Monday, 21 April 2014

Mannix, the first season (1967)

Mannix is a show that I thought I’d remembered quite well, but when I started rewatching the first season (which went to air on CBS in 1967) recently it seemed strangely unfamiliar. The fact is that the format was changed radically after the first season, and apparently I had never actually seen any of those early episodes before.

I have to say I think it’s a great pity they changed the format. The first season rather neatly avoids most of the tedious private eye TV series clichés. Joe Mannix isn’t a struggling PI working out of a seedy office, nor is he a glamorous wealthy lone wolf PI. He works for a gigantic corporation. Intertect is the Microsoft of private investigation firms. They employ hundreds of staff, and dozens of operatives. Their headquarters is a skyscraper. 

And this is a seriously high-tech detective agency. They have computers. Lots of them. Big ones. The very latest thing in information technology, 1967 style. Punch cards and flashing lights! And they have communications technology as well. Mannix has a car phone that puts him in instant contact with Intertect headquarters, and gives him access to whatever information he needs. 

Apart from offering a fresh slant on the private eye genre this set-up has some other major advantages. It makes sense that Mannix doesn’t spend much time doing boring routine investigative work. Inertect has office staff and computer programmers to do that stuff. And it makes sense that Mannix’s cases are glamorous high-profile cases. He’s the top operative with the biggest detective agency in the business, so naturally he gets the glamour cases.

Unfortunately the first season was at best moderately successful and the series looked like being cancelled. The show was a Desilu production and Lucille Ball, who ran the studio,  felt that the series had enough potential to warrant persevering for a second season. To persuade CBS to take the second season Desilu had to agree to revamp the series and the decision was made to drop Intertect and the computers and make Joe Mannix a regular private eye. One story is that Lucille Ball thought the computers were boring anyway. 

The series went on to run for eight seasons, so maybe in strict commercial terms the decision was correct. To some extent the problem was that no-one had really thought out the kind of enormous potential that computers would have for police and private investigative work and so the writers often failed to integrate the computer side of Intertect into the story lines. It was something of a lost opportunity because the series was well ahead of its time in envisaging that in the future detective work was going to become very high-tech. They just needed to put a bit more thought into that part of the show’s formula and to make the computer side more exciting. The season format has a characteristic late 60s slickness to it, and more emphasis on the technological gadgetry could have resulted in a series that combined the best of the standard private eye format with a hint of the glamorous high-tech world of the James Bond movies. 

As it is though we still have season one and it provides a fascinating hint of the direction private eye series could have taken. And season one stands up very well today.

Mike Connors makes an ideal private eye detective, good-looking in a slightly weather-beaten way the way a television private eye should look. The sometimes strained relationship between Mannix and his boss at Intertect (played by Joseph Campanella) adds additional interest, as does Mannix’s frustration at having to function as part of a team when he’s not really by nature a team player.

The Region 4 DVD release looks good and includes as an extra an interview with stars Mike Connors and Joseph Campanella both of whom remember the series with a great deal of affection.

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