Ah, summertime. The season of endless reruns and retreads. I must confess that I don’t watch that many shows on the major TV networks, preferring to wallow in nostalgia with MeTV and a few other oldies channels. While revisiting these favorite shows from my youth, I’ve formed a mature appreciation for the writing, particularly the half-hour shows that were once the norm.
Catch an episode of a classic private eye drama like “Peter Gunn” sometime. This ground-breaking noir-ish actioner featured clever plots and witty dialogue when most peeper shows were more interested in fast action and gunplay. True, “Gunn” had that in abundance, but it was more focused on character. Here was a gumshoe who always dressed in expensive tailored suits (accented by shined shoes and gold trinkets), drove around in a convertible with a car phone (remember that this was 1958), hung out in smoke-filled jazz clubs, and engaged in shameless flirting with his girlfriend, who happened to sing in one of those clubs. Add the cool jazz score by Henry Mancini and you have the blueprint for just about every other mystery series that followed.
Or how about the copycat private eye drama “77 Sunset Strip”? This was one of the hippest shows on TV for several years, and followed a formula used many times over. Two private eyes operating in an exotic locale (in this case LA), driving the latest convertible sports cars provided by the shows sponsor, cracking wise while cracking cases and making a pass at a different woman each week. And some cool jazz.
Fast forward ten years to another fave, “Mannix.” Joe Mannix, cool but tough, a well-dressed lady killer who drove a sporty convertible with a car phone in southern California, and mixed it up with well-drawn characters in well-written plots every week. And some cool jazz.
And who can overlook “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”? Suave ladies man Napoleon Solo and his teen heartthrob partner Illya Kuryakin traveled the world in search of baddies intent on global domination, using nifty gadgets like a communication device built into a fountain pen and meeting a few gorgeous femme fatales along the way. And some cool jazz.
Are you seeing a pattern here? What I appreciate about these old shows is the emphasis on plot, character and dialogue. There was action and violence aplenty, but it wasn’t the graphic in-your-face kind that we see in primetime nowadays. The one cliché complaint I have about these shows was that the hero would receive a savage beating from a few bad guys, then get on his feet and run after them. How lame!
My nostalgia viewing isn’t only limited to dramas like these. I still laugh at “The Odd Couple,” one of the funniest comedies ever for my money. The same with the sitcoms of Bob Newhart and Mary Tyler Moore. And who could elicit a belly laugh better than Jackie Gleason and Art Carney in “The Honeymooners”? Maybe Lucille Ball on “I Love Lucy,” but it’s a close contest.
For real quality plotting, though, I defy you to show me a mystery series that was better than “Columbo.” I admit that Peter Falk had a lot to do with its popularity and longevity, but the scripts were well written and contained a surprise or two. And you knew that in each episode, there’d be the inevitable “Just one more thing…”
Break out the rabbit ears for the old black-and-white Philco.
Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author of romantic mystery/thrillers and contemporary erotic romance. His website is www.timsmithauthor.com.