Saturday 27 July 2019

Knight Rider season 2 (1983)

Knight Rider season 2 takes up where season 1 left off, with a few very minor differences. The main change is that Patricia McPherson, who played genius girl engineer/mechanic Bonnie Barstow in the first season, has departed. Her place is taken by Rebecca Holden who plays genius girl engineer/mechanic April Curtis. This was an unfortunate change. Bonnie Barstow as a character was just about believable and she was a good fit for the series. April is not the slightest bit convincing.

The formula otherwise is unchanged. Since it worked pretty well there was of course no reason to change it.

The key to understanding why Knight Rider worked is that it’s a buddy show, but instead of having two human cops or secret agents or amateur crime-fighters it has a human hero and a robot hero (or at least a robot car hero). But Michael and K.I.T.T. really are partners and buddies. And they make a particularly interesting combination because they both have strengths and weaknesses. Michael is brave and resourceful but he’s not a superhero and her has no superpowers. K.I.T.T. does have superpowers but there are many things that K.I.T.T. can’t do, being a car. So they complement each other and that’s something they both figure out very early on. It’s the partnership between them that makes them formidable enemies to the bad guys. Michael Knight is not a hero who drives a car fitted out with some cool gadgets (like James Bond’s cars). K.I.T.T. is an actual character, and a key one. Which makes the series a lot more interesting.

Of course there had been plenty of TV series with non-human characters (witches, genies, Martians, etc) but they were invariably sitcoms and the non-human characters behaved pretty much like human characters. Knight Rider was one of the earliest series to feature a non-human character who is genuinely non-human and completely artificial. In that respect  K.I.T.T. is more alien than Spock in Star Trek, and is a precursor to robot characters like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation and also to the living spaceships featured in 90s sci-fi series like Lexx and Farscape. Knight Rider isn’t as ambitious in what it does with the idea but it was a very cool idea in 1982. Of course it wasn’t entirely original - these were ideas that had popped up before in science fiction books and in movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Knight Rider should get credit for pioneering the human/robot buddy TV series.

The danger with having a supercar is giving in to the temptation to keep on giving the car more and more powerful features. If the car ends up being able to do absolutely anything then it all becomes too easy. There have to be occasions when Michael is forced to rely on his own ingenuity rather than just pushing another button to activate another super-feature. There is a worrying indication that the producers may be starting to give in to this very temptation - having K.I.T.T. suddenly being able to drive on the water is a slightly worrying sign. And the Turbo function gets very over-used in season two.

The Episode Guide

Season two kicks off with the two-part Goliath. It’s a pretty crazy story. It seems that Wilton Knight, the man who founded the Foundation for Law and Government and the man responsible for the creation of K.I.T.T. had a son. An evil son, named Garthe Knight. This evil son ended up in prison in some African country, serving three life sentences. No-one expected that he would ever be seen again. So when Michael Knight needed a new face Wilton Knight decided, rather rashly, to give him Garthe’s face.

Now Garth Knight has escaped from prison and he’s up to some serious evilness. And he has an evil accomplice - his mother. Elizabeth Knight looks like a respectable society matron but she is an evil spider woman.

The plot that Garthe and his mother are cooking up involves trying to get hold of the formula for K.I.T.T.’s Molecular Bonded Shell. Since this protective shell makes K.I.T.T. just about impervious to anything short of tactical nuclear weapons it is obvious that it would be very bad if the secret fell into the wrong hands. Garthe Knight definitely qualifies as the wrong hands. He plans to construct not a super car but a super truck. The super truck is part of a fiendish plot of some sort.

David Hasselhoff has to play two rôles in this episode and that’s a problem. Don’t get me wrong. I like David Hasselhoff’s performance as Michael Knight. I really do. But having to play a kind of evil version of Michael as well is just a bit beyond Hasselhoff’s acting abilities. As Garthe he’s very stiff and gives the impression that he has no idea at all how to approach the part.

The best thing about the episode is that Michael and K.I.T.T. are up against genuinely formidable adversaries in Garthe and Goliath. A weakness of the series is that K.I.T.T.’s array of super features often makes things too easy. This time K.I.T.T. and Michael are very much the underdogs.

Merchants of Death deals with a case with a personal interest for Devon. An old girlfriend has disappeared after snooping around a military surplus warehouse. Her daughter has called on Devon for help. Obviously she had stumbled upon something very illegal involving military weaponry. The problem is that the mother was clearly a truly appalling and incredibly selfish woman who used Devon shamelessly and the daughter is every bit as bad. It’s hard to care what happens to such people.

In Blind Spot a man is shot while trying to hand over vital evidence to Michael. There’s an eyewitness to the shooting, or at least there would be except that Julie Robinson is blind. But maybe the shooter doesn’t know that. K.I.T.T. almost suffers the worst nightmare fate a car can imagine. A reasonably OK story.

In Return to Cadiz Michael saves the life of a scuba diver. But where did the Aztec gold coin come from? Why did someone try to kill the diver? Why is someone detonating depth charges? This episode unfortunately has some “TV series about to jump the shark” moments to it - K.I.T.T. suddenly being able to drive across the water, and the speak like a pirate thing being way overdone.

In K.I.T.T. the Cat Michael is on the trail of a famous cat burglar, or he would be except that the burglar in question is dead. But that doesn’t seem to have brought his career as a burglar to an end. There’s also the matter of the burglar’s daughter (played by Geena Davis) - she’s not exactly anxious to help Michael. Not a bad episode.

Custom K.I.T.T. takes Michael to a custom and classic car show. Devon has had his car stolen. To make things worse it’s one of the few examples of the Pennington Ascot Regency left in the world. To make things much much worse the car isn’t his. So he has to get it back, which means Michael has to crack a racket in stolen exotic cars. A fun episode.

Soul Survivor faces Michael with a real challenge. A computer whizz kid has stolen K.I.T.T., or at least has stolen the car and most of the basic programming. He didn’t manage to steal K.I.T.T.’s C.P.U. though. And Michael and K.I.T.T. between them are able to identify a suspect. This episode really strengthens the buddy vibe and the bond between K.I.T.T. and Michael. There’s also a slight mystical tinge as Michael is able to sense K.I.T.T.’s presence. A pretty good episode.

Ring of Fire is interesting for the bayou setting and the glimpses into cajun culture. An escaped convict is out to kill the witness who got him convinced, that witness being his wife. This episode is also interesting because we see K.I.T.T. having major mechanical problems and being not such a super car as usual, which means Michael has to work a little harder this time. Fairly entertaining.

In Knightmares Michael gets a blow on the head and forgets the last two years. He thinks he’s still Michael Long, the cop he was before he got his new identity. Yes I know what you’re thinking. Temporary amnesia is a terribly overused TV trope. And there’s nothing particularly clever about the way it’s used here. It’s something to do with a current case and an old case. The dam is a good setting but overall this a very routine outing.

Silent Knight is a Christmas-themed story. Three clowns (yes, actual clowns) rob a bank. They’re foolish enough to steal the manager’s gold watch which would be easy to trace, and then a smart-aleck gypsy kids steals the watch from the bank robbers. This makes him a valuable witness, and therefore a target. Michael and K.I.T.T. are going to have to keep him alive. You pretty much know where this one is going to go right from the start. A very routine episode.

A Knight in Shining Armor is silly and lightweight but that’s not a major disadvantage in a series such as this. The story concerns a famous explorer, his spoilt brat rich daughter and a treasure map. Michael discovers that of all the hazards a lone crime-fighter has to face none is quite so terrifying as a rich private schoolgirl.

Diamonds Aren't a Girl's Best Friend is a case that involves Michael having to spend a lot of time with a gorgeous model, and that’s not the sort of case you’ll find him complaining about. The plot involves jewels, international banking and murder. A typical Knight Rider episode that combines glamour, beauty and action in a reasonably entertaining package.

If you’re even the least bit prone to 80s nostalgia then watching White-Line Warriors will be your idea of TV heaven. Everything that made the 1980s so 1980s is here and it’s pushed to delicious extremes. The plot concerns drag-racing and a burglary racket. Great fun.

Race for Life is much too heart-warming and much too contrived. OK, so Knight Rider has never pretended to be subtle but this is just too saccharine-drenched. A little girl will die unless she gets a bone marrow transplant and the only donor is a gang member facing a murder rap. Not a good episode.

Speed Demons is all about motorcycle racing which turns out to have dangers other than the obvious ones. A fatal accident may have been no accident. It’s a story that offers thrills and spills and while it’s kinda dumb it’s kinda fun. And we discover that Devon has a secret past as a motorcycle racer.

The title of Goliath Returns lets you know what you’re in for. Michael Knight’s evil twin Garthe Knight is back and so is the evil monster truck Goliath. And pulling the strings is the beautiful glamorous but thoroughly (and deliciously) evil spider woman Adrienne St. Clair. Garthe wants revenge. Adrienne wants what she’s always wanted - money sex and power. Garthe and Adrienne make wonderful comic-strip villains. There are as many explosions as any reasonable person would want. And there’s the inevitable showdown between K.I.T.T. and Goliath, good vs evil. Lots of inspired silliness in this two-parter plus we get to see Devon going all MacGyver on us after he gets captured by Garthe.

A Good Knight's Work confronts Michael with a ghost from his past, when he was still cop Michael Long. Somebody tried to kill him then and they may be trying to kill him again now.  He also learns not to trust smart-mouthed teddy bears. For once K.I.T.T.’s Turbo function is used imaginatively. All in all an enjoyable episode.

The two-parter Mouth of the Snake was a kind of pilot episode for a proposed series starring Charles Taylor as semi-official Department of Justice agent David Dalton. Dalton seems to have some kind of superpowers but there’s no explanation given as to how or why this is, which makes his super-athletic prowess rather silly and unconvincing. The big problem is that he is completely overshadowed by the other guest star, Joanna Pettet,who has the charisma he lacks and also plays a much more interesting character. Michael and K.I.T.T. are relegated to supporting parts in this episode so it doesn’t feel like a real Knight Rider episode. The plot concerns a Mexican super-criminal smuggling gold and very high-tech top-secret weaponry. Not a very successful episode.

Michael goes undercover as a rock star to save an old girlfriend in Let It Be Me. Quite why he wants to set himself up for obvious heartbreak is a mystery too deep for me to fathom. You have to really really like 80s music to like this one.

Big Iron provides a reasonably solid ending to the season. There’s a racket in stolen heavy construction machinery. This story features the silliest use yet of K.I.T.T.’s Turbo Function.

Final Thoughts

Of all the 80s action adventure TV series Knight Rider is the most 80s. Watching this series is like indulging in complete 80s nostalgia overload. If you hated everything about the 80s don’t even consider trying to watch Knight Rider. But if you adored the 80s then you’re going to be pretty blissed-out. Knight Rider has it all - the music, the fashion, the cars, the hairstyles (big hair!), video games, the incredibly crude computer graphics.

If you were a teenaged boy in the 80s then Knight Rider showed you the world as it should be. In every case that Michael Knight gets involved with there’s a woman, and she’s always young and she’s always a babe. In the real world car mechanics are likely to be pudgy bald guys with bad attitudes. In the world of Knight Rider car mechanics are sweet-natured hot babes like April. Because that’s how God intended things to be.

The second season is slightly sillier than the first. That’s not a major problem since this is not exactly a series rooted in gritty realism. This is comic-book adventure stuff. K.I.T.T.’s super powers are relied on a bit too much though - it would be nice to see Michael actually figuring out ways of getting out of trouble rather than just pushing the magic Turbo button.

Any criticism you might like to make of this series is entirely justified, and entirely beside the point. It’s supposed to be mindless fun. It’s supposed to appeal to your inner thirteen-year-old boy. If you don’t have an inner thirteen-year-old boy you’ll hate it. Knight Rider does what it sets out to do and does it very well. If you’re prepared to relax and enjoy wallowing in the 80s nostalgia you’ll have a surprising amount of fun.

Saturday 20 July 2019

Hawaii Five-O season 2 (1969-70)

Season two of Hawaii Five-O which aired in late 1969 and early 1970 is very much the formula as before, and since it’s a very good formula that’s a good thing.

There are no cast changes. Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett still has the same team, the classic Hawaii Five-o team, with James MacArthur as Danno Williams, Kam Fong as Chin Ho Kelly and Zulu as Kono.

And Jack Lord of course has charisma on steroids.

Hawaii Five-O was never just a cop show. The whole idea of the (mythical) state police unit Five-O was that it would deal not just with major crime but also crimes with international ramifications as well as terrorism and even espionage. Five-O is a kind of Hawaiian FBI. So there were always a few spy thriller episodes in each season (and you’re never surprised to see the notorious master spy Wo Fat turn up yet again).

And in each season there are one or two other episodes that are unconventional and perhaps even outrageous. It’s all part of the unique flavour of a unique series.

I think the second season is perhaps just a little stronger than the first. Or it might be more accurate to say that it’s more consistently strong. The first season included a handful of definite misfires (which of course could be said about virtually every television series ever made). In the second season even the misfires (like King Kamehameha Blues) are only partial failures - they’re still at least moderately entertaining.

Once again Hawaii itself plays a major role. More than any other police drama series Hawaii Five-O  is a series that could not really be set anywhere else.

There was also a determination to show us that there was more to Hawaii than Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head. This is the real Hawaii (as it was in 1969 anyway). Like everywhere else it has its seedy corners but they’re seedy in a distinctively tropical kind of way. There are ramshackle beach huts occupied by drifters who have decoded that if they’re going to ruin their lives with drink and drugs they might as well at least do it in the sunshine. And it has very ordinary people as well, just trying to get by.

Episode Guide

There are some pretty decent spy thriller episodes like Forty Feet High and It Kills! which features the return of Wo Fat and Nightmare Road in which a top defence scientist is framed for murder by foreign agents. Another is Three Dead Cows at Makapuu in which the fate of civilisation as we know it hangs in the balance, and McGarrett wonders whose side the U.S. Army is really on. Sweet Terror deals with a terrorist plot to destroy Hawaii’s sugar industry and it’s a better episode than it sounds.

Leopard on the Rock is another story of international intrigue with a notorious dictator making an unexpected trip to Hawaii causing Five-O plenty of worries.

A Thousand Pardons - You're Dead! which is the season opener is a taut story about a racket exploiting army deaths.

The slightly offbeat episodes (which are to be found in every season) include To Hell with Babe Ruth in which a lone Japanese thinks the war is over and wants to blow up Pearl Harbor. Killer Bee is a bit strange also but it’s a fine story about war and psychosis. It’s a nasty twisted little tale. A Vietnam veteran may be spiraling back into madness, kidnapping children. But what’s really going on could be quite different although madness is certainly involved. A rather baroque plot but it works for me.

The Joker's Wild, Man, Wild! is a nicely twisted tale of a girl and a couple of guys playing a rather sick and very dangerous game. And in The Singapore File McGarrett is on the run in Singapore and is the hunted rather than the hunter.

The straightforward crime are mostly pretty good as well. In All the King's Horses McGarrett risks his career by standing by a notorious big-time gangster who claims to be reformed. It’s a good episode for demonstrating McGarrett’s intense loyalties and his extraordinary stubbornness. Just Lucky, I Guess is a gritty story about the murder of a prostitute.

McGarrett is the target in several season two episodes including A Bullet for McGarrett (in which Wo Fat makes another appearance so this counts as a spy drama episode). Which Way Did They Go? is an ingenious scheme of revenge aimed at McGarrett.

McGarrett is in the firing line again in Blind Tiger. This time he is blinded by as car bomb. His sight is expected to return but while undergoing rehabilitation he has to learn to accept being dependent on someone else, and of course he knows that there is certain to be another attempt on his life. Not a bad episode.

Run, Johnny, Run is about a young man who had hoped that joining the Navy would get his life back on track. McGarrett, a friend of the family, had hoped so too but it doesn’t seem to have worked out. It’s an episode showing McGarrett’s human side and it’s an OK story.

The One with the Gun begins with a rigged poker game and a murder and what follows is a brother’s quest for revenge. Some good twists in this story.

Cry, Lie involves a plot to destroy Five-O’s credibility by framing Chin Ho on corruption charges. Another good episode.

Most Likely to Murder concerns the murder of a cop’s wife. Danno and the cop concerned are old friends so Danno is particularly keen to crack this case. The investigation uncovers all sorts of disturbing secrets and puts Danno under a lot of pressure. A fine story.

Nightmare Road is a classic spy drama. A foreign government wants to persuade an American scientist working on a vital military project to defect. They intend to put him in a position where he will have little choice in the matter. If McGarrett doesn’t solve this case quickly it’s going to be too late. Lots of suspense in this one and a somewhat cynical ending. Good stuff.

Three Dead Cows at Makapuu is a two-parter and it begins with, you guessed it, three dead cows being found at Makapuu. What matters though is the very very unnatural way that the cows died. The locals think the U.S. Army has been experimenting with nerve gases again and Steve McGarrett is inclined to think they may be right. The truth is even more terrifying and Five-O are faced with a race against time to save Hawaii. An excellent episode.

Kiss the Queen Goodbye is a neat little heist story. The Queen of Polynesia is a fabulous emerald which is about to be presented to the people of Hawaii but it seems that several very very good paste imitations of the jewel have been made. McGarrett doesn't like this at all. It sounds like somebody is planning to do a switch. A faded movie star has been blackmailed into very reluctantly participating in just such a scheme. This is good entertaining stuff to close out the season.

Final Thoughts

Hawaii Five-O really gets into top gear with season two which is even better than season one. Everything is working like a well-oiled machine. Insanely entertaining television and highly recommended.

The series is available on DVD and seems to be easy to find just about everywhere.

I reviewed Hawaii Five-O season 1 a while back.

Friday 12 July 2019

Johnny Staccato (1959) revisited

The late 50s and early 60s was a bit of a golden age for American private eye TV series. Some of these series hold up extremely well today. Others not so much. Peter Gunn was a very successful series at the time and is generally pretty well thought of. For some reason I’ve never warmed to this series at all. Johnny Staccato, made in 1959, was less successful at the time but seems to me to be far more interesting.

Comparing Peter Gunn to Johnny Staccato is interesting because they are superficially very similar. In both there’s the same jazz ambience, the same background of night-clubs and musicians and seedy glamour, the same attempt to create an atmosphere of danger, dynamism and excitement. There are however a few significant differences. As played by John Cassavetes Johnny Staccato is more edgy, he’s cocky but with a touch of self-doubt so the cockiness comes across more as bravado than anything else. He’s less perfect than Peter Gunn, more human, and he’s more sympathetic and more interesting.

There also seems to be more at stake in Johnny Staccato. When Johnny takes risks to help people out you get the feeling that the risks are very real, whereas Peter Gunn is too much the perfect PI for whom such things are easy.

Johnny Staccato also feels like a much more authentic window into the slightly dangerous night-time world of jazz and night-clubs than Peter Gunn (which often seems bemused by this strange world). Much of the action takes place in Waldo’s, a kind of jazz basement club. Waldo (Eduard Ciannelli) is an elderly Italian. He and Johnny are close friends.

I reviewed the first half of the first (and only) season of Johnny Staccato a while back. I’m now going to take a closer look at the second half of that season.

Most of the half-hour American cop/private eye series of this era were made quickly on fairly tight budgets but within those limitations Johnny Staccato manages to be quite stylish. There is a very marked film noir flavour, and it feels like the genuine article rather than the superficial noir style of some of the other crime series of the time. It’s noir in content as well as in the visuals.

John Cassavetes is an actor who took his craft very seriously, perhaps sometimes too seriously for my tastes, but he really does make an effort to make Staccato a three-dimensional character. Yes he’s a bit of a bleeding heart but he has guts and he has determination. He doesn’t seem like a stereotypical tough guy PI but he’s actually tougher than he looks. It’s possible that having a hero who is not quite a conventional tough guy counted against the series and may be part of the reason it was cancelled after one season. He was perhaps a bit too cerebral. Johnny Staccato may have been a bit ahead of his time - he is a private eye who might have been more at home in the 70s than in the late 50s.

Not surprisingly, given his later career as a director, John Cassavetes took the opportunity to direct five of the episodes of Johnny Staccato.

The Episode Guide

In The Return Johnny is trying to help a disturbed Korean War vet who has busted out of an army mental hospital and intends to kill his wife. The guy really is serious about killing his wife but he’s basically a decent guy who has gotten seriously mixed up and Johnny doesn’t want to see him shot by the police, which seems to be a distinct possibility. Johnny also wants to make sure the gut doesn’t kill his wife! Johnny has a special reason for wanting to help the guy since he’s a Korean War vet himself. It’s a good episode and a typical one in that Johnny has a strong personal reason for taking risks to help someone out and it emphasises the fact that Johnny has had to deal with personal demons, and has done so successfully. We get a glimpse into his interior world.

The Unwise Men is a Christmas episode in which a department store Santa (who happens to be one of Johnny’s buddies) is roped into a robbery by his no-good brother. It’s a mess but Johnny thinks he can get him out of it. There’s nothing in it for Staccato but he’s a guy who doesn’t let his friends down.

In Collector's Item Johnny has managed to land a good job in a prestigious club for an old-time black jazz musician friend of his. Now the friend has been caught up in a murder and is being blackmailed and while there may have been witnesses none of them are going to come forward. It’s an honest look at a world where nobody is willing to trust the police. The climactic scene in the stadium is done very well.

The Man in the Pit is a broken down jazz musician whose son wants to kill him. Staccato wants to save the son from being a murderer and find out why a harmless old trumpet player would be doing things that seem so out of character.

The Only Witness is Staccato and what he’s a witness to is a gangland killing. And the killer knows Staccato is the witness so it seems highly likely that he’ll take steps to remove him, permanently. This is an episode that sums up why this is such an unusual PI series. Staccato carries a gun (he often does) and this time he draws it twice. But he never fires it. It’s just not the kind of PI series that grabs every opportunity for a shoot-out.

Night of Jeopardy opens with Johnny taking a walk when suddenly a gun battle erupts. Johnny kills one of the hoods, Dave Roman. The hood in question was carrying a package containing plates for counterfeit money and the counterfeiting gang (very big-time mobsters) wants that package. What nobody knows (including Johnny) is that Roman hid the package just before he died. The mobsters think Johnny has the package and they’re prepared to kill all of Johnny’s friends in order to persuade hm, to give them the information he doesn’t have. An unusually violent episode and the violence is quite graphic by 1959 standards. A good episode.

The “hey there’s a guy out there who is an exact double for the hero except that he’s evil”  has to be the most tedious of all tedious chichés. Double Feature is a typical example of the cliché in action. In this Staccato’s double is a hit-man. This episode is at best average and is notable mostly for being extremely violent and for showing the cops in a very unfavourable light.

In The List of Death a dying mobster has a list of things he wants to do before he dies and he persuades Staccato to help him. The last item on the list is the surprise one. Very good episode.

Solomon is one of the episodes directed by John Cassavetes. A famous trial lawyer is prepared to take desperate steps to save a client, a woman accused of murder. These steps are not exactly what you might call ethical. He wants Staccato to help him. Cassavetes makes some interesting directing choices. There’s a hint of German Expressionism here and it’s also very stagey, and obviously deliberately so. Cassavetes is aiming for intense psychological drama and he gets it. Elisha Cook Jr (one of my all-time favourite American character actors) gives the most amazingly over-the-top performance I’ve ever seen from him while Cloris Leachman is quite bizarre as the accused woman. It’s all very ambitious and it’s not the sort of thing a series like his could get away with very often but it is fascinating and different. It takes risks and in its own way it works.

An Act of Terror is a story about Thad Clinton, a young ventriloquist, hires Johnny to find his wife. Now any ventriloquism story is going to have a certain amount of weirdness and this one is no exception. It’s not difficult to figure out what’s really going on but at least it’s well executed.

An Angry Young Man is a punk named Carl Humboldt who has a job in a bookstore that is a front for a racket. Johnny has to help him out because he’s fond of the kid’s father and aunt. This one tries a bit too hard to be cute and warm-hearted and it’s a bit contrived. The characterisation of Carl is all over the place and it’s unconvincing. Not one of the better episodes.

In The Mask of Jason Johnny has to act as bodyguard to a contestant in a beauty pageant (the contestant is played by a young Mary Tyler Moore). She’s being menaced by a very very ugly man. Johnny soon discovers that there are other kinds of ugliness and that the ugliness inside can be the worst of all. Quite a good episode.

No American TV series would be complete without at least one episode in which the sophisticated urbanites who dominate the industry lecture the audience on how evil small-town Americans are, and how every rural American is a dumb, ignorant, knuckle-dragging bigot. That’s what A Nice Little Town does. An old friend wants Johnny’s help because her brother was murdered and the police in the small town in which she lives won’t do anything about it because the whole town thinks the brother was a commie. Staccato tries to get things moving and further tragedy follows. Staccato gets to make lots of speeches. It’s all very embarrassing and silly but you have to realise that the sorts of people who earn their living as scriptwriters honestly seem to believe that if they ever set foot outside a big city they’d be immediately murdered. A terrible episode.

Swinging Long Hair is an intriguing way to end the season (and the series as it turned out). A concert pianist from  behind the Iron Curtain is on the run. Agents from his own country are hunting him down. Why he hasn’t asked for political asylum isn’t mentioned. In any case he gets a job as piano player at Waldo’s. He thought that moonlighting as a jazz musician would be a good way to avoid attracting attention. This proves to have been something of a mistake. This is a very film noir episode and a very good one.

Final Thoughts

Johnny Staccato is a bit uneven but mostly it’s very good. John Cassavetes definitely makes an interesting private eye.

Mention should be made of the great jazz theme tune which promises glamour and excitement (which the show generally delivers). In fact there’s jazz all the way though this series and Cassavetes manages to be fairly convincing as both private eye and musician.

The complete series of Johnny Staccato (twenty-seven episodes) is available on DVD in Region 1. The transfers are very good but there are no extras. Johnny Staccato is highly recommended.

Friday 5 July 2019

Mannix season 2 (1968)

Mannix was completely reinvented for its 1968 second season. In season one Joe Mannix works for a huge high-tech detective agency that relies heavily on computers. Mannix is a loner by nature but working for Intertect means he’s basically just an employee and is expected to be a team player. It’s a clever setup with Mannix never being entirely happy at Intertect while at the same time he has to admit that having vast resources on which to rely can be very useful.

The Intertect stuff was dropped for the second season and Mannix became more or less a conventional private eye series, with Joe working as a lone wolf (apart from his faithful  secretary Peggy). A conventional private eye series certainly, but it has to be said that it was also a very good one.

Some fans of the series prefer the more innovative feel of the first season whilst others prefer the straightforward smooth professionalism of the later seasons. I tend to fall into the former camp but I have to admit that season two is very very good.

One thing that was carried through from the first season was the pacing which was considerably faster than most 60s crime series.

Mike Connors is once again terrific. I do miss his verbal sparring with Joseph Campanella which was a highlight of the first season.

Once again Mannix is a private eye who gets himself into a lot of trouble. It’s not a real Mannix episode unless Joe gets himself beaten up or shot. In some episodes he beaten up and shot. I wouldn’t say that Mannix is more violent than earlier private eye series (Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer back in the late 50s was incredibly violent) but it was unusual in the 60s to see the private eye hero on the receiving end so often.

Episode Guide

The Silent Cry is a kidnapping story. There was a witness to the kidnapping. Or at least a witness to a telephone call in which the kidnapers discussed their plan. The only problem is that the witness is deaf. To the police it seems hopeless but Mannix is convinced that the deaf woman can provide the information to crack the case. A great episode with which to start the second season.

Comes Up Rose is also pretty good. An ex-cop hires Mannix to find his wife, who is an ex-prostitute. It could be that the ex-cop is really the one in trouble.

In To the Swiftest, Death Mannix takes up car racing. A fellow competitor is killed in a race. His wife thinks it was actually murder. A cleverly plotted episode.

A Copy of Murder takes Mannix to a small town in California. An author who was writing a book on a celebrated murder case has been murdered. Mannix has to find out who killed the writer but more importantly he also has to find the missing last chapter of the book which is almost certainly the key to both murders. A very good episode.

Edge of the Knife is an attempt to do a kidnaping story with an original twist and while it’s a bit far-fetched it’s an intriguing concept.

In Who Will Dig the Graves? a reclusive tycoon wants Mannix to find his wife who might be dead but then maybe she isn’t. As so often Mannix finds that he hasn’t been told the full story and finding out what is really going on might well be a matter of life or death. A reasonable episode.

In The Need of a Friend Mannix has to make amends for a serious mistake he made several years earlier. He was responsible for sending an innocent man to prison. Mannix wants to right the wrong but that’s going to be a challenge. The man doesn’t want help and  maybe he’s decided to right that wrong in his own way. Not one of the better episodes of this season.

Night Out of Time presents Mannix with a client who has no memory of anything that happened the night before, and during that night he may have committed a murder. Mannix has to be both psychologist and investigator. A good episode.

A View of Nowhere is a view of a murder. Mannix sees the murder from a helicopter but it seems that no-one was actually murdered. Mannix isn’t buying that. An intricate plot that comes together quite nicely.

In Fear I To Fall Mannix gives evidence that is sufficiently damning to ensure a man’s conviction but he’s not at all sure the man was really guilty. It’s another story in which Mannix relies mostly on a sheer bloody-minded refusal to admit defeat rather than any particular brilliance as a detective. But perseverance can be more important than brilliance.

Deathrun is great stuff. Mannix tries to help an old buddy who works as a fire ranger and spends most of his time in a remote fire lookout tower. His wife is concerned, but maybe she isn’t his wife. The sheriff is not happy about Mannix’s presence but why is he quite so hostile? Mannix is more than a little confused but he can’t back out of this case now.

In A Pittance of Faith Mannix is hired to investigate the accidental death of a woman. He is hired in odd circumstances and then fired in even odder circumstances. But now he’s convinced there is really something to investigate. Some nice plot twists here.

In Only Giants Can Play Mannix is drawn into what might be a genuine or a manufactured political scandal or a case of blackmail or something else entirely. A fine episode.

Shadow of a Man is one of several episodes in which Mannix’s Korean War service plays an important plot role. A man tries to shoot Mannix but then claims to have no memory of having done so. Mannix is inclined to believe him but he has a strong feeling there’s something here worth looking into. The key to the puzzle lies in the past, in events that took place during the Korean War. A very good episode.

The Girl Who Came in with the Tide starts with Mannix being asked to identify the body of a young woman. She might have been the woman he’d been hired to find. She isn’t that woman but he does recognise her. It was an accidental death but something bothers Mannix. This girl had too many connections with too many suspicious people and suspicious events. It’s a convoluted but gripping tale. Excellent stuff.

Death in a Minor Key is a rare misfire. Peggy is dating a jazz musician whose past has now caught up with him. Mannix has to go to a small southern town to find the key to unravel an old mystery. Too much preachiness, and too much obviousness.

End Game is another episode in which Mannix’s service in the Korean Way plays a major role. One of the men with whom he served is playing a deadly and perverse game of murder and Mannix has to play as well, whether he likes it or not. And one false move will mean death. Exciting stuff.

All Around the Money Tree is a lighthearted romp of an episode. It all starts when Roger Bart appears at Mannix’s window to tell him he’s locked a man in the closet in his office and would Mannix kindly release him. Bart then disappears. And it seems that just about everybody wants to find him. It’s something to do with a very big robbery in England. There are double-crosses piled upon double-crosses piled upon more double-crosses. It’s all great fun.

Odds Against Donald Jordan starts as a missing persons case. His sister hires Mannix to find him. It seems that someone is definitely out to get Donald Jordan. It could his wife, his sister or his business partner - they’re all lying about something. And Donald Jordan is lying as well. There are lots of red herrings and the ending is pleasingly unexpected. Good stuff.

Last Rites for Miss Emma puts Peggy at centre stage when she falls for a guy who was shot during a robbery. Mannix is investigating the robbery for an insurance company and Peggy’s loyalties are about to be tested. An OK episode.

The Solid Gold Web is the story of a spoilt rich girl who meets a good-looking hoodlum and falls in love with him, as spoilt rich girls are wont to do. Then she finds out that he’s not a nice guy. And then the hood dies, when he’s hit by her car. So she cracks up. Her rich daddy wants Mannix to sort her out. No-one knows that she killed the hood so Mannix’s job is to find out why she’s cracked up. The resolution is pretty predictable but it’s well-executed and the beach scene is very well done. Not a great episode.

Merry Go Round for Murder starts with Joe being offered a lot of money to protect a guy named Frank Devereaux for one night. Devereaux has a briefcase with him, containing a quarter of a million in cash which he swears is clean money. Joe is about to turn down the job when a couple of hoods try to kill Devereaux and snatch the money and in the process they kill Pete Neal, who works for the same casino at Vegas that Devereaux works at. Now Mannix is interested. There are lots more plot twists to come in this excellent episode.

To Catch a Rabbit opens with a burglary that leaves a man dead. But the police don’t know about the burglary. They write it off as an accidental death. The man’s wife hires Mannix to prove it was a murder. He finds the evidence for the burglary but the trouble is that he’s still not convinced he knows the whole story. Meanwhile a Mexican named Carlos is charged with the murder. This is a somewhat disappointing end to the season - an overly preachy episode with plot subordinated to the social message.

Final Thoughts

Mannix is fast-paced and stylish and very polished. It has plenty of action and excitement and glamour, and lots of beautiful women. There’s the occasional dash of humour. Production values are high and there’s quite a bit of location shooting. It has a very likeable charismatic star. It has that terrific opening credits sequence with that great Lalo Schifrin theme tune. On the whole it’s a fairly serious private eye series but it’s serious without being grim or cynical and the emphasis is on entertainment. And it has something else that puts it ahead of the pack - extremely good scripts. I’m not sure what else you could ask for in a private eye series. It isn’t deep or profound but as straightforward action-adventure television it’s pretty close to perfect.

I’m not suggesting it’s the best American P.I. series ever made but it has to be in the top five (along with the late 50s Mike Hammer, The Rockford Files, Magnum, P.I. and I have no idea what the fifth one would be).

It’s easily obtainable on DVD and the transfers are pretty good. Mannix season two is very highly recommended. Aldo check out my season one and season three reviews.