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LeVar Burton in the original 1977 version of "Roots." The miniseries is being remade by the History Network.
Near the end of "Roots," the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries, savvy Chicken George famously notes that when Plan A fails, you'd better have a Plan B.
For some 100 million viewers – about 45 percent of the U.S. population at the time – there was no plan other than to watch that unforgettable finale. During 12 hours over eight days that January, we only had Plan ABC: We tuned into the network night after night to watch an American TV classic unfold.
Now, nearly 37 years after we met Kunta Kinte in his native West Africa, comes word of a "Roots" remake by the History channel. The creative team faces a big challenge – and a bigger responsibility – in recapturing the spirit of the original with the dignity it deserves.
The first reaction is a question: Why mess with a classic? Many folks who weren’t around for the first go, no doubt, have experienced “Roots” via reruns, Netflix or DVD.
Most of us didn’t have that option in 1977 when Betamaxes only just started popping up in homes. “Roots” debuted on a Sunday night, three days after Jimmy Carter, a Southern liberal, was sworn in as president. His election came in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, both of which much of the country hoped to put behind us. But producer David L. Wolper offered a chance to confront the enduring national shame of slavery, through the TV realization of Alex Haley's 1976 Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling novel based on his lineage.
“Roots,” was part history lesson, to be sure. But the miniseries’ major appeal ultimately rest in its richly rendered story of an American family – a gripping odyssey that got people talking at water coolers, in classrooms and just about everywhere else that January and beyond.
The cast certainly helped keep viewers transfixed. "Roots" gave us a mix of newcomers (LeVar Burton as young Kunte Kinte, long before “Reading Rainbow”) and familiar faces in unfamiliar roles: “Good Times” star John Amos as the older Kunte Kinte; beloved sitcom figures Ed Asner (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) and Robert Reed (“The Brady Bunch”) as seriously flawed characters. The long, heartbreaking relationship between the childhood friends played by Leslie Uggams and Sandy Duncan benefitted from performances as strong as the story. Ben Vereen, then best known as a commanding presence on the musical stage, nearly stole the show as Chicken George, the man with more than one plan.
The new version of “Roots” will be competing with powerful memories of the original. It also will be competing for attention in a multimedia age where mass, shared viewing experiences like “Roots” are unheard of, even if Twitter and other social media can make the conversation about a TV show instantaneous. The remake reportedly will run eight hours instead of 12 – a concession, perhaps to declining attention spans.
Executives at History, which has mounted successful miniseries recounting tales from Bible and the Hatfield-McCoy feud, likely see another opportunity to attract new viewers with a retelling of a familiar story. The announcement about the “Roots” reboot also comes amid recent, but very different pop culture takes on scourge of slavery – ranging from “Lincoln” to “Django Unchained” to “12 Years a Slave.”
While the first “Roots” began with the Carter presidency, the new one – though an air date hasn’t been set – could come in the twilight of the Obama years. That would make for a nice bookend, though it will take far more than symbolism and timing to guarantee reaching the high bar set by the original.
Plan A worked out incredibly well in 1977. We’ll see whether Plan B is worth once again rooting ourselves in front of the television to revisit a story that made TV history.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.