Thursday 28 October 2021

a second look at Hart to Hart season 1 (1980)

I did a brief writeup of the first season of Hart to Hart a while back and I was a bit lukewarm about this series. Having watched a few more episodes I’m inclined to be a bit more generous.

Hart to Hart was created by Sidney Sheldon who as well as having a successful career in television was also one of the bestselling novelists of all time. Neither his TV series not his novels were ever going to be described as art but they weren’t supposed to be. Sheldon was perfectly content to be an entertainer and laugh all the way to the bank.

The executive producers on Hart to Hart were Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, who were of course also responsible (among many other series) for Charlie’s Angels. And Hart to Hart strikes me in much the same way that Charlie’s Angels does. Both shows have a winning formula. Both Hart to Hart and Charlie’s Angels have glamorous charismatic leads, and both feature comic relief (provided by Lionel Stander and David Doyle respectively) that can be a bit overdone. And both series suffer somewhat from lazy writing. You often find yourself thinking that a bit more effort put into the scripts might have paid dividends. Both both series were hugely successful. Which tends to indicate that Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg probably knew a whole lot more about making successful television than I do.

In fact it’s possible that in the case of both shows the secret of their success was that they didn’t try too hard. They were television comfort food. They didn’t alienate viewers (who just wanted something relaxing and entertaining to watch) by trying to be too clever or too arty.

And both series succeeded by creating an aura of glamour, by having very attractive leads and by offering good-natured fun. And occasionally both series would come up with episodes that were unexpectedly good.

Hart to Hart (to an even greater extent than than Charlie’s Angels) is all about glamour. This was after all a concept dreamed up by Sidney Sheldon - take rich glamorous beautiful people and have them murder each other, with style. In this case you have a husband and wife who are rich and famous and don’t need to bother with work unless they feel like it (which they rarely do). They amuse themselves by solving murders. Being rich they don’t need to get paid for this, and being rich they can rely on the police indulging their hobby. It was a formula that obviously appealed to viewers. And it does work. Jonathan and Jennifer Hart are rich and famous but they’re not obnoxious about it. They’re likeable and really they’re just like any normal married couple (who happen to be fabulously rich and famous).

Glamour is something that doesn’t really exist in modern television or movies. Sure there are rich people, but real glamour is a different thing. Real glamour comes from sublime self-confidence, it has to be effortless, and Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers have it. This is the glamour that movie stars used to have. They don’t make movie stars like Robert Wagner any more and even in the 80s they didn’t make movie stars like Robert Wagner any more. That’s why his performance works. The producers wanted a Cary Grant for the 80s and that’s what they got. His career started in 1950 and seventy years later he’s still working. His earlier series It Takes a Thief is well worth checking out. Stefanie Powers had already demonstrated her suitability for this kind of light-hearted television with The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. back in the 60s.

Compared to other hugely successful 80s TV series Hart To Hart is not so obviously 80s. The stories could just as easily have taken place in the 1930s and the characters could easily have been taken from golden age Hollywood movies. It’s a series that takes place in its own universe where money and class never go out of fashion.

What’s also great about this series is that there’s no fashionable irony, and no snarkiness.

The DVD release includes a documentary which features many of the key people behind the series - Sidney Sheldon, executive producer Leonard Goldberg, writer Tom Mankiewicz and the two stars, Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers.

Episode Guide

In Which Way, Freeway? A rich jeweller is murdered and the key witness is Freeway (the Harts’ dog). Actually here are two key witness, Freeway and his doggie friend Suzie. And the murderers will have to do something about those witnesses. The plot is really pretty thin and a bit far-fetched but there’s an excellent golf cart chase and there’s a luggage cart chase as well. And there are cute doggies in danger, to provide the necessary suspense (and emotional investment for the audience). It has no right to work, but somehow it does.

In Downhill to Death Jennifer is doing something unusual. She’s working (she’s supposedly a journalist). She’s in a restaurant interviewing a punk rocker when she overhears a conversation between a man and a woman in a neighbouring booth, and the subject of conversation is murder. And the man is an old friend of the Harts. Could he really be plotting to murder his wife? This one has a reasonably twisty plot and (something of a defining characteristic of this series) an unusual chase, this time with snowmobiles. Very entertaining.

The Raid is more of an action episode. A husband-and-wife scientist team is kidnapped in a mythical South American country. They work for Jonathan and they’re also friends of the Harts. The local police won’t help, nor will the State Department so Jonathan teams up with an old buddy (a would-be revolutionary but a good revolutionary not one of the bad ones) to foil the kidnappers. A routine episode.

Things take a decided turn for the silly in Sixth Sense. A young female psychic working for Jonathan has a precognitive vision of her own murder. This was 1980, when ESP was still fashionable and some people still thought it was just vaguely plausible. That vision turns out to be both true and false. The plot is a bit complicated and very silly and very goofy. To a large extent it’s an excuse for the two leads to really ham it up, with Jonathan playacting as a Sam Spade-style hardboiled private eye and Stefanie Powers really going to town as a gypsy fortune-teller. If you’re going to do an episode such as this you have to be prepared to go totally over-the-top and embrace the fun and the goofiness and that’s what Wagner and Powers do (Powers is particularly good). And it actually works. It really does come across as charming and fun.

A woman tries, unsuccessfully, to kill Jennifer’s hairdresser in Does She or Doesn't She? Barry (the hairdresser) doesn’t seem the type to get involved in that kind of romantic drama. He likes women but he won’t have anything to do with married women. And Sally Hutchins is married. The Harts figure that maybe something else is going on here and that’s enough to get them interested. Quite a decent plot in this episode. Good stuff.

Cruise at Your Own Risk
takes the Harts to sea. There have been burglaries on several of Jonathan’s cruise liners (yes apart from all the other things he owns he owns three cruise liners). The insurance company is being difficult so the Harts set out to solve the burglary themselves. Jonathan will pose as a businessman taking his mistress on a cruise (with Jennifer playing the mistress). It’s fun to hear guest star John Hillerman (from Magnum, P.I.) talking with his natural American accent. OK, the plot is a bit thin but it’s enjoyable fluff which is what this series is all about.

The question in Too Many Cooks Are Murder is why anyone would want to try to murder a French chef. The answer is that he’s made a discovery, but no-one knows what the discovery is. All the Harts (who happened to be present when the attempt was made) know is that it’s something worth killing for. This one works quite well.

In Death Set the Harts’ friends Darryl and Blair Craddock are having marital problems. Darryl is starting to think that maybe his very rich family was right about Blair marrying him for his money. It all leads to a shooting tragedy. The Harts witnessed the shooting but even they don’t know what really happened. They are however determined to find out. What they uncover is a decent little mystery. You don’t want to think too much about some of the details of the plot but all in all a good solid season finale.

Final Thoughts

Watching Hart To Hart is like skipping dinner and going straight to dessert. Maybe it’s not nutritious but it goes down very easily. It aims to glamour and effortless charm and that’s what it achieves. This series has definitely grown on me. Recommended.

Sunday 10 October 2021

Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75), updated review

Carl Kolchak, investigative reporter with a nose for stories involving the supernatural, the paranormal and the just plain weird, made his first appearance in two TV movies. These were successful enough to spawn a series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which aired on the American ABC network in 1974-75. Sadly the series lasted only a single season. The network might have been well advised to give the series more time to establish an audience. After its cancellation it quickly achieved cult status and became extremely popular in syndication.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker was to the 70s what The X-Files was to the 90s. Kolchak keeps running across stories that just cannot be explained except as supernatural or paranormal phenomena or occasionally just weird fringe science. If only he could just get hold of some hard evidence. But he never does. Or if he does, it gets taken away from him or destroyed. Or for some reason his stories just get killed. But just like Mulder Carl Kolchak never gives up.

Darren McGavin was perfectly cast as Kolchak, a rumpled eccentric who revels in his reputation as a pushy oddball. Kolchak has its tongue-in-cheek side and it has its darker side as well and McGavin handles both effortlessly (anyone who doubts McGavin’s ability to be dark and edgy obviously hasn’t seen him in the late 50s Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer series).

You just really really want Kolchak to one day get the evidence he needs, you know he never will but you know he’ll just keep on trying. He’s a reporter. He doesn’t care about having doors slammed in his face. He doesn’t care about being harassed by the cops. He doesn’t care if people thinks he’s annoying and pushy. He doesn’t care if he makes his editor want to tear his hair out. Those are just the challenges that make being a reporter so much fun. And Kolchak loves being a reporter more than life itself.

This is a series that had a lot of promise but it never quite found its feet. Of course it wasn’t given time to do so. At times it does rely too much on Monster of the Week stories. It’s never quite sure if it wants to stick to the slightly jokey tongue-in-cheek tone or if it wants to get dark and serious. The episodes that rely on special effects suffer from the fact that the effects sometimes look cheap. But the promise was there and there are plenty of solid episodes with original and creepy ideas.

The series may just have been ahead of its time. Even science fiction series had a rough time on US television in the 60s. Weird stuff seemed to be accepted in anthology series (such as The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone) but perhaps audiences were not ready for a series that must have seemed an odd mix of a conventional newspaper reporter drama with outrageous story lines. It may have been too much of a collision between television drama normality and weirdness. The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone really didn’t pretend to take place in our reality, but Kolchak did. Two decades later The X-Files was a major hit, following just about the same formula.

Episode Guide

In Mr R.I.N.G. Kolchak stumble across a secret government robotics project called R.I.N.G. (Robomatic Internalized Nerve Ganglia). And it appears that one of their robots is loose, and he’s kinda dangerous. This is a very paranoid X-Files sort of story with the US Government, and especially the military, as the enemy. And the military is a much scarier enemy than any mere monster. An extremely good episode.

They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be… is the other Kolchak episode that is in the X-Files kind of mould. It starts with some seriously weird unexplained happenings. Zoo animals supposedly vanishing. People dying and the post-mortems reveal odd disturbing things. Electronic equipment that goes missing. There’s no actual evidence of anything, so why are the Feds so interested and what are they covering up? If you can’t afford fancy special effects a really good option is to avoid showing anything and rely on suggestion and that’s what his episode does. A lot of people don’t like this episode and I can see why. It is very low-key and lacks any real scares. But it is extremely interesting and I’m quite fond of it.

In Primal Scream an oil company has found some strange cells in a core sample from the Arctic. What’s really strange is that the cells are millions of years old but they show signs of life. Then there are the murders. Murders so brutal it’s as if they were carried out by something not quite human. And Carl Kolchak has some photos of footprints are they’re not quite human either. A fairly typical Kolchak episode, a bit silly but kind of fun.

The better Kolchak episodes are the ones that don’t rely on guys in monster suits and have to rely instead on atmosphere and genuine scares. Episodes like The Trevi Collection in which Kolchak discovers the links between the worlds of high fashion and witchcraft. There are some women who want to have it all, and they are willing to practise the black arts to achieve their desires. Store mannequins are always slightly creepy (the whole uncanny valley thing) and they play a big rôle in this episode. There are also a couple of pretty devious murders. On the whole an excellent episode.

In Chopper a graveyard is cleared for the construction of condominiums. Disturbing the dead is not a good idea. Several brutal slayings follow, with witnesses reporting a headless figure on a motorcycle. Carl gets some photos of tyre tracks but that makes things more confusing - such tyres have not been made for nearly twenty years. They’re the tyres you would have expected to find on the sorts of motorcycles that were popular with motorcycle gangs in the 1950s. Of course there’s no point in trying to tell the police any of this. Kolchak will have to deal with this mystery on his own, if he lives long enough. A pretty decent idea mostly well executed even if the headless biker is a bit unconvincing.

Demon in Lace involves the mysterious deaths of a number of young male college students. There’s no obvious cause of death but they died looking very scared. In each case the body was found along with the body of a young woman, but what worries Kolchak is that the young women had not died at the same time as the young men. And then there’s that Mesopotamian tablet with the weird inscription. The translation of one of the words as succubus worries Kolchak a lot. A truly excellent episode.

Legacy of Terror begins with two murders, both victims having had their hearts torn out. Literally. The only people Carl can think of who do things like that are the Aztecs, but Aztecs in Chicago in the 1970s. It seems unlikely. Then a third similar murder follows and Kolchak starts to see a pattern. A very good episode.

The Knightly Murders begins with a political boss being killed by a crossbow bolt. More murders follow, all done with medieval weaponry. Is the murderer a disgruntled medievalist, an actual medieval knight, some kind of lunatic or something else entirely. Kolchak has his own ideas after having a close encounter with a lance. John Dehner guest stars as the delightfully egotistical, highly literary but incurably lazy Captain Vernon Rausch, a legend in the Homicide Squad. A good fun episode.

What do eternal youth, Greek goddesses and dating agencies have in common? Quite a lot perhaps. Beauty and physical perfection seem to Carl to be the connecting thread. Youth Killer actually starts with 90-year-olds dropping dead all over Chicago. Not very unusual, but the circumstances are puzzling. Carl is particularly intrigued by the ring and the glass eye. This is one of the best Kolchak episodes, combining cleverness with subtle creepiness and wit.

The Sentry takes place in a gigantic underground data storage facility. It seems there have been a few accidents at the facility. Bodies found with teeth marks. Reptilian teeth marks. The cop in charge of the case is a glamorous lady detective but she’s determined to stop Carl from digging around in this case. The setting is very cool but the monsters are pretty silly.  It’s still a fun episode in a good kind of way.

Final Thoughts

OK, some of the guy-in-a-rubber-suit monsters are a bit embarrassing and there are a few dud episodes but the good episodes outnumber the bad ones by a considerable margin. And the good episodes are often very good indeed. Darren McGavin is so likeable he makes even the weaker episodes watchable.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker is immense fun. Highly recommended.