"Remington Steele" fans are in for a surprise Tuesday. In the last episode of the season, Steele walks out on his beloved Miss Holt and their detective agency.
It isn't exactly a cliffhanger in the "Dallas" tradition: The series, after all, is called "Remington Steele."
"He's coming back," promises Michael Gleason, executive producer and co-creator (with Robert Butler) of the three-year-old NBC series.
No, Steele's disappearance is more of a punctuation mark in the hot-and-cold running romance between him and Laura Holt (as portrayed so deftly by Pierce Brosnan and Stephanie Zimbalist).
As Gleason and his writing staff are fashioning the new season, the story picks up with Laura tracking down Steele in London. There, in a two- or three-part episode to be shot on location, she learns more about his mysterious past and helps solidify his present identity as the famous private detective whom she originally had created as a ruse to bring in new clients to her agency.
As a result, Gleason says, Steele will no longer always feel compelled to defer to Laura in decisions about how the firm is run and what cases they take.
The goal, he says, is to recapture some of the feistiness and professional vs. personal conflict that their relationship had during the first season.
"We want to pull the relationship apart and bring it back together again with a little bit different attitude," Gleason explains. "We want to get that spark of the first year back."
That was when the charming con man with five passports and a checkered past full of international intrigue had forced himself into Laura's life, assuming the identity of her fictitious boss and bumbling his way through her investigations. She didn't want him messing up her work, but she couldn't expose him without revealing publicly that there never had been a Remington Steele--and she wasn't sure she really wanted to anyway because of her strong attraction to him. It also didn't hurt that his passion for old movies often helped crack her cases.
But neither did she trust him enough to make a commitment.
The evolution of that relationship has been the distinctive attraction of what otherwise would have been a fairly routine private-eye show. "Remington Steele" achieved its best ratings ever this season--up 6% over a year ago to rank 27th among all series--and is credited with having inspired such imitations as CBS' "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" and ABC's "Moonlighting."
What Gleason doesn't want to do next season, and has resisted doing from the second season on, is have Steele and Laura go to bed with each other and begin a conventional affair--even though it's quite clear by now that they love each other.
That has been the show's fundamental creative dilemma: how to make the premise of a 1940s romantic comedy credible in a 1980s setting.
"We've had to contrive all sorts of reasons about why they don't sleep together," Gleason acknowledges.
The plot often stops dead in its tracks to allow the characters to reflect on the current state of their relationship, because that relationship "is as important as the case they're on," Gleason explains. Sometimes one is interested in moving to the next plateau but the other isn't; other times they're both interested but lose the moment to a development in the case.
Gleason, an exuberant man who is refreshingly passionate about his show and doesn't hesitate to jump up and act out scenes to help make a point, is adamant about sticking to the no-sex rule.
"The show is about two people who are very attracted to each other but who won't give an inch in what they want," he says. "If they give that inch, we'll be doing a different series. We'll be doing Mr. and Mrs. North, or Nick and Nora, or 'Hart to Hart'--which is what we set out not to do."
What they set out to do was a romance, he says, noting that in the 1940s movies that they were emulating, the principals never got together until the end. So even though the series has been on the air for three years, "Remington Steele" is still technically in the middle of its story.
"It's a fade-out once they get together," Gleason insists. "Otherwise it becomes very mundane as they get up in the morning and say, 'How would you like your toast?' If you lose sight of what show you're doing, I think the audience will get confused and say, 'They don't know what they're doing' and go somewhere else."
So while other series rush to incorporate rock music with their visuals to emulate the success of "Miami Vice," there was "Remington Steele" this week punctuating its story with songs by Tony Bennett.
That's knowing what show you're doing.