Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hills of Homicide:
The Mysteries of San Francisco -- TV Series

There have been a number of American TV crime dramas over the years that used San Francisco as a setting, even if they weren’t always shot on location. Most have disappeared into history without significant lamentations. How many of you, for instance, remember Killer Instinct, a 2005 series that focused on a unit of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) charged with “track[ing] down the perpetrators of unusual crimes within the city”? How about The Lineup (aka San Francisco Beat), or Racket Squad, or Shannon, which starred Kevin Dobson as a former New York cop who moves to the Bay Area? And did you ever tune in to Wolf, or The Evidence, or even San Francisco International Airport, which starred Lloyd Bridges and debuted in 1970 as part of a “wheel series” with Dennis Weaver’s McCloud?

On the other hand, this most mesmeric metropolis has served as the backdrop for some detective and cop programs that were popular during their first runs, and are worth watching again. At least those that are available in DVD format. Below are the 10 I recall most fondly, not necessarily in order of endurance or excellence.

1. The Streets of San Francisco (1972-1977). The granddaddy of San Francisco crime dramas, and actually shot in the city, this Quinn Martin production starred the prominently broken-nosed Karl Malden and Michael Douglas as SFPD detectives. Lieutenant Mike Stone (Malden) was a trenches-scarred veteran, newly partnered with Assistant Inspector Steve Keller (Douglas), a considerably younger and less-experienced cop who figured he could teach the old dog some new tricks, but wound up becoming Stone’s student instead. San Francisco was lovingly showcased in Streets, whether the camera was turned on the Ferry Building, Chinatown, the Bay Bridge, or Fisherman’s Wharf.

2. McMillan & Wife (1971-1977). Although it was often likened to the old movie series inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s 1934 novel, The Thin Man, McMillan & Wife had neither the torrent of witticisms nor the cute little fox terrier that drew viewers to Nick and Nora Charles’ adventures. What it did have, though, were longtime film star Rock Hudson, who played the city’s unusually in-the-midst-of-the-action police commissioner, Stewart “Mac” McMillan, and the lovely Susan Saint James (formerly the only regular on The Name of the Game) playing his trouble-prone spouse, Sally. This pair often found themselves helping society friends who had been ripped off, stumbling across corpses in their hillside home, or investigating figures from Mac’s past. Unfortunately, a contract disagreement led to Saint James’ departure from the series at the end of Season 5 (with viewers being told that Sally had perished in a plane crash) and its renaming as McMillan. Without its romantic undercurrents, the show’s popularity tumbled and it--like the NBC Mystery Movie of which it was a part--lasted only a year more.

3. Crazy Like a Fox (1984-1986). Straight-laced types always make good butts of humor, so this CBS series featured the always-watchable Jack Warden as Harry Fox,
a fly-by-the-seat-of-his pants private eye who frequently ropes his married, conservative attorney son, Harrison (John Rubinstein), into helping him solve cases. “Aw, come on son. All I need is a ride. What could possibly happen?” Harry asks in the show’s opener. The answer, of course, is everything. And that was the delight of watching the fast-paced Crazy Like a Fox, seeing how deep Harry could get himself and his worrywart son into trouble, and to what outrageous extent they’d have to go to dig themselves out of it again.

4. Ironside (1967-1975). Coming off his success as the star of Perry Mason (1957-1966), actor Raymond Burr played former SFPD Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside. An ever-impatient and frequently foul-mouthed cop whose shooting had left him in a wheelchair, Ironside was relegated to a different sort of investigative role, operating as a citizen volunteer with backup from a couple of police associates, Detective Sergeant Ed Brown (Don Galloway) and plainclothes officer Eve Whitfield (Barbara Anderson). Later, the lovely Elizabeth Baur, playing Policewoman Fran Belding, replaced Anderson. Throughout, Don Mitchell turned in excellent performances as Ironside’s reformed-delinquent assistant, Mark Sanger. Episodes found “the Chief” helping all classes of San Franciscans, the rich and the poor, the hip and the square. The stories tackled thorny issues (abortion and suicide), and much was made of the contrast between Ironside’s gruff exterior and the loyalty he engendered in his associates, who always seemed to be one step away from catching a bullet or being kidnapped.

5. Nash Bridges (1996-2001). One of the things I appreciated about this series was that star Don Johnson didn’t just try and re-create, on the opposite American coast, the success he had enjoyed as super-stylin’ Sonny Crockett in Miami Vice. Instead, he gave the character of Bridges, an inspector (later captain) with the SFPD’s Special Investigations Unit, a much deeper and more layered personality than we ever saw exhibited by the tightly wound Crockett. Bridges also had a much different partner in the form of Inspector Joe Dominguez (Cheech Marin), a life-loving guy who had the tendency to slip blithely into personal situations that demanded Bridges’ special brand of butt-saving. Like Crockett, Bridges boasted a flashy ride--an electric yellow 1971 Plymouth Barracuda convertible--and he could stimulate the libido of a woman at 40 paces. However, Miami Vice rarely exhibited humor, while Nash Bridges was rife with it. You got the sense that Johnson was showing more of his real self here than he had previously. Yet he and Marin weren’t the only two who lent strength, poignancy, and playful eccentricity to this show. Special kudos to Kelly Hu (who played Inspector Michelle Chan), Jodi Lyn O’Keefe (as Bridges’ fetching daughter, Cassidy), and James Gammon (who featured as Bridges’ dementia-suffering father).

6. Hooperman (1987-1989). This show, created by Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher (who were also behind L.A. Law), was really more of a comedy-drama than an out-and-out crime series. Nonetheless, it had a great deal of charm and belongs on this
list. Former Three’s Company star John Ritter led the cast as an SFPD plainclothes detective, Harry Hooperman, who has recently inherited both a dilapidated apartment building and a dog, but can only blame himself for his personal problems. His fellow cops provide ample humorous distractions, especially the redneck inspector and a comely young female officer (Sydney Walsh) who launches repeated advances toward the persistently unmarried Hooperman, if only to prevent his turning gay. But after hiring a new manager for his apartment building (played by Debrah Farentino), Hooperman hardly needs look further for love. This is one of those shows that cries out for a DVD release.

7. Have Gun--Will Travel (1957-1963). We never heard more than his surname: Paladin. Or maybe that was his first name, or not his name at all. In any event, he resided at the elegant Hotel Carlton in San Francisco during the 1870s, was a West Point graduate, and had come to be known in town as something of a dandy, donning swank attire and attending opera performances. On top of that, Paladin (played by Richard Boone) was a gunfighter, though he preferred to settle disputes with a minimum of bloodshed. He handed around his calling cards--marked with a chess piece and the slogan, “Have Gun--Will Travel”--and for a $1,000 fee served as a sort of “a knight without armor,” extricating clients from whatever trouble had sought them out. The last thing robbers, card sharps, and blackmailers wanted to see coming toward them on a dusty western trail was Paladin in his all-black clothing, his Colt revolvers at his side. A decade after Have Gun was canceled, Boone returned to television as another gunfighter, Hec Ramsey, though this one had shed his quick-trigger ways to become a frontier detective. “You know,” he once said, “Hec Ramsey is a lot like Paladin, only fatter.”

8. Checkmate (1960-1962). Created by none other than thriller writer Eric Ambler (Journey into Fear, A Coffin for Dimitrios), this CBS series starred Anthony George and Doug McClure as private investigators Don Corey and Jed Sills, respectively, the owners and operators of Checkmate, Inc. Sebastian Cabot (later to feature in the sitcom Family Affair) appeared as tweedy British criminologist and college professor Dr. Carl Hyatt, an adviser to the agency. The gimmick--and the source of their firm’s name--was that Corey, Sills, and Hyatt prevented crimes before they actually happened, rather than solving them after the fact. The trio originally employed Corey’s Nob Hill apartment as their base of operations (enjoying the city views that were available from there), but during the second season moved to a much less interesting suite of offices. Blogger Ivan G. Shreve reviews some of Checkmate’s best episodes here.

9. Amy Prentiss (1974-1975). Like McMillan & Wife, Amy Prentiss was part of the NBC Mystery Movie rotation, but it enjoyed far less acclaim. Although star Jessica Walter received an Emmy for her lead role, only three regular episodes of this series were made. A fourth--the pilot, “Amy Prentiss: AKA The Chief,” directed by Boris Sagal--was actually the final, two-hour episode of Ironside in May 1974. Prentiss found Walter, then in her mid-30s, playing an SFPD lieutenant who defies the odds to become the department’s new chief of detectives. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t sit at all well with some of her sexist male colleagues, so Prentiss has to be both tougher and smarter than her detractors. It looked like an uphill road. For instance, in the show’s first Mystery Movie installment, “Baptism by Fire,” a detective played by William Shatner just can’t give Prentiss enough grief while she is trying to concentrate on investigating a mad bomber. The show didn’t last long enough for us to see whether she could ever win over her critics. An interesting note: Helen Hunt appeared as the widowed Prentiss’ pre-teen daughter, Jill.

10. Monk (2002-2009). I must confess that I was never a big Monk enthusiast, which is why this USA Network show finds itself in my list’s No. 10 spot. I thought there was waaaaaaay too much attention paid to cop-turned-gumshoe Adrian Monk’s obsessive-compulsive disorder and too little effort made to just tell mystery stories that held together logically. The leaps of faith viewers were sometimes asked to make would have been impossible even for Olympics-trained athletes. At the same time, Tony Shalhoub did an excellent job of making Mr. Monk memorable in the annals of TV sleuths, and Captain Leland Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine) served as a splendid foil for Monk’s quirky doings. I was also quite fond of Monk’s second personal assistant, Natalie Teeger (Traylor Howard), a widow and mother who somehow managed to keep her employer in wipes and out of a straitjacket. (His original assistant, Sharona Fleming [Bitty Schram], was shrill and cartoonish by comparison.) While Monk supposedly took place in San Francisco, most episodes were shot either in Canada or in Los Angeles. Still, there were enough scenes filmed around Union Square, Nob Hill, and Chinatown to show respect for the city Monk called home.

Honorable Mention: I think the mostly forgotten Barbary Coast (1975-1976) failed in many respects, not only as a Western-detective series but as a portrayer of what San Francisco was really like during the 1870s. Still, I have a warm place in my heart for that program, which starred William Shatner as an undercover government agent working to clean up the town’s seediest quarter, and Doug McClure as the casino owner who supplied him (ever so reluctantly) with a secret deluxe apartment and valuable investigative assistance. The concept had much greater promise than was ever realized. Nonetheless, speaking as somebody with a tremendous love of San Francisco history, it was fun to journey back into the city’s past for one hour every week.


Kelli Stanley said...

A wonderful list!! And it made me miss television ... real television, not the stuff that passes for "reality".

I kinda remember the Amy Prentiss show, surprisingly ... and Walter's frightening (earlier) performance in Play Misty for Me.

Thanks for these recommendations, Jeff!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Jeff.

The old joke regarding Paladin's first name used to be that it was "Wire" because that's what his omnipresent "Have Gun - Will Travel" business card read: Wire Paladin, San Francisco...

David Cranmer said...

HGWT was just hands down one of the finest shows ever created. I'm listening to the radio version now and find it quite exceptional as well.

Anonymous said...

I agree with probably most everyone.

Television reality shows suck.

Television "stars" suck and can't act nor live normally.

The genuine actor/actress of years gone by could sing,dance,act, and were mature enough to consider arrest something for stupid people.