What We’re Not Watching: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

We’re not watching the delightful A Nero Wolfe Mystery for our blog, because our son’s six and wouldn’t get it, but the grown-ups are watching these delightful episodes for the second or third or fourth time after he’s gone to bed, and I wanted to give it a brief recommendation for any grown-ups in your own house.

The series was made for the A&E Network between 2000-2002, and was the last thing worth watching on the channel. It doubled the network’s average ratings for the hours it was on, but it was also extremely expensive and “reality” teevee was cheaper. So there was only an initial movie of the week, twelve hours in the first season, and sixteen in the second. That’s thirty fun hours set in a nebulous and whimsical post-war New York, with part of the peculiar charm of the show built around its deliberately timeless setting.

Nero Wolfe is a very wealthy and very lazy private detective who lives in Manhattan and does not leave his home on business. He’s an epicure who grows orchids and enforces a firm daily schedule. The stories are narrated by his assistant and legman, Archie Goodwin, whose main job is not actually the collection of facts and testimony, but aggravating his boss into action. The characters are played by Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton. Other recurring parts are played by Saul Rubinek (reporter Lon Cohen), Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer), and Conrad Dunn (a field operative called Saul Panzer who’s even better at his job than Archie could be, not that Archie’s ego would allow him to admit that out loud).

Famously, the producers assembled a repertory company of about fifteen actors and employed them to fill almost all the guest roles across the series. These include the beautiful Kari Matchett, who plays the minor recurring role of Archie’s main flame Lily Rowan along with about a third of the leading guest parts for women, ex-Intellivision spokesman George Plimpton as many of the grouchy old men, and bug-eyed Boyd Banks as most of the in-over-his-head imbeciles who end up in Wolfe’s office.

Using the same faces for guest parts really heightens the unreality of the show; you expect the players to all come out and take a bow after the performance concludes before they all go rehearse next week’s show. I can’t help but feel that’s a strike against it, and the music is another. They went with a period-ish accurate big band jazz score, the sort of music played in the big ballrooms where Archie would take Lily dancing, and it’s often far too jaunty and silly for the action, accentuating the amusing dialogue and witty narration more than the drama.

But otherwise, good grief, this show is entertaining. The scripting is sublime, ignoring conventional three-act structure in favor of following the original stories’ flow, and paring down the action to fit the hour while using as much of the original dialogue and language as can be included. Chaykin is incredibly watchable as the bad-tempered Wolfe and Hutton is absolutely flawless as the sharp-dressed Archie. They make a terrific team and since the adaptations are far more faithful to the source material than any other program in the genre, the actors make the stories and the dialogue just glow. You can read Raymond Chandler and picture a dozen actors as Marlowe, even if you try very hard to stick to James Garner. But these actors are the Nero Wolfe cast. I can’t read any of Rex Stout’s novels or stories and envision anybody else in the main parts, even if I do change the music in my mind! If you enjoy classic detective fiction, this series is a must.

Oh, and if you enjoy Nero Wolfe, then you should definitely follow him – @NeroAugustWolfe – on Twitter. The great detective doesn’t post all that often, but as he reads the literary versions of his cases, he usually has some very grouchy and amusing commentary to share. He probably types the tweets very slowly, using just his index finger, on Archie’s computer.

Logan’s Run 1.11 – Carousel

Rosanne Katon and the Man With the Hairiest Chest guest star in tonight’s episode, in which, inevitably, our heroes go back to the City of Domes. Oh, all right, it’s Ross Bickell. It’s a good installment, even if the logic necessary to temporarily wipe Logan’s memory is pretty tortuous. The appearance of the most technologically advanced people we’ve met so far is glossed over to get to the events in the city.

Our son didn’t remember Katon, whom we saw in a few episodes of Jason of Star Command that originally aired a little later in 1978. Tonight, I got a good demonstration of just how six year-olds aren’t very good with faces. The plot this time requires Jessica to change her hair and clothes and see whether Logan’s memory might have returned a little after he’d been shot with an amnesia dart a little earlier. In the next scene, Logan meets up with an old girlfriend named Sheila, played by Melody Anderson. “Wow, Jessica looks different with her hair combed,” he said, as the dialogue went completely over his head. When Jessica does show up with a new ‘do and a green-blue dress, I made sure to point out it was really her. “Yeah, she combed her hair,” he said.

Some of the elements of this show really do frustrate me. We’ve frequently rolled our eyes whenever Logan zaps a sandman with his freeze ray and doesn’t take the man’s gun. Even if Jessica is reluctant to use one herself, any gun and any car that they destroy is one that can’t be used against them in the future. Their refusal to stray any farther than a day’s drive from the City of Domes is maddening. Even if Rem doesn’t have a 24th Century road map on him, surely he knows how huge the continent is and can advise them to go to the other side of it, where Francis is far less likely to follow. Now we’ve got these “higher power” dudes in the forest, who sort of feel like the spiritual TV descendants of the sort of aliens who’d routinely freeze the USS Enterprise in space and yell at Kirk in a booming voice. I think the next thing I’d do if I escaped from the city this time is head straight back to those guys and ask for some more information I can use. Surely some of this occurred to the writer, D.C. Fontana?

The Bionic Woman 1.6 – The Deadly Missiles

There’s quite a fun guest star in this episode of The Bionic Woman. Our son recognized Forrest Tucker’s voice, but couldn’t quite place him. I told him he was Kong on The Ghost Busters, and he has watched every episode of that show at least four times. Here, he plays General Jack D. Ripper – er, I mean, J.T. Connors – a very old friend of Jaime’s, a wealthy industrialist who doesn’t like Washington softies and longhairs, and is concerned with fluoridation. His character is so obviously set up to be the villain that he can’t possibly be the villain, sort of like the way they presented Snape in the first Harry Potter film.

The actual villain is the only other suspect, Connors’ second-in-command, who’s played by Ben Piazza. He was really typecast as playing frustrated dweebs in the seventies and eighties, like the hapless father tormented by Joliet Jake in that nice restaurant in The Blues Brothers. So, not a lot of actual mystery in this story, but a heck of a lot of class. It’s a great episode, with real tension, since Jaime injures one of her legs quite badly and is operating at rather less than full power. It builds up really well, and our son was completely thrilled by it.

This is one of the episodes where Steve Austin plays a fairly major role. It’s set up to look like he will have to come save the day after Jaime’s injury, but there’s a very clever reversal of expectations here. It’s also one of the episodes with Christian Juttner as the sassy boy in Jaime’s class. Looks like we either get Juttner or we get Robbie Rist, never both!

Ace of Wands: Mama Doc (part three)

I take that back. They could have edited all three episodes into a single half-hour and used the other two parts for a proper villain, and not a misunderstood and lonely old lady. That’s about the only way this would have been entertaining.

Well, there’s Tarot using a silver spoon to hypnotize the antagonist into not being naughty anymore. I don’t think I’ve seen that done before.

Ace of Wands: Mama Doc (part two)

I think that if they’d edited the first two episodes of this story into a single half-hour, it would be a lot more watchable than it is. Our son says this is very creepy, but I can only barely see that myself. Mama Doc is certainly an eccentric and weird old lady, and we know she’s up to no good, but we don’t know what she wants or what her magical powers might be. There should be a tone of malevolence hanging over this story, but there’s nothing at all there, just a batty old lady who likes playing teatime with old ceramic dolls.

Worse still, the last episode’s cliffhanger of the one doll laughing is not really addressed at all. Nothing supernatural at all happens this time, until this episode’s cliffhanger, when Mr. Sweet saunters casually into Mama Doc’s toy shop and finds Mikki and the two missing professors immobilized and dressed like dolls. It’s a strange image, but we don’t know what it means, because we don’t know who Mama Doc is or why she’s wanted to kidnap these people.

All of this could have been handled with just one little scene in which Mama Doc actually talked about her plan and explained it to her henchman. I had written previously that Roger Fulton’s comparison to Batman wasn’t fair or accurate, but this story’s writer definitely could have improved this script by watching a few episodes to see how Batman‘s writers brought the audience into the narrative and gave them a criminal scheme to follow which they could understand. Surely this improves in the finale?

Ace of Wands: Mama Doc (part one)

Some scheduling issues required me to shuffle things around a little and set aside the next Doctor Who story until next week, so we’ll pop back into the third series of Ace of Wands for a three-part story written by Maggie Allen. According to IMDB, her freelance writing credits were not very extensive. She worked more on the production side of television as a script editor for such programs as Mogul and The Omega Factor in the 1970s and 1980s.

This story certainly starts off very odd. Everything seems a bit off; there’s nothing magical or threatening, just a very creepy old lady called Mama Doc, played by Pat Nye, who seems to run a business repairing damaged toys and, for reasons unknown, has a henchman who dresses like a policeman and kidnaps people. Tarot and his friends, including Mr. Sweet again, are looking for a missing professor and the trail seems to lead to the old lady’s shop. But it’s all done without menace or a sense of importance or weight until the cliffhanger, when the henchman grabs another character in the shop and one of the toy dolls seems to start laughing about it.

The grown-up who writes this blog thinks that this story badly needed to introduce the concept of the living doll a whole heck of a lot earlier, but the kid that I’m watching it with found it pretty amazingly effective and about jumped out of his skin when the doll started cackling. It’ll probably be a while before he’ll be ready for those Annabelle movies, I guess.

Logan’s Run 1.10 – Futurepast

As clip shows go, this is a really good one. There aren’t very many clips, for starters, mainly from episodes one and two (including the repurposed footage of Carousel from the movie, without the explosions on the people flying to their deaths), and they’ve been reassembled and remixed to form new scenes along with other psychedelic imagery as Logan and Jessica have nightmares in a dream research lab. The lab is run by an android played by Mariette Hartley, and she and Rem are delightfully cute together in some of those common-to-the-genre scenes in which androids or robots ask “could these be the emotions that humans call… love?”

Central to Logan and Jessica’s shared nightmare is a skull-masked figure that urges Jessica to join him in Carousel, with his red chest unit blinking. There’s one repeated scene in which he walks down a stairway, vanishes, and reappears closer to the camera, while Jessica turns and flees. This really got under our son’s skin and he retreated behind the sofa because it was “super creepy.”

“Futurepast” is the only episode of the series written by Katharyn Powers, who’d been writing for television for about four years, starting with some work on ABC’s 1974 flop frontier drama The New Land. The season before this, she had worked with this show’s script editor, D.C. Fontana, on the Bermuda Triangle series The Fantastic Journey, where she wrote a third of the episodes. In all, she seems to have contributed to about two dozen series and seems to have retired after writing thirteen episodes of Stargate SG-1 in the late 1990s.

Pippi Goes on Board (1969 / 1975)

We enjoyed the pleasant surprise of finding Pippi Goes on Board, the second of two movies made from footage in the 1969 Pippi Longstocking TV series, at our library. It honestly didn’t occur to me to look for these when we moved up here. Turns out they also have the two proper theatrical movies as well; we’ll watch those in the not-too-distant future.

I learned that one notion I had about these films was totally wrong. I’d assumed that the first movie covered the events of the first half of the TV series – and we watched that first half about eighteen months ago – and the second movie covered the second half. Seems logical, right? But not even remotely. The thirteen TV episodes tell one narrative, and the movies pick and choose material from the shows, rearranging them into a different order entirely.

It opens with Pippi telling her father farewell, deciding instead to stay in Sweden with Tommy and Annika. But from there, it’s a mix of material from the second half of the TV series that was new to us and chunks from the first half that we’d seen. There’s about two minutes from episode two, and maybe five minutes from episode four, along with a sizable portion of the funfair material from episode six. It’s a really odd experience, especially since it appears that the return of Pippi’s father originally took place in episodes 12 and 13, and the beginning of this movie seems to start with the end of the TV series.

But while the experience was a bit weird for a production-oriented guy like me, it was a treat for our son, who guffawed all the way through it. He especially loved seeing Pippi feed a weed to the town’s mayor, who was napping in a field, and all of Pippi’s crazy feats of strength. She brings chaos to a classroom and some police officers get hit in the face with pies. It’s a great movie for six year-olds, since it’s much more fast-paced than the languid, slow, and occasionally reflective TV episodes.

Better still, the DVD from Hen’s Tooth Video, apart from featuring a really excellent restored print, features the original dub job, which Fred Ladd’s company oversaw in the mid-70s. The dub on the TV episodes is woefully poor, and while this isn’t perfect, it’s quite a watchable experience. Ladd had overseen translations and dubbing of several TV series from Japan in the 1960s, including Astro Boy, Gigantor, and Kimba the White Lion, so he knew what he was doing.

This compilation was apparently released in America in August 1975, but I can’t determine whether it had an actual theatrical release or if it went straight to the summer kiddie film festivals that were common in the seventies and eighties. Our kid really liked it – not as much as he liked the latest release of something modern like Lego Nexo Knights, mind – and I might just think about getting our own copies of this and the features for the shelves before long.

The Shape of Things to Come (1979)

The rush to capitalize on those sweet, sweet Star Wars profits led to this terminally dull Canadian entry, which is more formally called H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come despite not having much of anything to do with any book that Wells ever wrote. It was filmed in the fall of 1978 for as little money as possible, leading to some charming moments like a bit where Carol Lynley, who plays the deposed governor of the planet Delta Three, tells all her subordinates on the studio set to wait there while she goes through a door on location to a power plant, where they couldn’t afford to take all those extras.

It ticks the requisite boxes. Barry Morse is in the Obi-Wan Kenobi role, with Jack Palance as the Vader Villain. There is a cute robot called Sparks and several similar dangerous ones that are painted black and kill people. In one surprisingly grisly moment, a robot batters a man to death with a great big rock. Big spaceships are filmed from underneath, so there was plenty here to cut into a thirty-second spot for afternoon teevee. Surprisingly, however, I don’t remember this movie at all. Sure, it’s been nearly four decades, but this was, of course, exactly the sort of film I’d see advertised on TV commercials and run screaming to my parents to take me to see.

Our son mostly enjoyed it, but the brief upper hand that the baddies enjoy really bothered him a lot more than in similar stories. I think that’s in part because the circumstances are really grim – Barry Morse’s death scene is, while still PG-rated, a lot more graphic than Obi-Wan vanishing into the folds of his cloaks – but also because the good guys seem hopeless. Nobody has laser guns or light sabers, and the heroic leads, played by Nicholas Campbell and the downright gorgeous Eddie Benton, don’t seem to have any special powers or abilities at all, just luck.

Another factor that might have bothered our son: the grim tone is really set by an honestly effective sequence set on Earth, which is by far the very best part of the movie. So the plot is that the Vader Villain has taken over Delta Three and now controls the radiation drugs needed on the moon colony. Our heroes leave the moon to confront him, but immediately have a fault and have to land on the polluted planet Earth, which had been ravaged by a robot war several years previously.

They land in a remote mining camp where everything is still and quiet among the orange leaves of the trees, except for some strange, small shapes that the camera keeps finding, hunched over among the weeds. Campbell and Benton explore the isolated place looking for the operator, and it’s all shot like a truly excellent horror film from the period, not a bombastic outer space movie. Experience with this sort of story suggests that the shapes will turn out to be mutant raiders or something, but that gets subverted, too.

It’s a real shame the whole movie couldn’t be as effective as this sequence. The director, George McCowan, mainly worked in television in the 1970s and regularly directed cop and detective shows like Cannon and The Streets of San Francisco. His work here suggests he was a bit lost trying to make killer robots and spaceships seem believable or threatening to grown-ups, but give him an old radio transmission tower and a couple of attractive leads somewhere in a quarry in Canada, and he could make something a little magical.

Eventually, of course, everything has to blow up, because that’s what kind of movie this is. That thrilled our son much more than anything in the woods.

Sid and Marty Krofft Update from Comic-Con 2017

Some very neat news was quietly announced earlier today at San Diego’s Comic-Con, where Sid and Marty Krofft held their annual panel, this time with actor David Arquette and producer Bradley Zweig in tow. They showed a sizzle reel, but they don’t seem to have uploaded it to YouTube yet, so apologies for the poor quality of the photo below.

* 2015’s Electra Woman & Dyna Girl film with Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart got a bit that says “New series and film coming soon,” but they didn’t elaborate on it. The movie actually debuted as a web series, so I’m not sure whether this was an old visual just reminding the audience they’re still active and busy, or if more material with Helbig and Hart is in the works.

* The Sigmund & the Sea Monsters series for Amazon was featured with clips from last summer’s pilot. The series, as reported by Taylor Blackwell last month, will begin streaming in November. I can’t wait!

* The Kroffts have shot a pilot for a reboot of The Bugaloos. This is for Nickelodeon, as announced here. The clips from the pilot featured new versions of the classic characters Courage, Joy, IQ, Harmony, Benita Bizarre, Funky Rat, Woofer, Tweeter, and Sparky. Courage appears to be a girl in this version. Benita Bizarre is played by actress Lise Simms.

* Mutt & Stuff has wrapped production after 73 episodes.

* Further in the future: they’re working on a revamp of D.C. Follies with the title Fake News at the Trump Motel.

* And, inevitably, there’s supposed to be another attempt at Land of the Lost, this time as a one-hour show written and/or produced by Akiva Goldsman. Memo to Sid and Marty: phone David Gerrold. Now.