Underrated TV on DVD #19: Police Squad!

As promised, here's an epilogue to last week. Tomorrow, we move on, I promise!

Series: Police Squad!
Years: 1982, six half-hour episodes
Creators: Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker
Stars: Leslie Nielson and Alan North

The Concept: An absolutely absurd goof on cop TV shows like “Dragnet”, and storytelling conventions in general.
How it Came to be Underrated: The creators had sold it based on nothing but the opening credit sequence, but ABC got cold feet when they realized how bizarre the actual show was going to be. (ABC complained that you actually had to watch the TV set to get the visual jokes.) It was cancelled after six unheralded episodes, only to be reborn five years later as the “Naked Gun” movie series.
Sample Episode: 1.1, “A Substantial Gift” or possibly “The Broken Promise” (the narrator doesn’t agree with the onscreen title)
Writer: Abrahams, Zucker and Zucker
The Story: Nielson and North investigate a stenographer who killed her boss and framed another man for the murder. They get their gal (but first they kill off half the city.)

Why It’s Great:
  1. The creators made this between making Airplane and Top Secret for the big screen and they brought over their trademark lightning-fast pun-heavy wordplay. “We think we know how he did it.” “Oh Howie couldn’t have done it, he hasn’t been in for weeks.”
  2. Every episode, Frank would get stumped and bribe a shoeshine-guy-turned-stoolie who always had an inside line on every case.

    After Frank paid him off and left, someone from another profession would discover that the stoolie was equally knowledgeable about other topics… In the first episode, a priest slips him a twenty and asks “What do you know about life after death?” Here’s a visit from a later episode:
  3. I hadn’t seen this show since I fell in love with early “Dragnet”, which just makes it funnier. As always, Nielson’s trademark deadpan delivery is flawless: “We’re sorry to bother you at a time like this, Ma’am. We would have come earlier but your husband wasn’t dead yet.”
  4. Every episode respected the cop-show tradition at the time of ending the episode with a laugh and a freeze frame, but the actors just faked the freeze frame, even if it meant having to endure scalding coffee cascading down their hands:
How Available Is It?: It’s got a nice DVD with lively commentaries on half the episodes
What the Remake Did Wrong: All of the other examples of “The Original was Better” Week have been foreign shows that were unwisely adapted for US TV. This one is an American show that lost a lot of its charm when it made the jump to the movies. The movies were mildly funny but they don’t prepare you for the absurd pleasures of this show. It didn’t help that they replaced the very funny North with America’s sweetheart, O. J. Simpson.
But Don’t Take My Word For It:

Underrated TV on DVD #18: Coupling (UK)

Whoops, I missed a day yesterday, so I'll have a dangling show to cover later... Oh well...
Series: Coupling (UK)
Years: 2000-2004, 4 seasons, 28 half-hour episodes
Creators: Steven Moffat
Stars: Jack Davenport, Gina Bellman, Sarah Alexander, Kate Isitt, Ben Miles, Richard Coyle

The Concept: Three hip single guys and three hip single girls hang out at a big-city drinking establishment, where they chat amiably about work and sex. Sound familiar? Yes, it was a British knockoff of “Friends”, which is why it had no business being one of the best sitcoms ever made. The problems was that they hired a writer named Steve Moffat who quickly proved to be the TV-genius of his generation. (Did you all watch “Sherlock”? Damn, that was good.)
How it Came to be Underrated: I’m stretching, since this is a beloved show, but here in the U.S. its reputation was besmirched by its big-flop American remake.

Sample Episode: 2.9, “The End of the Line”
Writer: Steven Moffat
The Story: Steve and Susan, the show’s on-again, off-again couple, have been together a year and they’re feeling the malaise of familiarity. After they find themselves flirting with the opposite sex, each attempts to call the other, only to encounter a bizarre series of quickly escalating lies on the other end of the line. As the puzzle-box of a plot unfolds, we see how a few little lies build into a big fiasco.

Why It’s Great:
  1. Though it superficially resembles “Friends”, this show owes just as much to “Frasier”, though it manages to be better than either show at their best. It combines the hipster zeitgeist of the former with the intellectual wordplay and complicated farce plots of the latter, but most episodes of “Friends” were too dopey and “Frasier” was usually too emotionally cold. Moffat trumps them both by basing his witty dialogue on a solid emotional foundation. He really has a lot to say about the way men and women interact—he just chooses to say it as cleverly as possible.
  2. This episode plays some very nifty tricks with overlapping timelines that allow the cast to play out the same scenes from multiple points of view. This episode is quite simply the smartest example of the thirty-minute format I’ve ever seen. That sort of time-trick, and much of the tone of this show, has now been re-borrowed back to the U.S. by the writers of “How I Met Your Mother”, but one of the many reasons that show can’t hope to reach the heights of this one is that American shows are now a full 33% shorter that their British cousins. American sitcoms will soon reach the length of “Saturday Night Live” skits.
  3. The formal beauty of this screenplay is gob-smacking. It’s as intricately structured as a piece of renaissance poetry. In fact, it’s sort of like a sestina, since Moffat has set himself the challenge of getting as many laughs as he can out of a few key lines that each get repeated over and over by many different charaters: “I’m Giselle!” “I’m Dick Darlington!” “Where are you going?” “It’s up to you.” And then of course there’s the title of the episode, which refers to the situation and the structure and the story-arc, all simultaneously. I’m in awe.
  4. What made most of the American “Friends” knockoffs fail was that they couldn’t resist picking sides in the war of the sexes. It’s harder to write a show in which both sexes have equally legitimate grievances. That’s what makes the “multiple perspectives” trick so satisfying—it serves the theme, not just the humor.
What the Remake Did Wrong: This is actually pretty baffling-- NBC hired some “Friends” showrunners to reset the show in Chicago, got a pretty-good cast (it had the same talented star as a previous underrated show “Better Off Ted”), and, for the most part they re-used the original Moffat scripts word for word. So why was it so excruciatingly bad?? Literally the same scripts that made me hyperventilate in the original evoke not one single laugh in the remake. Here are some suspects:
  1. Farce, more than any other form, depends on timing, and apparently that fell off the boat halfway across the pond. In this case, I blame the directors and editors more than the cast.
  2. Everybody was too likable. They softened every line reading. All of the bite was gone.
  3. And they were all equally attractive. Their version of Geoff, the goofy one, was just a handsome guy who had been made up to look slightly goofy. Richard Coyle, the original, was congenitally goofy.
  4. Let’s face it, you can get away with a lot of smutty dialogue if you say it with a British accent, but it just sounds tacky when we say it.
How Available Is It?: The entire show is available to Watch Instantly, as well as on DVD. But beware the fourth season, where Coyle, the most lovable character, was replaced by a pale imitator. (The American show never even made it to DVD, and you can only find it online with Swedish subtitles burned in, which is the funniest thing about it)
But Don’t Take My Word For It:

Underrated TV on DVD #17: The Kingdom

Series: “The Kingdom”, originally “Riget” in Denmark
Years: 1994 and 1997, 2 seasons, four 70-minute episodes each
Creators: Lars Von Trier
Stars: Ernst-Hugo Jaregard, Kirsten Rolffes, Holger Juul Hansen

The Concept: The goings-on at a Danish hospital are already contentious enough, but they only get worse when it starts to seem that good and evil forces are laying down the battlelines for some coming spiritual warfare.
How it Came to be Underrated: Even with all of Von Trier’s fame, this didn’t get a DVD release here until recently. Instead, it showed in arthouse cinemas in two five-hour showings for hardcore movie-goers only. Luckily the show is so involving and creepy that we all had a fun time.
Sample Episode: 1.1, The Unheavenly Host
Writer: Tomas Gislason
The Story: Perpetual malingerer Mrs. Drusse bluffs her way into the hospital by faking a brain disease, but she decides she has to find a way to stay when she communes with an angry sprit in the elevator. She comes up against a visiting Swedish surgeon with little sympathy for mysticism, but he has ghosts of his own he’s trying to outrun.

Why It’s Great:
  1. Von Trier already had a swiftly rising film career when he took this sidetrip into TV, but his inspiration was clearly David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks”. There were lots of American attempts to copy the creepy charm of that show but nobody got close. Only in Denmark could they recreate the magic.
  2. Unfortunately it also had something else in common with that show…The second season, like the first, ends on a cliffhanger, and the third season was supposed to wrap it up, but the two main stars both died a year after the second season wrapped, so it looks like that will never happen. That’s a bummer, but given how weird Von Trier is, isn’t it pretty likely that we wouldn’t have gotten much closure anyway? What we have is still a very satisfying show.
  3. What makes it all work is that there’s enough sturm und drang to fill a normal hospital drama, plus a healthy heaping of comedy. All of the horrific spookiness is just icing on the cake.
  4. It’s nice to finally to finally have this on DVD, but it’s crazy to think to that it arrived ahead of the greatest hospital show ever, “St. Elsewhere”—another show that wasn’t afraid to get seriously weird. Only the first season of that show ever made it to DVD, even though it has Denzel Washington in it—speaking English.
How Available Is It?: The whole thing is now available to watch instantly as well as DVD.

What the Remake Did Wrong: I have four words for you: “Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital”

But Don’t Take My Word For It:

Underrated TV on DVD #16: Life on Mars (UK)

Series: Life on Mars (UK)
Years: 2006-2007, 16 1 hr. episodes
Creators: Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan, Ashley Pharoah
Stars: John Simm, Philip Glennister, Liz White

The Concept: Ultra-modern Manchester police inspector Sam Tyler is trying to catch a killer in 2006, but he gets hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. In this alternate reality, he is still on the force, but one that is scientifically and ethically in the dark ages. At first all he cares about is getting back, but he soon notices that the 1973 police cases have strange little connections to his own work back in 2006. He comes to suspect that he will have to solve their mysteries in order to solve his own.
How it Came to be Underrated here: ABC bought up the remake rights, which kept this off DVD in America until the remake had thankfully flopped. The original did appear briefly on BBC America but they would cut every episode down from 60 to 40 minutes!
Sample Episode: 1.1, Pilot
Writer: Matthew Graham
The Story: Sam arrives in the past and solves his first case, but he comes to suspect that if he destroys evidence in the past, he can keep the killer from getting out in his future and killing someone close to him. This is, quite simply, the best damn pilot episode I’ve ever seen of any show ever. It’s so smart and quick and rich that it blows me away every time.

Why It’s Great:
  1. It’s the dark fantasy of every modern white man: would our problems be solved if we could return to the unreconstructed ethos of our fathers’ times, when our gender and our race would have given us more license to run roughshod over everybody else? Or has the newfound sensitivity made the world a better place for everyone, even for us? This is even more exaggerated for a cop. Have they lost power or gained it now that they’ve traded away their right to casually slap suspects around in exchange for modern technology? This show’s outlandish premise cleverly addressed these issues in a dramatic and entertaining way.
  2. This tension generates a dozen different ways for Sam’s principles to get in his way, week after week. This show explored the same idea explored by American shows like “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica”: Do we hang on to our principles because we personally believe in them or because our society demands that we play nice? If those principles became inconvenient, would we fight for them? I think of these as post-9/11 issues, but obviously those who didn’t directly experience that crisis were also grappling with these issues in the mid-‘00s.
  3. Sam is solving crimes in 1973, and also trying to reach out back to 2006 and help them through his actions, and also trying to solve the mystery of his strange journey, but over the course of the show, we realilze that there’s another, sadder mystery at play here: Who killed Manchester? Life has gotten better for individuals, but our cities and economies have rotted out from the inside. Sam is acutely aware, with everything he sees, of what has gotten better and what has gotten worse.
  4. As great as Simm is, Glenister’s neanderthal boss Gene Hunt grew so appealing that he almost succeeded in stealing the show. In fact, after the show ended and Simm’s story concluded, audiences decided that they just hadn’t had enough of Glenister. The BBC did a follow-up show about another cop who was transported back in time to the same cophouse in the ‘80s, called “Ashes to Ashes”. They obviously love their Bowie songs.
What the Remake Did Wrong:
  1. For all of his toughness, Simm’s still a runty little guy, but that’s the whole point. In a civilized society, you can be a bad-ass cop even though you’re not physically tough. The American show had some great things going for it, including Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli as 1973 cops, but the lead was a big bland himbo named Jason O’Mara, who had none of Simm’s smarts, intensity, depth, or runty charm.
  2. Beyond that, the show just generally refused to embrace the complexities or darkness of the original show. It went for “what a goofy situation!” gags, rather than dealing with the central metaphor.
  3. Finally, they felt that they needed to create an even stranger ending. I won’t spoil the UK ending, but I’ll gladly spoil the American version: it turned out in the end that the series was really set on Mars, and the whole show was a virtual reality experiment. How’s that for a beyond-parody example of American literalism?
How Available Is It?: It’s finally available on DVD uncut here in America. Make sure to avoid the remake.
But Don’t Take My Word For It:

Underrated TV (To Watch Tonight) #15: Lone Star

So I watched a lot of pilots last week. Only two were flat-out bad (Undercovers and Blue Bloods), but most were just good enough that it was frustrating they weren’t better (Boardwalk Empire, The Event, Running Wilde, The Whole Truth, Better With You). There was, however, one great hour of television. Unfortunately, it got such poor ratings that it may be cancelled after tonight. So I thought I would try for once to recommend a show in time to help save it. The creator has an impassioned blog post begging people to watch it tonight and give them the bump they need to survive. I encourage you all to watch the pilot online and check out the second episode live tonight.
Series: Lone Star
Years: Last week and this week and hopefully more weeks
Creator: Kyle Killen, who wrote the pilot
Stars: James Wolk, Adrianne Palicki, Eloise Mumford, Jon Voigt, David Keith
The Concept (a.k.a. Sample Episode a.k.a. Only Episode So Far): Raised by his father to be a conman selling fake oil fields, Wolk turns out to be too soft-hearted for the job: he keeps falling in love with the marks of his cons. He marries two of them in two different towns. In order to save both marriages, he extends one con so that he can pay off the marks from the previous swindle, who were about to get burned.

How it Came to be Underrated: This premiered last week up against two pieces of “event television”: “Dancing With the Stars” and a new megabudget show actually called “The Event.” It got slaughtered.
Why It’s Great:
  1. Wolk is like a young George Clooney crossed with… well, okay, not crossed with anything: he’s just a young George Clooney. Now just imagine that the con man from Ocean’s Eleven had the crisis of conscience from Michael Clayton. Wolk’s got the quality you need to make this show work: he’s seductive.
  2. I was always impressed with the craft of “Friday Night Lights” but I just couldn’t bring myself to care about football. This show borrows some of the people and places and a lot of the naturalism from that show, but in service of a story that is closer in spirit to There Will Be Blood, which is more my speed.
  3. This show got a lot of promotion but the marketing was awful. Here’s the ad:

    This ad says: “Come watch a show about a smarmy cad and the women he tricks into bed.” You would never guess how sympathetic, tragic and compelling the character is (or how sympathetic his wives are, for that matter). The key missing fact is these were intended to be fake quickie marriages but now he is quixotically trying to make real. People loved Sawyer on “Lost”. They should make it clear that this is the same sort of character.
  4. I’m happy to join in the campaign to try to save the show, but I secretly hope to pull a “Southland”: I hope that Fox drops it but it gets enough clout to get picked up by Fox’s artier sister network FX, where this would be a much better fit.
How Available Is It?: The pilot is viewable right now on Fox’s website. The second episode airs tonight in the U.S. at 9/8 central.
But Don’t Take My Word For It: Watch the pilot here.

Underrated TV (Not) on DVD #14: The Century of the Self

And this wraps up another TV Week-- Next week: more Hero Project!

Series: The Century of the Self
Year: 2002
Creator: Adam Curtis
The Concept: Curtis explores the hidden history of the 20th century, showing how first consumers and then voters were taught by the public relations industry to listen to their hearts and ignore their minds.
How it Came to be Underrated: This got great reviews when it came out, but it never showed up on DVD in America.
Sample Episode: Episode 1: Happiness Machines
Writer: Adam Curtis
The Story: In Part 1, we meet Edward Bernays, the American cousin of Sigmund Freud himself, who used his “Uncle Siggy’s” ideas for crass commercial purposes, creating ideas of mass consumer persuasion that redefined American culture. Bernays recalls how, after advising Wilson during the WWI peace talks, “I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, then you could certainly use it for peace.” He opens the first public relations firm and starts by convincing women to smoke. His success makes him very wealthy and highly influential...

Why It’s Great:
  1. This is more of an essay-film than a documentary: Curtis illustrating his daring thesis with a fascinating rapid-fire montage ranging freely back and forth across the 20th century, creating an experience that just as fun to watch as it is bracing to hear.
  2. But he doesn’t just ask us to take his word for it. He has uncovered an amazing treasure trove of quotes which amply demonstrate his thesis. Here’s one of Bernays’s clients: ”We must shift America from a ‘needs’ to a ‘desires’ culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
  3. Curtis shows how the powers-that-be, once they realized what Freud was saying, quietly decided that democracy was no longer a tenable idea: If mankind was essentially irrational and animalistic, then the unwashed masses couldn’t be trusted with power. But there was no need to openly do away with the system, because the new techniques could be used to manipulate the crowds into neutralizing their own power. Part four talks to the engineers of the campaigns of Thatcher, Reagan, Clinton and Blair. Given what we’ve heard, what they have to say about how they sold their candidates is genuinely chilling.
  4. This one isn’t on DVD, but it led to a follow-up about post-9/11 propaganda called “The Power of Nightmares”, and that one’s finally out on DVD. You can get it through Netflix.
How Available Is It?: All four hours are watchable at Google Video and well worth your time. The video quality isn’t very high, but it’s perfectly watchable. I literally sat down one day to watch the first five minutes of the first one and got up four hours later.
But Don’t Take My Word For It:

Underrated TV (Not) on DVD #13: Lou Grant

TV week, day 3:

Series: Lou Grant
Years: 1977-1982, five seasons, 114 hour-long episodes
Creators: James L. Brooks, Allan Burns, Gene Reynolds, Leon Tokatyan
Stars: Edward Asner, Robert Walden, Mason Adams, Nancy Marchand

The Concept: After getting unceremoniously fired by on the last episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, Lou Grant realizes that he’s “a 50 year old man with $280 in his bank account”. He moves to LA and goes back to the newpaper biz , managing the city desk at the Los Angeles Tribune.
How it Came to be Underrated: This was a hit at the time, but it’s largely forgotten today. It was followed up and overshadowed by two even-better MTM shows about crumbling city institutions, “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere”.
Sample Episode: 1.1 Cophouse
Writer: Leon Tokatyan
The Story: Lou lands in hot water right away—a hotshot young reporter accuses the paper’s longtime cophouse reporter of thinking like a cop, covering up scandals instead of exposing them. Lou finds himself caught uncomfortably between the crusty old guard and surly Watergate-inspired rookies.

Why It’s Great:
  1. This first season had my favorite opening sequence of any TV show ever. It’s a beautiful little short film about the futility of all human endeavors. I’m sure it got a big laugh, but then the creators had the mighty task of getting people to care about birdcage lining, week after week.

    (double-click to watch it bigger on YouTube)
  2. This was part of a bizarre ‘70s trend of hour-long dramas that got spun-off from half-hour comedies. In this case, it made sense. When you’ve got a great actor like Asner, why not give him some real meat to chew on?
  3. Lou reluctantly hands the cophouse beat over to an aggressive young reporter named Rossi but soon tears him a new one for over-editorializing. Their battles became the central conflict of the show. Like any writer, the reporters are forced to see that the only way to win anybody over to their point of view is to be scrupulously fair. Even after all those years, Lou still hated spunk.
  4. After Lou gives his reporters hell, he has to turn around and fight bitterly to actually get their stories into the paper, which is never certain. The editorial meetings are always a fascinating look into the competing agendas that try to drag important news down the memory hole.
  5. An quick glance at the episode titles will tell you what the danger zone was for this show: it was addicted to “issues”. When it was smartly done, as it usually was, it was brave and daring and smart, but the weaker episodes play like afterschool specials. As Lou himself realizes, advocacy writing is the hardest kind to do well.

How Available Is It?: This is probably the best TV show left that’s still not on DVD in any way, shape or form. It is on Hulu though…
But Don’t Take My Word For It:

Underrated TV on DVD #12: Better Off Ted

Series: Better Off Ted
Years: 2009-2010, 26 half-hour episodes
Creators: Victor Fresco
Stars: Jay Harrington, Portia DiRossi, Andrea Anders, Malcolm Barrett, Jonathan Slavin

The Concept: Relatively nice people work in the research and development department of a soulless biotech corporation, trying to keep themselves from being compromised by the evil of their bosses.
How it Came to be Underrated: After saddling it with a terrible, meaningless name, ABC dumped it in midseason with very little fanfare. If they had run the second season after “Modern Family”, I’m convinced that it would have found its audience, but instead they burned off the entire season in one marathon month and gave that coveted spot to “Cougar Town”. Damn you, “Cougar Town”!

Sample Episode: 1.4 Racial Insensitivity
Writer: Michael Glouberman
The Story: To save money, Veridian Dynamics installs new motion sensors on every lightswitch, door and water fountain, but they work by reflected light and they aren’t sensitive enough to detect black people’s skintone. When the black employees complain, the company tries to make them happy by giving them separate, manual drinking fountains. For some reason, that just causes a bigger mess.

Why It’s Great:
  1. That plot synopsis should indicate that this was the most shocking and sharp satire on TV since “Arrested Development”. That show also struggled with ratings, but at least it became famous for not being famous enough. This show didn’t even get that level of notoriety. It inherited the wonderful Portia DiRossi and it should also inherit that show’s cult status.
  2. We generally want to see TV shows about good people doing good things, and it’s very hard to generate satire every week without curdling into bitterness, but this show’s likable-yet-culpable characters struck just the right balance: we knew they weren’t ever going to do much good, but we trusted them to try. The actors could move nimbly from broadly-sketched extremes to real human beings and back again as the comedy demanded.
  3. The whole cast is great but the real breakthrough talent here for me was the beautiful, funny, and very likable Andrea Anders. I expect her to become a huge star but it hasn’t happened yet. She’s getting a second chance this fall with “Mr. Sunshine”. Unfortunately, it’s a Matthew Perry vehicle. Here’s how much I’ve fallen for her: I’m willing to give it a shot.
  4. Lots of shows are now trying to find ways to trick you into watching the commercials without selling their soul, but this show did it best, each show would have a Veridian commercial in the breaks, wickedly parodying the corporate double-speak that surrounded it.
How Available Is It?: I’m anxiously awaiting the second season on DVDs, especially since it will debut the final two never-aired episodes, but that set hasn’t even been announced yet! In the meantime the first season is available to watch instantly on Netflix
But Don’t Take My Word For It: Unfortunately, unembeddable Netflix is the only way you can watch this episode online. It’s one of the few episodes ABC.com no longer has posted. Maybe it was a bit too edgy.

Underrated TV on DVD #11: The Sandbaggers

Un-Super-Spy Week concludes!

Series: The Sandbaggers
Years: 1978-1980, 18 hour-long episodes
Creators: Ian Mackintosh
Stars: Roy Marsden, Ray Lonen, Jerome Willis, Elizabeth Bennett

The Concept: A cold-blooded but effective spy-turned-bureaucrat is responsible for sending black ops operatives out into the field, but he spends as much time dealing with political headaches as he does enemy countries.

How it Came to be Underrated: This was never on video or DVD until very recently, when it finally received some belated acclaim.
Sample Episode: 1.1, First Principles
Writer: Ian Mackintosh
The Story: When their own spies get stranded inside Russia, the Norweigans force both the British and the Americans to launch competing rescue attempts in order to compete for a commercial contract. Marsden turns venomous when he realizes that he’s being jerked around, especially when things go wrong behind the iron curtain.

Why It’s Great:
  1. This show has a great backstory: As the legend goes, Mackintosh was able to pack the show full of real dirt because he had been a real spy, and everybody wondered why MI-5 let him get away with it. Then, after three seasons, Mackintosh's small plane disappeared under murky circumstances! He wrote every episode, so they had no choice but to cancel the show. It certainly makes for a juicy story, whether or not its implications are true!
  2. I’m one of those who always suspect that the real political world is stranger and nastier than we can possibly imagine. “24”, even with all its absurdities, seemed to me like a more accurate representation of life at the White House than the idealistic depiction on “The West Wing”. This one is a much more grounded show than “24”, and it’s got an even more jaundiced view. This is one of the few shows to seriously explore how down and dirty politics can get, and it’s a lot of fun to watch in a bare-knuckle sort of way.
  3. Roy Marsden is so good here that you wonder why he never became a movie star. Of course, it shoudn’t be that surprising, because his performance most reminds me of another great three-piece-suit-wearing order-barking TV boss, Daniel J. Travanti on “Hill Street Blues”, and he never got movie roles either. I guess they both knew that they’d found their calling behind those desks.
  4. Every episode, you get so wrapped up in the personal and political agendas, that you don’t notice how suspenseful the actual spy story has become until the end—which is entirely the point. A lot of missions go wrong, and the body count is high, another all-too-realistic fact of the spy world that it’s shocking to see portrayed on TV.
How Available Is It?: The first DVD set had terrible video quality, but it was soon re-released looking pretty nice, for a show shot partially on video.

But Don’t Take My Word For It:

Underrated TV on DVD #10: Danger Man aka Secret Agent

Un-Super-Spies Week continues!

Series: Danger Man aka Secret Agent
Years: 39 half hour episodes from 1960-61, then 47 hour-long episodes from 1964-68
Creators: Ralph Smart and Brian Clemens
Star: Patrick McGoohan

The Concept: Secret Agent John Drake travels the world doing the dirty work of espionage. He’s cocky and clever, but he never kisses a girl, he rarely holds a gun, and he often has to choke down moral qualms about what he’s doing.
How it Came to be Underrated: Eventually, McGoohan would embrace the rise of the counter-culture and transform this show into a sci-fi allegory for the cold war called “The Prisoner”. That show remains wildly popular today, and justifiably so, but most Prisoner fans just assume that that show was a rejection of what had come before. Rather than watch those 18 episodes over and over, they should check out the original show! It had all of the smarts and moral seriousness of its successor (though it was a lot less surreal).
Sample Episode: 1.17, Find and Return
Writer: Jo Eisinger
The Story: Drake travels to the middle east to retrieve a casual high-society spy who is about to flee. While there, he has to deal with a disgruntled deep cover agent (played by Donald Pleasence!) who complains endlessly about his unpaid expenses.

Why It’s Great:
  1. This show didn’t have a huge budget but it always looked like a million bucks thanks to clever cutting. They had access to thousands of hours of BBC travelogues and they skillfully intercut McGoohan with that footage.
  2. This show was much closer to LeCarre than Fleming. The scene where a Soviet agent pulls a gun on Drake is truly heartbreaking. The killer has the gun, but he’s pleading with his old friend from the other side: “Sonia went home to see her father. I begged her not to. She never came back. It’s just what they were waiting for. Now they have Sonia, and I must do what they say!” Drake knows that his heart isn’t in it and walks away, daring him to shoot. Not exactly “Man from U.N.C.L.E.”!
  3. And it becomes all the more shocking when Pleasence casually reveals two scenes later that he had the Soviet killed for no good reason! Drake is horrified, but what he can do? Well, he can quit, of course, but we all know where that would lead him…
  4. In these early episodes, they were trying to market the show to Americans, so they had Drake working for the UN and getting his orders in Washington. Nevertheless, those episodes didn’t make it on the air here. When they brought the show back after the Bond craze hit, it was unapologetically British. Ironically, only then did it sell to America, where it aired on CBS. McGoohan never had to change his enigmatic accent, because he was born in the U.S. but raised in Britain and Australia.
How Available Is It?: It’s available on a very nice set of DVDs from A&E, beautifully restored. They show the uncut British version, with its stiff-upper-lip opening credits, but you can watch the groovy American opening in the special features, which I always do, because I love Johnny Rivers…
But Don’t Take My Word For It: Unfortunately the original show is totally absent online! Rent it from Netflix. You won’t regret it!