‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ TV Series Still Has the Cool Factor

Before there was Sam and Dean Winchester, before there was Mulder and Scully, Starsky and Hutch, there was Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin.

“Do you like spy movies, Mr. Solo?…”

“Well, I think that they’re all right if you like light entertainment. You know, I just think that they’re pretty far-fetched”.

— Clemency McGill (Joan Freeman) and Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) in “The Bat-Cave Affair” episode.

In the midst of the ’60s, during the Cold War and the general public’s Hollywood-fueled fascination with secret agents and spy-games, The Man From U.N.C.L.E changed television history. Debuting in 1964 on the NBC network as a more family-friendly alternative to James Bond, the show wasn’t an instant hit. Despite its winning premise, it was repeatedly trounced in the ratings by McHale’s Navy and The Red Skelton Hour, but it was the network’s decision to gear the show towards kids and teenagers by sending its actors on weekend promotional tours and moving the show to Mondays (and later on, teen-friendly Friday nights), that would eventually turn the show into one of the ’60s biggest pop culture phenomenons.

Early black and white episodes mostly focused on over-confident American secret agent and ladies’ man Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn), but his Russian-born sidekick, Illya Kuryakin, (David McCallum) stole nearly every scene he was in and turned the blond, Beatle-esque McCallum into a teen idol at a time when the phrase was relatively new. Thousands of hysterical fans crowded the star at promotional appearances, celebrity magazines obsessed over his home life with then-wife and The Man From U.N.C.L.E guest star Jill Ireland, and record labels sought him for novelty singles and instrumental albums. As Illya, the enigmatic international man of mystery, he was intelligent, loyal, efficient, witty, and helped set a template for what we now call the “buddy cop” genre.

Before there was Sam and Dean Winchester, before there was Mulder and Scully, heck, before there was even Starsky and Hutch, there was Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. At the same time, Illya’s Russian heritage confused some (FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was rumored to have hated the show because of it) and inspired others (a popular The Man From U.N.C.L.E fansite states that devotees “continue to dream of a world in which a cocky, extroverted American and a shy, introverted Russian can be the best of friends”). That friendship (recently explored in the otherwise separate 2015 movie adaptation) is still discussed among fans of the show, who write fan fiction and lengthy blog posts about the actors’ excellent on-screen chemistry.

So, when season two debuted in full color in September 1965, The Man From U.N.C.L.E was one of the biggest shows on television. Children gathered around the set clutching their official Man From U.N.C.L.E. toys and membership cards, teens swooned over (or were enraged by) the romantic repartee between the two leads and the women of the week, and adults enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek humor of it all. At this point, the series had finally found its footing, and despite frequent changes in the production and writing staff, it mostly stuck to the same winning template.

Each episode is a new mission, (or “Affair”, as the on-screen episode titles refer to it), with a new threat from a special guest star. Established actors such as Vincent Price, Victor Buono, George Sanders, and more appear as semi-comical villains with names like Colonel Hubris, Mother Fear, and G. Emory Partridge, usually with some T.H.R.U.S.H. backed scheme (as plausible as creating hydrogen bombs or as ridiculous as radioactive bats) for taking over the world.

Aiding or accidentally hindering Solo and Illya is usually an otherwise ordinary person who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or have some sort of connection to the villain. These “innocents” are often fashionably dressed young women with gimmicky names like Salty Oliver (Judy Carne in “The Ultimate Computer Affair”), Jo Jo Tyler (Joyce Jamison in “The Dippy Blonde Affair”), and Mimi Doolite (Julie Sommars in “The Foxes And Hounds Affair”). Villains are often killed quickly or off-screen by their own kind, hostages are rescued, and everybody usually ends up sharing a meal with thankful U.N.C.L.E chief Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll).

While some have argued that the show’s format hasn’t aged well, noting cheap special effects (virtually everything on set is made of foam or cardboard) or the dated ethnic humor (nearly every foreign accent is heavily exaggerated), there is a sort of comfort-food quality to its predictability. The good guys always win, the bad guys fail miserably, and the show drapes itself in lovable trademarks (“Open, channel D!”) and ’60s era cool. Though cracks started to form towards the end of season two (The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. backdoor pilot “The Moonglow Affair” and sillier episodes like “The Indian Affairs Affair” come to mind), these 30 episodes still capture the best of what the series had to offer.

For nearly a decade, fans demanded that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. be released on DVD. In 2007, Time Life secured the rights and packaged the entire series in a rather expensive cardboard “attache suitcase” box set. Individual season releases soon followed, but were relatively hard to find and have since been discontinued.

Warner Brothers took over the property in 2014, and has already released the first season as well as a complete series set. This season two set, consisting of 30 episodes on ten discs in a standard plastic case that slides into a cardboard jacket, unfortunately doesn’t contain any bonus features. However, if you’ve only seen the show on regular television, you’ll be surprised by just how bright the colors are, and though there are occasional dots and scratches, the picture is as clear as decades-old film gets. Its bargain price (you end up paying about 67cents an episode) makes The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Complete Second Season a retro treat.

RATING 9 / 10