Friday, April 27, 2007

Standing The Test of Time . . .

by Sean Chercover

I recently reviewed a DVD box set of the classic 1960s television show I SPY for Crimespree magazine. Here’s part of that review…

The 1960s James Bond pop culture juggernaut spawned a slew of television spy shows. And my favorite - by a country mile - was I SPY, which ran on NBC for three seasons (1965 to 1968) and which I fell in love with as a child in the ‘70s, when it aired in after school re-runs. Such childhood love affairs can be perilous – many of my favorite shows of the time have not aged well (Hawaii Five-O, anyone?). So it was with some trepidation that I broke the seal on Box Set #1 of I SPY.

I needn’t have worried. In a nutshell, I SPY rocks.

Robert Culp and Bill Cosby co-star as Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, two American spies who love their country but sometimes question the wisdom and morality of their superiors at the Pentagon. Robinson is a Princeton grad and former Davis Cup tennis champion, while Scott is a Rhodes Scholar, fluent in seven languages. They travel the world undercover as a playboy tennis bum and his trainer.

The series is smart and funny and doesn’t take itself too seriously, but occasionally achieves moments of darkness, bitter irony, and even poignancy. The heart of I SPY is the relationship between Culp (Robinson) and Cosby (Scott). Born out of a close off-screen friendship, Culp’s and Cosby’s performances set the standard for buddy bantering and improvisational interplay on television. The chemistry between them is extraordinary.

And it goes deeper than that. In 1965, this was landmark television. The first network series to star an African-American, I SPY featured an interracial friendship and professional partnership where the black guy and the white guy were truly equals.

An example: In one episode, Culp and Cosby are struggling to find a solution to their current pickle. Cosby comes up with the solution, and then we get the following banter:
Culp: Will you stop that? I hate it when you do that.
Cosby: Do what?
Culp: Being smarter than me. You’re always doing that.

Have I mentioned that this was 1965? Never on a soapbox, these guys simply walked the walk, presenting a divided nation with two friends whose relationship was way beyond race. This was groundbreaking stuff, and it changed the way many young people looked at race in America. In that regard, I’m not sure it has been matched to this day.

In the review, I went on to wax enthusiastic about the guest stars and exotic locations and cinematography, etc. The point is, I SPY had a big influence on me as a child, and it stands the test of time. It holds up as a great show, all these years later.

Other crime shows that hold up for me include Baretta, The Rockford Files, Kojak, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, while I've recently been disappointed by revisiting such "classics" as the aforementioned Hawaii Five-O, Starsky & Hutch, and Vega$. Even the pull of nostalgia wasn't enough to keep me watching past an episode or two.

And there are so many crime shows that I loved at the time, but haven’t seen in many years. I’m curious to see if these hold up: Peter Gunn, Harry O, Police Story, Police Woman, McCloud, Cannon, Mannix, Bannacheck, Columbo, Ironside, The Mod Squad . . .

So let’s hear it. Share with us the classic crime shows of your childhood, and how you respond to them as an adult. Which ones stand the test of time, and why? Which have nothing to recommend them but nostalgia?


John P said...

You ARE young. I fell in love with the program when it originally aired.

Does "Car 54, Where Are You?" qualify as a crime show?

Libby Hellmann said...

No question.. "The Avengers" had an enormous influence on me. Emma Peel was my role model. But I have to confess that I saw an episode recently, and it wasn't quite as astonishing as it used to be. It was even a little-- dare I say it -- hokey?

I also liked The Man From UNCLE. And Ilya Kuryiakin...

Sara N Paretsky said...

Television wasn't part of my life as a child, but I do like to watch Kojak reruns, and Magnum, and most of all, Rockford.

Jude Hardin said...

I remember liking The Rookies and Adam-12 when I was a kid. I haven't seen them in years, though, so I don't know how well they hold up. Baretta was one of my faves, too.

Michael Dymmoch said...

The Prisoner, a spin-off of Secret Agent, starred Patrick McGoohan. It was amazing when it first aired, and I let my son stay up late on school nights to watch when it replayed on WTTW years later. I think it's still amazing. (Secret Agent was pretty good, too.)

Pete said...

My very first favorite TV show was "Adam-12", but from the little I remember I'd guess it holds up quite poorly. (If it was considered acceptable viewing fare for a four-year-old boy by my conservative parents, I'm guessing the dramatizations weren't particularly realistic or compelling.) "Columbo" and "The Rockford Files" stand the test of time, thanks to the charisma of Peter Falk and James Garner.

Adam Hurtubise said...

I always loved Magnum when I was growing up. It's still pretty cool in reruns.

Maryann Mercer said...

A favorite of mine was the original Mission: Impossible. Got Season One when it became available and enjoy it even more today. These guys had to use their brains and talent more than just rely on state of the art goodies; something that gets lost in a lot of today's 'action' flicks. Loved I Spy too, so might just check it out.

Sean Chercover said...

Car 54 is a little before my time, but I haven't been called young lately. Thanks, John, I'll take it.

Loved The Avengers as a kid, but saw it recently and had the same reaction as you, Libby.

I haven't seen Magnum in years, but now that it's on DVD, I'll give it a look.

The Rookies was a favorite of mine, too. Have no idea if it was actually any good, but I suspect that it would not pass the test of time. Adam-12, unfortunately, does not pass, IMO. Like Emergency, I loved it as a kid, but now, it's pretty lame, to me.

The Prisoner was a terrific show! Great call, Michael. That's one I'd like to have in my collection. I'll look for it on DVD.

I loved Columbo, and I'm a fan of Peter Faulk, but I wonder if the shows were actually much good (outside of Faulk's performance). I'll have to check it out.

Thanks for the suggestions, everyone. I'm off to the video store!

Sean Chercover said...

Mission: Impossible (original series). Another one I'll have to check out. Thanks.

Oh, and thanks to Jon Jordan just lent me season one of The Streets Of San Francisco. He says it holds up, and I hope I have the same reaction, 'cause I really loved that show in the '70s.

Brett Battles said...

Rockford Files was the best. Also loved Mission: Impossible, Banachek, Quincy. Streets of San Francisco was pretty cool, too.