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.

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