A new look for old ‘Ironside’

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Blair Underwood (left) as Robert Ironside and Kenneth Choi as Ed. (Will Hart/NBC)

For most young viewers, the history of Ironside is ancient. For anyone who remembers that history, might as well forget it before watching the new version.

The original Ironside series premiered in 1967 and ran until 1975, with a reunion movie in 1993. Raymond Burr starred as the gruff Robert Ironside, a blunt-speaking departure from the smooth and sophisticated Perry Mason Burr had played on TV from 1957 to 1966. (Later years would bring many Mason reunion movies.) Ironside’s career as San Francisco’s chief of police detectives had ended after he was shot and paralyzed; still, from a wheelchair he led a team of investigators solving sundry crimes to the beat of a jazzy soundtrack and Quincy Jones’ theme. The show could surprise, at least in the early years; it was the first place most folks saw Tiny Tim perform. But mostly it was a mildly interesting detective show depending on the audience affection for Burr.

In the new Ironside, premiering at 10 p.m. Wednesday on NBC (with the series premiere online now), there’s still a detective (but not a chief) named Robert Ironside who works from a wheelchair, and is now played by Blair Underwood. Beyond that, though, this is a grittier and grimmer show; even the shooting that put Ironside in a chair — revealed in a flashback in the premiere — is laden with gloom.

And this is an Ironside who’s fundamentally angry, and looking for people to take it out on. He was a physical, street detective and has lost a lot of that. After the shooting, he had to go to court to get back on the force and in charge of his own team. And even the checking of a crime scene is a reminder that he sees the world from a different angle than cops who can walk.

Of course, that may also mean he can see better. And the show goes out of its way to establish that Ironside still has a good skill set. The series opens with him interrogating a suspect in the back of a car, where the close quarters let Ironside play rough. It also shows that Ironside’s charisma is appealing to women, and he is quite capable of a steamy love scene.

Is that enough? Can viewers today, like those of the old Ironside, stick around only because there’s a moderately interesting character on the air? (Or will you watch simply because Copley High grad Carrie Coon has a guest-starring role?) I had mixed feelings. The show’s atmosphere was fine. Only there have been a lot of police and detective series in the years since the old Ironside ended. The storytelling here felt full of cop-show deja vu.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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