Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Surreal TV Detectives of the 1970s

There were plenty of ridiculous 70s-era TV detectives. Some were beloved, like Peter Falk in Columbo, some are mostly forgotten, like who was that guy in Mannix? (Mike Connors.) But a few were downright inexplicable. They kept coming out of the network think-tanks, season after season, as television execs threw the results of their brain-damaged weirdness into our wood-paneled living rooms to see what would stick.

I grew up during the 70s, which should be renamed the "Always On" decade, as in "the television was always on." Nonstop entertainment, baby! And synthetic fabrics for days. We didn't usually understand the adult television world that was directed at us, but we knew one thing: a bunch of cokeheads from Southern California were in charge of pop culture, and they were clearly fucking with our minds.

Let's go back in time and revisit some surreal detective work.

Firstly, George Peppard is Banacek, and he has some Polish folk wisdom to lay on you. All the TV detectives had a gimmick. Banacek's is being suave and Polish, which was kind of a thing in the 70s. I don't know why. Now you have to be a jerk from New Jersey. Television producers like to pick a spot on the map and run with it.

McCloud was on loan to the NYPD from Taos, New Mexico, and took to riding his horse through midtown Manhattan like out of water. McCloud didn't even need criminal conflict. He had his superior, Chief Clifford, who hated his guts. It wasn't a good episode until the Chief yelled, "McCLOUD!" at top volume while amiable Dennis Weaver shrugged and holstered his six-shooter.

William Conrad as Cannon—what was his angle? Well, to be honest, he didn't have angles—he was round, like a...OK, we're all thinking it, like a cannonball. Let's be frank, Cannon was a fat-guy detective. And he also smoked a pipe. Back in the 70s, most people were skinny. Look at home-movie footage, or guy-on-the-street footage from the era: the majority of people did not eat as much food as we do now. Maybe plates were smaller. We're still studying what happened here.

So although Cannon was like a big fish out of a small amount of water, he could hold his own. Read the Wikipedia entry on how he fended off inevitable danger:
He was known to subdue suspects with karate chops, judo holds, and occasionally he would thrust and knock down adversaries with his huge abdomen.
So don't you worry about Cannon. He's all right.

Longstreet was the blind detective. That's right—although the first rule for any good detective is to be observant, that didn't hold Longstreet back at all. At least for the season this show lasted. James Franciscus must have had a hell of a time explaining this role at cocktail parties. Still, give it up for the detective whose ear is heavily featured in the opening credits.

Charlie's Angels were so beautiful (and skinny) that they were almost too much for television audiences to take. That was their gimmick—extreme, almost inhuman beauty. Farrah Fawcett blew our minds with her camera-ready perfection, and inspired untold hours of personal hairstyling frustration before I gave up and let my hair call the shots (my philosophy to this day). Jaclyn Smith is easily one of the most beautiful women in entertainment history and now has clothing, towel and furniture lines at Kmart, so there you go. Ultimately, Sabrina (Kate Jackson, the smart one) was my favorite. I just loved her skeptical line readings, scratchy voice, and tailored menswear—I think as far as Angels go, I chose wisely (for me).

The opening theme with masterful ironic narration by Charlie (John Forthsythe, living the dream).

Yes, the 70s had it all, AND THEN SOME. Except for Manimal. That would have to wait until the 80s.

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