Saturday, December 20, 2014

Casablanca the Series: An Obituary


Where to begin to describe why the television adaptation of Casablanca failed.

Let's start with the concept.  You start your show at least a year before the events of the movie, and what you decide to do with what could be a great idea is to hamper it with an episodic structure.

What I mean by 'episodic' is that each week, we get a new set of minor characters that interact with the leads, who then basically do the same thing over and over.  For comparison, let's look at another prequel television series, Gotham.

Gotham is also starting from a particular point which will lead, eventually, to the first appearance of Batman.  As such, like Casablanca it is basically 'on the clock'.  Gotham, like Casablanca, has minor characters appearing every week to have separate stories.  However, unlike Casablanca, Gotham is smart enough to understand you have to progress your characters bit by bit alongside the other plots.  Thus, you get bits of the Penguin's story, bits of Edward Nygma's story, bits of Bruce Wayne's story, even bits of Harvey Bullock's story interwoven to the particulars of the episode.

Casablanca didn't do that.  Instead, it opted for a "Love Boat" style of television, where each week we'd get new people who were tied someway or another to Rick, then they'd do something, Major Strasser would get involved, then Rick would get them out of danger (and end up kissing the girl of the week) and back again.  Rather than try for a long game where we had one or two unfolding stories for a season, Casablanca put its energy into doing one story per week.  That has problems because you can get repetitive, but it made things worse by refusing to give the main characters anything to do other than serve as catalysts for the minor characters.

When you have Rick Blaine around, why would you want to watch the story of the cafe's cashier?!

Casablanca could have had an interesting story to tell if it had done one or two Rick-centered stories (especially over the season), but since it didn't we were stuck with a lot of downers.

Second thing that doomed Casablanca was in execution. It never decided whether it was a prequel or a continuation of the film.  Imagine if you saw Casablanca the television show without having seen Casablanca the movie.  In the premiere episode, you'd have no real idea who Rick, Renault, Sam, or even Strasser were.  Casablanca expects you to know them.  Now imagine if you HAD seen the movie prior to seeing the series.  IMMMEDIATELY you'd wonder why there were so many changes.   What's Major Strasser doing here?!  Why is the formerly Russian bartender Sasha now American?

Casablanca in many ways, was lazy.  It expected you to both know who everyone was and not know who everyone was at the same time, to both introduce and be aware simultaneously.  Bad, bad decision.

Finally, Casablanca failed because of its cast.  Bless David Soul...I have nothing against him (not even Starsky & Hutch, which I know only through the film version of the television show, which I thought was funny at the time).  Soul was no Bogart, and therein lies the trouble.  Soul was either directed to or encouraged to continually try for a Humphrey Bogart impersonation, which was just deadly.  It came across almost as parody.  It didn't help matters that to make sure everyone figured this was THE Rick Blaine, every week Soul was forced to wear a white tuxedo jacket through most of Casablanca. 

I seriously began to wonder a.) how he kept the white jacket clean, and b.) if he had nothing but white jackets in his closet.  It could work in the film because Casablanca takes place over three days and we don't have to think too much on costumes.  When you have a weekly series though, the repetitiveness of the white jacket soon becomes idiotic and laughable.  It might make sense for SAM to wear the same outfit: he's the piano player and it could be considered his 'uniform'.  However, why does RICK have to wear the same thing over and over again?  It might even inspire a perverse drinking game...a shot every time you see Rick in a white jacket.

More bad decisions in casting.  Elizondo I figure would have made a great Strasser, with his mustache and soft manner.  However, his Renault wasn't the charming yet sleazy friend to Ricky, but a footstool for Strasser.  Given how Paul Horgan's Nazi major came across as cartoonish, almost comically bumbling in his efforts to get to/at Blaine, you'd think he'd be replaced by someone smarter and more capable...say, Colonel Klink.  It doesn't help matters that Major Strasser has his own Sergeant Schultz in Kai Wulff's Lieutenant Heinz. 

Actually, I think Casablanca comes off as a bigger spoof of World War II than Hogan's Heroes, which is sad given Hogan's Heroes was MEANT to be funny and Casablanca wasn't.

On the whole, Casablanca: The Series was a misfire because it was so poorly conceived and executed.  It wasn't a prequel because it included characters that technically didn't appear until the movie begins.  It wasn't adding to the backstories because they were so dull and actually served to undercut the premise of the source material.  In Casablanca, we see the evolution of Rick Blaine from someone who truly has isolated himself from everyone and his own lost ideals to one who rallies to join the fight once again.  In the series, this Rick sticks his neck out every week, which is so against the somewhat misanthropic Rick of the film.   It grows tiresome to keep seeing Rick, who allegedly hates everyone and stays out of things, constantly getting into things.

Maybe if they'd integrated Peter Lorre's Ugarte and shown the back-dealings at Rick's Café Americain rather than deal with Rick's perpetual (and antithetical) 'hero complex', Casablanca: The Series might have worked.  In the final analysis, Casablanca: The Series tried to have it both ways.  It wanted to depend on the legend and be independent of it simultaneously. 

Fortunately, Casablanca: The Series is long dead and gone, a curious side note in the annals of television and film tie-ins.  If anyone thinks of trying this for a THIRD time (Casablanca having already bombed as a television show in the 1950s), maybe they'd out to rethink it just once before deciding they can improve on perfection.   


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