Reboots continue to prove there’s nothing new under the sun, but “Get Shorty,” a dark and satisfying 10-episode series premiering Sunday on Epix, makes a persuasive case for recycling. Based primarily in spirit on the 1990 Elmore Leonard novel, the series is a fine upgrade from the almost forgettable 1995 film version that starred John Travolta in his “Pulp Fiction” afterglow. This “Get Shorty” succeeds mainly by making a viewer forget that anything else came before, and shouldn’t that be the goal of all remakes?
Creator/showrunner Davey Holmes (whose writing credits include “Shameless” and “In Treatment”) and co-executive producers Allen Coulter (“The Sopranos”) and Adam Arkin have basically ripped “Get Shorty” down to the studs, remodeling it with a longer arc and richer context.
It’s still about a hit man who tries to make it in the movie business, but this time there’s a “Breaking Bad” sense of desert seediness matched with naive Hollywood scheming that feels somehow fuller and more authentic than past iterations. If nothing else, “Get Shorty” proves just how good the people who make TV are at making TV — even here on Epix, a cable outfit that you are welcome to hunt for on your own stormy sea of content providers. (Spoiler alert: It might not be there. Make your search easier by checking on Epix’s website, where you can watch the pilot for free.)
Should you find it, enjoy. Chris O’Dowd (“Family Tree”) offers a sweet combination of antiheroic hope and misery as Miles Daly, an introspective Irishman who is in a personal rut, separated from his wife (Lucy Walters), missing his daughter, and tired of his gruesome job as a hit man for Amara De Escalones (Lidia Porto), an ill-tempered crime boss who runs a casino in Pahrump, Nev.
Amara sends Miles and his dim but devoted co-muscle Louis (“Deadwood’s” Sean Bridgers) on a quick errand to Los Angeles to reconcile the bad debt owed to the casino by a struggling screenwriter. While hunting for the man, Miles and Louis get a whiff of the Industry, which greatly interests Miles, a lifelong moviegoer with an instinct for story and emotion. Once they find the poor sap and murder him, Miles can’t help but be taken in by the blood-spattered screenplay the guy was waving around in his last moments. He reads it and feels compelled to produce it — against considerable odds, since it’s a period romance.
This brings him into the orbit of Rick Moreweather (Ray Romano), a washed-up director and producer who is just desperate enough to entertain the notion. Back in Pahrump, Miles convinces Amara that movie financing is an attractive solution to her money-laundering woes, a plan that infuriates Yago (Goya Robles), Amara dangerously vain nephew, who wants to sink her surplus cash into a tacky techno nightclub. Now Yago wants to eliminate Miles.
Amara skeptically hands over a couple million in cash for Miles and Louis to return to Hollywood, hook up with Moreweather, and make a movie that will bring Alma a profit, lest they suffer her wrath. Miles, meanwhile, is disappointed to discover that his wife is already seeing another man, further distancing him his daughter, Emma (Carolyn Dodd), who shares her father’s hopes and dreams for hitting it big in the movies.
“Get Shorty’s” writers, directors and cast happily show off their polished skills: Coulter directs the pilot and Arkin directs several episodes (his father, Alan Arkin, shows up as Moreweather’s father, who is also a film director of faded renown), and Romano and O’Dowd are well-matched. The story has been overhauled but Elmore Leonard fans will likely approve of the overall tone and “Get Shorty’s” sharp contrast between empathy and brutality.
There is much to praise and little to criticize here, other than the fact that a lot of people won’t even know it’s on, and those who do will have trouble finding and getting any Shorty at all. But that, I suppose, is just one more problem that comes with turning television into the world’s largest, yet restricted, all-you-can-eat buffet.
A previous version of this story misstated the character Amara’s name. It has been updated.
Get Shorty (65 minutes) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Epix.