From Shakespeare to Batman: Why TV Loves a Good Crossover (Guest Column)

Ahead of Friday's 'MacGyver' and 'Hawaii Five-0' crossover, showrunner Peter Lenkov opens up about the fascination between merging worlds.
Courtesy of CBS

The crossover, with each passing week, is becoming more commonplace on broadcast television. NBC has made crossovers between Dick Wolf's Chicago dramas (and Law & Order: SVU) a staple of its schedule. The CW has done the same with DC Comics dramas Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl. Then there's Fox, where Brooklyn Nine-Nine and New Girl as well as Bones and Sleepy Hollow have shared worlds. Next up is CBS, where freshman MacGyver will crossover with veteran Hawaii Five-0. Here, MacGyver and Hawaii showrunner Peter M. Lenkov opens up about the why of it all.

You may not know this, but Shakespeare was the king of the crossover. Yes, that is absolutely true. You can Google it if you don’t trust this college dropout. Marc Antony appeared in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. So did Octavius and Lepidus. And then there was the very busy Bardolph moving from Henry IV to Henry V and finally The Merry Wives of Windsor. So despite what you might think, networks did not invent the crossover. Although if one of my bosses told me they did, I wouldn’t question it.

Here’s something you also might not know: 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the best TV crossover ever. EVER! Well, sure, that’s my opinion, but I’m writing, you’re reading, so humor me by continuing on. It was along time ago in a galaxy far, far away … 1967 to be exact. That year the World’s Fair was held in Montreal (shout out to my hometown), The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Green Hornet and Kato paid a visit to Gotham City, matching wits with the dynamic duo Batman and Robin. And if you think I’m trying to be funny, I’m not. I’m writing this as a grown man who keeps a Batmobile and Black Beauty on his home office desk. And yes, I’m very aware admitting that might get you to stop reading, but please, you’ve come this far…

The Batman/Green Hornet crossover was a masterful feat of behind-the-scenes engineering. For one thing, the Green Hornet wasn’t even a DC Comics character at the time. But somehow the powers-that-be made it work. And I’d like to thank said power brokers because when I caught it years later in reruns, I was in fanboy heaven. At the time, these guys were my favorite superheroes. Teamed up. Complementing each other like the chocolate and peanut butter in my favorite candy bar (showrunner restraint, folks … I’m not going to name that well-known brand unless this column gets an integration deal). 

Which leads me to the point of all this filler and the question I’ve been asked to elaborate on: Why a crossover? For one thing, it’s fun. Yes, I still find this job fun. Quentin Tarantino must feel the same way. Crossover characters exist in several of his movies, which make you feel as if they co-exist in one very original, twisted universe. Take the Vega brothers for instance, one appearing in Reservoir Dogs and the other in Pulp Fiction. Who’s going to say that ain’t cool? Not me. These days, I’m fortunate enough to play in two sandboxes, so why not make them one? Melding universes was on my mind the moment I put pen to paper on the MacGyver pilot. In fact, I planted the crossover seeds in that script, hoping this day would someday arrive.

But storytelling cool aside, this is also a business I need to nurture, so why not take advantage of Hawaii Five-0’s banner year? Our reboot gets nearly 10 million live viewers a week. On a Friday night! And no, that is not a typo. So with that kind of loyal audience I’d be a fool not to try and get them to sample MacGyver, my new show, still in its infancy.  After all, we know how hard it is to find new audiences to try your shows — there are a million things to do/watch/see on a Friday night. But I’ve got an ace up my sleeve — a very loyal Five-0 viewership and all they need to do is tune in just one hour earlier. CBS can promote the hell out of it. We get a second chance to reintroduce the MacGyver brand during this critical first season.

I’ve always been envious of how Dick Wolf can weave his [NBC] Chicago shows together, letting their viewers know that if they like what they’re seeing, they’ve got three other shows just waiting for you to binge. It’s good TV and even better business. Although I imagine some TV historians might find that debatable.

Batman was hugely popular in 1967 and at the time, ABC was hoping some of its audience would follow Britt and Kato from the crossover back to their own show, which unfortunately didn’t happen. Sure, the Green Hornet did retain some of that Bat audience, but was ultimately canceled after one season. But that’s an anomaly as far as I’m concerned. The idea is still sound. Which is why a Hawaii Five-0/MacGyver crossover makes so much sense. These two hours already share so many of the same ingredients: tone, action/adventure, comedy, heroes who will risk everything to see things through. So why not share the same audience? These shows have a natural compatibility. Like the CSI universe I was lucky to be a part of years ago. Participating in the three-way crossover was a blast. Not just to write, but to watch. Three bigger-than-life characters — Mac Taylor, Horatio Caine and Raymond Langston — working alongside each other was fan fiction come true.

The crossover philosophy is to bring more people into the tent. Expand the worlds you’ve created and allow for a more event-style viewing experience. And if all goes well, it might just be the first of many Five-0/MacGyver adventures. But that’s up to the rating gods. Right now, all I can do is put the finishing touches on the episode and hope you enjoy what I think is a very organic fusion of franchises. Commissioner Gordon couldn’t have said it better back in the day: “The Green Hornet is in our fair city for a piece of the action.” Fifty years later we’re following what’s tried-and-true. On March 10, our MacGyver heroes will travel to Hawaii for a piece of the action. So tune in this Friday. Same Mac-Time, Same Mac-Channel. Or CBS at 8 p.m. for those of you not so nostalgic.

Peter M. Lenkov is the showrunner on both CBS' Hawaii Five-0 and MacGyver.

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