Thursday 27 September 2018

The Rockford Files (season 2, 1975)

The first season of The Rockford Files had been a huge success. The ratings took a major nosedive during the second season and never really recovered. Both Universal Television and NBC insisted that the series lost huge amounts of money.  It’s one of those series that became more and more popular with the passing of the years.

As to why the ratings crashed, it has to be said (as much as I love this show) that there were certain ideas that the series used way too much. Rockford seems to get arrested every second episode. Apart from the fact that it gets a bit old after a while it also makes him look like a loser. The original concept of the series is that it would be an updated version of Maverick. Which was a great idea. Now Maverick was a guy who got himself into trouble pretty frequently but somehow he never came across as a loser. He always seemed to be pretty confident of getting himself out of trouble. There are times when Rockford just seems a bit too easy to set up as a patsy. Maverick could be outsmarted occasionally but it was something you really had to work at. Sometimes Rockford just seems to put his head on the chopping block.

Now the idea of a private eye who is unglamorous and unheroic and not always totally successful is great but in the second of The Rockford Files it did get overdone just a little. The most enjoyable episodes are the ones like The Farnsworth Stratagem in which Rockford is the one calling the shots and pulling the strings.

Of course even when Rockford does get set up as the patsy he’s always smart enough to extricate himself eventually, but the fact that he keeps getting set up in the first place and that even when he gets himself out of trouble he usually ends up not being paid might have led some viewers to see him as being a bit ineffectual. It’s not something that bothers me all that much, the series has plenty of strengths to compensate for one or two minor weaknesses, but the weaknesses are there.

The second season opens with The Aaron Ironwood School of Success. Jim Rockford gets a strange request from an old friend. Actually Jim and Aaron Ironwood are more than just friends. Jim’s dad Rocky more or less raised Aaron after Aaron’s parents died so Jim and Aaron are more like brothers. Now Aaron wants to give Jim his company, a company worth $200 million. Had it been anyone but Aaron making this request Rockford would have been suspicious but Aaron is like a brother and if you can’t trust a brother whom can you trust? Even if Aaron’s business schemes have always appeared to Rockford to be a little on the carnival huckster side of the street.

The plan starts to seem like less of a good idea when it tuns out that mobsters are involved.

The Farnsworth Stratagem is a story of a con man being conned, not a wildly original idea but it’s rarely been executed with so much wit and style. Rockford’s buddy Detective Becker gets burned in a clever hotel investment scam and Rockford sees a way to turn the table on the con man, with involves a great deal of fun as he masquerades as a larger-than-life oil man. Linda Evans guest stars as Audrey, another victim of the scam, or is she?

Rockford has $10,000 stolen from him in a small desert town and in the process of trying to get it back he stumbles across the The Great Blue Lake Land and Development Company, a rather outrageous real estate scam. He also stumbles across a murder.

In The Real Easy Red Dog Rockford gets sent on a wild goose chase by another PI, Tina Dusseau (Stefanie Powers), chasing up a suicide that might have been a murder but in fact it really was just a suicide all along. Except that Rockford isn’t so sure. He also isn’t so sure he wants to work with Tina Dusseau but maybe they won’t have a choice. The fact that someone tries to kill them does tend to support the theory that they’ve stumbled onto something big. It’s the kind of “was it suicide or was it murder” story that was pretty old even back in 1975 but it’s done reasonably well and James Garner and Stefanie Powers work well together.

Resurrection in Black & White brings Rockford a pretty blonde client, which is not unusual since most of his clients seem to be pretty blondes. This one’s Susan Alexander, a journalist digging into an old murder case. She’s convinced that an innocent man was convicted. Rockford is equally convinced that the whole thing is nonsense and that Susan is getting conned by the murderer but on the other hand it is slightly odd that people keep trying to kill Susan. So he takes the case and it leads to a reasonably satisfying mystery and a reasonably satisfying solution.

Chicken Little Is a Little Chicken is a complicated tale of multiple swindles. Jim’s old cell-mate Angel has landed himself in a major jam and now he’s landed Jim in the same jam and they have two separate parties of mobsters wanting to kill them as a result. Rockford has a really clever plan for getting them out of trouble. It just can’t fail. A fairly enjoyable episode.

2 Into 5.56 Won't Go starts with Rockford’s old commanding officer from his service days in Korea contacting him out of the blue and wanting help. This is more than a little surprising since Rockford and Colonel Daniel Hart Bowie were never exactly bosom buddies. Then the colonel dies in a traffic accident and his daughter wants Rockford to look into it since she suspects her dad was murdered. It’s a particularly bizarre and ingenious conspiracy that the colonel had stumbled into. This is a fine episode with Rockford being not overly happy about revisiting the memories of his less than distinguished military career.

In Pastoria Prime Pick Rockford finds himself in a whole lot of trouble in the town of New Pastoria. In New Pastoria it seems that crime does pay - at least it pays as far as New Pastoria is concerned. This town has what you might call an entrepreneurial market-driven criminal justice system. Another very good episode.

The Reincarnation of Angie throws Rockford into the middle of a complicated stock fraud and it’s made more complicated by his client, a pleasant enough young woman whose brother may have been mixed up in the fraud and now he might well be dead and she’s not dealing too well with any of that. Plus the Feds are taking an interest and Rockford has to tread carefully because he’s taken a bit of a punt on this case and if he’s guessed wrong he’ll have a lot of explaining to do. So it’s a typical Rockford Files story, but it’s a good story as well.

In The Girl in the Bay City Boys Club Jim has ostensibly been hired to check out whether the illegal card games organised by the Bay City Boys Club are rigged or not, but Jim’s client has lied to him and in fact pretty much everyone seems to be lying to him. The Bay City police don’t seem anxious to help (Philip Marlowe always had problems with those Bay City cops as well).

An overheard conversation gets Jim’s dad Rocky into big trouble in Gearjammers. Now there are some very nasty and very serious people trying to kill him. The trouble is that Rocky didn’t actually overhear the conversation so he has no idea why these guys are trying to kill him. The eventual explanation of the scam he has stumbled into is pretty clever.

The Hammer of C Block brings Rockford a rather unwelcome client in the person of Gandolph Fitch (Isaac Hayes), an old acquaintance from prison who has served twenty years for murder and now wants to prove his innocence. Innocence and guilt turn out to be complicated concepts.

The No-Cut Contract sees Rockford being pursued by several sets of hitmen. They’re after some tapes which Rockford knows nothing about. Unfortunately third-rate pro footballer King Sturtevant (Rob Reiner) has told the mobsters that Rockford does have the tapes. The FBI also think Rockford has the tapes and they’re making his life a misery a well although at least they’re not actually trying to kill him. It all gets horribly confused in an inspired and very entertaining way. An excellent episode.

A Portrait of Elizabeth has a fiendishly twisted plot. Jim’s lawyer Beth brings him a client who suspects shady financial dealings involving stolen cashier’s cheques in the company he works for. There are shady dealings all right but they’re a whole lot more complicated than stolen cheques and there are multiple double-crosses going on. Oh, and there are also a couple of murders and the bodies are in Jim’s trailer and the victims were shot with his gun. This gets Jim into difficulties with the cops and into even nastier difficulties with the Feds. This is typical Rockford Files stuff with Jim getting arrested and facing charges for crimes he had nothing to do with for about the 200th time in the show’s run. Jim gets cast as the patsy on a regular basis but this time he can kind of see it coming. It’s a routine episode but it’s nicely executed.

Joey Blue Eyes is an ex-gangster but he’s tried to go straight. And in fact he has gone straight. He now has a very successful restaurant business. The only problem is that Joey has been conned by some sharp operators and now he realises he doesn’t own the restaurant. He doesn’t own anything. Beth happens to be friends with Joey’s daughter and she persuades Rockford to help. Within five minutes Joey and Rockford want to kill each other. But Rockford can’t turn down the case because Beth would be mad at him and that’s a risk that is not worth taking. This is one of the episodes in which Rockford comes up against con-men and turns the tables on him. And nobody can execute a con with quite the same style as Jim Rockford.

This episode stars Michael Ansara as Joey. Michael Ansara is one of my favourite character actors. He was Syrian so he got tossed into the Miscellaneous Ethnics basket which meant he was never short of work and got lots of really interesting roles as everything from Italians to Native Americans to Arabs to aliens from outer space. He was a great tough guy but usually not a thug - he had a certain dignity that made more suited to slightly more complex roles than thugs.

In Hazard involves Jim’s lawyer Beth in something that is obviously pretty big. Big enough to make it worthwhile trying to kill her. The theft of documents from her safe indicates a connection with one of her clients, but which one? A good solid story.

The birds in The Italian Bird Fiasco are sculptures and they are masterpieces, or they would be if they were originals. In fact they’re early 19th century copies but they’re still quite valuable. Art dealer Thomas Caine hires Rockford to by one of the birds at auction. At the auction he meets another dealer, Evelyn Stoneman, who wants the bird very badly. There is a possibility that the birds are not copies but are actually the originals, in which they’re fabulously valuable. But the people who are after the birds (and are prepared to use violence to get them) seem curiously uninterested in the sculptures themselves. There are multiple double-crosses going on and nothing is what it seems to be and no-one is who he or she seems to be. While you’re probably going to figure out what is really going on before Rockford does it’s still a lot of fun.

Where's Houston? involves a kidnapping but the kidnapping makes no sense because the target has no money. But the one thing Jim Rockford is sure of is that the case definitely involves money. It has to. It’s a pretty solid episode.

Foul on the First Play has Jim teamed up with an old buddy. Only Marcus Aurelius Hayes (Louis Gossett Jr) isn’t actually a buddy. In fact Jim can’t stand him. Hayes used to be Jim’s parole officer and Jim has good reason to dislike him. But fate has ordained that Jim and Marc are going to work this case together. Working the case together means, as far as Marc is concerned, doing everything to ensure that Marc Hayes gets the rewards and that all the costs are borne by Jim. Marc never misses an opportunity to try to pull a scam but Jim Rockford knows all the scams and manages to stay one step ahead. This tense relationship provides plenty of thrills and plenty of humour and Garner and Gossett work beautifully together. A very enjoyable episode.

A Bad Deal in the Valley see Jim get set up as a patsy once again, by an old flame. She’s obviously trouble but he doesn’t see it coming. So he gets arrested, but he gets arrested every second episode so that’s no big deal. This is not a simple con but a whole web of cons and the spider just keeps on weaving that web. A good episode to end the season.

The highlight of the special features on the DVD release is an extremely good interview with the show’s co-creator Stephen J. Cannell. He talks about the battles with the network to maintain the show’s essential flavour which of course the network hated - they wanted something much blander and less original.

Was The Rockford Files really the greatest of all American private eye TV series? I think it probably was. Season two is definitely recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I saw The Hammer Of C Block on TV a few years ago - it really works well, even now. The twist at the end is a real bitter classic. Not sure anyone less charismatic than Isaac Hayes could have made the character work.