Thursday, August 18, 2022

All the Crime in Half the Time

I returned home this afternoon from a short, out-of-Seattle fishing excursion with my nephew, only to discover 411 new junk-mail messages needing to be removed from my e-maibox … and my latest CrimeReads piece having been posted for public consumption.

My subject on this occasion is half-hour American TV crime dramas. Although such offerings long ago fell out of favor—overwhelmed by the spread of hour-long series—there were myriad 30-minute shows available from the 1950s through the early ’70s. As I write:
Billboard brought word in May 1948 that “the first half-hour mystery series,” NBC-TV’s Barney Blake, Police Reporter—centered on an indomitable newspaperman (played by Gene O’Donnell) and his trusty secretary, who together interview suspects and solve crimes—had recently flashed onto American television sets. The magazine then proceeded to excoriate that live-action drama for employing “just about every cliché in the whodunit book.” Barney Blake hung on for 13 weeks before being axed.

By the fall of 1959, the U.S. television landscape had changed markedly. Westerns continued to ride high on the nighttime schedule, but as
Time magazine explained in an October cover story, that season also dished up a whopping “62 shows (network and syndicated) devoted to some variation of Cops & Robbers”—the majority of them lasting 30 minutes and headlined by fictional private eyes. There were so many such programs, Time quipped, that “as the evenings pass, one Eye blurs inevitably into another, a TV trouble that even an honest repairman cannot cure.”
Do you remember Peter Gunn or Staccato? How about Martin Kane, Private Eye or Honey West? And it wasn’t only gumshoe dramas shooting up the mid-20th-century airwaves. Divertissements also came in the form of abbreviated police procedurals, such as The Naked City, M Squad, and Decoy, in addition to amateur or part-time detective mysteries, among them The Adventures of Ellery Queen, Mr. and Mrs. North, Man with a Camera, and T.H.E. Cat.

Chances are, the majority of people reading this post weren’t around to take in those programs when they originally aired on network television or in syndication. (I was not either.) However, episodes of vintage half-hour series can still be found and enjoyed on YouTube, or can be purchased in DVD sets. I say they can be “enjoyed,” because over the months I spent sampling early, mostly black-and-white whodunits and cop shows on behalf of CrimeReads, I found myself far from bored. Yes, a few of the programs now seem hopelessly dated; yet many hold up reasonably well after half a century or more of gathering dust and being forgotten.

So recognize my latest CrimeReads piece as a curated guide to the lost world of classic, condensed TV crime and mystery dramas. And on some evening when you’re stumped for what to watch next, ditch the supposedly must-see shows of today in favor of a streaming installment of Peter Gunn or Decoy or Mr. Lucky, or a YouTube-borne episode of Dante or N.Y.P.D. or Markham. You just might find that half-hour stories can be as entertaining as their 60-minute cousins.

Begin your boob-tube investigations right here.

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