"Nostalgia is a dangerous disease, highly contagious and almost impossible to cure." - Elliot Walsh
There was a time in the 1980s when television dramas were predominantly carefree and fun. Ragtag crime fighters and wisecracking private eyes had become the norm, replacing the more serious and brooding detectives of the previous decade. The programming formula remained largely the same -- saturate the primetime schedule with as many crime solving series as possible -- but the style had changed, and the departure of no-nonsense detectives like Joe Mannix and Frank Cannon opened the door for a new breed of playful stars the likes of Colt Seavers, Rick and A.J. Simon, and four soldiers of fortune who loved it when a plan came together. It was a light-hearted era in primetime, and one of the most playful of them all was Remington Steele. Often with tongue planted firmly in cheek, Remington Steele chronicled the adventures of Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalist), a talented but underappreciated private investigator, and the fake boss she invented (Pierce Brosnan) to lend masculine credibility to her struggling agency. Through four strong seasons and three TV movies, the lovely Ms. Holt and the ersatz Mr. Steele quoted old noir films and exchanged witty innuendo as they solved the city's highest profile cases. The first of those seasons is presented here.
Nostalgia can be a harsh mistress. Revisiting the shows of our youth decades after their initial run is often a frustrating experience, and we find ourselves wondering what could possibly have made us enjoy those shows in the first place. With the explosion of television releases on DVD, I've personally had this feeling more times than I would like, but I am pleased to report that Remington Steele remains every bit as charming and stylish and entertaining as it was when it premiered in 1982. The show's premise is summed up in the opening narration from Laura Holt:
"Try this for a deep, dark secret. The great detective, Remington Steele? He doesn't exist. I invented him. Follow: I always loved excitement, so I studied and apprenticed and put my name on an office, but absolutely nobody knocked down my door. A female private investigator seemed so ... feminine. So I invented a superior, a decidedly masculine superior. Suddenly there were cases around the block. It was working like a charm ... until the day he walked in, with his blue eyes and mysterious past; and before I knew it, he assumed Remington Steele's identity. Now I do the work, and he takes the bows. It's a dangerous way to live, but as long as people buy it, I can get the job done. We never mix business with pleasure. Well, almost never. I don't even know his real name!"
The premiere episode, "Licensed to Steele", sets the stage and establishes the foundation for the series. Ms. Holt and her associate Murphy Michaels (James Read) have been successfully executing the charade that their business is run by the great and mysterious Remington Steele, leasing a furnished apartment in his name, and packing his hotel rooms with expensive clothing. Of course, "Mr. Steele serves best in an advisory capacity", so the clients never actually interact with "him", and as long as the cases are solved effectively, they do not seem to mind. Everything changes, however, when the agency takes on a case to protect a shipment of valuable jewels, and a perceptive con man stumbles onto their ruse and assumes the identity of the brilliant detective. The new Mr. Steele is charming and handsome and carries an air of mystery about his persona, so he makes a perfect front-man for Ms. Holt's creation. Despite her reservations, she's stuck with him too, caught between revealing the secret and destroying her business or suffering the whims of this dashing stranger. Reluctantly, she chooses the latter, but there's one major problem: for all his talents and instincts, the ersatz Mr. Steele doesn't know the first thing about being a private investigator. Worse, he is undaunted by this reality, convinced that his obsessive knowledge of noir detective films will be all the training he needs.
It's this dynamic that provides most of the entertainment for the series, and the writers have quite a bit of fun with it. Steele is constantly digging investigative holes for himself, walking a thin line as he masks his confusion with a silk tongue and a suave presentation. More often than not, Laura is there to bail him out and solve the crime before people realize that Steele has no idea what he's doing, but there are times when she hasn't figured the crime out yet either, or when she just wants to hang Steele out to dry for her own amusement, and it makes for some wonderfully funny scenes as he tries in vain to relate the circumstances to a classic movie but just can't quite put all the pieces together in his head.
These scenes work in part because of the clever writing, but largely because of Pierce Brosnan's incredible comic timing. With the passage of time and his rise to stardom as the current James Bond, this aspect of his talent has been largely overshadowed, but with Remington Steele, his comedic abilities truly shine. Stephanie Zimbalist is no slouch either, the perfect foil to his erratic style. There is a wry wit about her that plays perfectly against the antics of Mr. Steele's character. Zimbalist also adds a warmth and depth to the character of Laura Holt that stabilizes the show and keeps it from straying too deep into farcical territory. The character is so strong, and she carries such a mature style and beauty about her, that it's hard to imagine Zimbalist was only 25 years old when filming began. Together, they make a great team, and they exhibit a wonderful chemistry that works both comically and romantically. While Fox has almost completely ignored Holt's character in the promotion of this DVD (shame on them for this sad irony!), Remington Steele is very much a duet.
This first season boasts a few unique differences from some of the others. First, it retains the original slideshow opening title sequence with Ms. Holt providing narration and Henry Mancini's beautifully subdued theme for Laura playing in the background. Later seasons would use Mancini's more upbeat theme for Mr. Steele and a more conventional opening sequence, but this first season retains that sophisticated noir quality the creators were trying to achieve. Also unique to this first season are the characters of Murphy Michaels and Bernice Foxe (Janet DeMay). Murphy is a skilled detective himself and has stuck by Laura through the years in large part because of his unrequited love for her. He is stoic and reserved and is none too pleased that this handsome stranger is ruining his plans. Bernice Foxe, on the other hand, is a fun-loving party girl who serves as the agency's secretary. At first, she is smitten with Mr. Steele, but soon her protective instincts put her at odds with him as she fears he'll break the heart of her good friend Laura. It doesn't help that he constantly refers to her as "Ms. Wolf". With the second season, these two characters would be more-or-less combined into Mildred Krebs (Doris Roberts), Mr. Steele would become more adept as an investigator, and the show would adopt a more familiar style, so re-watching this first season as the series was still finding itself is a real treat.
One aspect of Remington Steele that can be somewhat annoying at times is that for all its wonderful qualities, it is still an 80s detective show, and that means there are some rules which must be followed. Killers must be exposed in the last 5 minutes of the episode, pulling a gun on our fearless detectives, and explaining in detail their devious plot. A clever distraction and some brief fisticuffs later, and the killer is then apprehended with a job well done. The formula has been around since the beginning, and not even the great Remington Steele is able to avoid it.
That formulaic annoyance aside, this first season Remington Steele is able to remain fresh and creative with its tales, and on occasion it is genuinely moving ("Steele in the News", for example, with a great performance from J.D. Cannon lamenting the loss of dignity in television news). The stories are fun, the murders are often creative, and the professional and romantic dance between Ms. Holt and Mr. Steele is endlessly entertaining. Rarely taking itself too seriously, there is a constant playful quality to this season that keeps it from falling into familiar traps. From Laura's ever-changing caps and fedoras to Steele's tailored suits and overly stiff gait, the show is always hamming it up just a bit, adding a light and fun quality to the experience. Not every episode is gold, and this is probably not the type of series to watch all the episodes together in one sitting, but for an episodic detective show over 20 years old, Remington Steele holds up remarkably well, and revisiting it for this review was a rewarding experience.
This first season of Remington Steele is presented with minimal packaging. The episodes are spread across four double-sided discs and are housed two-a-piece in two slimcases that slide into a thin cardboard box. The outer box features a larger-than-life photo of Pierce Brosnan in a tuxedo and reads, "BEFORE HE WAS BOND HE WAS ... REMINGTON STEELE". While I can understand the desire to capitalize on Brosnan's star status, it's insulting to fans of the show and terribly unfair to Stephanie Zimbalist who is as essential to the series as the now famous Brosnan. Further confusing the issue are three photos (one on the box and two on the slimcases) featuring Mildred Krebs (who never appears in this season) and none with Murphy Michaels or Bernice Foxe. I am certainly thrilled to have this show on DVD, but it would have been nice for Fox to attempt to be at least somewhat faithful to the show. To their credit, however, each episode is accompanied by the original 30-second teasers as well as the humorous trailing MTM logo.
As you would expect, this set is presented with a 4:3 "full frame" aspect ratio and with an English mono audio track. Some of the teaser segments exhibit some age to the transfer, but most of the episodes themselves actually look really good. There isn't too much you can do with a series like this, and the image is a little soft with some dirt appearing now and then as well as some edge enhancement, but the transfers are largely free of any significant flaws or compression problems, and the audio is perfectly adequate and clear for a mono presentation.
One thing I must mention is that on my copy, there is a sizeable glitch in the encode at 31:21 on the episode "In the Steele of the Night" on Disc #2. It causes the DVD to pause and skip over an entire scene. Hopefully this is an isolated issue with my copy and not a widespread problem.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
Surprisingly, there are a decent number of extras on this set, including three audio commentaries and over 30 minutes of interview material. Two of the commentaries are with series creators Michael Gleason and Robert Butler on the first two episodes, "Licensed to Steele" and "Tempered Steele". There is some overlap in the discussions, but they are largely entertaining and provide some insight into how the show evolved. It's clear that these two gentlemen aimed to create a fun and somewhat farcical series and were very pleased with the results. Long removed from the show, there's little pretense or ego to their words, and they are able to make light of some of their mistakes and enjoy the aspects of the series that turned out well. They both make for entertaining listens, particularly to longtime fans of the series.
Michael Gleason returns, this time with writer Susan Baskin, on one of the more humorous episodes of the season, "Vintage Steele". This is probably the best of the three commentaries, and it is impressive how detailed their memories are for this specific episode from over 20 years ago. Many times on these audio commentaries of older shows, the hosts are watching the episode for the first time in so many years, that significant time is wasted on them watching something happen and then thinking of something to say about it. Here, all the background is fresh in their minds, and the whole commentary flows cleanly with quite a bit of insight and information. It's a wonderful listen.
In addition to the commentaries there are "three" featurettes, but as with most of these things, they are really just the same interview sessions cut together in three thematic segments: "Remington Steel: Season One", "Remington & Laura, Bernice and Murphy", and "Comedy & Old Movies". Gathering together nearly everyone from the cast for some interview footage, these featurettes are pretty interesting and should be a treat for the fans. Unfortunately, there is one huge disappointment: Stephanie Zimbalist is once again nowhere to be found. Still, everyone else is there, including Brosnan himself graciously talking about how being a part of this show was one of the best things to happen in his life. Along with creators Gleason and Butler and writer Susan Baskin who are one the audio commentaries, material is contributed by many involved with the show, notably future Moonlighting creator Glenn Gordon Caron (no doubt inspired by this similar show) and future Mutant Enemy producer Gareth Davies.
Heavily inspired by the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s (Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, etc), Remington Steele helped usher in a light-hearted and carefree era of primetime dramatic television, and of all the episodic detective shows of the period, it was one of the best. With clever writing and charming performances, Brosnan and Zimbalist brought to the small screen a Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn for a new generation, and like the classic films that came before, Remington Steele remains as fun and entertaining as it was when it originally premiered. If you were a fan of the show in the 80s, you will almost certainly enjoy revisiting it on DVD, and if you're new to the series entirely, you may consider checking it out. Highly Recommended.