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.
Given 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.
Yet the plot isn't quite the traditional hero-saves-the-day, though he does, with much help from Rachel and, believe it or not, a transit cop. I bet you don't see that on CSI every day. At one point, Rachel is in the hands of the bad guys, who call Mike to make threats — a setup we've seen a million times before, but not quite with this payoff. His accurate if hilariously non-heroic (and non-Thin Man-era) reply is: "If you lift one finger against her … she will kick your ass."
The humour of Dragans is far less Housian and far more Hugh Laurian, both clever and oddball goofy. "You're the new people," the Dragans' grey-haired neighbours sniff disdainfully after catching the couple kissing in the elevator. "And you're the old people," Mike replies. "Why the pointy hats?" someone asks about British police. "Pointy heads," is the answer. When a wisecracking New York cop is less than helpful, Mike retorts: "So we get jokes here and if we want a crime solved we go to Letterman, is that how it works?"
I can't stress enough how unlike House this show is, other than starring a guy who looks a lot like a clean-shaven, well-rested version of the caustic doctor, mixed with a tiny bit of Blackadder's Prince George silliness. The closest TV equivalent to Dragans I can think of is Moonlighting or Bones, but even closer is perhaps not surprisingly Laurie's own book The Gun Seller, though with a strong female co-lead. This is Laurie as written by Laurie rather than David Shore, after all.
Would it have worked as a series? Should we start pelting CBS with plush dragons in protest at not picking it up six years ago? Not if it would have meant trading Laurie's take on Dr. Gregory House for it.
I was giddy with joy at watching The Dragans of New York, but I'm both a pre-existing Thin Man and Hugh Laurie fan. If I could predict TV pilot success I'd be a well-paid TV executive, but I can't imagine this series taking off the way House has.
That aside, my love for its humour and debonair charms of both stars didn't blind me to the lameness of Dragans' mystery plot, which is largely an excuse for witty banter. Rachel's niece, whose fiance's disappearance is the center of their investigation, is almost a prop rather than a character. One particularly jarring scene makes that clear: we see her in the background while the Dragans discover clues that point to his life being in danger, all while making smart remarks.
The light tone to the show overall frequently clashed with the mystery, though that could have been a solvable problem. However, it would take a lot more than this pilot to make me regret the loss of this fun series at the expense of the meatier one that was destined to make Laurie an American star.