PBS’ documentary paean to the boob tube, Pioneers of Television, continued on Georgia Public Television last night with an hour on the subject of “Crime Dramas.” If I thought last week’s installment on westerns was a bit all over the map (and left out some influential series), that was a walk in the park compared to this week’s; my jaw literally dropped to the floor when I saw what shows were categorized as “crime drama”…and what shows were embarrassingly left out of the mix.
The hour got off to a pretty good start by recognizing the dean of television crime series—and specifically mentioning its origins on radio—Dragnet. They even got the date the show was first broadcast over the ether right—June 3, 1949. But I knew things were going to hell in a handbasket not long after when the excerpt they played of Jack Webb’s “just the facts” narration identified Friday’s partner as Sgt. Ed Jacobs…which as Dragnet fans know didn’t become a reality until December of 1951, when his first partner, Ben Romero (Barton Yarbrough, who also passed away in real life), died. (Yes, I know I’m being anal retentive here…but I do notice things like this.)
I thought most of the material on Webb was first-rate, and was particularly pleased at how Pioneers presented him as…well, a pioneer by introducing many of the TV conventions that we sort of take for granted today (the teleprompter and close-up being the most prominent examples). But oddly enough, the show chose to short-change the man’s career as a producer of crime-oriented fare. Instead, they spent that time with a clip of Stan Freberg noting that Joe Friday’s alleged “just the facts, ma’am” catchphrase was just something he pulled out of a single broadcast when he created his famous St. George and the Dragonet parody and was never actually featured on the show much. Yeah, it’s a cute anecdote—and nobody loves Stan as much as I do—but I think they could have maybe mentioned Adam-12 (or since they’ve interviewed Bob Conrad in previous segments, The D.A.) if they were that pressed for time.
The show then talked about The Untouchables, reminding folks that before Linda’s arch nemesis Senator Pastore got his undies in a bunch about The Wild Wild West politicians worked themselves into a lather over the violent content of Untouchables as well. (I laughed out loud when interviewee Martin Landau points out that a show about the Chicago mobs is naturally going to lend itself to that sort of thing.) Because Untouchables was a show produced by Desi Arnaz, it was used to segueway to Mannix, another Desilu production (and this portion of the program featured some wry observations from star Mike “Touch” Connors, particularly Joe Mannix’s habit of getting a beat-down from some thug every time he opened a door and stuck his head in the room), and because Mannix was produced by Bruce Geller, it was just a short jump to…Mission: Impossible?
For the record, I thought Mission: Impossible was one of the coolest TV shows of all time—and still do, come to think of it; I am proud to boast that I own every single solitary season of the series on DVD in the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives. But is it a crime drama? I suppose it would depend on your definition of crime—but speaking only as an individual who’s logged in more TV time than Carter has little liver pills, my answer would be emphatically no; I don’t consider Mission: Impossible to be a crime drama, nor I Spy, for that matter. Both series were talked about in this hour primarily because the producers had the opportunity to get insights from both Spy’s Robert Culp and Bill Cosby and Impossible’s Landau, Peter Graves, Barbara Bain, and Leonard Nimoy. I’m not suggesting their contributions weren’t entertaining—far from it; Culp, Bain, and Landau are very engaging and intelligent raconteurs…and I smiled when Graves mentioned how he was proud that Impossible was his TV legacy (otherwise everybody would know him for that show about the kid and his horse…sorry, Linda). Now, to give credit where credit is due—Graves did point out (and rightly so) that Impossible switched its emphasis on going into foreign countries and doing mindf**ks on spies to organized crime in the series’ twilight years…but I don’t think that entitles the show to complete “crime drama” immunity.
Because in categorizing I Spy and Mission: Impossible as crime dramas (they also mention The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.—and that’s because Stefanie Powers was on hand), Pioneers takes time away from shows that I thought most definitely should have been added to the mix. For example—how do you discuss crime on TV and leave out Naked City, ferchrissake? Or The F.B.I.? I’d consider legal dramas like Perry Mason and The Defenders much closer to crime drama than Spy and Impossible…but no comment on them whatsoever. Warner Bros. Television’s crime-drama factory of the 50s and 60s, with shows like 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, and Surfside Six—not even a passing glance. And while I’ll certainly admit that I’m a bit biased due to my lifelong devotion to The Fugitive, the fact that this most important series was left off the radar might very well be the most egregious snub of them all.
Pioneers of Television did manage to discuss Hawaii Five-O…and although it sounds as if I’m being facetious I honestly thought there might be a possibility they would have skipped over it. There are a few private eye/detective shows mentioned: Columbo, The Rockford Files, Police Woman—the latter included, I believe, because its female star, Angie Dickinson, is around to chat it up…I like how Ang subtly mentioned that despite its “groundbreaking” status (Pioneers also mentioned Honey West in passing, but they should be glad that Beverly Garland is no longer with us ‘cause I think Bev would have opened up a forty gallon drum of whup-ass for them not bringing up Decoy) Woman’s plots were pretty much standard, run-of-the-mill fare (something I noticed when I revisited the show a few years back). Though my disdain for Charlie’s Angels is known the length and longth of the Internets I felt that it should probably have rated a nod if only to point out über producer Aaron Spelling’s contributions to the crime drama genre: The Mod Squad, The Rookies, Starsky and Hutch, Vega$, etc.
And in discussing Columbo and Rockford, Pioneers of Television’s “Crime Dramas” overlooks one of the most important tenets of TV: namely, if you wanted to hang out your private eye or detective shingle—you had to have a gimmick. Bald detectives (Kojak). Fat detectives (Cannon). Elderly detectives (Barnaby Jones). Blind detectives (Longstreet). Wheel-chaired detectives (Ironside). “Street” detectives (Baretta). Polish detectives (Banacek). I’ve just scratched the surface here, you understand—this sort of thing goes back as far as programs like Peter Gunn (hip detectives) and Burke’s Law (wealthy detectives—and another Spelling show that got bupkis as far as being mentioned).
I think Chris Riesbeck said it best when he commented that the Pioneers series is “enjoyable but shallow”—I don’t want to give anyone the impression that the programs aren’t entertaining (because they are; what I wouldn’t give to be able to have dinner with Martin Landau sometime) but substance-wise, they fall short of the mark. Next week, Pioneers looks at children’s programming/kiddie shows, with cogent observations from the likes of Stan (the Man) Freberg and fellow birthday celebrant (and Facebook chum) Chuck McCann. I’ll certainly make it a point to watch.