Mustaches Run Amok Throughout Mickey Spillane’s 'The New Mike Hammer: The Series'
WARNING: This review may disturb, nay, trigger recollections for Gen X'ers that grew up watching TV with adults in the '80s.
Just in time for the post-holiday discount movie bin comes ViaVision/ Madman Entertainment/ Sony Home Entertainment's DVD boxed set release of Mickey Spillane's The New Mike Hammer (1984-1989), a dramatic series that may hold the record for the most onscreen caterpillar mustaches ever assembled for a TV production. Viewers are guaranteed 20 hours of, well, cheaply produced '80s interpretations of detective mysteries. The set provides 22 episodes, plus two made-for-TV movies included as supplemental materials: The Return of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer (1986) and Murder Takes It All (1988).
On a personal note (what would a noir review be without a wry internal monologue?) everything about The New Mike Hammer recalls suppressed childhood memories of watching bad TV on basic cable during grade school summer breaks while my parents were away at work but that doesn't make all of those TV experiences worthy of revisiting. The videotape-esque audio/visual transfer to DVD does nothing to enhance the low-budget status quo of network broadcasting in the '80s. Everything about the interior sets, stereo sound, and big blow-dried hairpieces suggests reminds me of alternative superior TV products of the day -- Dynasty, The Fall Guy -- basically anything with Lee Majors or Heather Locklear.
Stacy Keach stars as the titular detective Mike Hammer but as much as his heart is (or isn't?) in this role, the actor is no Ralph Meeker (see Robert Aldrich's transgressive noir masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly, 1955). Nor does he capture the aloof charisma of a young Darren McGavin (Mike Hammer, 1958-1959). Not by a long shot. On the other hand Keach's mustache steals just about every scene. And yet, the way Keach's pushbroom lingers onscreen endlessly, there's a certain limp noodle quality to Hammer's lip doily. I will always associate Keach with his tour de force presence (I kid) in the non-canon Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). That film, another false promise, neither delivers on the witches nor the Michael Myers'. But it does contain the earworm "Thirteen days 'til Halloween" Silver Shamrock jingle that penetrated a generation of unsuspecting eardrums…oh wait, I'm thinking of Tom Atkins, not Stacy Keach. I always get those two cookie dusters confused.
My father brandished a mouth murkin throughout the '70s and '80s. I can still see the repulsed look on my mom's face at the thought of fencing through a dirt squirrel for an obligatory smooch. In a bit of unintended mustachio humor, it is also worth noting my old man's name was Ronnie.
Along the lines of personal grooming, the first episode on Disc 1, "Deirdre", features a damsel in distress so disheartened, with such enormous permanent bangs, that my mind whisked away at thoughts of the superior B-movie afro-perm iconicity from the likes of Adrienne Barbeau. Cue the point during the Mickey Spillane's The New Mike Hammer: The Series binge watch where I visit YouTube to screen old clips of Joe Bob Brigg's TNT MonsterVision commentary on Barbeau's strengths as an actress. But I digress.
Ironically, "Deirdre" appears first in the set but is listed as the premiere episode of the third season in 1986. Readers needn't worry as noir can be confusing for no reason sometimes. Upon further investigation (humph), the 22 episodes included come from season three but no where on the box is the production number listed. Come on, Mike, details.
"Now Listen Here!" (Or Don't)
The problem with '80s noir—aside from its combination synthesizer-shrill harp and chimes soundtrack—is the lack of timeless '40s art deco style closely associated with film noir. Lost are the strategic shadows and expert use of black and white. The weeping willow soundtrack may trick some audiences into believing they're listening to a VHS of Little House on the Prairie during transitional interludes.
Somewhere around the 3rd episode, the malaise music gifted me the flashback of hearing the sound of my grandparents snoring as they napped in an easy-chair recliner during midday. This kind of internal disruption doesn't provide warm nostalgia for the past as much as it reminds me why I love being an independent adult in the 21st century.
Given the impression Mickey Spillane's The New Mike Hammer: The Series imparts upon me as a cultural product of a distinctly yuppie age of American history, I would love to start calling in to conservative talk radio shows just to see if I could inoculate the hosts to claim that the past decades' programming really is superior to where we are now headed. Alas but would any of those radio listeners get it?
Dialogue in Desperate Need of a Savior
The show's dialogue also leaves something to be desired. It's zippy without being witty, a cheap imitation of noir's notoriously punchy line reads, an aural spectacle in its heyday. Some of these details could be forgiven if the stories were told well. However, for anyone averse to gaudy '80s style, this show may play better as a radio drama to be combined with other (un)enjoyable chores like say, folding laundry, ironing, or leaving the TV on while you head over to the rail yard to break glass bottles against the tracks.
"Why I Oughta...!"
The boxed set sports a blue label on the bottom right that reads, "Mature themes: Violence" on the front and "Recommended for mature audiences" on the back. Given the tepid violence (stomach blows and occasional pointed guns), zero profanity, and ambiguous brown liquid poured from bottles, I suppose some type of warning is warranted. (**Mouthbrow Muzzle Warning!**) My goodness, there are numerous instances of awkwardly acted but sometimes quite sultry innuendo. Take for instance a ridiculously slow strip tease by a femme fatale seductress (Randi Brooks) in the episode "Dead Pigeon". Of course, the show was technically produced in a time of heavy FCC censorship. And yet, the slow undressing just goes on and on and on. In terms of quadrupling sweaty palm recollections, I felt the collective consciousness of a generation of children whose parents would quickly change the channel amidst such awkwardly paced incidents. The problem with this scene is, I can envision parents' hyperactive hands having to click back-and-forth a half dozen time because the scene Just. Keeps. Going.
All kidding aside, Stacy Keach was nominated for a "Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series" Golden Globe as Mike Hammer in 1985. The series even won an Emmy for, "Outstanding Cinematography" in 1984. So someone, at some point, marginally appreciated this production.
Like so many hard-boiled detectives, Mickey Spillane's The New Mike Hammer: The Series is down on its luck by contemporary standards, all washed up, with nowhere to go but down, down, down. It couldn't catch a break if the wind blew one in. In the battle of muddled genre-mixing, while it's hard or perhaps unfair to compare television to film, Mickey Spillane's The New Mike Hammer: The Series is no Samurai Cop (1991). But sometimes, friends, you gotta lose to win. And even then, you might still lose.