You know Sherlock Holmes? Smartest detective in London, always gets his man, has a bit of a cocaine problem? Well, television loves Sherlock Holmes. Years ago, TV producers began taking the Holmes template — a brilliant, prickly outsider with a crippling flaw — tweaking this or that little detail, and calling the finished product something like Monk or House or Psych. It caught on like wildfire. Soon enough, TV stopped bothering with the ruse and just started making shows like Sherlock and Elementary.
This is what I call The Sherlock Problem (or Shoblem, for short). It’s what happens when a character is defined by traits so spare that you can transplant them anywhere, ascribe them to anyone, and probably find an audience. That’s where MacGyver steps in.
MacGyver suffers from an acute case of the Shoblem. The very thing that turned the original series into a household name — a clever dude improvising his way out of jams with everyday junk — is such a simple collection of quirks that you can sprinkle them on a handsome dude, stir in equal parts Miami and Bruce Campbell, and — voila! — you’ve got Burn Notice.
Times have changed, too. Between MacGyver’s 1992 finale and this modern-day CBS reboot, everyone has become a “life hacker” or whatever, making Angus MacGyver seem less like the Junk Drawer Jesus he used to be and more like your high-school friend who posts clever interior decorating ideas on Pinterest. We are, all of us, little MacGuyvers, forever Googling the best ways to fix our home theaters and minimize clutter.
The MacGyver reboot doesn’t seem to know this. To its credit, it does know that the second-most important thing about MacGyver is his hair. In Lucas Till, at least the show has found a worthy successor to Richard Dean Anderson’s rich, wondrous mane. Till is handsome and smug enough to carry MacGyver mantle with some modicum of self-respect and swagger, so he’s a fine choice. As for the rest of the cast, there’s Muscle Dude, Hacker Lady, Funny Roommate, and Woman Who MacGyver Might Have Loved. Or maybe he didn’t, I dunno. She dies like ten minutes into the episode and we’re supposed to feel bad about it.
I will explain all of this in detail, but not chronologically, because this show is so boring and generic that each beat is like a subway train on a particularly bad day, shrieking its way into the station and making itself known well before it arrives. Instead, I ranked every home-brew solution MacGyver MacGyvers in “The Rising,” based on ingenuity, degree of difficulty, and the context in which it was used. Trust me, you’ll understand the plot. It’s really that straightforward. Shall we?
1. An electromagnet
This is, hands down, the cleverest thing that MacGyver makes in the episode … and it’s used in the first ten minutes. “The Rising” kicks off with Team MacGyver infiltrating a fancy ball to find a generic bioweapon, and MacGyver gets past the guards by making one of these suckers out of copper wire (from an extension cord), a battery (from a stud finder), and a metal rod from a spare door hinge, all of which are improbably stored in the swank kitchen’s pantry. MacGyver gets the magnet close to the guards, their earpieces go haywire, and they leave their posts just long enough for him to slip into the room where the bioweapon is held.
2. A parachute
The next best invention doesn’t happen until the end of the episode, after the bioweapon falls into the hands of baddies who want to blow it up in the middle of San Francisco. Unable to defuse the bomb, MacGyver instead removes the bioweapon (with a paperclip!), then uses his trusty Swiss army knife to fashion a parachute from the truck canvas and tie-downs, which quickly pulls him and the bioweapon away from the blast. It is goofy and dumb and, honestly, it would be my number-one pick if it looked anything like the amazing one in this CBS ad. Alas, it does not.
3. A cloned fingerprint
This is first actual trick MacGyver pulls in the pilot. I would have ranked it further down the list because it sets such a low bar — all he does is collect some soot and packing tape to lift a fingerprint from a champagne glass — but then the show hid the bioweapon behind a vault that needs a full handprint, not just a thumbprint. Good job, show.
4. A cloned hand print
Okay, this is really dumb. Mac gets around the hand scanner by CHIPPING PLASTER, coating the sensor with plaster dust, then pressing his hand on it to take advantage of “the oils and salts” the last person left behind, therefore fooling — oh my God, what am I doing with my life.
5. A lock pick
To be fair, this isn’t an actual solution to a problem, but a flashback sequence where Mac sadly reminisces about how he and fellow agent Nikki Carpenter used to bone a bunch. It’s pretty simple: He kinkily handcuffs her, then uses her hair clip to pick the cuffs. Oh, and he’s sadly reminiscing because that first mission went horribly wrong and Nikki died, which also explains why Mac is chasing the bioweapon. We don’t really feel bad about Nikki’s death, though, because Nikki is barely a person. When we meet her, Mac says, “There’s no one better on a keyboard,” and then the episode suddenly CUTS TO THEM GETTING RANDY ON HER WORK COMPUTER. Come on, MacGyver.
6. A smoke bomb
This one particularly sucks because people might actually try it out. (Note: You really, really shouldn’t do that.) Following the disastrous opening mission, Mac is called back into action because the bioweapon resurfaced at … a hotel? Anyway, Mac needs to create a diversion to flush people out, so he combines tin foil, ammonia, and chlorine to create smoke that will set off the fire alarms. This inadvertently fills in the last piece of the puzzle: Nikki is alive … and she’s the baddie selling the bioweapon. Oh, and Vinnie Jones is there too.
The original MacGyver ran for seven seasons and 139 episodes. Like its protagonist, it got very far with very little. The new MacGyver has a lot more in its arsenal, including all the typical procedural trappings, like a wisecracking crew and an ex-girlfriend who turns out to be evil. Unfortunately, that stuff also makes it a lot less distinct. By the end of this pilot, it’s clear that MacGyver could be any number of generic procedurals. If it does take off, it will be on the strength of its cast and the insanity of its ideas. Those things, unfortunately, take time. But if CBS could find a way to speed up the process, I’d greatly appreciate it.