looks disappointing.
Yet it makes sense for networks to try and revive the genre. For one thing, action shows often hold up longer. Not only did MacGyver inspire a whole movie, MacGruber, based on a Saturday Night Live parody of it, but the organizers of this year’s Olympic Opening Ceremonies compared themselves to the title character: Daniela Thomas, one of the directors who worked on the ceremonies, told reporters that because of the low budget, they had to get used to “makeshift improvising, being MacGyver.” The Dukes of Hazzard and The A-Team have been made into feature films, while the quality dramas of their era, like Thirtysomething or Hill Street Blues, are not watched much.
That’s partly because action-oriented drama has one advantage over other types of TV: it “transcends language barriers,” Goldberg says. Plot, characterization and jokes often lose something in translation, but not jumping out of a burning building or flipping a car over. One of the longest-running international successes in TV is a German series, Alarm For Cobra 11, which has been known to buy people’s used cars just for the purpose of destroying them; Goldberg says it “has been on the air for 20 years and airs in a zillion countries.” If MacGyver works out, it will give CBS something it can market much more widely, and for much longer, than a more serious drama. And if it doesn’t work out, perhaps they can save the stunt footage and sell it to some other action show.