Friday, February 25, 2011

Remington Steele -- A Timeless Dramedy

The Premise

Remington Steele (1982-1987) stars Stephanie Zimbalist as private investigator, Laura Holt, who cannot draw clients until she invents a masculine superior for her letterhead. Enter Peirce Brosnan as a mystery man who assumes the fictional Steele’s identity, joins the firm and seduces Laura. Together, the pair battle crime and their feelings for each other.

Even though the premise of a woman who cannot get clients solely due to her gender wouldn’t play today, Steele ages well because, mercifully, most of the episodes do not dwell on Laura as a stranger in her profession; the writers treat this character as a competent detective who gets on with the business at hand--solving cases.

A Drama With a Sense of Humor

The show is revolutionary in another way as well--it is an hour long detective show that dares to include humor and yet retains dramatic lighting (as opposed to the stark, shadowless lighting of sitcoms). The executives at MTM Enterprises, who produced the show, wanted to take out the humor. Blending drama and comedy in an hour long show was a fairly new concept. It had been done before with Hart to Hart (1979-1984), and would be done again with Moonlighting (1984-1989), but these shows were on a competing network. It had never been done at Steele‘s network: NBC; executives were worried about the new approach.

Another concern was the fact that the two leads were theater-trained actors, not TV stars, who had performed only in drama, never in comedy. Executive producer and co-creator Michael Gleason notes that at the time he assumed that if you’re a good actor you can do comedy, which is not always the case. Gleason states that he “lucked out” in casting two stars who have instinctive comic timing.

The heartfelt drama when Steele occasionally opens up his past to Laura, their work as a team and the actors’ sincerity keep the show from becoming too hammy or too much of a farce. The brilliant writing, elegant cinematography and tasteful costumes (Brosnan wears a tuxedo a lot, foreshadowing his shaken, but not stirred, performances) also help to make Remington Steele a timeless dramatic comedy.

Written by Java, a Cafe guest contributor, who blogs regularly at Java's Journey.


  1. One of my favorites. I especially enjoyed the first season which featured mysteries as competition between Laura and Steele. I never get tired of watching such episodes as "Vintage Steele".

  2. Java, I didn't watch REMINGTON STEELE when it was originally broadcast, but have seen episodes in reruns. I always thought that Pierce and Stephanie had great chemistry together and, as you described, both possessed a natural comic timing. However, I admit I was bummed that a last-second renewal of the final season prevented Pierce from signing on as James Bond in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS. Yes, Pierce eventually got to play Bond, but it was seven years later. Thanks for an interesting, heartfelt post!

  3. Great review of one of the best shows of the 1980's. Brosnan provided the humor and looked mighty fine. But Steph gave the show heart.

  4. I was just researching this show and came across the episode list for its run. Each episode incorporated the name Steele in its title. That was pretty cool. This was a fun post, Java!

  5. Java, I haven't thought about Remington Steele in years, and I always liked it. It was fun to remember its qualities and the charismatic, often humorous, relationship between Steele and Laura. And my gosh, Pierce Brosnan has always been a doll, but I had forgotten how young he was in this (shoot, I've forgotten how young I used to be!) Fun and well-done post, Java!

  6. This is great-- brought me back to my childhood and how! At the age of 7, I wanted SO much to be Stephanie Zimbalist! Solving mysteries, globetrotting, and plenty of martinis and old movies with dreamy Pierce Brosnan... le sigh. ;)

  7. Wonderful post! I was a huge fan of Remington Steele when I was a kid/pre-teen but revisiting it as an adult is just as wonderful. The show really did have everything - terrific writing, great mysteries, humor and an unbelievable chemistry between the two main characters. Their romance was and still is one of my favorite TV couples of all time.

  8. I loved this show, still do. One of the MANY things I loved about it was how the writers worked in the homages to classic film, and not just by having Mr. Steele cite title, year, studio, stars and synopsis either.

    Take those passports of his: five different names, each a character played by Humphrey Bogart. But some of the nods were a bit more subtle or even obscure. For example, in the episode called "Now You Steele It, Now You Don't," an important clue in the story was the name of a ship, the Marla Rakubian. But fans of film noir will recognize that name as that of a gangster's moll in the classic "D.O.A." And the writers used three other names from "D.O.A." for characters in that episode: Majak, Chester, and Bigelow.

    Remember insurance investigator Norman Keyes? Compare that balding, cigar-chomping character to that of Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson in "Double Indemnity."

    Every now and then, when I'm watching RS again, I trip over these little nods to Hollywood. They always make me smile.

  9. michael,
    I enjoyed thier competitions as well. "Vintage Steele" is hilarious. Steele becomes jealous and disgusted when he finds an old boyfriend's t-shirt at Laura's house that reads "Bankers do it with interest." Haha!

    Pierce was bummed too. It must have been torture to have Bond in his grasp [Michael Gleason says in the DVD commentary that the Brosnans had even picked a house and registered thier children at a school in England] but then have the show renewed for 6 more episodes. STEELE was then abruptly cancelled. So for a time Brosnan was without STEELE and without BOND.

    He would take time off from acting to care for his ailing wife, do a few indie films, then reemerge as Bond. Too bad they decided to reboot the franchise. He says that he had at least one more Bond film in him and that he hadn't even begun to scratch the surface of 007.

    Right you are. Humor and heart - a perfect description of the show.

    According to the DVD commentary, Michael Gleason, the producer, would sometimes write an episode's title on a slip of paper and shove it under the door of the writer's room. The writers would then write an episode around it.

    Stephanie Zimablist co-authored a quirky episode in season 3 called "Steele in The Chips," about a no-calorie chocolate cookie recipe that someone commits murder to attain. I don't know if Gleason suggested the title, though.

    Although Brosnan clearly wanted to play Bond then, he now says that he would have been too young and inexperienced to play the worldly 007 in the 1980s.

    STEELE was his first TV show, his first performance in the U.S., his big break as a star. Things were going very well. By the time he would play BOND in the 1990s, he endured a dip in his career, his wife had died and he was raising his children alone. There was age and lots of life experience to draw on by then.

    Though I wonder what would have happened if Brosnan had been an '80s BOND. Would that have made any difference in the franchise? Would Timothy Dalton have had a chance at it later?

    These shows are wonderful and rewatchable, which is even better!

    Flip Chick,
    The writing is absolutely top drawer for a TV show. Frankly, these well-executed shows spoiled me when I watched other, not so well-written, 1980s detective shows that are now out on DVD [there are many].

    Naomi Johnson,
    I love the classic movie references! I think that endears me to Steele more than anything. [Brosnan's piercing, blue eyes help as well.] I love that in "Stronger Than Steele" we learn that Laura has a similar obssession with television.

    How did I miss the Keyes reference?! The detail in this show is one more reason to watch again and again.

  10. Java, I'm late to the game, but I enjoyed reading your post. I only watched a few episodes back in the 80s (I think I watched something else in that time slot), but I always enjoyed watching Brosnan and I kept thinking he would make a good James Bond even back then.

  11. KimWilson,
    All seasons of Remington Steele are on DVD now. You won't regret snapping them up. These episodes are worth watching and re-watching.

    Thanks for commenting.

  12. Thanks for the wonderful post.

    I too loved this series as a teenager and have been rediscovering it in the past few months -- how well it holds up, how good the writing and acting remain. The special features and audio commentaries on the DVD sets have such a wealth of information on how the show was written and produced.

    I'm in graduate school now studying American history and popular culture and even had occasion to include it in some of my academic writing. I'm on a bit of crusade now to have the show taken seriously by folks who study pop culture.

  13. Lynn Reed,
    REMINGTON STEELE is definitely worthy of being taken seriously. It's not everyday that a witty and fun detective show (or any other show, for that matter) not only makes it beyond a few episodes, but runs for years while maintaining its overall quality!

  14. I just discovered this show last year. I remember it being on during the eighties but somehow I never got around to watching it even though I loved Moonlighting. After watching a season and a half through Netflix, and then through season three on Hulu, I just bought the complete DVD set outright.

    Laura Holt is a great female lead character and not just an appendage to the male lead. She's a wonderful role model for young girls in not giving up their dreams. Pierce as Steele was incredibly charming and had wonderful comedic timing in the role. Steele grows up and into the role that Laura had created. He goes from being a mere figurehead who occasionally and accidentally contributed to solving the case to an integral part of the team as a real detective.