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TV Review: The Dragans of New York – Discovering Hidden Gems at the Paley Center for Media

In a YouTube and Bittorrent era, it's easy to think access to all media is at your fingertips – that is, until you search in vain for that never-aired pilot written by and starring your favourite actor. At the Paley Center for Media, though, that thought returns. With more than 140,000 programs in their vaults, the Centers in Los Angeles and New York offer visitors access to almost 100 years of television and radio history.

My recent trip to Los Angeles coincided with PaleyFest – the new, catchier name for the William S. Paley Television Festival – so before one of the sessions, I wandered into the large, airy Center in Beverly Hills to take my membership for a spin.

The Paley Center for Media has also had a recent name change. Formerly known as the Museum of Television and Radio, the deceptively barren-looking building has no real collections on display, just a small gift shop and a few pictures strewn around a sparse gallery. The real attractions are the theatre, where they play a selection from their collection, and the library, where patrons have access to a bewildering array of programming.

The staff of the Center might have been welcoming me into their home, so friendly and accommodating they were. If I worked there, I might never leave – not for about 140,000 hours, anyway – so who knows, maybe they were literally welcoming me into their home. In any case, I was shown to a computer terminal to search for my selection while being given the spiel on all the Center has to offer.

Hugh LaurieGiven my difficulty in choosing from a few dishes on the Chinese food menu at lunch, selecting the one item I had time to view threatened to make me catatonic. Fortunately, I remembered my Hugh Laurie holy grail just in time: I'd look for his 2002 CBS pilot, The Dragans of New York. Since the Paley collection is curated, there was no guarantee they'd have it based on their criteria of "artistic achievement, social impact, or historic significance," but I was in luck. Someone at the Center was a fan, too.

Selection made, I was led to a booth while actual humans a floor below us loaded the tape – yes, tape. When I asked if there was a plan to convert to digital format, my guide answered dryly that with 140,000 programs, it was rather a long-term plan. We passed a couple laughing uproariously over old Newlywed Game episodes, and a couple of film school types who were either concentrating hard or dozing in their carrels.

After a few false starts, I was alone in mine with headphones and The Dragans of New York. Laurie, who cowrote the episode with Alex Taub (Eli Stone), costars as half of the Dragans, Mike and Rachel (I'll let you guess which one), who live in … well, I'll let you guess that, too.

The show is clearly a modern update of The Thin Man series of movies, with a genre best described as a comedic mystery.

Like William Powell's Nick Charles, Hugh Laurie's Mike Dragan is a former police detective now living a life of leisure thanks to a fortunate marriage – fortunate not only because of his wife's wealth, but because the pair are as obviously as well matched as, well, Nick and Nora Charles. A fabulous Liz Vassey plays Rachel as Mike's equal, tough and smart, much like Myrna Loy's Nora but with less of the 1930s gender-role baggage. Bored with Mike's boredom and obsession with women's volleyball, Rachel forces him to take an interest in a case that lands in their lap which, if the series had been picked up, would have launched him as an unwilling private investigator.

Unlike his current hit House, Laurie gets to keep his native English accent, though he does feign an American one for a time. Let's just say it was either intentionally bad for comedic effect, or he made amazing progress in the few short years between Dragans and House. Even more unlike House, Mike Dragan is a more or less traditional hero, and you could surprisingly add the adjectives "romantic" and "action" before "hero," too. Laurie pulls it off with aplomb, looking far more at ease in the role than in Maybe Baby, for example. 

About Diane Kristine Wild

  • Barbara Barnett

    Jealous does not even begin to describe. Besides a couple of “you-tubish” scenes, of course I’ve never had the fortune to see this lost little gem (gem-ette?).

    Even if this never really sees the light of day, I do wonder, given that Laurie has a screenplay (Gunseller) sitting in MGM’s vaults and this to his credit, if he hasn’t some sort of development deal for his post-House days?

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Mary

    Amen to that sister! I had the opportunity to view Dragans while in LA awhile ago and I agree with you 100%. I loved it, it was fun and witty but I walked away thinking if I were a TV exec I wouldn’t have picked it up either.

    Not all pilots are knock-your-socks-off great but there should be a strong foundation in the stories that can be built on. I don’t feel Dragans had that. Could it have with time and work? Maybe, but I’m with you in thanking the TV gods for letting this slide and giving us House instead.

    Here’s to hoping that when House is finished (in 50 years…) and Hugh has done a few movies, finished his second novel, and had a obscenely long vaction, that he will once again dip his toes in the pool of American television in the writing/directing/acting capacity and come away with a winner.

    That is of course after they get “The Gunseller” on the big screen!

  • Boffle

    Oh, deekay, I am so jealous! Would that someone would go in to that viewing booth with a camera phone and a wireless connection! (just kidding) The tiny clips we have all seen seem quite promising and I very much liked your description of the pilot. I’d love to see it myself, but I’m so glad you did and wrote about it for us: this is one of my holy grails too. (Also, I wonder if the title was a bit of reference to his alma mater of early days, the Dragon School?)

    Laurie by Laurie sounds like a great show and one we’d all love to see: TPTB, listen up! But of course House is both an iconoclastic and iconic show, the likes of which you don’t see everyday, or even hardly ever, so it’s great that that turned out as it did.

    And yay for The Gunseller on the big screen!

  • amysusanne

    i remember sending a giddy email out to friends when this pilot was bought. the same email had me all fangirly over the new judd apatow pilot, which had also been given the go ahead. obviously neither went anywhere, but i recall naively saying that i was happy that they were in the hands of fox and cbs (even though fox was royally screwing “undeclared” around the time i made that comment). on DoNY i said, quote unquote (because it’s archived on our yahoogroup):

    “and hugh laurie…well, that’s always good news. i’d say that his show has the best shot out of the three, what with cbs being a little more open to giving things a shot these days.”

    whatever drugs i was taking, i wish i still had some. my world was clearly full of nothing but rainbows and sunshine. {g}

    i loved this show for it’s simplicity and sweetness and screwball nature, but it never would have worked. since finally getting to see it a year or two back, though, i think it would make a very cute romantic comedy film (tv film?), but it’s possible that my love of both hugh and liz (and it was pretty sweet to see richard kind in there!) and my disapointment that nobody’s been able to pull off something as basic as this in a long time is clouding my judgement.

    i wish i’d known you were going to be out in LA for the paleyfest. i caught a couple of panels and would have liked to have finally gotten to say “hi” in person. then again, i’m in my own little world, so even if you’d flown a banner over my house saying you’d be there, it probably would have passed me right by. :-)

  • http://unifiedtheorynothingmuch.blogspot.com Diane Kristine

    amysusanne = rainbows + sunshine? My brain does not compute :) I wish I’d known *you* were going to be in LA – I think we were both there a couple of years ago for the House session, too. Some day maybe we’ll coordinate schedules!

  • Denis McGrath

    Liz Vassey. Sigh.

  • Diane Kristine

    At last, someone speaks up on the Liz Vassey side of the fandom. I only knew her from The Tick but she was great. Made me wonder what ever happened to her … and then I saw from imdb she’s doing very well, thank you very much, just on shows I don’t watch.

    Oh, and Boffle, don’t think that didn’t cross my mind (camera phone), but those Paley people were so darn nice, I couldn’t have done it even if I’d had the guts.

  • amysusanne

    >>amysusanne = rainbows + sunshine? My brain does not compute :) <<

    seriously, what the hell? i wonder, looking back on those optimistic days, what could have possibly gone wrong with me. {g}

    next time i go on a vacation, whether it’s LA or peoria, i’ll let you know just in case!

    as for liz vassey: i love her. she’s so much fun and so underrated. have you ever seen “maximum bob”? awesome show, awesome cast, cruelly murdered by ABC in a summer time period. i actually wound up watching an episode the week of the “house” paley panel because the moderator (and how great was it to have actually moderators this year who were fans, btw?) teased about “dragans…” being added to the collection. evil man. since it wasn’t there yet and i had already psyched myself into watching television for two hours, i got the MB pilot and it was as wonderful as it was the first time.

  • Diane Kristine

    Maximum Bob, I forgot about that show but loved what little I saw it – I only clearly remember the mermaid now, though, not her.

    Were you at FNL? I was dreading a little too much of the moderator/fan but Ausiello was better than I expected.

    If Peoria has a tv festival, I’m there :)

  • http://www.sweetiethesmartestdog.com sue

    Barbara, I have a question about this pilot. I have seen Hugh Laurie’s comedy, House, MD, and some of his other “in between” movies. These include Maybe Baby, Girl from Rio, Stuart Little, and 101 Dalmations. Hugh is superb at the extremes, but average in the middle. No one but Hugh could create a character as unforgettable and incredible as House. No one could have played the comedic roles Hugh has played in ABOF&L, Blackadder, and Jeeves and Wooster. But others could have easily played the father in Stuart Little, the downtrodden banker in Girl from Rio, etc. I don’t see those roles he played as memorable. I perceive Hugh has more problem acting “average” than he does acting “incredible.”

    So, where in this continuum does this pilot fall? Is Hugh “at ease” in this role? Is he on the “incredible” end or the “average” end? Do you think it makes a difference if he is playing an American or if he is British when he is acting? How do you think he would be the same or different if he played this role as an American?

  • http://unifiedtheorynothingmuch.blogspot.com Diane Kristine

    I’ll take a crack at answering this since I wrote the original piece and I don’t believe Barbara has seen Dragans …

    I thought he was at ease in the role but I could have seen any number of actors doing it well, too, unlike House. In fact, William Powell did a pretty good job in the original :) There was nothing incredible about this pilot, but it was likeable and charming, and some of that was the acting and some was the writing.

    I wouldn’t call it Laurie’s fault that the father in Stuart Little, for example, wasn’t as indelible a character as House, either. So much of what makes an actor pop in a role is a combination of the right actor for the right role plus the right writing, and too often fans forget that last part. Even the best actors can only do so much with weak writing.

    And even the best have a certain range, and I think Maybe Baby, for example, fell outside his comfort zone. It doesn’t take anything away from his acting chops to say that some of his past performances have not been the right marriage of actor with role – that’s true of any actor, from Lawrence Olivier to Carrot Top.

    With House as well as Fry & Laurie, Blackadder, and Jeeves & Wooster, he’s proven that with the right material, his range extends from heartbreaking drama to silly comedy, but it would be ridiculous to think he could do every kind of role equally well, particularly when an actor has only so much control in the creative process.

  • amysusanne

    i wasn’t at FNL. i’m not a regular viewer, so i didn’t plan the trip around that one. if “mad men” or “dirty sexy money” had been that night i totally would have called in fake sick to extend my vacation week, though. {g} and if i’d had the foresight, i would have bought the premium package (though i’m not entirely sure that the fangirl side of me would have been able to handle being at the apatow party…she probably would have had to leave quickly) and sold the buffy ticket. that could have financed the whole trip!

    my priority was the apatow panel and the fact that “chuck” and “pushing daisies” (both of which i love) were bookended there, i was in tv heaven. like you with ausiello (and i completely understand that one), i’ve never been shy in whining about how much kristen dos santos annoys me, but i wound up being surprised by the decent job she did. it was sort of the opposite of the whole “small doses” thing because apparently in order to make me like kristen you need to give me *more* of her. go figure. i enjoyed, her. i enjoyed damon lindelof’s moderation of the “chuck” panel so much more, though. god, he was hilarious. of all of the panels i’ve seen, whether at paley or elsewhere, “chuck” is the first one that i think i would actually make a point of going to the museum and sitting through again in its entirety.

  • http://unifiedtheorynothingmuch.blogspot.com Diane Kristine

    Yeah, I’m not a real fan of FNL either. Paley happened to coincide with my vacation so while I’m always up for some tv geekery, there were no panels I was dying to see while I was there. I was at the Judd Apatow one too and much more excited to see that one though. I was really sad to miss Pushing Daisies – it was a day early for me – and if I’d known the moderators I would have picked Chuck over FNL for sure (it was a toss up for me).

    Who knew about the “large doses” thing. I guess that’s the secret to people who are too “on” for me in their usual small doses.

  • NLP

    Thanks so much for that wonderful review. But did you really care about the plot?! Heck, seeing Hugh being witty & debonair on screen AND with his English accent?! That’s plenty for me (although I definitely am not the type to reflect the views of 30 million viewers.)

    Too bad, I assume, that the center is not for profit. Given the tremendous worldwide popularity of Hugh Laurie right now, I would think putting The Dragans on tape/DVD would be an excellent seller. Hey, I know — Since House’s season was cut short, they owe us more on the 4th Season DVD – negotiate for the rights and add the Dragans to the DVD! That would satisfy me. (Anyone want to bet whether the price for the House 4th Season DVD is going to be any less than the other 3? The pricing hasn’t even been announced yet, but I’m already ticked off about it.)

  • amysusanne

    “and if I’d known the moderators I would have picked Chuck over FNL for sure (it was a toss up for me).”

    i’m one of the very few people who don’t watch “lost” (i know), but i knew he was entertaining and i was kind of excited to see him. he was funny and charming and weird enough to make me actually want to suck it up and put his show in the netflix queue.

  • Diane Kristine

    @amysusanne: Yeah, I don’t watch Lost either – I rented the season one DVDs a while ago and got kinda bored (I know). So ditto, I just knew he was entertaining.

    @NLP: The Paley wouldn’t have the rights to release on DVD anyway – that should be CBS. And since House is an NBC/Uni production airing on FOX … well, you can always dream about it as a House extra! My long-wished for scenario is that all these unwanted pilots get put up on the network websites so we can judge for ourselves, and heck, they can get a few page views out of it.

    And watching the pilot, which I enjoyed tremendously, no, I didn’t care about the plot … because they didn’t give me all that much to care about. But for a weekly series? I’d care. It probably would have died if it hadn’t gotten stronger after the pilot, yet if it had lasted just long enough, Laurie might not have been available for House.

  • ajones

    Ah, this review fills me with relief.

    I just googled “Dragans of New York” after glancing at his IMDb page, and this was the first response, the second response being a Youtube clip of the pilot in question. Of course, I clicked on the link to YT first and was filled with dread after the first few seconds… I couldn’t place the genre and I was beginning to cringe, like I tend to do when he plays romantic leads (this doesn’t make sense to me either, as I adore him in anything else). But after reading that it was based on the Thin Man, everything is all right in the world… I love the 1930s film series! As much as I feel William Powell and Myrna Loy are irreplaceable, if Hugh Laurie were to attempt it I would certainly trust him.