Thursday, September 13, 2007

Where Have All the Good Crime Dramas Gone?

As I’ve mentioned before, my introduction to crime fiction didn’t come through books. It actually came through television. The detective and cop dramas I enjoyed as a teenager in the 1970s sent me looking for novels in that same genre, which is how I first discovered Ross Macdonald, and then went on to read the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, as well as books by more contemporary writers, among them Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretsky, Arthur Lyons, John D. MacDonald, Sue Grafton, Michael Z. Lewin, Jonathan Valin, Stephen Greenleaf, George C. Chesbro, Loren D. Estleman, and ... well, this list could go on and on.

The point I’m trying to make is that TV crime dramas were essential to the birth of my interest in mystery fiction. And no year’s worth of such programming was more influential than the 1972-1973 TV season. Unlike the meager offerings of our present fall season, the U.S. networks 35 years ago served up a banquet of character-rich, imaginative, and sometimes memorable prime-time series.

It was of course in 1972 that five operatives from Richard Nixon’s White House were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington, D.C.’s Watergate complex--an offense around which grew the scandal that brought Nixon’s resignation two years later. It was also in that year that 11 Israeli athletes were killed during the Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany; The Godfather was released in theaters; former President Harry “Give ’Em Hell” Truman died; and Bobby Fischer became the first world chess champion. But I was more focused in September 1972 on the Fall Preview issue of TV Guide (see the image above).

Up to that point, my experience with crime, mystery, and thriller dramas had been fairly limited. I had watched plenty of Perry Mason, because my maternal grandfather tuned it in. I’d seen scattered episodes of Mission: Impossible and Hawaii Five-O, but only over my father’s shoulders. My mother wasn’t a big TV fan, and she didn’t want my younger brother, Matt, and I to grow up glued to our black-and-white set. So most of our viewing was restricted to family-style shows such as The Wonderful World of Disney, My Three Sons, and The Brady Bunch.

However, in the summer of 1972, as I breached the ramparts of pubescence, my grandfather--a loving old cuss named Ewart E. Sprinkling--did two things that would help shape my tastes in entertainment. First, he began letting me sample the beer he poured for himself most evenings. A single shot glass full--just enough, he said, so I would know what beer tasted like, and therefore wouldn’t crave it overmuch as I grew into my teens. (This idea proved to be a good one; I was never as attracted to drinking in high school as were my friends.) Second, on those summer evenings when our parents dropped Matt and I off at his house, my grandfather started letting me stay up later at night. This meant I could see more of the shows he liked to watch, such as The F.B.I. and Ironside. Occasionally, too, Mannix (a special treat, since it was a 10 p.m. show).

After a summer of this, I was primed to see what new programs the then only three U.S. networks had scheduled. I wasn’t disappointed. As TV Guide editors opined in their Fall Preview issue, “this does promise to be a better-than-average season for viewers.” M*A*S*H and The Waltons--both seminal series, in their own ways--premiered that season, and on any given night, an aborning crime-fiction enthusiast like yours truly could find at least some satisfaction.

The fall 1972 TV programming schedule. Click on this image for an enlarged version. (Grid borrowed, with permission, from Dennis McGee’s Super Seventies RockSite!).

Sunday started things off rather perfectly. Not only did followers of The F.B.I. and Mannix get their fixes, but I sat mesmerized (or, alternatively, listened raptly) to the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie. This umbrella series comprised Columbo (with Peter Falk playing a smarter-than-he-appeared Los Angeles police homicide investigator), McCloud (featuring ex-Gunsmoke co-star Dennis Weaver as a fish-out-of-water New Mexico marshal semi-permanently assigned to the New York Police Department), McMillan & Wife (with Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James as a San Francisco police commissioner and his younger, trouble-attracting spouse), and Hec Ramsey (starring Richard Boone as a grizzled gunfighter turned lawman in 1901 Oklahoma). Had everything else on offer that TV season been game shows and “reality” programs and copycat forensic series (sort of what we’re left with nowadays), I’d probably still have been a contented kid.

But there was much more. Sure, Mondays and Tuesdays were a bit slow, with only The Rookies--about the lives of three young Southern California cops, both on duty and off--and Hawaii Five-O to keep the crime-fiction addict happy. But Wednesdays made up for that shortage. Capitalizing on the rising popularity of its revolving-series Mystery Movie format, NBC decided to launch a second set of such dramas. Those debuted in 1972, led by Banacek, which found George Peppard in the role of a suave Boston insurance investigator who solved the most impossible crimes. (An armored car full of gold bullion vanishes in the middle of a deserted Texas highway, or a football player disappears from the field in full view of cameras and a live audience? No problem!) Rotating with Banacek were Cool Million (with James Farentino as a CIA agent turned globe-trotting P.I., who charged $1 million--in advance--for his services) and Madigan (in which Richard Widmark reprised the role of a New York City cop he’d played in Don Siegel’s 1968 film of that same name, only this time paired with an idealistic young partner). And then, following this NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie, at 10 p.m., were two very different shows in competition. The veteran was Cannon, about an overweight ex-cop (played by William Conrad) who balanced the work he undertook for high-paying clients with jobs done for poorer people in hot water. Running opposite Cannon was the technology-driven Search. It followed the format of a slightly older, rather inventive series called The Name of the Game by alternating several protagonists--operatives Hugh O’Brian, Tony Franciosa, and Doug McClure--on a weekly basis, but having them all work for the same outfit. In Search’s case, that was the shadowy World Securities Corporation. These trouble-shooting studs were dispatched into the field with miniaturized TV cameras and subcutaneous telemetry units, so that their actions and health could be monitored from a central command center (manned by Burgess Meredith and the lovely Angel Tompkins).

Thursday evenings didn’t slacken the pace, as far as crime and mystery shows went. ABC started things off nicely with The Mod Squad, which focused on a trio of hippie-ish cops recruited into special duty on cases that required a more youthful touch. Immediately following that was The Men, yet another anthology series, this one incorporating three shows that rotated weekly: Assignment: Vienna, in which Robert Conrad played a bar owner in the Austrian capital who was frequently called upon to do work for U.S. Intelligence; The Delphi Bureau, an unconventional series that cast Laurence Luckinbill as an unheroic research expert for the government--who also happened to have a photographic memory that came in handy on certain covert missions; and Jigsaw, in which James Wainwright starred as a dogged investigator with the California Bureau of Missing Persons. These three Men were all “ruggedly handsome,” as TV Guide characterized them; but for many people, they couldn’t compete with Raymond Burr’s Ironside, which ran opposite The Men on NBC.

And that brings us to the end of the work week, though still not to the end of our list of cop, private eye, and spy programs.

In September 1972, two years before director Roman Polanski’s outstanding detective picture, Chinatown, first flickered across theater screens, a then-young actor named Robert Forster headlined a hard-boiled P.I. drama called Banyon, also set in 1930s Los Angeles and chockfull of period references delivered as part of the voice-over narration (“The case was taking more curves than a ball pitched by Dizzy Dean.”). Although somewhat less stylish than its 1971 pilot film, the series Banyon--which co-starred Joan Blondell and Richard Jaeckel (both pictured at right, with Forster)--held up quite well as both a historical whodunit and a homage to the cynical, lone-wolf shamuses given birth in Black Mask and other pulp magazines of the 1920s and ’30s.

The day after Banyon debuted that fall, the first episode of The Streets of San Francisco was shown. It starred Karl Malden and Michael Douglas as Bay Area detectives who came at their jobs from different generations, and often from quite divergent perspectives. The concept was pretty conventional, but the two stars made this series stand out. If viewers wanted more novelty in their storytelling, they had only to turn on Mission: Impossible, the espionage series starring Peter Graves, which followed Streets at 10 p.m. on Saturdays.

Given the number and schedule spread of these series, it’s a wonder that I got any homework done back in 1972. I must have rushed through it on weeknights, to be ready for the 8 p.m. starts of a couple of the programs mentioned above. But no matter. I would happily endure any such hardships again, if only the networks--or even one network--would today commit to filling some of its prime-time hours with the sorts of distinctive, non-franchise crime dramas I remember turning the dial to 35 years ago.

Far be it from me to blow too loudly on the horn of nostalgia. But damn it, I feel like I’ve been betrayed by the medium that originally got me interested in this genre. Frankly, I’ve had enough of Law & Order spin-offs, forensics-obsessed mysteries, and shows (like Criminal Minds) that think viewers crave a steady diet of psychotic serial killers. Even the device of using a serial killer in the unlikely role of crime solver (on Showtime’s Dexter) has grown old, fast. With the USA Network’s quirky spy-detective series, Burn Notice (about which I’ve written previously), scheduled to go on hiatus later this month, and not return until next summer, serious crime-fiction fans are again left with very little to watch this year, as far as regular network programming goes. K-Ville, a FOX drama about the challenges of policing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina tried to wash that city away, shows some promise. But beyond that? Well, what do you think of a series about a piemaker who raises the dead in order to help his P.I. pal solves cases? Or one featuring a vampire gumshoe? Or an immortal New York City homicide dick? Fuggitaboutit. Given the choice, I’d watch Banyon, Hec Ramsey, or Ironside over such warmed-over, gimmicky fare any day.

Too bad they’re not all available on DVD. Yet.

READ MORE:1972--The TV Guide Fall Preview,” by Brent McKee (I Am a Child of Television); “TV Guide Fall Preview 1972--The Comments,” by Brent McKee (I Am a Child of Television); “The Eyes Have It,” “Characters Welcome,” and “Their Finest Hours,” by J. Kingston Pierce (The Rap Sheet).


pattinase (abbott) said...

Wow, what a great piece. Thanks.

Unknown said...

I empathasize with you. It's been a long time since I made a date with a detective every week. It's hard enough to find any drama, much less a crime drama. However, it's not a total loss -- TNT's The Closer is a breath of fresh air!

pattinase (abbott) said...

The last two episodes of The Closer left me cold. I hope it was just fatigue. Two-fers are so often a mistake.

MysterLynch said...

The upcoming new shows have little draw for me.

I am looking forward to the addition of John Larroquette on Boston Legal. The show got tired last season and the shake-ups should help that.

I have also found myself getting sucked into (via DVD) Numb3rs, which is a lot better than I thought.

Season 2 of Dexter starts at the end of the month. That is the only show that has me jacked up.

Keith Raffel said...

I agree (as always) with Patti. Great piece, Jeff.