Sunday, March 14, 2010

Spies on TV: an appreciation

The success of USA Network's Burn Notice suggests that maybe, just maybe, there might be a full-on revival of the spy genre on television. After all, there's already a glut of procedural dramas and reality shows, so we do need a break! Besides, the creatively bankrupt jabronies in Hollywood have already mined the archives, what with feature films based on I Spy, Get Smart, & Mission: Impossible all within the last 15 years. I'm actually surprised no one even dared think of taking Robert Ludlum's Bourne trilogy and spinning it into a weekly series after the movie series starring Matt Damon had run its course.

Anyway, let's take a look at some of the TV classics of days gone by.

It Takes a Thief: Robert Wagner became a icon in this series, which originally ran from 1968-71 on ABC. Alexander Mundy (Wagner) was sprung from prison by the SIA to do what he does best, steal, albeit from foreign powers and common crooks. With ratings fading, the producers brought in Fred Astaire in the 3rd season to play Mundy's dad, and Malachi Throne, who'd been Mundy's boss, Noah Bain, left the show. Throne, instead, tried his hand at voice acting, working on the children's series Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp.

Lasting impression: When DC Comics decided to give Batman's femme fatale foe/sometime girlfriend, Catwoman, her own book in the 90's, they borrowed the general concept behind Thief, except that Catwoman was an independent contractor who didn't work for anyone at that time but herself.

Should Thief be revived? Yes, but under a different title, since there's a reality show by that name nowadays.

Get Smart: A satirical comedy-adventure series that was designed as a parody of the James Bond movies, Get Smart actually outlasted most of its more serious contemporaries, but like Thief, signed off the air for good in 1971. Co-creator Mel Brooks hasn't been able to duplicate the success with other TV ventures, most notably his 1st take on Robin Hood, When Things Were Rotten, in 1975. Smart lent itself to the camp craze, what with oddball villains like the Groovy Guru, but at its core was a well-acted ensemble comedy. The 2008 feature film saw Steve Carell (The Office) step into Don Adams' gimmicked shoes, and do decent business, but as of this writing, a sequel doesn't seem likely.

Lasting impression: Smart was a partial inspiration for a recurring sketch on the original Electric Company, although "Fargo North, Decoder" didn't have a beautful partner helping him like Smart did. Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon on TV, Anne Hathaway in the movie) was supposedly the inspiration for Toto's hit song, "99", in the early 80's.

Should Smart be revived? It's been tried before, without much success, and with Adams having passed on and Carell rather busy at the moment, another small-screen revival isn't likely.

I Spy: This was the series that put comedy legend Bill Cosby into icon status. Cosby won 2 Emmy awards for his work as secret agent Alexander Scott, partnered with Robert Culp as tennis pro/secret agent Kelly Robinson. Another comedy legend, Sheldon Leonard, was the executive producer, and at the time, almost everything Leonard was attached to (i.e. The Dick Van Dyke Show) turned to gold. A late 90's movie version, done for laughs, flipped things around, with Eddie Murphy as Robinson and Owen Wilson as Scott. Robinson's chosen athletic profession, in turn, became a boxer. Audiences weren't amused.

Lasting impression: Cosby made history as the first African-American male actor to headline a prime time show, and he'd remain a steady presence on television for the next four decades. However, the formula that made I Spy so successful hasn't been fully duplicated, and probably never will.

Should I Spy be revived? The movie was a dud, especially without even minimal participation from Cosby & Culp. It might not work in the here and now.

Mission: Impossible: The most successful spy series of them all. Mission enjoyed a healthy 8 year run (1966-74), weathering a revolving door of cast changes, then returned in 1988 for another year-plus. Most people forget that the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) was originally under the direction of Daniel Briggs (Steven Hill, later of Law & Order), as they're more apt to remember the later seasons when Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) took over the team. 44 years later, Lalo Schifrin's theme song still kicks major butt, especially after a 30th anniversary makeover in 1996, courtesy of U2's Larry Mullen, Jr. & Adam Clayton.

Lasting impression: Mission was revived as a series of feature films starring Tom Cruise, beginning in 1996, but may have offended hardcore fans by using Phelps as a villain, played by Jon Voight. There's talk of a 4th film, since Cruise's recent films have not been major successes. Hmmm. Ya don't suppose his overindulgent promotion of Scientology might have had something to do with it, do ya?

Should Mission return to television? No.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: Another series that draws inspiration from James Bond. Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum) fought enemy agents, but also fell victim to the camp craze, which ultimately doomed the series. There was a TV-movie revival in the 80's that didn't reverse the tide all that much.

Lasting impression: Vaughn & McCallum teamed one more time in the 80's, this time in an episode of The A-Team during that show's final season (when Vaughn joined the cast), but this time, McCallum played the villain. Producer Stephen Cannell paid homage to U.N.C.L.E. by using chapter cards and other hallmarks of the series in the episode.

Should U.N.C.L.E. be revived? Questionable. They tried to expand the franchise with The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., but that failed to click. Today, you'd have the agents in a more dangerous "hot zone", like the Middle East, but I just don't see it happening.

And that would illustrate just how tough it'd be to revive any of the classics. You'd have to reset the shows to modern times, as the '08 "Get Smart" did, but then you run the risk of offending Arab-American groups, among others. Maybe that's why Hollywood is more comfortable with making movies and not attempting to do full revivals. For once, it's the right move.

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