Call it reverse retro - something so endemic of its time or place that it transcends nostalgia to become a definitive cultural statement. Every medium has them - from the brazen blaxploitation films of the ‘70s to the sublime synth pop of the ‘80s. No other era has as many ethereal examples as the ‘60s however. As a decade noted for its artistic reinterpretation, where nothing was sacred and everything was subverted, old war horses and sacred cows got the aesthetic agriculture taken out of them. Nowhere was this truer than in television, where sitcoms and the writers who created them tried to undue years of formulaic funny business. From monsters to musicians, it was a creative temperament ripe for the reimagining.
One of the best one’s ever to fool the format was Get Smart. Conceived by comic legends Mel Brooks and Buck Henry as part of a one off speculative deal, this silly spy spoof featuring the world’s dumbest secret agent lasted five fascinating years. It also rewrote the entire decade’s agenda on how serious subject matter could be mimicked and mocked. Now available is an exemplary complete series set from Time Life DVD (this is how all TV shows should be handled), revisiting this emblematic entertainment proves the backwards revisionism theory. It is less like a trip down memory lane and more like the discovery of the perfect counterculture confection.
For those unfamiliar with the show (it’s been in and out of reruns for quite a while), the set up is simple. Maxwell Smart, codenamed 86, works for CONTROL, a government intelligence organization battling the forces of geo-political complexity and international evil. Answering to the tough but genial Chief, and typically paired with leggy female cohort 99 (whose name is never revealed), the duo regularly take on KAOS, a band of nogooniks led by Mr. Big and overseen by Vice President of Public Relations and Terror, Siegfried. Though they are sworn enemies, Max and his nemesis enjoy a surreal mutual admiration society. Oddly enough, there is respect and honor among these stunted secret agents. Along with the standard menagerie of villains, sidekicks, and one-off helpers, we meet unlucky android Agent Hymie, the mysterious Agent 13 (who communicates with CONTROL from unusual locations like lockers and mailboxes), and Fang, the bureau’s asthmatic dog.
Over the course of 138 episodes and two networks (it originally began airing on NBC, but ended its run with a single season switch over to CBS), the spy vs. spy tomfoolery used gadgets, goofiness, and some good natured lampoonery to create its weekly 26 minutes of mirth. Some of the most memorable visual jokes included the top secret Cone of Silence (a device which supposedly allowed conversations to go unheard), Max’s classic shoe phone (complete with heel receiver and instep dialer), and various incognito guns. The numerous James Bond knock-offs, usually applied more for comic than crime relief, became iconic for series’ devotees. They also helped the show successfully focus as much on the actual genre being tweaked as well as jibing to the archetypes within it.
Thanks to Sean Connery and his amazing machismo magic, the ‘60s was awash in kitsch crazy spy stuff. Film was constantly on the make for another franchise icon (Flint, Helm) while TV also found a wealth of espionage angles with dramas like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible. Get Smart was one of the few attempts at bridging the increasing clichés already forming to manufacture something original inside the formulaic and familiar. As one follows the episodes offered, through first season highlights like “Satan Place” and “Survival of the Fattest” to last act offerings like “Apes of Rath” and “And Baby Makes Four”, we see the growth of the characters, the creation of network mandated narrative constants, and the development of seminal series catchphrases - “missed it by that much” and “would you believe…?” - that became cult fad fodder.
To call the show uneven would be stating the obvious. Fans can probably pinpoint the moment the ingenuity became to wane - perhaps with the required wedding of 86 and 99, or the last season decision to have them procreate. But for the most part, the inventive internal aspects of the series, as well as the external elements of the experience (changing social dynamics, growing political unrest) keep it fresh and original. While it’s impossible to evaluate all fives series and 138 episodes, it’s clear that, as an example of TV’s attempts at battling cinema’s anti-studio system rebirth, Brooks and Henry were on the right track.
This is pop art parody of the highest order, a veritable trip back in time to the slapstick slickness of the swinging ‘60s. The look of the show combines conservative government bureaucratics with hipster bachelor padding. Everyone smokes, and they smoke A LOT. Sunglasses are statements of the sinister and the suave, while 99’s dresses run the dramatic gamut from Carnaby Street minis to natty New York maxis. Without directly addressing the ever-changing face of the era, we get hints of hippies, lots of Cold War mongering, the slightest slip into psychedelia (the sets are always amazing), and enough pseudo slick lingo to fill the mind of an amiable and impressionable audience.
The acting, of course, made the experience and it remains, without a doubt, exceptional. Though he was hired mostly due to an outstanding contract he had with the network, Don Adams proved to be an invaluable piece of the puzzle. He literally steals every scene he is in as Smart, whiny wisenheimer voice hiding an equally wimpy work ethic. Using some of the material he honed as part of his stand up routine, and a great deal of improvisational grace, he became the satiric standard bearer for most of the decade’s sprawling spy fascination. In fact, it’s safe to say that without Maxwell Smart, the uneven farce of Casino Royale would never have been fathomable, let alone possible.
Equally alluring in wildly different ways is Barbara Feldon as 99. As enigmatic as she is predictable (her crush on 86 is evident from the earliest episodes), the character cuts a swatch that balances out much of Get Smart‘s surreality. Like the calming centering of a constantly out of whack storm, she comes across as sexy and smart, easily understood and never off the handle. Indeed, if Feldon had been given a more prominent role, she could have turned the show semi-serious, which would never have worked. But thanks to her classiness, her deft comic timing (she was great with a joke as well), and the chemistry she shared with everyone from Adams to Edward Platt (as the omniscient Chief) she transforms the obligatory Emma Peel eye candy role into something quite special.
Indeed, that’s the best way to describe Get Smart
in general. It’s an amalgamation of incongruous elements that shouldn’t really work together yet somehow, do. It’s the perfect incorporation of the dumb with the discerning, the improbable with the imaginative. Of course, it takes tons of talent to pull this off, and from Brooks and Henry in the background (between them, both wrote dozens of episodes) to standard day to day production players like scribes Chris Hayward, Leonard Stern, and Arne Sultan, this was unconventional TV from standard boob tube scribblers. Add in the fringe turns, the wondrous non conformity in disguise of Dick Gautier as Hymie, the various nefarious villains played to perfection by such stalwarts as Bernie Kopell (Siegfried), King Moody (Shtarker), and Milton Selzer (as double agent Parker), and the various guest turns (Johnny Carson, James Caan, Don Rickles), and you’ve got a concept with enough creativity to carry it through even the toughest times.
As for the tremendous Time Life DVD compendium, it’s a veritable treasure trove of discoverable delights. Divided up by season, both Brooks and Henry add a commentary to the pilot, while Feldon offers her thoughts on Episode 17 - “Kisses for Kaos”. Disc five of the first set contains nothing but extras, including interviews, promos, TV appearances, reunion footage, bloopers, a documentary, and an interactive feature. It’s the same packaging paradigm that is carried over onto each additional season in the box. Other highlights include 1967 Emmy Broadcast material, NBC memos (both from Season 2), commercials, current cast interviews (Season 4) and a memorial to the late Don Adams (Season 5). Each collection also contains a booklet providing context and scope, and the transfers in general are terrific - bright, colorful and loaded with era-defining detail.
Oddly enough, Smart was one of the few ‘60s shows that did not translate well when it was inevitably updated. The 1980 big screen version, entitled The Nude Bomb, was a major critical and box office disappointment, while the 1989 TV movie Get Smart, Again! was slightly more winning. It led to an attempted revamp by Fox with Andy Dick as Smart and 99’s son (it lasted seven uneven episodes). Now, Hollywood has again come calling, placing comedic flavor of the moment Steve Carell in the role of Smart, with Anne Hathaway as 99, and Alan Arkin as The Chief. The preview trailer tells little about how successful this update will be. The goofiness is there, but the original Adams/Feldon spark appears absent. Until then, we have this remarkable overview to remind us of how the right combination of ability and anarchy can merge to form an almost effortless entertainment. Like other examples from the time - The Addams Family, for example - the sum of Get Smart is uniquely equal to its many magnificent parts. It remains a seminal spy spoof sitcom.