That NBC even decided to move forward with an Ironside remake feels like some executive was scrambling for ideas at a pitch meeting, and stumbled upon the notion after seeing a bag of golf clubs and glancing at a brochure about vinyl siding for homes. It's not as if the original original Ironside—which ran for eight seasons on NBC from 1967 to 1975 and starred Raymond Burr—has a great deal of cultural currency these days, so the decision to revitalize the show seems more bizarre than it does lazy. Although, between Prime Suspect and the failed pilot for a Rockford Files remake, NBC may just actually be lazy.
In any case, here we are with the new Ironside. A few of us here at TV.com already offered some very brief impressions of the pilot, and I generally agree with them. It is indeed "skippable" (Tim), "boring" (Kaitlin), "routine" (Jen), and "derivative" (Cory). I can't dispute any of those claims, and I've watched this pilot twice now. Oddly enough, though, it may be the new drama pilot that's annoyed me the most so far this season, because even though it's all those things, there's a glimmer of an engaging show in it, too. Not that I'm confident it'll ever actually become an engaging show.
Ironside's biggest problem at the outset is that it doesn't seem to know who it wants Robert Ironside (Blair Underwood) to be. Think about how we first meet him: He's skirting the edge of law, interrogating a suspect in the backseat of a car as his partner screams the Miranda rights outside, all while playing a game of "You want to stab me? Try and stab me!" and beating the guy up in the process. This tactic allows Ironside to elicit the location of a kidnapped girl (of course). So this tells us that Ironside is one of those cops who doesn't play by the rules and gives his chief ulcers, but at least he gets results, presumably when no one else can! Flashbacks to when Ironside still had the use of his legs corroborated this notion; there he was, happy to let his partner dangle a suspect off a roof to get some information. Even back in the present day, he ordered one of his colleagues to shoot a hostage in the leg ("Did I stutter?") to end a stand-off.
This in and of itself is not interesting. You may have chuckled at Cory calling a remake "derivative," but Ironside *is* just another narrative about a reckless cop who's looking to get scumbags off the streets, and not letting tiny details like a shot-up vertebrae or a suspect's civil rights get in the way. Ironside doesn't have time for the police bureaucracy and the legal system to catch up to him.
Take the case- and victim-of-the-week: A young woman (of course) was dead on a sidewalk; it was assumed she'd been pushed off the roof of a building. Over the course of a very dull investigation, we learned that the victim, though she appeared squeaky clean on the surface, was in fact working at sex clubs (of course) and involved with some shady, Eastern European underworld types (of course), including one who was her boyfriend (of course).
As the investigation came to a close, we learned that the woman actually killed herself, bringing a tragic end to the case. That's when Ironside revealed that he knew it was a suicide from the start, but didn't say anything because he wanted to know what drove the woman to jump to her death, and also because he wanted some justice and closure for her. Ironside may be gruff and violent, but deep down, he actually cares in ways that other cops don't! Again, this isn't anything outside the norm for a hard-boiled cop, and it adds to the piles of cliches that Ironside is trafficking in.
However, one line undercut a lot of Ironside's almost-vigilante cop attitude, and it's what ultimately made me really frustrated with the episode. After a suspect smarted off to him in the interrogation room, Ironside said, "Old me would have bounced you off the wall for talking to me like that. New me? I've had a lot of time to sit and think." Sure, he was quipping about being in a wheelchair, but the fact of the matter is that we didn't get any sense of a "new" Ironside anywhere in the pilot, just a continuation of his barely-within-the-confines-of-the-law approach to police work. So unless caring about the victim is a recent thing for him, new Ironside seems just as likely as old Ironside to bounce a suspect off a wall, so long as none of his authority figures are watching him.
And yet, it was that line, along with Ironside's workout breakdown and his response to his ex-partner—who is the reason Ironside is now in a wheelchair—that revealed the glimmer of a show that's more than just rote police procedural fare. There's a kernel of an idea about man dealing with his rage and anger over losing the use of his legs, and how he attempts to work through those issues with his police work. Indeed, the entire notion that he wanted to know what drove the woman to kill her speaks to the idea of Ironside trying to make sense of others' pain, either in an effort to understand his own (not likely) or to ignore his own (more likely). Unfortunately, the show didn't set us up to make those connections, and I suspect they occurred more due to happenstance than to planning.
It isn't as if Blair Underwood can't hit those beats. In fact, he let raw emotions just bleed when the scene called for it, and those were the times that actually made me pay attention to the pilot. But I don't know if a strong central performance is enough to salvage the show in its current state. The first episode understandably spent a lot of time trying to give us a sense of Ironside, and so the supporting cast seemed like a collection of non-entities. There's:
– Virgil (Pablo Schreiber, minus his Orange Is the New Black mustache), your run-of-the-mill, good-looking male TV detective
– Holly (Spencer Grammer), your run-of-the-mill, good-looking female TV detective
– Teddy (Neal Bledsoe), your not-so-run-of-the-mill investment banker-turned-male-TV-detective.
Given that Teddy is the third "freshest" aspect of the show—behind "the lead is a black guy in a wheelchair" and "the police chief is portrayed by an actor of Korean descent"—you can probably surmise everything you need to know about how creaky Ironside actually is. Same goes for the current state of racial diversity on American television.
Quick aside about that police chief while I'm on the topic, though: The long-suffering Ed Rollins (Kenneth Choi) is supremely ineffectual—I don't think he can actually punish Ironside. You see, Ironside, Virgil, Holly, and Teddy comprise a special task force of sorts that Ironside was allowed to set up in the wake a lawsuit that allowed him to remain on the force. So Rollins can't even demand that Ironside turn in his gun and his badge! He's has to be the most seriously neutered police chief in a near-vigilante cop narrative I've ever seen.
The last thing to address is probably the chair itself, and the able-bodied Underwood's role as its occupant. In the spring, there was a considerable backlash against Underwood's casting by actors with disabilities. Ironside's producers have explained that, given the show's intended use of regular flashbacks to when Ironside could still use his legs, and that they'll account for 10 to 15 percent of the show, casting a disabled actor would've been cost- and time-prohibitive due to the amount of special effects and post-production work that would've been necessary.
I can get behind that answer since there's a narrative reason behind it. The producers do seem to be aware that there's a high degree of responsibility in accurately depicting a modern-day wheelchair user, and that's something to be hopeful about. You'll notice, for instance, the lack of handles on Ironside's wheelchair, a detail that happened because of the show's technical advisor, David Bryant. The pilot also implied—but didn't actually show—that Ironside is sexually active, another positive step in the portrayal of people with disabilities in fictional shows. At the TCA press tour in August, the producers and Underwood himself spoke about how, they researched which vertebrae can be injured and which nerve endings can still function.
Unfortunately, Ironside's few promising aspects aren't enough to keep the show from sinking toward the bottom in this fall's sea of new dramas. It's too muddled in places and too generic in others to allow its more interesting components to shine.
– I haven't seen any of the original series, so I can't really compare the two. Here are the differences I can name without looking them up: The original series was set in San Francisco, Ironside was white, and he was a retired chief who consulted with the police department. Feel free to do more comparing and contrasting in the comments.
– You may be thinking to yourself, "Why has NBC cast Blair Underwood in yet another TV series?" He has, after all, starred in such failed NBC dramas as LAX and The Event. Underwood has what's called a holding deal with NBC, and that basically means he's committed to work on a certain number of projects for them. As a result, it makes sense for the network to use him.
– While I do applaud the series for showing Ironside post-sexual encounter, I did really hate that scene overall since the woman had no name. She was just a prop to showcase that he's still got it going on, and that's a weird regressive instance for the show.
– Ironside won't be getting weekly reviews, but because I care about you all so much, I'm still going to watch another three episodes of it for TV.com's patented 4-Episode test. Now you never ever get to claim that I don't care about you. At least I don't have to watch another three episodes of Betrayal. Haha! Tim's a sucker.
What'd you think of Ironside's series premiere?
AIRED ON 10/23/2013
Season 1 : Episode 4