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?