David Shore’s remake of The Rockford Files, if it’s picked up, is likely to wind up filling one of the NBC prime-time slots vacated by Jay Leno. Wired offers a bunch of ideas for casting (Bruce Campbell would have been perfect in his prime, but I think he’s a bit old for the part), but I’m almost more interested in what they’ll do with the famous main title. The answering-machine gimmick doesn’t have a clear equivalent today — when people call Jim and leave a message, we’re not likely to hear it — and the show will not have a full minute for the theme song.
My own preference would be for them to find some equivalent for the messages, follow it with a few bars of the theme, and then play the full theme over the closing credits. Sure, the closing credits music isn’t often heard on the network itself, but it will be heard on the DVDs and even some stations (the A channel and City TV are two channels here that sometimes play the closing credits).
One of the reasons Rockford is difficult to replicate — Republic of Doyle is fun so far, but it’s still finding itself early in its run, and the USA shows are a somewhat different style — is that it was a show that was in large part a parody of other television show conventions, while at the same time being basically serious. That is, the stories and characters were supposed to be taken seriously, most of the time, but the character of Rockford and the way he acted was consciously built around doing the opposite of what Mannix or McGarrett would do in a similar situation. As creator Stephen J. Cannell explained, he created the character by asking himself what he would do if he were a detective: he would really care about getting paid, he would run away or try to win by cheating if he were faced with a stronger opponent, it would hurt his hand if he punched someone. He made this really explicit when he introduced Tom Selleck as Lance White, the ultimate parody of the perfect TV detective (his episodes even included parodies of the way TV cop shows were shot in the late ’60s, all extreme close-ups and stiff acting). And yet, Rockford is a heroic character who defeats the bad guys, and when he came too close to being a complete loser, the show didn’t work.
This element of the show is hard to repeat because the conventions of TV are different today. But they’re not impossible to repeat, because TV is full of mystery-solvers acting in certain ways. If Shore looks at the many popular TV mysteries, and has his Rockford acting like the opposite of the characters on those shows, then he could make the new show into a commentary on today’s television, just like the original was a comment on the TV of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
This clip from the original Rockford pilot unfortunately is missing the punchline, one of the great lines: “The trouble with Karate, Jerry, is that it’s based on the ridiculous assumption that the other guy will fight fair.” But at least it shows Rockford’s hand in pain after he sucker-punches a guy, and Rockford using cheap insults to goad a stronger man into making a fool of himself (which, like a number of things in the early episodes, is partly inspired by a scene in Garner’s 1969 movie Marlowe, where he did something similar to Bruce Lee).