Remington Steele: Season 1
December 1, 2005
Private detective TV shows were all the rage in the 1980s: Hart to Hart, Simon and Simon, Moonlighting and, of course, Remington Steele which introduced North American audiences to actor Pierce Bronsan. As originally conceived, Remington Steele was about a female private investigator named Laura Holt (Zimbalist) having trouble being taken seriously because she’s woman so, she creates a very masculine alter ego as a front. However, that was it and NBC told the show’s creators, Michael Gleason and Robert Butler, that they needed to flesh out this flimsy premise. They decided to have the alter ego be an actual flesh and blood person. Enter Brosnan and the rest, as they say, was history.
The first episode, “License to Steele,” debuted on NBC in the United States on October 1, 1982 and set-up the show’s dynamic rather nicely. A mysterious con man (Brosnan) posing as a South African government agent ends up becoming the physical embodiment of Remington Steele through an amusing case of mistaken identity while initially keeping Laura in the dark via a masterful and entertaining juggling act. Of course, she figures it out and grudgingly goes along with the act when it proves to be successful.
Each episode has Laura and Steele dealing with all sorts of clients and cases with the help of fellow investigator Murphy Michaels (Read), who distrusts and is jealous of Steele, and receptionist Bernice Fox (DeMay) who doesn’t do much except ogle Steele and become comedic fodder as he constantly gets her name wrong. We learn that Steele has an encyclopedic knowledge of movies which he shares with Laura by often comparing a given case that they are working on to a scene from a famous movie.
If Moonlighting had a Howard Hawksian screwball comedy vibe than Remington Steele went for a Nick and Nora in The Thin Man (1934) feel that is reminiscent of Classic Hollywood cinema. Laura is a smart, shrewd individual fighting hard to get respect in a male-dominated profession. Steele is her ideal foil as the suave, charmer. She doesn’t put up with his B.S. but is intrigued by his charisma and intelligence. There is sexual tension between them right from the first episode and like Moonlighting later on, the fun of watching the show is anticipating if and when Laura and Steele will finally hook up.
Pierce Brosnan is well-cast as the unflappable Steele, complete with cultured Irish accent and impeccably tailored-suits. Watching Brosnan in this show it is easy how he became James Bond. He displays all the qualities ideal for that role in this show. In fact, he would’ve become Bond earlier if he wasn’t contractually obligated to do Steele.
Stephanie Zimbalist brings a plucky charm to her role as the smart private eye who wants to be judged on her own merits but finds that the Steele façade works a little too well – especially when he demonstrates an aptitude for the investigative process. Zimbalist is a conventional beauty (this is by no means a slam) and she uses this to her advantage. It gives her a certain quality that works: a mix of natural intelligence and good looks. She is the straight man to Brosnan’s charming rogue.
Like Moonlighting, Remington Steele lost steam gradually over subsequent seasons (the final episode aired on February 17, 1987) but the first one captures the show in its prime before the storylines got too ridiculous. Watching it now, after all these years, makes one nostalgic for that era when reality shows were non-existent and TV programs were given room to breathe and develop an audience. Plus, it is fascinating to watch a young Brosnan in the role that made him a household name have so much fun with his character.
The first DVD features an audio commentary on “License to Steele” by creators Michael Gleason and Robert Butler. They mention that the show’s premise was of its time and would be hard to do today with reality shows about bounty hunters and so on. They touch upon the consistent pressure from the network that caused them to flesh out the show’s premise.
They also do a commentary for “Tempered Steele.” This was actually the original pilot episode but NBC wanted them to do one that showed how Laura and Steele met. They tend to watch the episode which results in the occasional lull. These guys are clearly good friends and seem to have fun talking about their work on this episode.
“Remington Steele, Season One” is a retrospective featurette that features new interview footage with Brosnan with Zimbalist conspicuously absent. Robert Butler pitched the idea to the network but it wasn’t complete so he was teamed up with Gleason who invented the Steele character. Zimbalist was the first to sign on and then Brosnan was cast, spending his own money to fly to Los Angeles (don’t forget, he was an unknown at the time). This is an excellent if all-too brief look at the genesis of the show.
The second DVD features a profile on the main cast members. The Steele character was patterned after Cary Grant: sophisticated and funny. Crew members describe Zimbalist as a consummate professional and talk about how she was worried about not getting the good scenes that Brosnan consistently kept getting, especially the more popular he became.
On the third DVD is a featurette called “Comedy and Old Movies.” Brosnan admits that the comedy of John Cleese influenced his own style. The writers tried to ape the classic screwball comedies with fast, snappy dialogue and sexual tension. Steele was an avid film buff and referenced movies in almost every episode. They often took premises from old film noirs and incorporated them into the show.
Finally, on disc four is an audio commentary on “Vintage Steele” with Gleason and writer Susan Baskin. She liked writing for the show because, for her, it was like writing classic comedies for the 1930s. Baskin wanted to explore Laura’s past in this episode and speaks very eloquently about her intentions.