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Dirty Dancing: ABC's '80s Reboot Feels out of Step in 2017

Stories about feminism, abortion and racism get the Disney treatment

Malcolm Venable

I wish I could tell you that any preemptive eye-rolling you're doing over ABC's Dirty Dancingremake wasn't warranted. We tend to take ownership of era-defining films like this '80s classic, after all. Nearly everyone of a certain age can remember trying to recreate Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey's famous lift in the backyard pool; and lord knows we don't want to see our childhoods ruined.

But the sad truth is that this version, which pairs Abigail Breslin (as Baby) with Colt Prattes (as Johnny), doesn't nail the leaps it tries to make. What was once sexy, sultry and a little subversive has been sanitized and Disney-fied. Tugs at the heartstrings are cheap. Dialogue, and a musical component that has characters bursting into songs from the film, are laugh-out-loud funny -- unintentionally. But its gravest sin isn't that it's unnecessary (which it is), but that its attempt to be relevant in 2017 falls flat, making it out of step with our times.

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To be fair, the first Dirty Dancing was poorly received too when it debuted in 1987. Test audiences hated it; critics panned it. But what made it catch on with the masses, apart from hot and steamy scenes, was its provocative storylines that addressed pressing issues such as feminism and abortion. Thirty years later, those topics are no less pertinent, but also so ubiquitous in pop culture that the conversations have grown more sophisticated.

ABC's Dirty Dancing presents these now every day topics, as well as a thread about interracial romance, as taboo in a way that's disconnected from the present -- leaving you to feel like a 12-year-old might after being given a Discman. In an era where actual dirty dancing -- i.e. twerking and grinding -- has gone so mainstream that Katie Couric knows how to do it, this adaptation does not tango with the present in way it could've.

Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing

Guy D'Alema, ABC

A lot of what you remember from the original is intact: the drama still takes place in 1963; Baby still goes with her family to a resort in the Catskills before heading off to college. Young Baby is what the kids today call "woke." She's parroting Betty Friedan's then-revolutionary feminist manifesto The Feminine Mystique, and her worldview puts her at odds with her family: sister Lisa (Sarah Hyland), who's just hoping to find a husband; and unhappily wed parents Jake (Bruce Greenwood) and Marjorie Housman (Debra Messing).

You know how this goes: she meets and falls in love with the black sheep Johnny, cons her dad into paying for Penny's (Nicole Scherzinger) abortion and scandals erupt. Only this time, Baby's family conflict is ramped up: Marjorie wants to leave her neglectful husband. Their potential divorce, happening amid a growing women's revolution, weighs heavy on her mind and, judging by the way she acts, will make her as unpopular in her circles as an Uggs-wearing leper with chronic halitosis. Coupled with the fact that the dialogue around this crisis is on-the-nose and occasionally painful, the drama seems inconsequential.

But that shoulder shrug of a story is favorable to the race-based commentary Dirty Dancing attempts with Lisa, who befriends a black kid also at the resort. He's a musician and the son of Tito -- the bandleader we're led to believe is Latino but is bafflingly played by not-at-all Latino Billy Dee Williams -- who urges him to stay away from the white girl. You see where Dirty Dancing is trying to go with this, but it's overly grating. There's little danger or risk, save from the scorn of faux-Latino Tino; and the missing tension turns what could've been powerful into another, 'Ok, and?' moment.

Perhaps something could have been made of a musical set in the '60s, made in the '80s that's being remade today. A similar trajectory helped last year's Hairspray Live! feel relevant through cheeky winks threaded through earnest performances and a stellar cast. Dirty Dancing misses the mark, though, by not filtering the material in the same way.

There's more that's off, unfortunately, including an updated ending that won't be spoiled here for fear of starting riots in the streets. And it does have its bright spots: Debra Messing, Abigail Breslin and Sarah Hyland all do the best they can with the material and keep the story afloat; Katey Sagal is perfectly cast as camp cougar Vivian Pressman. But casting alone isn't enough to redeem it, and unless viewers plan to do some 21st century tweeting while hate-watching, Dirty Dancing doesn't have enough swing in the modern era to make it mean a thing.

Dirty Dancing airs Wednesday May 24 at 8/7c on ABC.