[13 November 2008]
Kids will always love crazes. And though sometimes it’s about a music group and sometimes a politician, some times, it’s about a TV show. And most Americans around the age of 50 have a clear recollection of the craze known as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The first American spy show, running on NBC for three-and-a-half seasons (1965-1968), U.N.C.L.E. won Emmys, sold lunch pails, inspired spin-offs and knock-offs, garnered top ratings and stole the hearts and minds of millions of impressionable youth.
Don’t take that description to assume U.N.C.L.E. was a kid’s show – far from it. But something about the dashing leads – Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum (NCIS) as Illya Kuryakin, backed up by Leo G. Carroll as their boss, Alexander Waverly – the gadgetry and the week-to-week adventures of an international spy syndicate (the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) just happened to attract the coveted 8-24 year-old demographic networks so richly crave.
So now we’re offered The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Complete Series Box Set (with attaché carrying case), and we are presented with the problem: Does the craze-induced nostalgia hold up? Though conventional wisdom would say that Americans eat up memories like fast food, recent lackluster sales of many classic shows’ DVDs, like six- and seven-year veterans The Bob Newhart Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, have made people question the infallible palatability of television past. What more can U.N.C.L.E. offer me than my memories do already? Quite frankly: Oodles.
Even as someone with no nostalgic attachment to the 1960s, this box set delivers not only high-quality spy action and comedy, but an in-depth look at the logic of networks and the thought process of producers in the “Golden Age” of television. The ten hours of thorough bonus features and U.N.C.L.E.’s stark tonal shifts from season to season, mostly for the worse, highlight the fickle nature of affection and the effect of network greed on an incredible show (see also: Twin Peaks).
Season one, though never overly serious, takes on a generally straight tone, using humor appropriately to lighten the mood. The only season filmed in black-and-white (with the exception of the two-part episodes made to release as movies overseas), season one’s logical foundation is solid. Sure, there are leaps of faith, but the show aims at plausible gadgets, possible situations and (semi-)rational bad guys (working for the nebulous evil entity, THRUSH).
The show’s originally low ratings picked up immensely after a time-slot shift, and in season two, the stakes were raised – not only on the show’s characters, but also on its believability. Backed with guest-star power like Vincent Price and Rip Torn this time around (though season-one appearances like Slim Pickens, Kurt Russell and a pre-Star Trek duo of Shatner and Nimoy aren’t too shabby), in season two U.N.C.L.E. started its slow decent from satire into parody – a drop no-doubt hastened by the off-season departure of producer Sam Rolfe.
Though season two contains many great episodes, it swapped the complex plots and interactions for scenes like Napoleon Solo tied to a pedestal threatened by a scythe-shaped pendulum methodically swinging inches above his nose. Re-watching scenes like this make Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery all the better.
Though the end of season two was bad, it was merely a harbinger for the comic travesty that was: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: Season Three. In fact, Austin Powers seems to have stolen directly from season three’s playbook. Tempted by the high ratings of ultra-campy Batman and Get Smart, the once-quasi-serious spy show denigrated into an amalgam of fembots, exploding ice cream cones, and a particularly uncomfortable scene with Solo teaching an Amazonian-ish, African jungle woman and her pet ape (read: $20 gorilla suit) how to dance to American ‘60s music.
This hysterical low point is amusing in its failure, and it’s no surprise that by the end of the season, the bottomed-out ratings warranted a re-boot. And although the fourth-season return was admirable, it couldn’t revitalize the disenfranchised fan-base, who had by then, moved on to the next craze, so the cycle of fandom could begin anew.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. did a lot of things right. In seasons one and two, the writers, especially Dean Hargrove, did a sensational job with the plots and dialogue. One of my favorite lines comes from “The Giuoco Piano Affair”. When the baddie says to Solo, “Your self-assurance borders on arrogance,” Solo responds with, “I used to worry about that – before I realized it only offends people like yourself.” What perfect spy banter.
Also, producers Norman Felton and Sam Rolfe had an ingenious idea with what they called “the Innocent.” Each episode featured a different “innocent” civilian wrapped up in the underbelly of the spy culture. This character was usually a discontented housewife who soon became infatuated with the elegant and exciting lifestyle of spydom, and normally ended the episode swearing how much she’d remember that day for the rest of her life.
And I have to admit, even through the bad years, the show not only had a stunning use of sets, costumes and props (much of which is thanks to associate producer, George Lehr, also a great interviewee) but always maintained a healthy and effective level of self-awareness. Guest star Jill Ireland remarks of our spy-duo in one episode, “You’re just a whirly mess of plots and schemes” – delightfully apropos.
Even if you don’t appreciate the fine points of ‘60s TV at its best, this attaché also provides some of its worst, and that’s fun, too. Whether it be the blinking-light-infested “computers” and other early high-low-tech, the accepted racist and sexist epithets, or just entertaining yourself playing Spot the Future Star (“Hey, is that James Hong playing an Indian?”) – combined with the extras, you can amuse yourself for days without ever focusing on the 100+ hours of the comic, spy foibles spread across 41 DVDs.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a landmark in television, and this well-crafted box set represents its time and place better than a large heap of the TV being unloaded onto the DVD market today. This show gives us a glimpse at pop culture’s take on the cold war, counter culture and paranoia – topics whose importance would only magnify in the coming years.