'MacGyver': TV Review

MacGyver S01E01 Still - Publicity - H 2016
Annette Brown/CBS

MacGyver S01E01 Still - Publicity - H 2016

This combination of odds and ends and wires and tin foil doesn't make a hit.

CBS resurrects Angus MacGyver, but the action-comedy game has left the iconic character in the past.

The big bad in the series premiere of CBS' new version of MacGyver has the usual plans for global domination and the usual motivation for jeopardizing the lives of countless civilians.

"Sometimes a purge is necessary to fix what's broken," they insist.

Everybody who worked on the MacGyver pilot and everybody at CBS who watched the MacGyver pilot had to know that every critic tackling the pilot would latch onto that line like a rapacious moray eel, because "Sometimes a purge is necessary to fix what's broken" has seemingly been the official motto of CBS' attempt to bring the fondly remembered '80s action series back to TV.

The incarnation of MacGyver that arrives on CBS on Friday night has gone through scads of writers (Peter Lenkov ended up in charge), a carousel of directors (James Wan was in, out and finally in again) and, in a rare step for a network series, the total scrapping of the pilot that was originally picked up. In utter candor, leaving quality out of the equation, I was astounded and pleased that a [mostly] finished pilot made it out to critics more than a week before launch.

As for the pilot itself? Despite a blockbuster director at the helm, it's a shoddy product made out of the sort of ill-fitting bits and bobs that Angus MacGyver himself might fashion into a bomb. I'd make the matchingly shoddy joke that the MacGyver team has also constructed a bomb, but this show may well have the sort of brainless escapism and nostalgia that will slot in just fine after CBS' sturdier — Scott Caan was nominated for a flipping Golden Globe — Hawaii Five-0 reboot. That MacGyver finally is little more than a half-speed, quarter-brained version of last season's one-and-done Limitless confirms that what CBS wanted was a show called MacGyver and the actual specifics of said show hardly mattered. Bringing back Limitless and starting the second season premiere with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's character telling pill-enhanced crime fighter Brian Finch that he was being given the FBI's rarely assigned honorary codename "MacGyver" and going from there might have saved development money, but this is not my job.

Lucas Till plays Angus MacGyver, who introduces himself by boasting about his time at MIT, his military experience and his science-fair trophies. He's part of a Department of External Services team headed by Patricia Thornton (Sandrine Holt), and featuring Jack Dalton (George Eads) as gun-toting muscle and expert analyst Nikki (Tracy Spiridakos), who also happens to be MacGyver's main squeeze  as in they have sex on her desk sometimes. When bad things go down as the team attempts to break into a vault in Lake Como, MacGyver is left slightly sad, looking for purpose and hanging out with a fast-talking roommate (CBS' Patron Saint of Unnecessary Reboots Justin Hires), a character who exists for no reason other than broad comedy to remind the audience that MacGyver doesn't take itself too seriously.

And surely MacGyver doesn't take itself too seriously, which is the best thing I can say about it. Other than Holt's boss, everybody keeps it light and there's no risk whatsoever of worrying about the stakes, even when the villain talks about a mass purging. When you have Vinnie Jones playing the Vinnie Jones role as British Henchman and saying things like, "I guess this is the end of your silly game of hide-and-seek, MacGyver," at least "giggles" are your primary goal, even if MacGyver never gets quite to witty or clever.

But maybe it also doesn't take itself too seriously in the ways that it ought to? While the original series kept things light much of the time, it was an action show and not a comedy, because if it had just been a comedy, we wouldn't have needed MacGruber. Till is handsome and bland and easygoing, which aren't the worst traits to have, but two or three veteran character actors or actors with character were needed to surround him. The entire MacGyver team, including Tristin Mays as a hacker who gets sprung from prison to help on a mission, is smooth and pretty and essentially authority-free. Eads' cockiness and Hires' inexplicable shrillness are the only performance variations. There's no actor in the cast capable of providing the grit or grounding that the show needs for the flights of fancy to land.

This new MacGyver pilot features plenty of the necessary MacGyvering — turning ordinary items for various forms of militaristic disruption — but I thought, "Hmmm, that was probably too simple" more often than I thought, "That was cool" or "Could that possibly work?" and the latter reactions ought to be the show's key currency. And if the expected MacGyver-y things MacGyver is doing aren't inspired, at least the action beats ought to be, but Wan and Lenkov's eyes may have been bigger than their heads, leading to too many stunts and set pieces either steered by less-than-ideal CGI or in front of less-than-convincing backdrops. The pilot travels the globe, but doesn't look like it moved too far off the backlot. There's no "wow" factor at all.

And perhaps that boils down why MacGyver is just unnecessary, rather than being explicitly awful.

When nobody on TV or in the movies was MacGyver, MacGyver was exceptional. When everybody is MacGyver, he's just another guy doing the same science-fair experiments and life hacks that could make up a Buzzfeed list. It isn't Angus' fault that MacGyver went from outlier to almost a template for industrious, wisecracking procedural leads, but when the pilot talks about his cleverness based on a couple years at MIT, I couldn't help but think how the Scorpion team would giggle at MacGyver's primitiveness and how fundamentally disappointed Chuck Bartowski, Sydney Bristow and Jack Bauer would be by how their ancestor has been updated.

Cast: Lucas Till, George Eads, Tristin Mays, Justin Hires, Sandrine Holt
Character created by: Lee David Zlotoff
Showrunner: Peter Lenkov
Premieres: Friday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)