Inside ABC’s tonally bizarro update of the seminal 1987 romantic drama Dirty Dancing are about four different projects trying to get out. There’s the most obvious one, a frame-by-frame remake of the original that’s as awkward and ill-conceived as Gus Van Sant’s 1997 carbon copy of Psycho. There’s the one Abigail Breslin’s starring in, an emotionally textured and realistic coming-of-age story about a clumsy but engaging wallflower. There’s a musical, in which Breslin and Nicole Scherzinger mime along to their own singing voices in a strange dance rehearsal while half-heartedly exploring the idea that power emanates from the vagina. And there’s the most compelling story, a Wide Sargasso Sea-inspired spinoff starring Debra Messing as a lonely housewife coming to terms with the turbulent depths of her own desire.
What was ABC thinking? How could a simple remake go so wrong? How did the wholesome family location of Kellerman’s become a raunchy karaoke joint where Katey Sagal performs such a steamy rendition of “Fever” that an aghast Dr. Houseman tells his wife she needs to leave? Is that Jennifer Lopez’s former toyboy juggling watermelons? The questions, they abound. If you’re determined to tune in on Wednesday evening, rest assured there will be ample commercial breaks during the turgid three-hour running time to ponder all of them.
This made-for-TV remake, directed by Wayne Blair, is the latest in a fleet of extravagant television musicals, with ABC seemingly panicking in its rush to capitalize on a heaving new trend (its upcoming production of The Little Mermaid will be performed in October in a mind-bending amalgam of animation and live performance). Dirty Dancing, like Fox’s recent remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, suffers from being pre-taped, and therefore having nothing to distinguish it from the far superior original movie other than incessant advertising interludes. Breslin plays Baby, a bookish teenager heading to a Catskills vacation resort with her father (Bruce Greenwood), her mother (Messing), and her sister, Lisa (Sarah Hyland), who’s been inexplicably transformed from an abrasive antagonist to a sweet and supportive sibling.
For the first hour or so, everything is pretty much standard-issue imitation: Baby carries a watermelon, Baby crashes a party and becomes enamored with a pelvis-thrusting bad boy in leather (Colt Prattes), Baby learns to dance, amid churlish comments about her “spaghetti arms” and a soundtrack of ’60s classics. But even the songs, recorded by the likes of Karmin and Lady Antebellum rather than The Shirelles and Otis Redding, ring hollow. In the 1987 movie, the music evoked a sense of nostalgia for a bygone era. Now, the updated covers evoke nostalgia for nostalgia, an Inception-like feat of physics that only reminds you how much better this all was when Patrick Swayze was in it.
That’s not to insult Prattes, a Broadway actor who does his best with an impossible ask in emulating Swayze’s febrile, snake-hipped magnetism. His Johnny is convincingly vulnerable, masculine, and chippy, and he has negative chemistry with Breslin, whose performance as Baby seems to have been interpreted for a high-school Ibsen play rather than a TV musical. Swayze and Jennifer Grey famously hated each other, which perhaps sparked some of the passion in their scenes together; Breslin and Prattes have all the ritual awkwardness and squelched physicality of a father-daughter dance.
The most interesting part of Dirty Dancing is its expansion of Marjorie Houseman from a cheery and oblivious young Emily Gilmore to a tragic operatic heroine continually begging her husband to sneak back to their room for a quickie. This is presumably how Blair persuaded Messing to come on board, sweetening the deal with a musical number, in this case a sad-eyed performance of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” The ballad of Marjorie is amped up with the expanded presence of Vivian Pressman (Sagal), a predatory divorcée who shoves Rolexes into Johnny’s jeans and laments how she can’t sleep alone at night because the walls creak. It’s a fascinating psychosexual exploration of middle-aged female desire that’s completely at odds with everything else going on. More to the point, when Baby’s discovery of her burgeoning womanhood is superseded by her mother’s, there’s a problem.
All of this only gestures to how unlikely a hit the original was: a ’60s dance movie with ’80s costumes starring two relative unknowns that Roger Ebert dismissed as “a tired and relentlessly predictable story of love between kids from different backgrounds.” But for the most part, it kept things simple, relying on the physical energy of Grey and Swayze to spin a summer-lovin’ fantasy. This contemporary version, stuffed with subplots and extended dance sequences and terrible writing (“We’re all gonna be worm food, anyways,” Baby tells Johnny in one impressively lust-squashing shrug of a line) can’t decide whether it wants to emulate the original Dirty Dancing or transform it into Chekhov. Either way, it’s less the time of your life and more three hours you’ll never get back.