Why make a series of Casablanca? Attempts to make TV shows out of classic films—M*A*S*H excepted—have always ended in disaster, with audiences ignoring those series and critics clucking their tongues about how what works on the big screen rarely works on the small. The idea of making a weird mash-up of an anthology drama and a workplace sitcom and calling it Casablanca seems doomed to fall apart. Why not just make a show that’s vaguely similar and call it something else?
And yet if not for the existence of one of the greatest films of all time for unflattering comparison, it might be possible to make a good TV show out of Casablanca. It certainly boasts a setting rife with potential for a TV show: Rick’s bar, a place where French, German, British, and American citizens can mix it up and nearly come to blows as World War II rages in the background. It’s not hard to imagine a version of this series that follows Rick and his employees as the war threatens to bury all of them alive, the Nazis breathing down their necks on one side and the Allies on the other.
That, however, would require the kinds of breakthroughs modern television takes for granted. A series like that could not have been made in 1983, and sadly, that’s when NBC took a stab at turning that compelling setting into a TV show. They won a cinematography Emmy for their troubles, but the show lasted only five episodes and hasn’t become a beloved classic. Its arrival on DVD has nothing to do with anyone wanting to see it again and everything to do with the film that inspired it celebrating its 70th anniversary.
There are virtues to the TV series. Hector Elizondo makes a surprisingly enjoyable Captain Renault, and if Starsky & Hutch’s David Soul isn’t Humphrey Bogart (who would be?), he at least doesn’t embarrass himself as Rick, though the series’ interpretation of the character is miles away from the portrayal of Rick at the start of the film. (The series is, indeed, a prequel, in which Rick will occasionally speak fondly of a woman named Ilsa that he once loved). This Rick is something of a sap who constantly gets involved in the troubles of the various patrons of his bar—and also gets involved with every moderately attractive woman who falls into his orbit)—not the emotionally closed-off man who only gradually allows cracks to appear in his façade. Yet the series’ interpretation of the character works for Soul’s performance, and having a protagonist who gets involved in his patrons’ lives is probably necessary for a series version of this story. The rest of the cast is fine as well, particularly Scatman Crothers as Sam, whose “As Time Goes By” makes a fine theme song.
At the same time, though, there’s no good reason to watch this outside of curiosity. The series’ depiction of the time period is only skin deep, and when it attempts to venture out of the politics of the war and into, say, the lives of the local Muslim population, it bites off more than it can chew. The series suggests how one could make a good show out of Casablanca, but without serialization, it reduces too many of its characters, particularly the Germans, to buffoonish villains who never suggest the real menace required for Rick to feel threatened by them. Somebody walks into a bar. Rick gets involved in their lives. And then they leave. Again and again and again, to the point where the formula feels tired after just five episodes. Casablanca suggests so readily how a good TV series of the film could be made that it’s all the more disappointing that it didn’t succeed.
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