Saturday 20 February 2021

The F.B.I. season 2 volume 1

The F.B.I. returned for a second season in late 1966 (there would eventually be no less than nine seasons). At this stage the key cast members - Efrem Zimbalist Jr as Inspector Lewis Erskine, Stephen Brooks as Special Agent Jim Rhodes and Philip Abbott as Deputy Director Arthur Ward - were unchanged.

I’ve been watching a number of American cop/private eye series of this era recently. It was very much the Heroic Age for those genres. While the criminals sometimes offer some degree of psychological complexity the heroes are very much straightforward heroes with no hints of moral ambiguity. Authority, whether represented by the police or the F.B.I. or the government, is never questioned. At the beginning of each episode we are assured that the Bureau is there to fight the enemies of the US Government and we are naturally expected to assume that the US Government’s enemies are the enemies of all decent people. In 1966 it was reasonable to assume that contemporary audiences would accept this unironically.  Perhaps it was their tragedy that they accepted authority without question, and perhaps it’s our tragedy that we are unable to do so.

Which sounds like I’m being snarky about this series. In fact it’s sophisticated, polished and very professional. It’s very good television indeed, with fine scripts and fine acting. It’s simply made with certain assumptions that audiences today will find slightly difficult to accept, and which would in fact be increasingly questioned even a decade later.

Lewis Erskine is by no means a two-dimensional character. He’s decent and honest and honourable but he’s rather complicated. He’s a very driven man, a man with certain obsessions and a man who has largely sacrificed his personal life for the sake of his career. He doesn’t complain about this. He Iikes his job and believes it is worthwhile and important but at times you get the feeling that he’s not a guy who is going to cope very well when retirement times comes around. He might perhaps be just a little too dedicated and single-minded. But he doesn’t qualify as a flawed hero of the type that would become commonplace in the 70s, and he also doesn’t qualify as an eccentric hero (in the way that 70s cops like McCloud, Kojak and Columbo are to varying degrees and in different ways eccentric heroes). Erskine is very much a regular guy. The most unconventional thing about him is that he’s so very conventional.

I feel a little bit sorry for Stephen Brooks. I like his understated performance as Jim Rhodes and Rhodes is the perfect foil for Erskine. However there was just no way Brooks could compete with Efrem Zimbalist Jr’s star power and charisma so inevitably Jim Rhodes became a sidekick rather than a partner and in the second season he was more often than not relegated to the background. It’s no great surprise that Brooks departed the series at the end of this season.

Quinn Martin’s productions tended to be a bit more character-driven than other American heroes of that era. While the heroes of The F.B.I. are conventional heroes and while there’s  a definite sense that there is such a thing as right and wrong there is at times a genuine attempt to examine the psychology of the criminals (and even the spies) and even the psychology of the victims. This is not a series that accepts the there can be any excuses for crimes or espionage but at least there’s an awareness that people do things for a reason.

If you’ve been avoiding this series because it sounds like it might be a bit too old-fashioned with a bit too much in the way of simplistic Cold war politics and a perhaps way too much glamorisation of the F.B.I. then my advice is to think again. It’s an intelligent grown-up series and the scripts really are extraordinarily good (and consistently so). And Efrem Zimbalist Jr really is a joy to watch. In his own distinctive way he has amazing amounts of charisma and Lew Erskine is a great character.

The first couple of seasons have been released in half-season sets but they were longish seasons (twenty-nine episodes in the second season) - the season 2 part 1 set includes sixteen of those episodes.

Episode Guide

The Price of Death is a kidnapping story and this series includes a lot of those. They somehow always manage to make them interesting, with at least a couple of twists. And of course as always it’s remarkably well-executed with some very fine acting by the supporting cast.

The Escape starts with a spectacular and deadly shoot-out as a prisoner, Larry Drake, escapes from custody at a small airport. The Drakes are quite a family. Three brothers, plus the older brother's wife. And they’re not exactly one big happy family. Which may be a help to the F.B.I. but it makes the situation much more dangerous and much more volatile. A very good episode.

The Assassin starts with the killing of a police officer in Manila. Before he does he reveals sketchy details of a plot to assassinate well-known peace activist Bishop John Atwood. The hunt is now on but it’s a double hunt, with shadowy assassin Anton Christopher stalking the bishop while being stalked in turn by the F.B.I. and both Lewis Erskine and Christopher are accustomed to being successful hunters. An otherwise routine story is enlivened a couple of interesting character studies. William Windom is excellent as the cynical but world-weary assassin who feels that his career is nearing its close. The bishop is stubborn, arrogant, egotistical and generally insufferable and he’s actually a less human and less sympathetic character than his would-be killer. Tom Skerritt as Christopher’s political zealot assistant and Rhys Williams as the bishop’s trusted friend who has his own agenda add further interest and make this a fine episode.

The Cave-In deals with sabotage at a mine in New Mexico. The mine was about to close, until a new vein of tungsten was discovered. Since tungsten is of vital strategic important the F.B.I. is called in. Naturally they suspect commies but that doesn’t seem to fit. The sabotage was too amateurish. A second act of sabotage triggers a cave-in and half a dozen miners, along with Social Agent Jim Rhodes, are trapped. Solving the case is pretty easy but the real focus is on the attempts to rescue the trapped men. A decent episode.

Vendetta is a spy story. This time it’s not just commies the Bureau is after but Nazis as well. In fact it’s Nazi commies. A suspected war criminal apparently commits suicide but an Israeli investigator doesn’t believe he’s really dead, and that he’s now a communist agent. Spy stories often deal with themes of betrayal but this one focuses on guilt (both appropriate and inappropriate) and fanaticism (of at least three different kinds). An interesting if not entirely successful episode.

In Anatomy of a Prison Break Erskine goes undercover as a con in a federal prison to try to foil a big prison break. The guy behind the plan is a real genius. He’s so smart he’s currently serving a lengthy sentence for his last brilliant plan. He may not be as clever as he thinks he is but he is ruthless. He killed the last inmate he suspected of being a stool pigeon. Erskine can probably derail his plans, if he lives long enough. This is great stuff.

In The Contaminator a communist spy accidentally sets off a nuclear reaction at a research facility. It’s a really really tiny nuclear reaction but it’s enough to contaminate everybody in the room, including the spy. This is a fine manhunt episode with some great wilderness location shooting with the nuclear contamination problem adding some spice.

The Camel's Nose is a surprisingly sordid tale of corruption and defence contracts, and murder. It starts with a plane crash that was no accident. And Deputy Director Arthur Ward has a personal involvement in the case which could prove awkward. Of course in this series there can never be a hint of corruption within the government (and we get some speeches assuring us that the F.B.I. especially is utterly incorruptible) but big business corruption was a different matter. Not a bad story.

With The Scourge we’re in organised crime territory. The Mob is using juicers (loan sharks who charge astronomical interest rates) to gain control of legitimate companies. One such company is Towner Industries but the head of the company is too scared to testify against Johnny Albin, the juicer in question. Erskine and Rhodes think there may be another way to get the evidence they need. Another very good episode.

In The Plague Merchant a biochemist indulges in a little harmless industrial espionage, stealing samples of a new hand lotion. Only it’s not hand lotion, it’s a killer bacteria that could kill millions. The script goes to great lengths to convince us that of course it wasn’t developed for bacterial warfare (there are lots of peaceful uses for killer bacteria that could kill millions), but other wicked nations (never the United States) might use it for that purpose. It’s another story featuring a villain who isn’t villainous, just naïve and mostly sympathetic. Quite a good episode.

Ordeal starts with a robbery but it’s no ordinary robbery. What was stolen is not nitro-glycerine, which would be bad enough, but a new experimental form of nitro-glycerine which is even more unstable than the regular kind. It’s destined to be used in a revolution in South America. Carl Munger is finished with driving that kind of stuff but he’s out of work and his wife is pregnant and he needs the money real bad so he’s driving it to the coast. And Jim Rhodes his long for the ride. It’s dangerous enough in ideal conditions but everything that could go wrong, everything that could jolt that nitro into exploding, does go wrong. This episode is obviously inspired by the classic 1953 French suspense thriller The Wages of Fear and it’s tense exciting stuff. A very good episode.

In List for a Firing Squad communist spies are at it again. A Hungarian agent, Istvan Sladek,  has obtained a list of the names of American spies in eastern Europe and the F.B.I. has to get the list back. This is a surprisingly nuanced episode. Even Erskine admits that from Sladek’s point of view he’s a patriot serving his country and a brave man, just as Erskine is. And the F.B.I. puts Sladek’s girlfriend in a ghastly position of conflicting loyalties. There are different kinds of betrayal. Is it worse to betray your country or to betray love? A disturbing and intelligent story.

The Death Wind is a tale of danger on the high seas. And possible even greater dangers elsewhere. An ageing tramp steamer bound for Port Spencer in Hawaii hits a World War 2 mine and sinks. In the mid-60s wartime mines still caused such problems occasionally. There are however some complications in regard to that mine, and the ship’s cargo causes even more concern. Quite a clever little story.

The Raid is a siege story with multiple hostages. A dying informant alerts the Bureau to the presence in Los Angeles of Scott Martin, a bank robber on the Ten Most wanted list. Martin and is gang are holed up in a motel in the suburbs. Lots of tension in this one with the complication of a girl who may be a hostage or an accomplice and a boy who is definitely a hostage. Amazing amounts of gunplay in this episode. The drive-in scene is very good. Great episode.

Passage into Fear is a spy thriller set on a train, always a winning idea. And it works pretty well here. A witness in an espionage case has panicked and run and both the F.B.I. and the members for the spy ring are after her. Plenty of excitement and suspense in this story, and Erskine is put in as difficult moral position. Very good stuff.

Final Thoughts

The F.B.I. offers clever literate scripts involving people who have believable motivations for the things they do, whether they’re right or wrong. This is intelligent sophisticated entertainment mixed with plenty of entertainment value. Very highly recommended.

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