Now, whenever a cultural icon is reinvented for a new era, one always expects a few changes. I don't think we were expecting this many.
Carl Kolchak, as you may recall, was a down-on-his-luck loner, a middle-aged, average-looking has-been reporter whose primary positive qualities were his investigative skills, his tenacity and his flair for mocking authority. He had a part buddy/ part adversarial (mostly the latter) relationship with his boss, Tony Vincenzo. The adversarial part of their relationship came to a head when Kolchak came upon the story that first piqued his interest in the supernatural: a killer who appeared to be an actual vampire. The police, not wanting to look stupid, were not about to admit that there really might be things that go bump in the night running around their city...and Vincenzo (being not exactly akin to Ben Bradlee) was only too happy to quash the story in order to keep the authorities happy. This, of course, rubbed Kolchak the wrong way. Kolchak was dedicated to getting the truth out, no matter what.
Well, that brings us to the new Kolchak.
In ABC's latest incarnation, Kolchak is changed almost beyond recognition. Now he is young, good-looking and morose. He no longer seems to have arguments with Vincenzo. Most surprisingly, perhaps...he was married. His wife was killed by one of these bumpy-night-things, and now he pursues stories about them. Instead of operating alone, he's joined by his partner Peri and staff photographer Jain.
This makes for an awfully weird feel. Watching a young, handsome Kolchak investigate a story with his capable partner Peri and wide-eyed photographer Jain, you get the feeling you're actually in Metropolis with Clark, Lois and Jimmy.
Those changes alone are enough to alienate a number of the "Night Stalker" faithful. But there's an underlying feeling, a style, that's also very different from the original books, movies and series.
Whereas the "old" Kolchak used to narrate events in a snappy, factual way, Spotnitz has fallen back into his "X Files" habit of just using opening and closing narration which, even then, is more on the philosophical than factual side. It's a change that removes a considerable amount of the pacing and realism from the show. And if you're looking for the old Kolchak who had a smart mouth and was ever quick with a quip...forget it. He's not here. This Kolchak is more moody than mouthy.
Even the music is languid. In the original movies, the score was jazzy yet kind of morbid, a style that fit the stories to a T. Here, you'll find music more like what you'd hear on...well, "The X Files".
Then there's the Vincenzo thing. "Old" Kolchak had to battle not only the authorities but his boss. This one is clearly Kolchak's pal, which removes half the conflict from the show. Believe it or not, there are none of those wonderful Kolchak-Vincenzo screaming matches here. Instead, we're offered an FBI agent who wants to pin the death of Kolchak's wife on Kolchak himself. Shades of The Fugitive. (Ironically, the agent's name is Fain. Bernie Fain was an FBI agent buddy of Kolchak's in the original novel.)
One truly bizarre feature of the show: this Kolchak drives a newish yellow Mustang and lives in a penthouse suite with a built-in swimming pool. Give me a break!
The true test of whether this is a worthy "Night Stalker" or not is...if you removed the title from the show, and changed the names of the characters to Smith and Jones...would anybody recognize it? Chances are, beyond the fact that the stories are supernatural and the hero works at a newspaper, no, you would not. Kolchak no longer resembles Kolchak, either figuratively or literally.
The one bright spot in the show was a digitally-inserted "in-joke" in which Darren McGavin, replete with seersucker suit and straw hat, was inserted into the foreground of a shot of the newsroom. Unfortunately, it served only to remind the viewer of the big difference between the original Kolchak and Spotnitz's Kolchak.
And finally -- without giving away spoilers -- there's the puzzling shot of Kolchak's hand at the end of the episode which ties in with the murder of his wife. That was just weird.
The fault does not all lie with Frank Spotnitz. In a TV Guide interview, he stated that the "mission" aspect of the show -- finding the killer of Kolchak's wife -- was inserted at the insistence of the suits at ABC, who felt Kolchak needed a stronger motivation for going after ghoulies and ghosties. Nevertheless, this "Night Stalker" does not have the jazzy music, the narration, the pacing or the comic patter -- in other words, the feel -- of the original. It looks more like "The X Files" than "The Night Stalker".
Oh well. It's not a bad show. It just should've been much, much better.