It Would Take the Old MacGyver to Save the New MacGyver

The long-running show’s CBS reboot is long on tribute but low on ingenuity.


I’ll get right to it and answer the main question you probably have about the new MacGyver, which is really the only question that matters when it comes to the new MacGyver: No, Mac no longer has a mullet.

That’s not the only disappointing aspect of CBS’s reboot of the long-running ’80s action-adventure show, though. The new MacGyer is, on the one hand, a perfectly serviceable answer to the old one, often slick and occasionally exciting and certainly at home in a sea of mediocre procedurals; it is very rarely, however, anything more than that.

Mac, this time around, is played by X-Men’s Lucas Till; he nails the nerdy hero’s affable, aw-shucks charm. And while the original MacGyver was largely a loner, the new one operates as part of an ensemble: There’s Jack (George Eads), Mac’s wacky sidekick; and Wilt (Justin Hires), his roommate; and Nikki (Tracy Spiridakos), his girlfriend; and Riley (Tristin Mays), a hacker; and Patricia Thornton (Sandrine Holt), his M-esque boss. (Her name is a nod to the original Mac’s best friend, Pete Thornton, the only character in the show who appeared regularly with Richard Dean Anderson.)

That it-takes-a-village shift certainly gives the show’s writers more room to play and experiment with Mac and his adventures; it also, however, makes the show read distinctly like … nearly every other procedural in recent memory. CSI? NCIS? Quantico? MacGyver may bring more chemistry—or, more precisely, more vaguely mansplainy discussions of chemistry—into the mix; beyond that, though, it’s hard to tell the new show apart from the many other shows that have, in the decades after the old MacGyver ended, swooped in to fill its void.

Nearly everything here feels familiar. In the reboot’s pilot episode, Mac and his team are dealing with a biological bomb that threatens to detonate in San Francisco. (The device contains the same fluorescent-green material that was the stuff of The Rock’s biological bomb that, yes, threatens to detonate in San Francisco.) In the course of preventing that from happening—in order to prevent, as Thornton puts it, “a damn catastrophe of Biblical proportions”—Mac attends a high-society party in Lake Como, in the manner of James Bond. He leaves that party via speedboat, also in the manner of Bond (and also in the manner of Jude Law’s Spy-based parody of Bond). He uses a waiter’s tray as a shield against bullets, in the manner of Archer. He fist-fights an enemy, in the manner of Bourne. He also tracks down an agent who has gone rogue; and frees a hacker from prison; and jumps onto a moving airplane.

Do you think he does all this breezily, peppering it with witty banter? Yes, yes, he does.

There’s something soothingly predictable about all this: We’ve seen it all before. Only here, there’s a strain of camp. Here, the writing varies from the uninspired to the actively groan-worthy. Sample lines:

That dress may look dangerous, but trust me: The woman inside it is way more deadly.


That old saying, ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire,’ isn’t always true. Sometimes when there’s smoke, there’s just smoke. Muriatic acid mixed with ammonia and tin foil creates a chemical reaction that releases a lot of smoke—with absolutely no other byproducts!

And (to a hacker):

You know how you hack computers? Well I hack … everything else.

Oh, and (to Patricia):

It looks like ebola. Or like some kind of viral hemorrhaging fever.

These lines are … fine. And, to be fair, the old MacGyver was only fine. The show may have been beloved (and also, relatedly, widely mocked); it may have given rise to weird spinoffs and loving satires (MacGruber!) and a brand-new verb and, later on, so many memes. But it did all that—it had all that cultural impact—not because it was great, but because it was greatly unusual. Mac may have been an action hero; mostly, though, he was an unapologetic nerd. He loved chemistry. He couldn’t help but talk, excitedly, about the way chemicals can interact to make an improvised explosive device. He couldn’t help but be impressed with himself. He had a habit of saying things like, “Oh, what a life I lead: riding the rapids in the Pyrenees Mountains one day, and the next crossing half the world to help out a friend with a very weird problem in a very strange part of the Amazon. I think I should get an unlisted phone number!”

So the old MacGyver was not, by today’s standards, great TV. It was barely even good TV. What it was, though, was unique, and singular, and winsomely weird. It was, like MacGyver himself, unapologetic. The new version is the opposite: It is trying very, very hard to fit in. It has the right elements; what it hasn’t yet quite figured out yet, though, is how to combine them into something that will be truly explosive.