‘Hart to Hart Returns’ (1993): Reunion film as nostalgic as the series it’s based on

They’re back!…26 years ago. A little birdie told us at the Drunk TV offices (yep…just like Song of the South) that our favorite Blu-ray/DVD company, Mill Creek Entertainment, is releasing a package of all the Hart to Hart reunion movies from the 1990s. Well…sign us up for that nostalgic grab-bag of sophisticated TV thrills!

By Paul Mavis

1993’s Hart to Hart Returns, starring Stefanie Powers, Robert Wagner, and Lionel Stander, was the first of the made-for-TV reunion movies based on producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg’s popular ‘80s ABC romantic mystery series. Hart to Hart Returns ably recreates the lighthearted charm of the original show, particularly when chemistry-loaded Wagner and Powers are on screen. A decent if unsurprising mystery is offered here, aided by a solid supporting cast (Joe Mannix!) and typically lush production values. It’s perfect viewing for the loyal Hart to Hart fan.

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Old Air Force buddy Bill McDowell (Mike Connors) wants self-made multi-millionaire Jonathan Hart (Robert Wagner) to buy his massive aeronautics laboratory. Defense contracts are drying up, and McDowell thinks it’s time to transition to peace-time applications for his company’s products―a transition he doesn’t think his tech-savvy son, Peter (Lance Guest), is capable of shepherding.

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Meanwhile, Jonathan’s wife, gorgeous freelance writer Jennifer Hart (Stefanie Powers), is working on an article about Dr. Paul Menard (Ken Howard), of the World Team Medical Organization, a quasi-military/U.N. unit that drops doctors into troubled political hot spots all over the globe. Like any good businessman, Jonathan begins his homework on McDowell Aviation, but when acquisitions/merger researcher Eric Hayden (Brian Reddy) winds up dead, Jonathan’s poking around in McDowell’s army contracts begins a series of frame-ups that could cost the mystery-hound Harts their lives.

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Back in the early 80s, I wasn’t what you would call a dedicated fan of Hart to Hart (I was usually checking out The CBS Tuesday Night Movie). However, when I did catch it, I always found Hart to Hart quite light and charming, and frequently amusing (that pulsating, driving disco-flavored title sequence was worth the price of any episode…particularly when lush Stephanie Powers, behind the wheel of a fast car, lasers right into the camera with a devastatingly sexy smile).

RELATED | More 1990s TV reviews

Created by megawatt bestseller machine, Sidney Sheldon, and shepherded by golden touch producers Spelling and Goldman, Hart to Hart was never meant to be anything more than a light, airy confection designed to entertain first and last. Importantly, though, those producers took seriously their task of providing expertly-produced fluff, and I respected the show—as well as most of Spelling/Goldberg products—for that dedication.

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TV reunion movies, however, are another matter for me: I usually avoid them like the plague, even for beloved shows like Perry Mason or The Andy Griffith Show. It’s not so much the already-doomed striving to recapture a time and a place and a feeling that bothers me with such nostalgia-based exercises, as much as it’s the deadly slow reverence these movies usually employ. The tone of these reunion movies is often ghoulish in the displaying of the still-surviving cast members, the plots ponderously plodding along, while we’re invited to sit and watch our favorites from decades past, cataloging the withering effects of time on our once-ageless idols.

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For me, I’d rather just watch the old shows. After all, the whole point of immersing yourself in vintage TV is denial, isn’t it? Who wants to see the effects of reality on our happy TV memories?

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So…it’s rather doubly weird to watch a Hart to Hart reunion movie from 26 years ago…that was produced as an exercise in nostalgia almost 10 years after the original series folded. Watching this today, Hart to Hart Returns is set even further back in time from its original premiere, than the original series was for the fans who caught this first movie back in ’93. Watching Hart to Hart Returns is almost an exercise in nostalgia for nostalgia, in a strange way.

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Seeing the people involved behind the cameras, I wasn’t surprised that Hart to Hart Returns came over as pleasantly as it did. Scripted by E. Jack Kaplan (My Fellow Americans, lots of serial TV like Hotel and Simon & Simon), Richard Chapman (also My Fellow Americans, The Amazing Dobermans), and James G. Hirsch (lots of solid made-for-TV movies like Inmates: A Love Story and The Rape of Richard Beck), and directed by Tony-winning Peter H. Hunt (1776, Quark, When Things Were Rotten, Ellery Queen), Hart to Hart Returns has its genial, laid-back vibe down pat, eschewing the sometimes enjoyably silly element that often popped up in the original series, for a more contemplative, romantic current through the involved-but-not-hard-to-figure-out mystery.

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And certainly, Wagner and Powers get the lion’s share of the credit for helping to create that gracious, welcoming ambience. Hart to Hart Returns‘ script may not surprise any Columbo devotees (or even Lancelot Link fans…), but it does provide plenty of opportunities for Powers and Wagner to trade romantic (or even slightly risqué) quips (“Down, boy, down.” “Are you talking to the dog?” as they clinch), as they gaze lovingly into each other’s smiling eyes. Chemistry is impossible to predict or manufacture between two performers in front of the cameras: they either have “it,” or they don’t. And Powers and Wagner certainly have “it.”

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More at-ease and smooth (if that’s possible) than in the original series, the sometimes amiable goofiness element of Powers’ and Wagner’s teaming is downplayed in favor of a mellow groove that’s unbeatable when you want to watch pretty people, in pretty locations, having pretty little murder/mystery fantasies. And that’s all Hart to Hart Returns has to do: entertain us and charm us with its fantasy view of life and death in the ridiculous TV world of mystery-solving multi-millionaires. Hart to Hart Returns ain’t “art”…but it’s artfully done.

STAY TUNED: Our 8-part series on Hart to Hart reunion movies will continue as we lead up to the release of Mill Creek’s new DVD collection on August 13, 2019.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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