The Groundbreaking Wonderfulness of ‘I Spy’

I Spy is filled with revolutionary diversity, exotic filming locations, and a textbook example of on screen chemistry.

I Spy is the perfect TV show to watch if you want to see Bill Cosby throw a punch. It’s probably the only show to hold that unique distinction. In the mid-’60s casting Cosby in a lead role in a spy drama was controversial and it had nothing to do with his career as a stand-up comedian. You see, Cosby became the first black man to star in a TV drama in the United States.

Casting an African American in a starring role at that time was enough to forever guarantee NBC’s I Spy’s place in the history of television. In 1965 when I Spy was first broadcast, the revolutionary idea didn’t pull any punches.

By casting Cosby alongside Robert Culp, NBC found itself up against a fair amount of racial prejudice in America. Several stations in the South initially refused to air the show, but that didn’t stop the series from becoming a hit.

I Spy debuted amidst the spy craze ignited by the first James Bond films, and it was certainly nothing like the other shows sparked by 007 such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. For three seasons, the series followed the exploits of US spies Kelly Robinson (Culp) and Alexander Scott (Cosby). Kelly posed as a globetrotting professional tennis player and Scott as his personal trainer. They traveled the world as secret agents, but told everyone they were traveling to tennis tournaments.

If the premise sounds ridiculous, well, it is. But somehow it worked. The new DVD collectionI Spy: The Complete Series proves that, at least in its heyday, the show was worth marveling at.

Airing from 1965-1968 I Spy demonstrated a real “color blind” approach, presenting its white and black protagonists as equals. Racial issues were rarely dealt with directly; audiences were merely given a model to imitate. Scott was Kelly’s partner, his equal and his friend; he was anything but a bumbling sidekick or a black stereotype.

As Kelly, Culp was suave and daring with a sly smile, while Cosby portrayed Scott as a contemplative, intellectual hero. Cosby and Culp’s performances, especially during their breezy, lighthearted exchanges, are the very definition of on screen chemistry. Almost 50 years after its debut, the pair’s performances remain as impressive today as they were in its initial run. If nothing else in I Spy exactly stands the test of time, the performances of Culp and Cosby do. The duo earned a combined six Emmy nominations in three years with Cosby rightfully winning each time for best lead actor.

While I Spy is an action / adventure drama full of gunfights, secret microfilm, and explosions, the quick-witted humor the duo displays really makes the show shine even in the middle of its dullest moments. While the characters do get into some deep, introspective chats, some of the conversations between Kelly and Scott are so energetic that there’s no way they weren’t improvised.

Friendship, not race or espionage, was certainly the central theme of the show. Today it’s action probably won’t have you on the edge on your seat, but its wit will probably leave a smile on your face.

As an added bonus, those absurd tennis-playing aliases let the heroes roam freely around the world. And roam about they did. (In case you’re wondering, you don’t see them play or even discuss tennis often.) The exotic locales were a major part of what made the program so unique.

Furthering the show’s championing of diversity, thanks to creator/executive producer Sheldon Leonard, episodes were shot on location all over the world including China, Mexico, Japan, Spain and Greece. So, I Spy easily avoided looking like it was shot on some cheap studio back lot, simply because it wasn’t. The innovative, integrated settings gave it a decidedly lavish international flare while exposing American audiences in the ‘60s to a variety of distinctive architecture, languages, fashion, and culture.

All in all, while the plots weren’t bad, they didn’t matter as much as the banter and the relationship between the two protagonists. So, as you might expect, the series is slow and plodding by today’s standards. Many of the 50-minute episodes on the DVD collection can feel excruciatingly long and sluggish. In season three’s “The Seventh Captain”, more than five minutes go by without a word of dialogue or any meaningful action. This stretch of that episode is far from exciting, unless you’ve somehow never seen scuba diving before, and many other episodes have similar problems.

Despite the pacing issues, the episodes are rarely predictable or formulaic. The agents chase their fair share of MacGuffins, but there’s usually more to it than that. I Spy took a think-outside-the-box approach with its spy storylines, several of which were actually written by Culp, like “Home to Judgment” which finds Kelly and Scott pursued by enemy agents while they hide out at an isolated family farm.

Plus, since I Spy features no serialized storytelling during its three seasons, if you get your hands on the new DVD collection, you can choose any episode from the series and enjoy it with no prior knowledge of the episodes that preceded it. This allows you to, for instance, get right to the spirited cat-and-mouse game of “Bet Me a Dollar” or the dark, introspective “Anyplace I Hang Myself is Home”.

Additionally, to its credit, I Spy eschews many of the conventions of the spy adventures that inspired it. With I Spy there’s a welcome dose of realism in a genre known for such polish. Kelly and Scott, at least compared to other TV dramas of the era, are fully realized characters and are far from super spies. They get winded while chasing culprits. They bleed. They question their superiors, get burnt out, and fail. In one episode Kelly even contemplates suicide as a way to get rid of the pressures of his job.

Meanwhile, there are no jet packs, exploding briefcases, or other gadgets to help the secret agents save the day. They’re left to use their pistols, their fists, and mostly their wits to get out of trouble. For example, in the episode “Cops and Robbers”, they actually have to go to a Philadelphia department store to buy a tape recorder to get them out of a jam.

Overall, it’s a good thing the characters often use their brains more than their brawn, because the fights on I Spy are terribly staged, cheesy, and laughably fake. And it’s not Cosby’s fault. Culp has plenty of charm, but he also manages to be the least convincing expert in marital arts on television, despite dropkicking someone in almost every episode.

The only thing that makes the show appear more dated than some awkward attempts at kung fu fighting, is the lack of respect for many female characters. Though the performances hold up well, and many of the stories still work, this series sees women often treated exclusively as objects to be desired. For a show such celebrated for its equality, it’s a little disappointing to frequently see Culp’s character squeezing a different nameless “chick” by the typical episode’s conclusion.

In spite of these flaws, you can’t discredit I Spy’s assortment of guest stars. The diversity of characters, locations, and situations allowed for a stellar cast of familiar actors to appear in guest-starring roles including Gene Hackman, Eartha Kitt, Jim Backus, Ron Howard, Ricardo Montalban, and, oh my, George Takei. These guest stars often make their episodes instantly entertaining, like when an elderly Boris Karloff plays a batty professor (who thinks he might be Don Quixote) or when Carroll O’Connor gives a memorable performance as a ominous Soviet scientist.

The new DVD collection includes the show’s entire 82-episode run on 18 DVDs. The full-frame transfers on these discs surely look their age, as there seems to be no significant restoration. Plus, the only extra included in this set is a 20-page booklet that includes an episode guide littered with trivia. Not a single featurette or commentary track appears, which is a real mystery worth uncovering for the fans that hold the show dearly.

Overall, during an era filled with an endless parade of spies taking on missions of varying levels of plausibility, I Spy did the impossible; it defied conventions and embraced both diversity and equality, admirably altering the television landscape. The show didn’t always make solving the world’s problems look easy, nor is it going to win over countless new fans in 2014, but “wonderfulness” (a ‘60s catchphrase the show inspired) was and still remains a fitting word to describe I Spy.

As the new Complete Series DVD collection will show you, not unlike a secret agent, I Spy infiltrated television, made it better, and changed it forever. Cosby punches are included in the purchase price.

RATING 7 / 10