Mystery and Detective Television Programs Analysis

The Avuncular Private Eye

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The first long-running detective series on American television was Martin Kane, Private Eye (1949-1954), whose private eye’s name was borrowed from that of an executive of the advertising firm of the show’s sponsor, the American Tobacco Company, which owned the show. The show’s star, William Gargan, was a soft, almost unassuming actor who was typical of the actors being hired for television at the time. They were mainly character actors who may have had leading parts in a few B-motion pictures and were not under contract to major studios. Martin Kane was a much different kind of detective from those who would later follow him on television. He worked closely with the police, assisting them on cases, and was often seen conferring with police officers in a tobacconist’s shop, where he smoked the sponsor’s pipe-tobacco products—an early attempt to integrate commercials within a program. Although Kane carried a gun and occasionally used it, he seemed more like a favorite uncle than a hard-boiled private eye. He was later played on the show by Lloyd Nolan, Lee Tracy, and Mark Stevens. Gargan later returned for a brief stint in The New Adventures of Martin Kane in 1957. As befits a show in a fledgling medium, the original Martin Kane series was replete with technical gaffes—missing sound effects, studio cameras visible in scenes, and backdrops that were obviously painted flats.

Another successful early television private...

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Mystery and Detective Television Programs Dragnet

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

One of the most iconic crime shows in the history of television, Dragnet (1952-1959, 1967-1970) suffered the fate of becoming something like a parody of itself even before the end of its first television run—a parody that became full-blown when it returned to television for a second run in 1967. The show’s creator, actor Jack Webb, wanted realism in its depiction of police work, which Webb regarded as mostly routine, boring, methodical, rarely violent, and certainly not glamorous. He received the assistance of the Los Angeles Police Department, on whose case files each episode was supposed to have been based, with real names and other identifying details changed.

Dragnet was a police procedural whose emphasis was almost entirely on police procedures, not on police officers themselves. Revealing almost nothing about the personal life of Sergeant Joe Friday, whom Webb portrayed, Dragnet was all about the enforcement of law. Each episode ended with a shot of the episode’s chief suspects standing uncomfortably next to a wall, as an authoritative voice-over announced the dispositions of their cases (suspects were almost invariably found guilty). Webb reinforced this sense of hyperrealism by downplaying his own acting and that of the rest of the cast. His deadpan earnestness was immortalized in the catchphrase he often delivered to people he interrogated: “Just the facts, ma’am.” In contrast to the pioneer private eye...

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Mystery and Detective Television Programs Dramatic Anthologies

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

One of the staples of 1950’s television programming generally was the dramatic anthology. None was more important to the mystery genre than Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which the distinguished British film director Alfred Hitchcock personally hosted from 1955 until 1965. Delegating responsibility for the show to able producers such as Joan Harrison and Norman Lloyd, Hitchcock became the most recognizable film director in the United States, thanks largely to the larger-than-life image he projected on the screen when he delivered his show’s droll introductions and afterwords on more than 350 episodes. He also directed twenty episodes himself and used his television production crew and some of the techniques he learned from television works on the feature film many consider his masterpiece, Psycho (1960).

Hitchcock’s anthology series was unusual in finding much of its script material in published works—something that network television has rarely done successfully. Hitchcock also managed to flout network censors, both in his show’s scripts and in the often sarcastic remarks about them that he made after each episode. In order to conform to the television production code, crime shows had to demonstrate that wrongdoers were apprehended and punished. Many episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents portrayed characters committing what appeared to be perfect crimes, only to be followed by Hitchcock appearing and explaining that the culprits were later caught and convicted. His statements would have spoiled the episodes if audiences believed them, but most viewers probably chose to ignore his remarks. More than almost any other show of its period, Alfred Hitchcock Presents delivered to its audiences the literate joys of the mystery and detective fiction genre, along with whatever cinematic virtues could be achieved under severe budgetary constraints and the pressures of production.

Mystery and Detective Television Programs Perry Mason and Courtroom Dramas

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

When the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) launched Perry Mason in September, 1957, critics from both Variety and The New York Times predicted that the courtroom drama would not succeed. Instead, it confounded its early critics by lasting nine seasons (1957-1966) and setting a longevity record for mystery series that would stand for decades. Based on the novels of Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason was one of the few clearly successful adaptations of a literary mystery in American television history. A primary reason for the show’s success was its strong plot formula: About half of each episode was spent on establishing the crime, and the second half was spent in the courtroom. The same formula was replicated several decades later by Dick Wolf’s Law and Order.

Perry Mason also had superlative cast chemistry. Actor Raymond Burr, who had spent his earlier career playing heavies, was personally selected by Erle Stanley Gardner to play Mason. Burr had a stentorian voice that he could quickly modulate into an imperative boom when he made his final courtroom accusations. An easy camaraderie developed on the set among Burr; William Hopper, who played detective Paul Drake; and Barbara Hale, who played Mason’s secretary, Della Street. Long hours on confined sets made such amity essential. Mason seemed barely to grasp the law’s arcane details in cases that he discussed with Street before the mystery began each week. Most of his courtroom work consisted of displaying his mastery of interrogating witnesses during preliminary hearings, at the end of which he would unmask the real criminals through his relentless questioning. Mason never lost a case and, seemingly, never defended a client who was not innocent.

Some critics of Perry Mason contended that the show tended to disparage the forces of authority, represented by William Talman as prosecutor Hamilton Burger and Ray Collins as police lieutenant Arthur Tragg. Most viewers realized that Perry Mason was merely a television show; however, the show had a more insidious influence in projecting the idea that defense attorneys needed to identify the real culprits to prove their own clients innocent. That expectation was the product of television’s hunger for certainty; virtually all subsequent courtroom dramas have shared the same tendency—but few satisfied that hunger so dramatically and so effectively as Perry Mason.

Mystery and Detective Television Programs “Cool” Private Eyes

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

One of the most popular television shows among adolescent and young-adult viewers during the late 1950’s was 77 Sunset Strip (1958-1964), a slick and fast-moving private detective series with an attractive cast set amid the glamour of Hollywood. The success of that series quickly prompted imitators such as Bourbon Street Beat (1959), Hawaiian Eye (1959-1963), and Surfside Six (1960-1962), all of which had similarly attractive young casts and glamorous settings. Each of these shows enjoyed some success, but their attempts to pander to current viewer tastes caused them to grow dated as tastes changed.

Another private eye show that was truly “cool” was the product of Blake Edwards’s dramatic and cinematic talents and Henry Mancini’s musical talents. Peter Gunn (1958-1961) starred Craig Stevens as a kind of cut-rate Cary Grant, at least physically and sartorially. His “office” was, more often than not, a jazz club. Gunn got along well with his policeman friend, Lieutenant Jacoby, played by Herschel Bernardi with quiet authority and wit. Gunn’s relationship with his girlfriend (played by Lola Albright) was quirky as well as believable. Edwards often wrote and directed the show, and the pressure to meet schedules was sometimes evident in the flatness of certain episodes. However, the show’s relatively low production values, which encouraged the shooting of some episodes on deserted nighttime sets, proved to be a virtue, as the many night scenes gave the series a film noir flavor. Eventually, the demands of Edwards’s film work caused him to cancel the show before it wore out its welcome. Thanks to the memorable music provided by composer Henry Mancini, no other detective show sounded as “cool” as Peter Gunn.

Mystery and Detective Television Programs Violence and the Suburbs

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The early 1960’s saw a general decline in the numbers of detective shows on television. During 1960 alone, seven new private eye series were launched. By 1963, that number was down to two, and only one new private eye show appeared during each year remaining in the decade. One reason for this decline can be found in the movement against television violence that had begun during the late 1950’s. Public criticisms of television helped drive The Untouchables (1959-1963), Quinn Martin’s series about Eliot Ness’s campaign against Prohibition-era gangsters, off the air. Criticisms of television violence grew even stronger after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in late 1963, and his presumed killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot to death on live television.

Another reason for the decline of private eye shows may have been the massive middle-class population shift from cities to the suburbs that had burgeoned during the previous decade. With this change, programs about urban crimes seemed less meaningful than before to growing numbers of viewers. Indeed, the dour and dutiful policemen depicted in shows such as Dragnet were even being parodied on television in series such as Car 54, Where Are You? (1961-1963). Although short-lived, that show paved the way for future police comedies, such as Barney Miller (1974-1982). However, no later police comedy was as relentlessly unserious as Car 54.

The most popular mystery drama of the 1960’s centered on the...

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Mystery and Detective Television Programs Spy Shows

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The often improbable villains in Hawaii Five-0 were carryovers from an earlier 1960’s trend, when many spy shows were replacing police and detective dramas. The popular craze over Ian Fleming’s superspy James Bond led to countless film and television imitators. The title character of Honey West (1965-1966), starring Ann Francis, was initially conceived as a female private investigator, but her increasing use of advanced spy gadgetry led to the show’s loss of identity. Similarly, The Green Hornet (1966-1967), which introduced future martial arts film star Bruce Lee to American audiences, also made use of spy gadgets as well as Asian martial arts. Eastern martial arts had actually been introduced into...

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Mystery and Detective Television Programs A New Breed of Detectives

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

After the early 1960’s, private detectives remained largely dormant on television for some years. When they finally reemerged, they appeared in a variety of new incarnations. Some, for example, dressed in simple, unassuming garb, such as tweed jackets with patched elbows or rumpled raincoats. Many of these newer private eyes played off the incongruity of their appearances. Almost all were played by personable actors with whom audiences felt comfortable, such as David Janssen in Harry O. The first major success along these new lines was William Levinson and Richard Link’s Mannix (1967-1975), starring Mike Connors. During the show’s first season, Mannix was depicted as a rebellious investigator employed by a...

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Mystery and Detective Television Programs Cop Shows

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the same period, series about police officers also underwent a kind of reinvigoration. Although Jack Webb had gone in the direction of less realism and more action in Adam-12 (1968-1975), another successful show about the Los Angeles Police Department that he produced, the general thrust in television cop shows was toward greater realism. In 1973, a made-for-television movie about a real-life crime case, The Marcus-Nelson Murders, introduced a lollipop-sucking cop who afterward starred in a series of his own, Telly Savalas’s Kojak (1973-1978). Joseph Wambaugh, a policeman who had written acclaimed novels about the Los Angeles Police Department, created perhaps the finest television series ever...

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Mystery and Detective Television Programs British Imports

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

British mystery series have appeared sporadically on American television. The shows most popular with American audiences aired during the 1960’s. They included The Saint, with Roger Moore, and The Avengers, with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. The latter show premiered in the United States in 1966. The excellence of British television adaptations of Britain’s rich heritage of mystery literature was not fully appreciated in the United States until the Boston public television station WGBH began airing British adaptations on its show Mystery! in 1980, with horror-film veteran Vincent Price as its creepily avuncular host. In teleplays faithfully adapted from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories...

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Mystery and Detective Television Programs The Twenty-first Century

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) gave grudging support to NYPD Blue, while the most popular new series seemed to be based on two old genre staples: forensics and the law. Jerry Bruckheimer produced a show focusing on the gathering and interpretation of forensic evidence. An earlier series based on forensic pathology, Quincy, M.E. (1976-1983), was a long-running success; however, it revolved more around the medical examiner Quincy’s clashes with his superior and police brass than around forensic work, and it never even depicted an actual autopsy. Eventually, it degenerated into the tried-and-tested formula of medical shows, the disease-of-the-week.


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Mystery and Detective Television Programs Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Britton, Wesley A. Spy Television. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. Comprehensive and eminently readable history of espionage shows on television from 1951 through 2002, with some background material on earlier radio and film serials. Packed with information on the best-known shows, this book does not overlook lesser-known shows, both American and British. The most thorough book yet published on this subject. Britton is also the author of Beyond Bond: Spies in Fiction and Film (2005) and Onscreen and Undercover: The Ultimate Book of Movie Espionage (2006), similarly comprehensive volumes on spies in other popular media.


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