Thursday, February 29, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Columbo (1971)

Debut: September 15, 1971
Created by: Richard Levinson and William Link
Starring: Peter Falk
Synopsis: Rumpled and unassuming Los Angeles homicide detective, Lieutenant Columbo, doggedly reveals even the most well-concealed of crimes.

Trey: Columbo had two movie "pilot episodes" in 1968 and 1971, then series aired on NBC from 1971 to 1978 as one of the rotating programs of The NBC Mystery Movie. It was brought back in the 80s on ABC on a sporadic basis from 1989 to 2003. That's when I became acquainted with it.

Columbo was partially inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment character Porfiry Petrovich as well as (according to Wikipedia) G. K. Chesterton's cleric-detective Father Brown.

The first episode of the 1971 series follows the (at the time) innovative formula of showing the audience the crime from the beginning, thus removing the mystery ask, except in regard to just how Columbo will eventually catch them. It was written by Steven Bochco and directed by Steven Spielberg. In the episode, a member of a mystery writing duo resorts to murder to break from his less talented partner.

Jason: I remember the presence of Columbo in the pop culture of my childhood but don't recall ever having seen the show in its day, possibly due to the draconian bedtime I strove against in my single-digit years. For decades, references to the series and impersonations of Falk were ubiquitous. I've previously mentioned my general lack of interest in the crime drama genre which, like many things, was once strident but has softened over time. I enjoyed this chance to better acquaint myself with the series and character that became, for all intents and purposes, iconic.  

The young Spielberg wastes no time distinguishing himself with a cinematic approach and clever visual storytelling even as the credits roll. While perhaps trying a bit too hard at times, the episode amounts to a very effective portfolio piece. Somebody give this kid a feature!

Trey: Yeah, I think he's got something and is going to go places. Wonder whatever happened to him? I'd also call out writer Steven Bochco as the creator of Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue among other credits. 

Jason: The titular character doesn't show up until nearly the 20 minute mark, as goes the show's formula, and he doesn't disappoint. As everyone already knows, Falk is uniquely charming in the role. 
His opponent, as expertly portrayed by Jack Cassidy, couldn't be more arrogant, slimy and unlikeable, despite his sophistication and impeccable manners. The rest of the cast give naturalistic performances, leaving it to the leads to provide the understated climactic fireworks.

Trey: In latter series, they did a lot of celebrity casting of the "murderers of the episode" and that and the focus on their viewpoint sometimes gives you (or at least gave me) a bit of sympathy for them: "Alright, alright, Columbo. They're guilty! Quit playing with them and arrest them, already!" Not here, though.

Jason: As an unsophisticated newcomer to the genre, I give this show high marks. I'm tempted to watch more. 

Unlike many of the shows featured here in the Flashback Universe, this one is anything but obscure and much ink has been spilled on its behalf. I found this article to be an effective expression of the warm regard Columbo still enjoys. Exhibit A: BBC Why the World Still Loves the 1970s Detective Show Columbo. Oh, and here's a Columbo statue in Budapest, Hungary. My only regret is that his dog doesn't appear in this episode!

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Captain Midnight (1954)

Captain Midnight
Debut: September 9, 1954
Starring:  Richard Webb, Sid Melton, Olan Soule
Synopsis: Captain Midnight of the Secret Squadron flies around the globe in his jet the Silver Dart, fighting various criminals and spies with his sidekick Ichabod Mudd and aided by a scientist, Dr. Aristotle Jones.

TreyCaptain Midnight (later renamed Jet Jackson, Flying Commando on TV) is a franchise that debuted as a radio serial in 1938. The character's popularity throughout the 1940s and into the mid-1950s saw him appear in movie serials (1942), a syndicated newspaper strip (1942), a comic book (1942–1948) and of course a television series (1954-1856).

The series aired on CBS and was sponsored by Ovaltine and Kix/General Mills.

Jason: 'll just go ahead and admit this was a pretty fun watch for me, the heavy handed in-world pitches for chocolaty, vitamin-laden Ovaltine only adding to the goofy charm. 

However, it swiftly becomes clear why legislation was enacted in the 1960s to regulate children's television, especially as regards advertising content. But thank your lucky stars that hero of supply side economics, former president Ronald Reagan, rolled back these restrictions, or else we may never have gotten to know He-Man, GI Joe, and Optimus Prime quite as intimately.  

Trey: The Gipper made Tv safe for product placement again! This really is a whole number level of undisguised shilling, though. It reminds me of The Shadow radio show and its Blue Coal pitches, except with more kid appeal.

I should mention before we get too far along that we watched Season 2, Episode 3, "The Frozen Men." Noted scientist Dr. Hartley is kidnapped by foreign agents. Captain Midnight, Ikky, and Tut figure out he has been working with extreme cold to make a super-durable metal. There's an atomic bomb dropped in this episode, though not directly on our heroes.

Jason: Spoilers! Anyway, Richard Webb, whose portrayal of a Starfleet officer deranged by the rigors of their duty is forever burned into my memory banks...

Trey: That would be Ben Finney in the Star Trek episode "Court Martial."

Jason: Yes. Here he does an admirably straightforward job of embodying the Cold War American Hero. His jaw is square enough and he delivers lines with the precise diction every Cold War school child should strive to perfect.   

His sidekick Ikky, who in this episode at least is in near-constant need of a hot shower, provides the kind of comic relief that might have generated some laughs for children of the 1950s. For us moderns, the humor is barely detectable. I did laugh out loud when, certain his Captain was incinerated in a nuclear blast, Ikky frowns slightly and delivers a somber, momentary salute before immediately moving on with his life. 

Trey, the science in this science fiction is worth mentioning I think. You've forgotten more about science than I'll ever know. Can you give us a breakdown on the speculative elements in this episode? I hold no degrees in the sciences, but I'm pretty sure some liberties may have been taken.

Trey: Well, I think the whole idea of super-metal Protonium that is created from nothing by intense is utterly fanciful. Then there's the medication profrigidium that is evidently super-endotherm in its reactions. None of this is science but rather "Science!" as found in pulp media. Of course, that's not even mentioning the 50ss naiveté about the horrors of nuclear bombs.

Jason: I'll regretfully cancel my profrigidium order at the pharmacy.

Trey: You wouldn't like the co-pay, anyway.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Jason King (1971)

Jason King
Debut: September 15, 1971
Created by:  Dennis Spooner, Monty Berman
Starring:  Peter Wyngarde
Synopsis: Playboy novelist, Jason King, after working as a consultant with an intelligence agency as a sideline, keeps finding himself thrust into the role of international, amateur sleuth.

Trey: The character of Jason King was created for the British spy-fi series Department S (1969). Spooner and Berman originally conceived the character as a sort of middle-aged, tweed coat and pipe smoking academic sort, but when Peter Wyngarde came on board, he had other ideas. According to Wikipedia, Wyngarde "applied much of his own personality, style and wit to the role." With the Swinging London style, and cool wit, the character was apparently compelling enough to spinoff. It ran for one, 26 episode season.

We watched the first episode, "Wanna Buy A Television Series?" on YouTube. I have to say it's perhaps the cleverest structured show we've watched so far--and unusual in the sense that the character Wyngarde plays in the most scenes in the episode isn't Jason King but rather King's blatant author-insertion protagonist, Mark Caine. Caine is solving a mystery set among the glamorous Mediterranean, as a group of criminals give a woman plastic surgery to look like a dead woman to attempt to scan yet another criminal. All these (fictional) doings are intercut with scenes of King trying to sell this script and series to an American TV exec. 

I thought the metafictional touches were quite clever, though I agree with the TV exec that the basic plot of the script King is pitching is pretty convoluted.

Jason: An opinion I share. Which would elicit exasperated rebukes from Jason King, who has only limited patience for unsophisticated Colonials unable to keep up. 

I also enjoyed the show's premise and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of its execution. The interplay between the frame story and the meta story was quite clever and frequently amusing. It felt good to be genuinely entertained by a piece of entertainment, no ironic detachment required.

Trey: Wyngarde's cool is definitely of its place and time. Without the clear context clues to know how his world takes him, I think he might be a bit baffling to the modern viewer.

Jason: Modern Bafflement Exhibit A: King's astonishing hair do and mustache situation!

Trey: The past is a different country. One with tonsorial excesses. 

Jason: But I was won over pretty quickly! As the story(ies) unfold, the cumulative effect of Wyngarde's multiple subtle and not-so-subtle characterizations reveal an entertainingly complex King, who is no mere Bond parody despite the intrinsic humor. 

According to Wikipedia this ITC production was shot on 16mm film (rather than the more expensive 35mm as a cost-saving measure) which makes it look infinitely better than Star Cops (produced 15 years later!) Jason King actually had a budget and it shows. 

Trey: Anyway, It's worth pointing out the influence this actor, character, and series had on comic books. The X-Men villain Mastermind is named "Jason Wyngarde" after the actor and this character and draws some from a villain he played in The Avengers episode "A Touch of Brimstone" which is where Claremont got his Hellfire Club. In Morrison's The Invisibles, Mr. Six has some of Wyngarde's style and appearance (including his moustache) and at one point works for an organization called Department X.

Jason: I am illuminated!

Trey: But wait! There's more! Outside of comics, the flamboyantly dressed protagonist of Kim Newman's The Man from the Diogenes Club, Richard Jeperson, is partially inspired by Jason King.

Jason: I have to admit the actor was never really on my radar until watching this show but he will always have a place in my heart for his portrayal of the diabolical Klytus in Flash Gordon. His performance in Jason King only enhanced my admiration.


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