Friday, November 7, 2014

Retro One Episode: Get Smart, The Green Hornet, The Man From U.N.C.L.E,

Get Smart (1965-1970)
The Green Hornet (1966-1967)
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968)

I was a fan of Get Smart as a kid.  Even though the show aired 20 years before I eventually saw it, it still seemed fresh and funny to me.  The wobbly sets, retro style, and clunky technology were all part of the show's charm and atmosphere.  I'm fairly certain that I had watch some of the made-for-TV reunion  movies and the short-lived revival show, which probably made me quite the receptive seed for the repeats airing weekdays around dinner time (I'm thinking on YTV).  Not to mention being raised on Inspector Gadget, which is just Get Smart to even sillier extremes.

I've been quite keen to revisit Get Smart since I started doing the James Bond recaps, and learning that it was created by Buck Henry and Mel Brooks (which somehow I didn't know before) I was expecting some undiscovered comedy gold to match my youthful recollections.

It's unfortunate then that the pilot episode is a bit of a clunker.  Horrendously dated attributes like the opening narration, incredibly protracted comedy bits which seem to take forever to get to the joke (with the joke coming a mile off, but that's because these jokes have become staples, part of the comedy language and done much better), and, ouch, that laugh track.  Then there's the jokes at the expense of Little People (the C.H.A.O.S. boss is the ironically named "Mr. Big").  In its pilot, the show was almost trying to have a serious spy story with jokes surrounding it.  Maxwell Smart isn't a complete bumbling buffoon, but also isn't the agile super-spy that's earned his reputation.  It was a surprise when Smart actually turns out to have some competency.  Equally unsettling is 99's tendency to make googly eyes at Max.  Is part of the joke that everyone's oblivious to how incompetent Max is?

Don Adams is perfect for the role.  His unwavering tone of voice even in the face of his own ignorance is there right from the beginning.  The character evolved slightly into a more Clouseau-esque fool, but Adams had found Max's voice from the onset.  Barbara Feldon as 99 spends too much time awkwardly mooning over Max, a conscious effort to be sure.  It hampers her performance. Edward Platt as Chief of CONTROL is equally note perfect. The seeds of greatness are in the Pilot, but it's much too slow and labored compared with what follows later on. Skip the second episode too, it's quite racist. Just hitting up random episodes on youtube is probably your best bet.

I watched plenty of Batman reruns growing up too, once again, even though it was 20 years after the fact.  None of my hometown stations ever aired Batman, so I really only ever got to watch it when traveling and visiting family.  Even at a young age I didn't like it, but I was fascinated by it.  It wasn't the Batman I knew and loved, it was the highest camp, almost insulting to comic book fans with it's "BIFF" "BAM" "POW" effects and overt melodrama.

I always assumed The Green Hornet was much the same, a high-camp riff on costumed vigilantism.  I'd never seen an episode, and, quite frankly, it wasn't until I watched the Seth Rogen film that I realized I knew nothing about the character.  He's more a pulp radio hero in origins, not a comic book character, so he just never crossed my path.  The pilot blew my mind, if only a little, because it's a dead serious interpretation of the character.  It's not tongue in cheek at all.  It has no cheek.

I'm fascinated by the fact that it starts with the Green Hornet already in action.  He's the series hero but he operates as a bad guy, controlling the underworld in order to keep the underworld under control.

The theme song is insane, a classic.  Set design is pretty great.  The Black Beauty is, well, a beaut.  Bruce Lee!  It's got a lot of good things going for it, but the chief detraction, and it's a huge one, is the direly dull Van Williams as Britt Reid/Green Hornet.  He's not menacing, or charismatic.  He's not heroic or dangerous.  He's just sort of there.  With the whole show rotating around him, it's a problem.

The pilot isn't bad, but it feels like it's an hour long when it's only a half.  I read that the Hornet doesn't square off against any other costumes in the show (except during the crossover with Batman), which leads me to believe the show never reaches to be anything more than what we see in its first episode.

Interestingly enough it was The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968) that Get Smart was aping, complete with its complicated hallways and sliding doors entrances.  The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was taking its lead from Bond as well as the British spy series of the time, The Saint, The Avengers and the like.

Now unlike Get Smart which I watched, and loved, and the Green Hornet which I had preconceived notions of, I have no experience whatsoever with TMFU.  I'm not really familiar with its stars (I sort of know Robert Vaughn) and I don't really have any sense of what the show's impact on popular culture at the time (or after) was.  My guess on the latter was that it was negligible, as Bond was really the forerunner of these things at the time.

The pilot episode introduces us to Vaughn as Napoleon Solo through a complex and confusingly edited opening sequence.  Agents of T.H.R.U.S.H. infiltrate U.N.C.L.E.'s New York headquarters and in the end it's Solo who stops them.  He gets his money shot as the bad guy fires off three rounds at his silhouette only to be stopped by the bulletproof glass before him.  The light turns on to reveal our well dressed, well groomed lead.  But he's no Bond.

The pilot, excellently titled "The Vulcan Affair", has a fairly interesting story, which involves Solo enlisting a housewife to help him infiltrate a millionaire industrialist's ball.  This industrialist, Vulcan, is suspected of being a THRUSH supporter, and is going to murder a visiting President from a young African nation.  The housewife used to be a lover of Vulcan, and they set her up with a false background to make her much more posh.  The actress Pat Crowley, is eminently watchable, and I think they missed a true opportunity to have an awesome espionage show about a stay-at-home mom who is a part-time spy.  She's quite the looker too.  She's like Betty Draper on Mad Men but with personality.

In the pilot Vaughn doesn't seem to have full awareness of who Napoleon Solo is yet, so he seems softer around the edges than he should.  A hardened spy like him probably wouldn't smile so much.

While there's nothing fancy to the visual aspect of the show, the tone is quite perfect.  It takes its material serious and it earns itself some nice character moments.  The action is quite stilted (as 60's TV action generally is) with bad guys going down with one punch to the back.  These are things easily overlooked.  I hear the later seasons start to devolve into camp, succumbing to some of the more ridiculous tendencies of the spy genre.  I'm definitely going to carry on at least to that point.  It's good stuff .  (Caught the first few minutes of the second episode and it's a terribly clunky opening sequence with a voice over introducing U.N.C.L.E. and then the three main characters introducing themselves to the camera...woof).