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Monday, June 24, 2013

'The FBI' S5: True Detective Stories

The FBI: The Complete Fifth Season
The pitch-perfect casting of Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.,  as FBI Inspector Lewis Erskine helped make the nine-season true-life crime drama, the fifth season of which Warner Archive recently released on DVD, "The FBI" a true classic. Having each episode tell the true stories of the pursuit and capture of some of "America's Most Wanted" additionally made "The FBI" one of television's first reality series.

This series was also one of the better of a great line of '60s and '70s detective and other drama (mostly anthology) series from the truly legendary television producer Quinn Martin. Martin's reputation was so strong that the opening credits of "The FBI" and many other programs from his production company identified the show as "A Quinn Martin Production."

Other notable titles that Martin brought to the small screen include "The Untouchables," "The Fugitive," "The Streets of San Francisco," and "Barnaby Jones." The Zucker brothers of "Airplane" fame largely owe their careers to their hilarious and very accurate send-up of Quinn Martin Productions in "Police Squad" and the "Naked Gun" films that were based on that textbook "cancelled too soon" series.

Like other Quinn Martin productions, "The FBI" closely followed a predictable but never stale pattern. The pre-opening credit sequence introduced the audience to the felon or felons of the week and depicted them either commencing or continuing the criminal activity that caught the FBI's attention. That sequence would end with a written identification of said criminal or criminals and the one or more offenses of which they were convicted.

Erskine and his team appeared early in Act I of each episode and commenced their pursuit of that week's malfeasor. The next three acts alternated between either the ongoing criminal activity or the efforts to avoid arrest and the corresponding investigation by Erskine. The  epilog wrapped things up and informed the audience of the fates of those who had violated federal laws. This was decades before "Law and Order" series utilized the same technique.

One could say as well that it was a "true blue miracle" that Erskine's cases took him from Boston to Denver and everywhere in between.

A personal favorite among the plethora of episodes viewed for this review was "Gamble With Death." This particularly melodramatic but fairly typical episode title was one thing that earned this offering most favored nation status. As an aside, these titles were an aspect of Quinn Martin productions that "Police Squad" mocked especially well.

"Gamble" involved the brother of a man who was recently convicted of killing a woman blackmailing the married man who was believed to have been having an affair with the murder victim, who was romantically involved with the convicted man. (Confused? You won't be after this episode of "The FBI.")

An Act II twist regarding the actual motive for the blackmail was truly awesome television even if a confrontation near the end of that act was painfully predictable. 

"Gamble" had the additional treat of casting well-regarded film actress Laraine Day of the Hitchcock flick "Foreign Correspondent" play the wife of the blackmail target.

Casting Day was typical of  yet another fun technique of Martin. Each episode of most of his series would bring in guest stars at various stages of their careers as the criminals, their cohorts, and their victims. Yes, the Zuckers mocked this trademark well.

The range of guest stars in "The FBI's" fifth season ran from the the aforementioned Day, the incredibly talented comedic and dramatic actor Jack  Klugman and "Forbidden Planet" star Anne Francis to a pre "Partridge Family" dreamy David Cassidy. Seeing Russell "The Professor" Johnson in a bit part as a mentally ill murderer's psychiatrist was particularly fun.

Francis played a soft-hearted gun moll to a kidnapper/robber played by Wayne Rogers of "M*A*S*H" and the short-lived sitcom version of "House Calls" in another especially good fifth season episode. The criminal enterprise in this one was fairly clever, and Francis truly did Emmy-worthy work in her scenes with the kidnapped woman.

"Psycho's" Vera Miles appeared as a bank executive in another great episode. That one involved a "swindler" who conned investors into involvement with phony land deals. As the fact that these plots were true showed, Miles genuinely acted as a woman who followed her heart rather than her head. Seeing "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" and "The Patty Duke Show" star William Schallert as Miles' more level-headed colleague was almost as large a treat as Johnson's guest spot.

An interesting theme to many "The FBI" episodes was that there was no honor among thieves, murderers, spies, etc. This was particularly true in an episode in which Jeff Bridges played the son of a wealthy man who initially faked his own kidnapping but found himself in real trouble thanks to a betrayal by his partner in love and crime.

The season premiere, which was also a strong entry, demonstrated as well that "The FBI" reflected the times. That one from the Cold War era revolved around a traitor's ongoing scheme of coercing vulnerable individuals with access to classified documents into providing foreign governments that sensitive information. That offering placed Erskine in particular danger by having him go undercover and relying on a vulnerable and somewhat untrustworthy woman regarding whom the FBI exerted their own form of coercion.

Many decades of investigation have revealed simply that they do not make them like "The FBI" anymore and that that is a sad loss for sofa spuds everywhere.

Anyone with questions about "The FBI" or Efrem's really awesome guest spots on real-life daughter Stephanie's series "Remington Steele" is encouraged to email me.