Given Hollywood’s love of remaking every film and TV property that has ever been even marginally successful, the most surprising thing about CBS’s new MacGyver isn’t that it’s happening but that it’s taken this long to happen. Though since many mention the original show in the same breath as Will Forte’s 2010 big-screen spoof MacGruber, maybe a little time away from the source wasn’t such a bad thing for the franchise. In any case, when a TV show impacts popular culture to the extent that its very title becomes a verb in the English language, it grows too big for any one century to contain. As such, this fall sees a new take on the action favorite on CBS, produced by Furious 7 director James Wan (who also helms the pilot) and starring X-Men‘s Lucas Till as the titular hero himself. Till and Wan appeared on behalf of the show at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in LA, where they were joined by showrunner Peter Lenkov and co-stars Tristin Mays, Justin Hires, George Eads, and Sandrine Holt. All of whom spoke of how the new series will honor the ’80s genre favorite while offering something different for today’s demanding action audiences.
“I wanted it to stand out a little from the original show,” says Lenkov, a lifelong MacGyver fan. “I looked at it and said, ‘What can I do to make it look a little different and feel a little different?'” The answer came in the show’s characters. Unlike the original series, MacGyver 2.0 is an ensemble. “TV shows now are very character driven,” says the producer. “How do you explore his character? By having him interact with people close to him.”
Chief among those people is Mac’s right-hand man, and weapon, Jack Dalton. “Jack’s a Swiss army knife in human form,” says George Eads of his character. “A junkyard dog. Han Solo to [MacGyver]’s Luke Skywalker. Our [relationship] stems from a pretty [good] friendship away from the camera. Maybe if it’s real, in the end it’s not right or wrong.”
MacGyver also relies on his top technical consultant Riley Davis, played by Tristin Mays. “I’m the computer techie,” explains Mays. “I’m the one that helps him sneak past a security camera by hacking the servers. We’re a team. Riley’s not your average computer geek. When you first meet me I’m in prison. They bail me out of jail. We’re a family.”
Lucas Till adds, “She compartmentalizes everything. Which allows me to be MacGyver.”
Managing this motley crew is no-nonsense Patricia Thornton, played by Sandrine Holt. “I play the boss lady,” says Holt. “They’re young blood, and I see my character as old school. Black ops trained. She tries to keep things from being derailed, which doesn’t always work. She’s the parent, the voice of reason.”
The new MacGyver is also kept grounded by his best friend and roommate Wilt Bozer, played by Justin Hires. “I bring some normalcy,” explains the actor. “When he comes home, he gets to be around a regular human being.”
Lenkov tells us that MacGyver’s inner life is as important as the show’s action. “You’re seeing a lot of action in the trailer, the bromance, the interesting characters. The thing you’ll see in the pilot is there’s an emotional journey MacGyver goes on. He’s betrayed by one of the members of his team. You see him going through a loss. It’s a though line that will play throughout the series. If you look at the show you’ll see it’s very character [-focused, with] plot second.”
That’s not to say, however, that classic MacGyver scenarios won’t play out in the new series. And, as in the original series, the new MacGyver won’t rely on firearms to get himself out of trouble.
“It would be unrealistic to do this type of show and not have anybody with guns,” Lenkov says. “[But] MacGyver’s not a gun guy. George’s character is different. He’s the muscle of the show. He sees the value of a gun as a defensive weapon. MacGyver is not a gun guy. MacGyver is a different kind of hero.”
On the topic of the hero’s famous resourcefulness, the producer adds, “He’s not the kind of guy that’s gonna problem solve with an app. But duct tape, whatever’s in front of him, he’ll use. ‘Paper clip’ is still number six on the call sheet. We’ll make sure we service that.”
Till says his character, “He was an understanding individual. He was charismatic and compassionate. There are a lot of episodes where he’s helping street orphans. There’s a couple of things that you really have to nail. I see people on the street and they say, ‘Make sure you get this right…’ I say, ‘That’s another thing I’m putting on my [list.]'”
Mays adds, “He’s definitely bringing back that classic MacGyver charm that all the ladies are gonna love.”
Addressing the show’s spectacle, Lenkov’s fellow producer James Wan remarks, “You want to put in all that whiz-bang to draw people in. But what made this show so interesting is it wasn’t just about big action set pieces. It was more cerebral. I remember episodes where he just had to break out of a jail in South America, or it was a heist story. Each episode could be its own little action film. Certain episodes can be played more like thrillers. Other episodes can be bigger set pieces. It’s about giving a platform for characters to do what they do. Just because we don’t have big massive set pieces in every episode doesn’t mean the emotional stuff doesn’t hit as strong.”
Longtime MacGyver fans can expect to hear the original show’s theme song mixed into the new series’ opening theme. The producers are also working on getting Richard Dean Anderson to guest star on the show. And the series won’t shy away from using the hero’s first name, which was revealed in the last episode of the original MacGyver…
“We haven’t dealt with that yet,” says Lenkov. “But he does acknowledge the name.”
Till laughs: “Angus is a pretty crappy name.”
As for whether or not the show will have any difficulties finding new fans after MacGruber‘s hilarious take on its universe…
“If you’re spoofed on Saturday Night Live or in Mad magazine,” says Lenkov, “you’ve made it. MacGruber is the same thing. This is such a strong franchise. I don’t think in any way that’s gonna affect us. When I was a kid and read Mad I still watched my favorite show even though it was spoofed in the magazine.”
MacGyver premieres on September 23 on CBS.
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