Most millennials might be more familiar with MacGruber, the Saturday Night Live skit turned 2010 movie with Will Forte and Kristen Wiig, than MacGyver, the 1985-92 ABC series that spawned the parody. The titular character was a mulleted, secret agent hottie who went from Russia to the Amazon getting rid of bad guys and saving tied-up ladies. He could diffuse an explosive with a paper clip, turn a casket into a Jet Ski and patch up a hot air balloon midair. He never used guns, only his resourcefulness and trusty Swiss Army knife. He was an American hero with one flaw: a fear of heights.
By today’s standards MacGyver seems dated, but Mac could be making a comeback. Though plans for a film by Saw and Furious 7 director James Wan were ditched, a TV reboot with a female lead is on the horizon. Earlier this year, the National Academy of Engineering, USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, the MacGyver Foundation and MacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff announced they’re co-sponsoring “The Next MacGyver,” a screenplay competition for a show about female engineers aimed at middle and high school students, which would inspire young women to pursue STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).
Of the nearly 2,000 international entries, 12 will be presenting their pitches at the Paley Center for Media today in front of judges including Zlotoff, actress America Ferrara, Anthony E. Zuiker (creator of the CSI franchise), Roberto Orci (writer and producer of Star Trek) and Lori McCreary (producer of Madam Secretary). Their ideas range from sci-fi and steampunk to spy thriller and comedy. The five winners will partner up with two mentors who’ll help develop and shop their pilots to networks before the end of the year.
“I thought, ‘This is exactly who I am,’” says Culver City’s Shanee Edwards, 35, a freelance journalist and one of four L.A.-based finalists. “I love science. I write about women and science.”
In her steampunk-themed show, Ada and the Machine, Edwards casts as her muse Ada Lovelace, a mathematician who’s recognized as the first computer programmer (and is the real-life daughter of Lord Byron). Lovelace works for Scotland Yard and fights crime in Industrial Revolution London with her 19th-century version of a Swiss Army knife: a chatelaine.
Edwards is writing a novel on Lovelace and even occasionally dresses in character when teaching science to at-risk youth. “I’ve seen the way little girls react to the costumes,” she says. “They just love it. I always thought she was the perfect icon for young women.”
Like Edwards, Kristen Bobst, from Marina del Rey, grew up watching MacGyver. “It’s a nostalgia thing,” she says. “Growing up, it was always on syndication. He’s solving crime with his intellect. It’s a Doctor Who type thing.”
Bobst, 32, is also a freelance writer and has created educational apps for kids. For her idea, Doctor Tailor, the heroine is Tilly Tailor, a modern-day wearable-technology designer — think smart watches, smart jackets and smart bras — who’s recruited by the FBI. Bobst imagines her heroine going undercover, hacking into clothes and fighting terrorists using a sewing kit as her go-to gadget.
At 26, Wesley Burger confesses he’s less familiar with the show. “What drew me to the competition wasn’t the MacGyver part,” he says. “To me, it’s more about having a conversation about women in STEM and women in film and TV.”
Burger runs a tech start-up in Long Beach, which inspired him to create Imagineers, about a group of quirky and clever Disney Imagineers; he describes it as a cross between The Office and Silicon Valley. They design Disneyland rides and brainstorm ideas Mad Men–style. “The comedy derives from engineering fails,” he says. And their leader is Nadine, a Latina, who’s a nerd’s nerd, speaking in pop culture references and using her wits rather than tools to get out of sticky situations.
“I think it’s really hard for men to write women well,” Burger admits. “But when I relate to Nadine, I relate to her nerdiness and my own experiences being a kid who got made fun of a lot and working in technology.”
Though he hopes Disney will ultimately fund his project, Burger says he could create similar content at Netflix or Amazon. “It’s very possible to have the same story with the same beating heart and same main character.”
Hollywood’s Miranda Sajdak, 31, points to her grandfather, who served in World War II, and her favorite film, A League of Their Own, as the key influences on her period drama, Riveting Concept. Her leading lady, Junie Duncan, is a prom queen who becomes an engineer and joins the war effort after the death of her soldier fiancé. She builds planes in a factory and even faces off against Nazis.
“A League of Their Own didn’t make me get into softball,” says Sajdak, who’s a freelance writer and also does script coverage for various studios. “It made me get into entertainment because I wanted to create media that would inspire girls the way the movie inspired me.”
Sajdak contemplates actresses such as Chloe Grace Moretz, Juno Temple and Ellen Page to play the lead, while Bobst is keen on Rashida Jones. “It’s important not to have your average blonde,” Bobst says.
Though Burger hasn’t settled on his dream cast yet, he’s certain about one thing: “There’s too many people who look like me doing technology.”