Thursday 25 April 2019

Diagnosis Murder season 1 (1993)

One of the more interesting of American pop culture phenomena of the late 20th century was the geriatric television detective series. Or perhaps it would be kinder to speak of senior detectives. This particular craze probably began with the hugely successful Barnaby Jones series. There were other key series, like Matlock, but the most successful of them all was Murder, She Wrote, one of the most popular crime series of all time. A late entrant in this genre was Diagnosis Murder which premiered on CBS in 1993.

Dick Van Dyke is the star and the cast includes his real life son Barry Van Dyke, playing Dr Sloan’s cop son Steve. I don’t think anyone is going to argue that Dick Van Dyke is a great actor but what can’t be denied is that he is a star. He’s very much like Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote - he has the charisma and he has the likeability and he has the same compulsive watchability.

There’s also Scott Baio (from Happy Days) as the cheerful Dr Jack Stewart who gets roped into crime-solving as well. He’s surprisingly good but there is one slight problem. Baio is Italian, he looks Italian and he sounds Italian. Who on earth decided to give him a Scottish name?

Dr Sloan seems to spend more time investigating crimes than treating patients and he gets plenty of help from both Dr Stewart and Dr Amanda Bentley.

The plots are not always brilliant or staggeringly original but they’re generally pretty solid and they’re executed with conviction.

The most difficult things to get right in a series like this are the tone and the balance. It has to be light-hearted enough to be fun but it must not descend into parody or out-and-out farce. There has to be humour but it must not be allowed to overwhelm the plots. And Diagnosis Murder mostly does get these things right.

It’s also refreshing to find a series made as recently as this (it ran from 1993 to 2001) that eschews graphic violence, gore and bad language. Although they’re both series about crime-fighting doctors Diagnosis Murder is noticeably less gruesome than Quincy, M.E., made fifteen years earlier. Diagnosis Murder is a reminder that a television series can be wholesome and still be very entertaining.

The Episode Guide

The season one opener is Miracle Cure. This is an inverted mystery story. We know who the killer is right from the start. We don’t know why a priest would be a killer. It’s actually a hit-and-run incident that would not never have attracted the attention of the police except that Dr Mark Sloan is puzzled by the death of the hit-and-run victim. He’s not surprised that the victim died but he is surprised, very surprised, that he seems to have died of heart failure. That just doesn’t make sense. And when things don’t make sense Dr Mark Sloan gets rather curious and starts poking about in matters that don’t concern him.

Amnesia involves a professional hit woman who wants to become a patient at Community General so she can carry out her assassination. Since there’s a senator in the hospital it seems reasonable to assume he’s the target. The plan is just about perfect, if only Dr Mark Sloan hadn’t started asking awkward questions and if only Dr Jack Stewart hadn’t noticed some some odd things about a certain female patient.

Telethons were one of the more bizarre manifestations of 20th century popular culture and they still survived in 1993. And in Murder at the Telethon a telethon provides a pretty good opportunity for a murder. The murder victim is Buddy Blake (Dom DeLuise), a has-been comic. Everybody who has ever met Buddy Blake has a motive for killing him. This is an episode that is totally excessive and outrageous but it works extremely well.

In Inheritance of Death Mark’s rich 93-year-old cousin wants to leave his vast fortune to Community General Hospital but he also believes that his three children are trying to kill him. Mark is inclined to think the old boy could be right. The gimmick here is that Dick Van Dyke plays the 93-year-old and the three possibly murderous children. He of course hams it up. The results are silly but reasonably amusing.

In Vanishing Act Steve Sloan has his suspicions that some of the detectives at the 15th Precinct are corrupt. He makes a report to an Internal Affairs officer but then everything goes wrong and Steve finds himself facing a murder charge. This is a two-parter and while it isn’t a bad story I don’t think it’s the right kind of story for this series. It’s a hardboiled tale of crooked cops and gangsters. It seems to be two completely different productions. It’s as if Dr Sloan and his son along with Dr Jack Stewart and most of the guest cast are making a tough gritty cop show while the various regular cast members at the hospital are making a broad comedy and then somebody has spliced the two together. The two halves are just too discordant. And Dick Van Dyke does not belong in a hardboiled gangster story (Scott Baio on the other hand manages quite well). It’s an interesting episode because it seems like it may have been intended as a bit of an experiment but for my money it doesn’t quite come off.

The 13 Million Dollar Man is much more the sort of story that suits this series. A patient named Dale Harlan dies of gunshot wounds and leaves Mark Sloan with a winning lottery ticket, worth 13 million dollars, and instructions to use the money to do some good. There are however three other people who believe that the ticket should by rights be theirs. And Mark suspects that one of those three people murdered Harlan. Mark comes up with some clever schemes to unmask the killer. There’s plenty of fun, some effective humour and a very neat plot. And it’s all extremely well executed. An excellent episode.

Shanda's Song is another case of a fairly clever plot but again a story that doesn’t seem quite right for the series. Someone is trying to murder rock star Shanda. Had it been an ageing rock star from the 60s it might have made sense but Shanda is supposed to be the latest thing among trendy twenty-somethings. Which kind of suggests that someone thought the series should try to to appeal to trendy twenty-somethings, a remarkably optimistic idea.

In The Restless Remains investment guru Robin Westlin arrives on Mark Sloan’s doorstep and promptly dies. By the time the ambulance arrives the body has disappeared. Since Mark had just been to the dentist and had a head full of nitrous oxide everyone assumes he was hallucinating. Mark thinks so too, until he finds Westlin’s diary under his couch. Now he has to prove that Westlin is dead and then find out who did it. This is a tightly constructed and very entertaining story.

I just love murder mysteries dealing with stage magic and Murder with Mirrors is a good one. An extremely unpleasant magician named Madison dies performing his most famous trick. There are four people with very strong motives for killing him and three have unbreakable alibis. The fourth is Madison’s partner and also an old friend of Mark’s so he’s naturally arrested but Mark is determined to prove his innocence. The solution is very simple and obvious once it’s revealed but it’s one of those simple solutions you’ll almost certainly  be fooled by. Which is a fine recipe for a murder mystery plot. An excellent episode.

Flashdance with Death is much more far-fetched but it is ingenious and it has a rather unexpected twist. It’s another murder with a theatrical background (which gives Dick Van Dyke the opportunity to show off his tap-dancing skills). There’s murder at a dance studio and Steve Sloan’s girlfriend is a suspect. A solid episode.

It seems like all of Mark Sloan’s relatives and friends are going to end up being murder suspects and in Reunion with Murder it’s Dr Amanda Bentley. Since she’s one of Sloan’s crime-solving buddies he’s naturally anxious to clear her. It seems that in college she was one of the mean girls who made life hell for Nancy Barlow. Now Nancy is out for revenge and she has some very juicy dirt on all her former tormentors. It’s no surprise that this leads to murder. A decent episode.

In Lily Jack’s old friend Sandy Hoyle has become a high-class call girl with a sideline in blackmail. It’s a dangerous game to play, and it’s especially dangerous for someone as foolish as Sandy. Predictably she gets herself murdered. The police write it off as an OD but Jack and Dr Sloan have come across some very interesting clues that point unequivocally to murder. A decent episode.

In Guardian Angel the mayor gets murdered. There’s an obvious suspect but Mark is sure that he didn’t do it. He has his own ideas about the actual identity of the killer. There’s an alibi that is just too flimsy and there’s a red car that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A routine episode.

Nirvana is quite enjoyable although seasoned mystery buffs will probably spot the surprise twist fairly early. Yet another of Jack Stewart’s disreputable friends has landed himself in trouble. It’s the sort of trouble that is likely to lead your body being found in the burnt-out wreck of a car. The car happens to belong to Dr Jack Stewart. Dr Sloan checks in to the Nirvana health farm looking for clues (that’s where Jack’s friend used to work). Both Dr Stewart and Dr Sloan end this story battered and bruised, for very different reasons, and Jack gets a chance to play the hero. Excellent episode.

Broadcast Blues  is an impossible crime story. Convict Paul Dunbar is taken to Community General for tests that cannot be performed at the prison hospital. He escapes and takes a hostage, and demands to speak to TV anchorman Jordan Sanders. Sanders agrees to meet him. Shots are fired through a partially opened door and the end result is both Dunbar and Sanders dead. It is absolutely clear what has happened. Dunbar killed Sanders and then killed himself. There is no other possible explanation. Until Mark Sloan realises that it simply could not have happened this way.

The solution is fairly simple but it works. The key to the success of the plot is that what we actually know is not quite the same as what we’re sure of because it must have been that way. A very fine episode.

There are lots of things to worry about when you’re in the middle of an earthquake so you normally wouldn’t have time to think about committing a murder. But in Shaker a murder des take place during an earthquake. A solid episode.

Hitman Bruno Crespi is a really sick guy. Now even hitmen can get sick but it’s the nature of the illness which is unusual. Bruno Crespi has bubonic plague. So The Plague is a medical disaster tale but there’s a crime element as well, centring on how exactly Crespi managed to get infected. Another solid episode.

Sister Michael Wants You is a very light-hearted tale of murder in a nunnery, with a hardboiled Mother Superior and a missing clue that has to be somewhere in the nunnery but repeated searches have come up blank. A fun story.

Final Thoughts

My main doubt about Diagnosis Murder is that I get the feeling that no-one was quite sure exactly which demographic they were trying to chase. Mostly they seemed to be after the demographic that had made Murder, She Wrote such a huge hit. Which would have been a very sensible strategy. But then you get episodes like Vanishing Act and Shanda’s Song that seem to be chasing a totally different audience. If Murder, She Wrote sometimes errs by being just a bit too cosy Diagnosis Murder makes the opposite mistake by occasionaly not being cosy enough.

Obviously it’s a series that to some extent recalls Quincy, M.E. but despite the latter’s pretensions to being more scientific Diagnosis Murder is generally less far-fetched. Not that Quincy, M.E isn’t a fine series but at times it stretches credibility a little.

The Region 4 DVD release includes as a bonus the Jake and the Fatman episode It Never Entered My Mind which featured Dick Van Dyke and was in effect an unofficial pilot for Diagnosis Murder.

On the whole though this is a thoroughly enjoyable series and much better than I’d expected. Recommended.

Wednesday 17 April 2019

Columbo, Now You See Him / Last Salute to the Commodore (1976)

The final two episodes of Columbo season five, screened in 1976, were the excellent Now You See Him and the controversial Last Salute to the Commodore.

I’m particularly enamoured of murder mysteries that involve stage magic. Magic and murder just seem to go so well together. Now You See Him is a very good example of this sub-genre.

The celebrated illusionist the Great Santini (Jack Cassidy) has a pretty good alibi for the murder of his business associate Jesse Jerome. At the time of the murder Santini was locked in a metal trunk suspended in a tank of water. That’s pretty much the ultimate alibi. Except that, as Santini cheerfully admits, how much store is anyone going to put in an alibi for an illusionist. Maybe he was in the trunk during the trick. Maybe he wasn’t. He’s an illusionist, so really he could have been anywhere!

In fact the method by which the trick is worked is a fiercely guarded secret. Apart from Santini himself his daughter Della (Cynthia Sikes) knows the answer. And neither of them has any intention of revealing the secret. So Columbo has a suspect who may or may not have an airtight alibi.

Jack Cassidy was an extraordinary larger-than-life style of actor and in this episode he gives a particularly extravagant performance. Which of course is exactly as it should be. Santini is a very smart guy, his professional career (and a very successful career it has been) has been based on his ability to fool people and he has also been able to guard some very deep and dark personal secrets. He’s exactly the type of hyper-confident and fiendishly clever suspect that we love to see matching wits against Columbo.

The magic tricks are not there just to provide an exotic background. They’re an integral part of the plot. Michael Sloan’s script works perfectly. Everything in this story works perfectly. Now You See Him is a delight.

Last Salute to the Commodore wraps up the fifth season. Commodore Otis Swanson (John Dehner) owns a boat yard. A very big boat yard. He is a celebrated yacht designer and his business is worth a very great deal of money. His son-in-law Charlie Clay (Robert Vaughn) takes care of the day-to-day running of the business but increasingly the Commodore and Charlie have not been seeing eye to eye. Charlie may be on the way out. In fact the Commodore has had just about enough of his whole family, including his permanently drunk daughter Joanna (married to Charlie Clay). The Commodore seems to have been contemplating some major changes that would have been rather disagreeable to almost everyone.

It’s not a great surprise that the Commodore meets with an accident. It’s one of those accidents that you can kind of see coming.

Both Columbo and the audience learn quite a few things about yachts in this episode. Things like self-steering vanes and gybing. Gybing was probably the cause of the tragic accident that cost the Commodore his life. Assuming of course that it was an accident, and Lieutenant Columbo assumes no such thing.

Patrick McGoohan directed this episode and it’s definitely an attempt to do something different with the established Columbo formula. It’s stylistically different, with some eccentric framing and some offbeat pacing and some odd acting performances. There’s a subtle difference in the tone - a bit more edgy and a bit more histrionic.

This is also a departure from the usual formula in that Columbo is given a sidekick. In fact he’s given two sidekicks! A sergeant plus a young up-and-coming detective who is imposed on Columbo by someone very senior in the department.

There’s also a great deal of humour. Some of the humour works very well, some doesn’t.

The differences are not just stylistic although I can’t say anything more than that.

This is a rather controversial episode that is strongly disliked by most Columbo fans. In fact it’s strongly disliked by almost everyone. The script was written by Jackson Gillis but I’m inclined to think that the episode’s peculiarities were mostly the work of Patrick McGoohan. It really does have McGoohan’s fingerprints all over it. This is the McGoohan who was responsible for The Prisoner and it has so many of the characteristics that distinguished The Prisoner - the same anarchic quality, the uneasy mixing of black humour and drama, the odd pacing, the very experimental feel, the touches of self-conscious artiness, the hints of the surreal (very strange in a Columbo episode), the wilful and deliberate eccentricity, the staginess, the bizarre acting performances.

It’s a risky approach and you can’t help expecting that at any moment it’s going to crash and burn. And that’s exactly what happens. It really is very much like the less successful episodes of The Prisoner, especially the disastrous later episodes of that series. It’s a slow-moving trainwreck but it’s a fascinating trainwreck. It’s not all bad. It’s a mixture of very bad ideas and very good ideas. McGoohan was a genius but he was a very flawed genius. It has to be said that he never lacked the courage to push things to an extreme. Having decided to do a very different kind of Columbo episode he can’t be accused of half-measures.

The fifth season really did have some strange moments. Some superb episodes and quite a few that were intriguingly offbeat. There was obviously a feeling that steps needed to be taken to keep things fresh. It’s an uneven season but overall it’s surprisingly strong. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 9 April 2019

The A-Team, season 2 (1983-84)

Season two of The A-Team aired in 1983-84 and it’s pretty much the formula as before. And this is a very formulaic series. That should be a problem but it isn’t really - if you have enough energy and style you don’t need to worry too much about being dazzlingly original. In fact the familiarity of the formulaic elements becomes an asset - they’re things you look forward to seeing in every episode.

I don’t think anybody ever watched this series for the tight plotting. The plots, such as they are, are an excuse for lots of cartoonish action, lots of gags and and for the actors to have some fun playing the outrageous larger-than-life characters who comprise the A-Team. It was all about fun. If you expect more from television than fun then The A-Team is not for you. But if you’re satisfied with fun then this series provides it in copious quantities.

And for a series that seems on the surface to be unbelievably violent it’s actually good clean fun suitable for all the family. Despite the expenditure of thousands of rounds of ammunition every episode no-one actually gets hurt and you know that nobody is going to get hurt. There’s also (compared to contemporary television) a refreshing lack of moral ambiguity. There are bad guys and they get what’s coming to them, and there are good guys and you know they’ll come out of it OK. Moral ambiguity is all very well but it’s something you can get very tired of.

You can also get very tired of television shows that are dark and edgy. The A-Team is not the least bit dark and edgy.

Of course technically the A-Team are criminals, but they’re criminals in the way that Zorro or the Green Hornet or the Saint are criminals. We know they aren’t criminals at all.

It’s also nice not to have to worry too much about plausibility. The A-Team doesn’t worry about plausibility one little bit.

Amy Allen (Melinda Culea) quietly disappears from the show’s lineup during this season. Whether a female team member was really necessary is perhaps debatable but she was likeable enough. Obviously the producers did think a female regular cast member was necessary as Tawnia Baker (Maria Heasley) is later introduced a a kind of replacement for Amy.

The Military Police, in the person of the indefatigable Colonel Decker (Lance LeGault), continue to grimly pursue the A-Team without any notable success. While he’s a humourless martinet he’s not really a villain. He is just doing his job, even if if he’s doing it with excessive zeal. And Lance LeGault was always a superb heavy.

OK, maybe Dwight Schultz goes a little too far over the top at times as Howling Mad Murdock but this is after all a series that is aimed to a large extent at kids and if you’re twelve years old then he’s hysterically funny. And if you’ve totally lost touch with your twelve-year-old self then you're probably not going to enjoy The A-Team anyway.

The Episode Guide

Diamonds 'n Dust opens the season in fine style. A pretty blonde Australian girl needs help to get her African diamond mine running in the face of opposition by a very crooked operator. Naturally there’s lots of mayhem including one of the improvised weapon systems that are always a fun feature of this series. One thing I liked about this episode is that the A Team is definitely doing this job for the money. Sure they like the idea of helping out a pretty girl but they also like the idea of the very big pay cheque involved.

Recipe for Heavy Bread has the A-Team helping out an old army buddy from their Vietnam days. Except that Lin Duk Coo was actually A North Vietnamese guard at a POW camp in which the A-Team guys spent some time. But Lin was a real nice guy and they really liked him and if he’s in trouble they’re going to help him. Lin is not the only Vietnam War connection in this episode. There’s also a North Vietnamese general and he wasn’t a nice guy and now he’s mixed up in something pretty sinister. A good episode.

In The Only Church in Town Face wants to help out an old friend but finds he’ll have to hire the A-Team himself if he wants the other guys to help him. The old friend is the only woman he’s ever loved but she dumped him fifteen years ago and he hasn’t seen her since. The A-Team is off to Ecuador and they’re going to be mixed up with nuns, orphans  and bandits. Another good episode.

Bad Time on the Border has the A-Team battling a gang that is smuggling Mexicans across the border, into virtual slavery. There’s nothing startlingly original here but it has all the classic A-Team ingredients (including an improvised armoured vehicle and hubcap bombs) and they’re all combined perfectly and it all works. And it has lots of nice little one-liners.

When You Comin' Back, Range Rider? is a wonderful western romp with the A-Team going after rustlers. Not cattle rustlers, but horse rustlers. The bad guy is an evil cattle rancher. It has all the classic western ingredients with particular highlights being the train holdups (there’s even a vintage steam locomotive to pull the train). And then there’s B.A.’s improvised armoured train. Murdock convinces himself he’s the TV western hero the Range Rider. It’s a two-part episode and it also introduces a new would-be nemesis for the A-Team - Colonel Decker is a hard-nosed gung ho military police officer and he intends to succeed where Colonel Lynch failed and bring the A-Team to justice.

The Taxicab Wars is one of the best season two episodes. It’s a nice idea. There’s a bit of a war going on between two rival taxicab companies. Things are getting a bit nasty, with cabs being sabotaged and drivers being beaten up. Finally, facing financial ruin, the Lone Star Taxi Company calls in the A-Team. And the A-Team turns a commercial rivalry into full-scale urban warfare. Hannibal Smith and his pals don’t believe in half measures. If you’re going to get rough, go the whole hog, with massive destruction. It’s an outrageous over-reaction but it’s a lot of fun - everyone at some point in his life has wanted to respond to injustice with massive deadly force and this episode lets you live out those fantasies. Plus it’s fun seeing the horrified reactions of passengers to the mayhem and craziness unleashed by the A-Team.

Labor Pains is like The A-Team meets Norma Rae. In this story they help oppressed farm workers set up a union. This is a lesser episode, not so much because it’s so overtly political but mostly because it just doesn’t have the necessary imaginative action sequences. It’s all a bit too routine although the van through the 55 m.p.h. sign sequence is fun.

There's Always a Catch takes the A-Team to the seaside, to the cut-throat world of lobster fishing. There’s an evil mobster guy terrorising the decent fisher folk. The problem for the A-Team is that Colonel Decker is hot on their trail and the sensible thing would be for them to get out of town as fast as they can. But there’s no way they’re going to do that when there are people they’ve promised to help. This time Decker really thinks he’s going to nail the A-Team. It’s the usual mix of action and fun and it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

Water, Water Everywhere has a basic plot that has been used countless times. Big rancher Frank Gaines is trying to squeeze out three disabled Vietnam vets in a dispute over water rights. It’s the little guy getting shafted and the A-Team don’t like seeing that happen to the little guy. There’s the usual action and there’s the usual improvised weaponry cooked up by B.A. and it’s all very much according to the A-Team formula and it works. And who doesn’t like to see the little guy come out on top?

Steel is all about demolishing buildings, and about a company that discovers that some very powerful very nasty people are determined to stop them from going about their lawful business of tearing down buildings. The A-Team seems to be their only hope but even Hannibal Smith is worried when he realises the people he’s up against this time. Typical A-Team stuff and lots of fun.

The White Ballot deals with a subject that American television never ever tires of, the corrupt small town sheriff. The hackneyed subject matter doesn’t matter since The A-Team is a style over substance affair and this episode has the essential A-Team style in spades.

The Maltese Cow is a very strong episode. The A-Team goes up against a Tong that is trying to force their old buddy Sam Yeng to pay protection money. Taking on a Tong is like trying to fight a small army but the A-Team are not daunted.

Chinatown is a fine setting for an A-team adventure. There are some witty fight sequences and there’s some lovely hardboiled dialogue. Murdock is in fine form, channeling Humphrey Bogart except that he thinks he’s on the trail of the Maltese Cow. Cult movie fans will be pleased to see veteran actor Keye Luke (number one son in the early Charlie Chan movies and later a regular on Kung Fu) playing Sam Yeng.

In Plane Sight takes the A-Team to Venezuela where they have to clear an American pilot of drug-smuggling charges. It’s a three-cornered contest with the A-Team, the drug smugglers and the Venezuelan Federales all hunting each other through the jungle. Murdock is being particularly disturbing in this story. He’s not doing anything crazy. That’s what’s disturbing. The team finds a new way to persuade B.A. to submit to flying. And there’s a plane chase through the jungle with the plane never leaving the ground. It’s mostly the familiar and very successful A-Team formula but with a few little twists and it’s a lot of fun.

The Battle of Bel Air introduces Tawnia Baker. She’s a reporter and she’s been working undercover at a very high-end security firm and she’s discovered some disturbing facts about the company. She’s also discovered some facts about the A-Team, facts which interest her a great deal. She doesn’t just want to hire the A-Team. She wants to join them. She wants to take Amy’s place. The A-Team do not want another member and they’re not sure they trust her at all but she’s landed herself in great danger and they pretty much have to help her out. They also have to foil a sinister assassination plot.

Improvised armoured vehicles are a fairly standard feature of A-Team episodes but this time around they improvise a helicopter gunship which leads to a rather cool aerial battle. It’s another episode that more or less follows the standard formula for the series but with enough variations to make it very entertaining.

Someone within the U.S.Army is selling Army weapons on the black market, someone else has discovered what is going on and that second someone has been murdered. It’s a case for the A-Team and Say It with Bullets is obviously likely to provide plenty of trademark A-Team mayhem.

Pure-Dee Poison pits the A-Team against moonshiners. Only these aren’t romantic rebel moonshiners, they’re selling stuff that is basically poison and quite a few people have already died as a result. A clergyman who’s an ex-paratrooper asks the A-Team for help. Tawnia plays a reasonably active rôle in this tale. There’s some classic A-Team mayhem. It’s good fun.

It's a Desert Out There pits the A-Team against the Scorpions, a gang that robs tourists who’ve won big at a local gambling joint. The Scorpions seem to be planning some other kind of operation, something big. They ride around in armoured dune buggies. There’s plenty of action as usual, with the A-Team in an armoured bus battling the Scorpions in their armed dune buggies which gives the episode an interesting slight post-apocalyptic Mad Max 2 kind of feel. A good episode.

Chopping Spree is a fun story about car thieves.

Harder Than It Looks is a slight departure from the usual formula - B.A. doesn’t get to construct any improvised armoured cars or similar gadgets. There are some nice twists though, and plenty of action. And B.A. encounters a guy who is almost as tough as he is. And he keeps on encountering him. It becomes the episode’s running gag. Lots of fun in this outing.

Deadly Maneuvers is another departure from the standard formula. This time instead of helping other people in trouble it’s the A-Team that needs help. A criminal syndicate that has suffered at their hands has employed a crack squad of four very mean mercenaries to exterminate Hannibal Smith and his men. But the A-Team isn’t that easy to exterminate. A very good episode with plenty of action.

In Semi-Friendly Persuasion a Christian sect that is being driven out of a town asks the A-Team for help. The only problem is that the help has to be non-violent and the A-Team is not exactly famous for its non-violent methods. How long are non-violent methods going to work against very violent people, and how long will the A-Team persevere with such methods? An interesting story about very uncompromising people.

Curtain Call is a bit of a filler episode, being padded out with flashbacks to earlier episodes. Murdock is badly hurt and everyone thinks he’s going to die so they’re remembering all his madcap adventures. Meanwhile Colonel Decker is closing on on them. A bit of a disappointing end to the season but the escape sequence is clever.

Final Thoughts

There are a few attempts in the latter part of season two to vary the formula just a little, and they manage to work without departing from the show’s essential spirit.

If you liked the first season you’ll like this one. Highly recommended.

Monday 1 April 2019

Dragnet (original 1951-59 series)

Dragnet was one of the all-time classic American TV cop shows. It started as a radio show then switched to television in 1951 and ran on the NBC network until 1959. Despite its legendary status mention of Dragnet will often be greeted by sniggers or even sneers. This is largely because if the ill-advised and very inferior 1967 reboot. The lamentable 1967 version is more familiar and sadly a lot of people assume that its faults were also present in the original version. That simply isn’t the case.

The 1950s version also suffers from being in the public domain. There have been many DVD releases and most of them have been pretty awful. And these public domain DVDs are pretty much the only way to get to see this excellent series. To make things even worse most episodes don’t give you a title during either the opening or closing credits and the lists of episodes on the DVDs are often completely wrong.

The 1950s Dragnet was a realistic crime series that was not afraid to tackle difficult subject matter. It was not without humour. In fact it struck pretty much the perfect balance for a cop show.

The word iconic is overused but it’s the only word to describe Jack Webb’s performance as Sergeant Joe Friday. Webb also created the series and he directed every episode. On top of that he wrote a few episodes as well. Unfortunately here again we’re up against the curse of the 1967 revival, in which Webb’s performance just doesn’t work anywhere near as well. In fact it sometimes seems close to self-parody. But in the 1950s incarnation of Dragnet he’s superb. You will never see more laid-back acting, or more minimalist acting. He still manages to convince us that Friday is a hard-working dedicated cop who is by no means lacking in sensitivity. And his patience is phenomenal.

In the early days of the series Friday had several partners but by the end of the second season Ben Alexander as Officer Frank Smith has become Friday’s permanent partner. Alexander’s performance complements Webb’s perfectly. While Ben Alexander was the best of Friday’s partners it has to be said that Barney Phillips as Ed Jacobs is also pretty good, and he’s almost as laconic as Jack Webb!

This was the 50s, when American TV series were made on tight budgets and even tighter production schedules and there wasn’t much scope for fancy visuals or location shooting. The studio-bound feel tends to work in Dragnet’s favour. Dragnet was not an action series. It was very much a series focused on routine police work. Being a successful cop generally has little to do with an officer’s prowess with firearms or ability to engage in spectacular car chases. It requires patience and thoroughness, attention to detail and an understanding of what makes people tick. Friday has these qualities and that’s what the series concentrates on.

Even today Dragnet stands out for its realistic depiction of the way crimes are actually solved. Friday does not have brilliant leaps of intuition. He follows the obvious leads and he follows them methodically until he gets a break. He doesn’t care how tedious the process is. He doesn’t care how long it takes. It’s the way it has to be done. In one hit-and-run case he and Smith find that the truck involved in the incident could have been any one of the 173 identical trucks owned by a particular bakery and as the drivers are allowed to use the trucks outside of working hours the only thing to do is to check up on all 173 trucks. Friday’s response to this is, “Well we’d better get started.“ When they interrogate a suspect the process can go on hour after hour, getting the suspect to tell his story over and over again. The genius of this series is that it makes this thoroughly routine police work absolutely fascinating.

The Episodes

276 episodes were made, of which around 50 are available on various DVDs. I’ve review a selection of the episodes which I happen to have on DVD.

The Big Confession seems to be a routine robbery investigation. A young man named Tom Stanford has confessed but his story doesn’t quite add up. The victim has made a positive ID but her story of the events is not consistent with Stanford’s. Joe Friday and his partner Frank Smith just aren’t happy with the case at all.

The Big Break is the tale of an armed robber who just won’t give up. He claims he can break out of any jail any time he likes, and it seems like he really can. There are some neat little plot twists in this one. A very good episode.

In The Big Frame Joe and Frank are assigned to traffic, investigating suspected hit-and-run incidents. The latest such fatality seems less than clear-cut. The skid marks on the road seem to be too old to be connected with the accident and the account given by the victim’s fiancée is not at all satisfactory.

One of the running gags in the series is that Joe is always suffering from some minor ailment and Frank always turns out to be an expert in that field and usually has his own home remedy or his own brand of medical advice to offer.

Friday and Smith get assigned to various duties which allows the series to deal with a huge variety of crimes ranging from the most serious to the most trivial. In The Big Shoplift they’re on the burglary detail and they’re investigating a string of shoplifting incidents. There are clues but they’re confusing. It’s an interesting episode as an example of changing social attitudes. Whether the social attitudes of 1954 are more or less enlightened than those of today is a moot point.

The Big Hit-Run Killer is a classic example of the Dragnet formula. An investigation of a hit-run accident drags on day after day, with promising leads frustratingly going nowhere after days of effort. When they find a promising suspect they then have to check out his alibi. That takes more days of patient leg work. This is basic routine police work but it’s also incredibly tense human drama. It might be a game requiring infinite patience but the stakes are high. Get it wrong one way and you’ve sent an innocent man to jail for years. Get it wrong the other way and a killer walks free. So you make sure you don’t get it wrong. You go everything until you’re certain. It’s an enthralling episode.

The Big Producer turns out to be an old-time movie producer who used to be a big deal in the silent movie days. Now he’s in the obscene publications business. He’s a sad defeated man who lives in the past and still dreams of resurrecting his movie career. In the world of Dragnet people sometimes commit crimes out of weakness but while Friday and Smith sometimes feel sorry for such criminals weakness isn’t an excuse. You have to take responsibility for your actions and if you commit a crime you have to pay the price. An interesting and rather poignant episode.

The Big Phone Call is a season one episode with Friday being partnered with Sergeant Ed Jacobs (Barney Phillips). The entire episode takes place in one room in which Friday and Jacobs are interrogating a robbery suspect. They’ve spent months accumulating overwhelming evidence but the suspect stubbornly refuses to admit anything. It’s another fine example of Dragnet taking a story that could have been deadly dull but instead it’s gripping television as the patient but remorseless interrogation continues. A very good episode.

The Big Casing is another first season episode, also with Ed Jacobs as Friday’s partner. This is a great one for anyone who loves stories that go into extreme detail on forensic science. A fine episode.

The Big Seventeen is a second season episode with Herb Ellis playing Officer Frank Smith, a rôle which soon be taken over by Ben Alexander.

The Big September Man is a murder case. The police have a body, a murder weapon and a pretty promising suspect. What they don’t have is any actual evidence to connect these three things. If there’s one thing that Sergeants Friday and Jacobs know it’s that there’s no point in sitting around waiting for a brilliant inspiration. It’s time to do some legwork.

In The Big Look a number of women have been viciously attacked in their own homes. At first there’s not much to go on but finally a victim is able to give the police a reasonable description. Friday and Smith have a suspect in custody, but is he the right man? A pretty good episode.

In The Big Crime two four-year-old girls go missing and the police have reason to fear the worst. This manages to be a fine hard-hitting episode without resorting to the gratuitous gruesomeness that would inevitably have featured in a modern version of the story.

Friday and Smith are working the Bunco Division in The Big Betty and they’re after a particularly nasty gang of con-men who target the recently bereaved. Very few criminals can get under Joe Friday’s skin but this gang manages to do just that. A good episode.

The Big Little Jesus is a Christmas episode about the theft of a statue of the infant Jesus. It tries to be both heartwarming and whimsical and, oddly enough, it succeeds.

The Big TV (AKA The Big Send-Off or The Big Sound-Off) is a missing persons case. A young mother has disappeared. Her mother-in-law filed the missing persons report but it just doesn’t seem quite right to Friday and Smith.

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting to compare Dragnet to M Squad. They represent radically different approaches to the half-hour cop series. The whole idea of Dragnet is that it’s a glimpse into the working lives of ordinary cops working everyday cases. M Squad on the other is an elite police squad dealing with cases that are anything but ordinary. Dragnet’s Joe Friday is a good cop but there’s nothing extraordinary or colourful about him. He just does his job. M Squad’s Lieutenant Frank Ballinger is a very colourful larger-than-life character. Dragnet started as a radio series and it’s very dialogue-driven. M Squad takes its inspiration from film noir and it’s much more visually oriented. Two very different approaches, but they both work and Dragnet and M Squad are both outstanding examples of the 1950s American cop show.

Series like Dragnet were produced on very tight budgets and very tight production schedules. The results in many cases were series that looked cheap and shoddy. Dragnet avoids that hazard. As a director Jack Webb certainly knew how to get episodes shot as quickly and cheaply as possible but he came up with a certain style that made that approach work. He uses lots of close-ups, and lots of extreme close-ups. It gives a sense of tension and urgency to interrogation scenes. The laconic acting styles affected not just by Jack Webb (who turned laconic into an art form) but by the other actors as well gives us a sense of the wheels of justice turning slowly but inexorably. The Dragnet style could be, and often was, parodied but it undeniably worked.

It was cheap mass-produced television but Dragnet remains one of the most iconic and one of the best cop shows ever made. Very highly recommended.