In today’s television landscape, moral ambiguity is an easy sell. Our heroes include cranky, pill-popping doctors, womanizing advertising executives, and pot-dealing suburban moms.
Their imperfections aren’t explained right away. Sometimes they aren’t explained at all. And that‘s OK. The audience doesn’t like these characters because they do the right thing. They’re quirky, they’re interesting, they’re human and that’s enough.
But that wasn’t enough in 1963. Back in television’s early days, only the guilty ran and those who chased them were above reproach. If audiences were going to cheer for an escaped convict and save the hostility for the police officer on his tail, they needed a darn good reason.
The creators of The Fugitive understood that and they delivered in spades, starting with the nail-biting narrative that precedes each episode. Before the credits roll, Dr. Richard Kimble travels to death row, trapped by the confines of a train car and his seatmate, Stafford, Ind. Police Lt. Phillip Gerard.
Kimble’s escape comes not via elaborate plans or any particular tenacity, but through an act of fate disguised as a train derailment. Now he has a second chance to find the “one-armed man” who really killed his wife. And Gerard has a new obsession: tracking down the good doctor and sending him to death row.
According to the law, Kimble is the bad guy and Gerard the good. Reality is a little more complicated. Kimble didn’t do it—even Gerard alludes to being convinced of that. But the doctor must live like a criminal to clear his name. And the cop is determined to do his duty, enforcing the court‘s edict.
They’re trapped in a dilemma, one perfectly stated by the series narrator each time the audience watches Kimble escape the electric chair: “Laws are made by men, carried out by men. And men are imperfect.”
The Fugitive’s first season is itself imperfect, not quite living up to the high drama of that opening sequence. While the interplay between Kimble and Gerard is at once intense and compelling, the individual episode plots are uneven and often ripe with contrivance.
But The Fugitive broke new ground and that alone makes the series’ first 15 episodes worth a look. Although not the first anthology series on television, this was the first to give a plausible reason why a man would choose to wander the country and why he would solve problems without calling the police.
Thank The Fugitive for Prison Break and less obvious “rolling stones on a quest” descendents like Supernatural and Quantum Leap. Blame The Fugitive for Traveler and Runaway, two spins on the “innocent man seeks justice” premise that were quickly canceled this year.
Disguised by jet-black hair dye and a series of aliases, Kimble travels from city to city, getting jobs on the fringes of society. He tends bar in Tucson for $75 a week, makes sails in Santa Barbara and tops onions in California’s Imperial Valley. The local femme fatales immediately want to date him. The rest of the locals, who can tell the well spoken doctor is different, hate him.
Despite his troubles, Kimble remains the ultimate do-gooder. He delivers a baby here, rescues children from a fire there, and is quick to throw a punch if it means defending someone’s honor. All of which make him easily noticeable, incredibly vulnerable to capture and highly deserving of the title Worst. Fugitive. Ever.
Barry Morse and David Janssen
Then again, if Kimble didn’t attract a suspicious eye here and there, Gerard would never be released from the generic small-town police department set to chase him. Plus the changes of locale allow for a constantly changing cast of characters, played by actors including Robert Duvall, Sandy Dennis, Leslie Nielsen and Ruby Dee.
Many of the stops on Kimble’s journey are tiny, backwater towns with citizens straight out of Deliverance. The little girl who ultimately saves Kimble from being hung for wrongdoing in “The Witch” is also his accuser. The cute country bumpkin who offers to lead him to safety in “The Other Side of the Mountain” seems equally likely to hold Kimble captive in her cabin.
David Janssen is stiff and twitchy as Kimble, a persona that fits with the air of paranoia filling many of the early episodes. It’s as if the audience is seeing each locale and its inhabitants through the nervous doctor’s eyes. But Janssen’s lack of warmth also makes it hard to understand why the few who trust Kimble do so completely and why those who learn the doctor’s secret immediately put their faith in his innocence.
Gerard, played by Barry Morse appears in a little over half the episodes but remains a palpable presence. He’s crusty, determined and more than a little OCD. “Nobody blames you for a train wreck,” a co-worker tells Gerard in one episode. But Gerard blames himself.
Catching Kimble is more than a job for the lieutenant. It’s worth flying across the country, canceling fishing plans with his son, and paddling a raft through shark-infested waters in his business suit. The audience may wish Gerard would just leave poor Kimble alone, but thanks to Morse, it’s clear that the cop is acting out of a sense of duty, rather than a thirst for vengeance. As Kimble tells Gerard during one of their few face-to-face encounters “Your nightmare is when I’m dead you’ll find (the one-armed man)”
In another television first, The Fugitive’s creators eventually gave their characters a concrete conclusion that answered all questions about who really killed Mrs. Kimble. But that finale is years down the road in these early episodes, leaving two essentially good, but conflicted men, trapped in the ultimate bad situation.