[14 March 2010]
The detective show is a genre that has gone the way of the buffalo in recent years. This doesn’t include the cop dramas that fill the airways. Those are still alive and well, with the Law & Order franchise, the CSI family, NCIS, and countless others currently crowding the airwaves. These shows all tend towards an ensemble, while I’m talking about a show where there is one person, or possibly a pair, operating outside the scope of government authority, sleuthing and investigating their feathered-haired hearts out.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s prime time television was positively choking on this kind of hour-long production. Think Rockford Files, Magnum, P.I., Hart to Hart, Simon & Simon, and Remington Steele, to name a few personal favorites. The heroes of these adventures function without the infrastructure and support network of traditional bodies of law enforcement. Some of them have wealthy benefactors, others have their own money, and still others are simply badasses. This lack of legal limitations also means that they are not as constrained by the rule of law as their duly sworn counterparts. Seriously, Magnum picks a lock in almost every single episode.
Matt Houston: The First Season plays to this tradition, sometimes it fits in smoothly, sometimes not so much. Lee Horsley plays Matt “Mattlock” Houston, a self-made Texas millionaire, relocated to sunny Los Angeles to tend to the needs of his business empire. He has money in oil, technology, and even denim. In addition to his business interests, Houston also likes investigate crimes on the side for a thrill that money no longer provides.
In fact, if the show is to be believed, the detective part of his life takes up the lion’s share of his time, much to the chagrin of his frazzled accountant, Murray (George Wyner). Houston’s true passion is the P.I. business, and business is good, mostly because, at some point, everyone he knows, from the gardener to an expatriate Russian prince, becomes involved in a murder case to some degree.
Houston talks like Garner and looks like Selleck. This show further proves that you can take the boy out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the boy, or his mustache. In his heart, Houston is a down home cowboy, who despite being rich enough to commute to work via helicopter, still finds time do things like have frog jumping contests with his ranch hands Bo (Dennis Fimple) and Lamar (Paul Brinegar), say pithy things like, “I feel as out of place as a prairie dog at a rattlesnake convention”, and approach a ten dollar bet with deadly seriousness. He lives by the Cowboy Code, which revolves around being honest and good and never punching a smaller man.
C.J. Parsons (Pamela Hensley), a Harvard educated, Texas-born lawyer, is his right hand lady. She is vaguely in love with Houston, who of course never notices because he thinks of her like a sister. (Though there is also slight subtext suggesting she may be a lesbian.) Occasionally C.J. also serves as the narrator. John Aprea, who looks like Sylvester Stallone’s second cousin, plays police Lieutenant Vince Novelli, a cardboard cutout of a cop, who complains about his family life, flies hot air balloons, and happens to be assigned to every single case Houston works. Maybe LA is smaller than I think. They also find an excuse to go to Vince’s Mama’s Italian restaurant in every single episode of the first season.
It is obvious that Aaron Spelling and the rest of the producers want LA to function the same way that Hawaii does in Magnum, and they try to make the city a character in itself, forcing it down your throat at times. Glitz and glamour and fame saturate every scene. Houston constantly interviews bikini-clad ladies at the beach, talks to movie producers, and generally hobnobs with the wealthy, beautiful people. If you doubt the intent here, look no farther than the endless parade of guest stars that include Sonny Bono as a pint-sized karate expert, David Cassidy as a technology wunderkind, and Janet Leigh as, gasp, an aging movie star.
Matt Houston is like a Where’s Waldo? of minor celebrities of the ‘70s and ‘80s. A partial list includes Heather Locklear, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Vick Tayback, Lori Laughlin, Cesar Romero, William Smith, Sid Caesar, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Dick Butkus, George Takei, and Jill St. John. I could go on forever. You’ll spend a great deal of time trying to figure out how you know a particular actor. Some are stars on the rise, while some are on the downward slope of fame. Most of the parts are small, disposable roles that could be played by anyone, but Chuck Connors does a good turn as a mildly satanic serial killer with a personal vendetta against Houston. Here’s a fun game, see how many cast members from Gilligan’s Island you can find in season one.
As a show, Matt Houston is really little more than Magnum light. It doesn’t have the backdrop of Vietnam to give the show any sort of deeper emotional level. Thomas Magnum is wounded and flawed; he’s seen some darkness in his life. Matt Houston is too perfect, too polished. He’s a friend to everyone, he always does the right thing, and every case concludes just a little too easily to entirely satisfy. Even amidst murder, larceny, alcoholism, and the occasional bout of domestic abuse, the show remains light and fluffy.
There are a few moments where the producers try to take it in a more serious direction, with a couple of borderline very special episodes, but in general the show works best when they simply let it be what it is and don’t try to take it into the shadows. Many detective shows walk the line between humor and seriousness, using laughs to balance out the more grim aspects of crime fighting. Some do it well, and it provides a much needed cathartic release. This is not one of those shows.
That said, Matt Houston: The First Season is worth checking out. Horsley’s down home charm and on-screen charisma turn what could have been a throwaway show into something that ultimately winds up being a lot of fun. There are enough bizarre, WTF moments in the show to keep you scratching your head and gawking at your TV like a confused dog. Highlights of the first season include shark attacks, tiger attacks, alien encounters, killer robots, a computer named Baby, and at one point, a severed head in orange Jell-O. If that doesn’t make you want to watch Matt Houston: The First Season then nothing else I can say will convince you.
The only extras on the DVD are the 30-second teasers that the network played directly before the show, you know, the ones that start, “NEXT on Matt Houston”, and feature clips of Houston punching someone, and almost getting shot by a mysterious stranger, which happens in every episode. The promos are amusing once or twice, but beyond that they just take up time and space.