Tag: TV Series review

TV Series Review: Nero Wolfe (1981), Part One

The 1981 Nero Wolfe TV series is a controversial topic. For many fans, this fourteen-episode series is bad, with the critically acclaimed A Nero Wolfe Mystery making the series look even shabbier. Others have fond memories of the series, and it may even have been their introduction to Nero Wolfe.

I’ve wanted to watch the series for some time. After many years of waiting, we finally have an official DVD release. I have finally seen the whole series, and I’m ready to wade in with my opinion. This will be a long review as we take a look at many aspects of the series.

Key Adaptation Decision

Probably the most critical decision made with Nero Wolfe was to make it a contemporary program. This sets it apart from the period setting of A Nero Wolfe Mystery. It’s a perfectly defensible creative decision because Rex Stout had been writing Nero Wolfe up until six years previously and he’d always set the books in contemporary times.

This helped the series in some ways but hurt it in the look of the show, the way characters were portrayed, and the challenges of adapting stories that happened decades previously as if they occurred in 1981.

Casting

While the cast is not as good as the 1979 TV Novie’s, it’s solid. William Conrad has some good moments as Wolfe. Critics point out Conrad was shorter than Wolfe and  wore a beard plus Conrad’s usual mustache. Wolfe only wore facial hair in one book. Personally, the height’s not a big deal, and I like the beard. It distinguishes Wolfe from Frank Cannon and it makes him look distinguished which actually helps me buy him as Wolfe.

To be sure, I have problems with the way Wolfe’s portrayed, but it comes down more to writing than to acting. There was not a scene in all fourteen episodes where I thought, “This would’ve been better with another actor.”

Lee Horsey as Archie Goodwin is the best asset the series has. He makes a good 1980s take on Archie Goodwin. Because of the era, his performance is different from the book, but Horsey maintains the character’s charm and humor while still being a solid legman.

The one casting choice which doesn’t work is Allan Miller as Inspector Cramer. In the books, Inspector Cramer has this working-class, almost rumpled feel to him. He walks around chewing a cigar. Allan Miller is too smooth, polished and dapper to be Inspector Cramer regardless of the era. If they wanted the characterization Miller brought to the role, they would have done better to give Wolfe an original-to-TV police foil.

Adaptation Positives

There are some good touches for the series. Good effort went into building the set.  An April 3, 1981 story in TV Guide details how Art Director John Beckman flew out to New York, studied how Browstones were built, and paintstakingly created the facade on the Paramount lot. They built a four-story oak spiral staircase as well as a four-story working elevator that cost $175,000 (or half a million dollars today.)

On top of that, you have the crown jewel of the series, the Orchid Room. This is the one area where Nero Wolfe outdoes a Nero Wolfe Mystery, a lot of thought and effort went into creating a beautiful orchid room with 2,655 plants brought in. It’s a beautiful set and seeing it is a highlight of the series.

I also have to give the series credit for taking one of my favorite Nero Wolfe moments from The Rubber Band where Wolfe hides a client from the police in the orchid room under plants and working it into an original story even when that novel wasn’t adapted.

The series does have some good scenes with Wolfe arguing with people over cooking and orchids. Those scenes are true to the spirit of the character.

I also have to give them credit for keeping Wolfe house-bound for all but two of the fourteen episodes. It’s a far better ratio of housebound to not than the New Adventures of Nero Wolfe or even the original stories.

In researching the series, I learned from Charles Transberg’s book William Conrad: A Life and Career that Conrad had strict working hours in his contract and if the filming went past his time for departure, they’d have to finish filming without him. That’s the sort of thing Nero Wolfe would have in his contract if he ever became an actor.

Adaptation Negatives

There are a lot of issues I could take with this series, ranging from the trivial to the really serious flaws. I’ll start with the lesser ones and work to the big ones. I’ll save a look at issues with specific episodes for Part Two.

First of all is the office set. My first big annoyance is the set lacks a “red leather chair,” the most important piece of furniture (aside from Wolfe’s own chair) in the novels.  However, a bigger issue with the office furniture is just how cluttered the office looks.

The TV Guide article revealed that $250,000 was spent in to fill the Brownstone set with antiques. There’s some nice pieces, but it doesn’t look particularly well-put together and seems a bit busy. It looks a lot like my desk, with various and sundry things seemingly where they are at random and it shouldn’t. Based on the amount of order and rigor Wolfe puts into the house, you imagine its very orderly,  and not like the great detective needs a decluttering consultation with Marie Kondo.

A more serious blunder was choosing to adapt whole novels into one-hour episodes. A Nero Wolfe Mystery had the right idea when they did novel adaptations in two episodes and short stories in one. Doing it in the way Nero Wolfe does it ends up with many plots feeling rushed and important moments are missing.

The series also tended to have a clumsy approach to introducing aspects of the Wolfe world and/or Wolfe’s eccentricities. The story pauses briefly to show us the set designer bought a big globe like the one in the novels. Another story has an entire brief scene where Wolfe guzzles down a glass of beer and tosses the bottle cap in the drawer with no one else around.

The worst introduction of a part of Wolfe lore came in the thirteenth episode, “The Blue Ribbon Hostage.” In the novels, Wolfe insisted others be seated so that their eyes would be on the same level as his. Throughout the first twelve episodes of the series, this was not an issue at all as others stood while Wolfe sat or Wolfe stood while others sat with no mentions of “eyes at level,” until thirteen episodes in they decided to have him do it.

You simply can’t have Wolfe inconsistent on his eccentricities. To quote Wolfe in his first novel, “I understand the technique of eccentricity; it would be futile for a man to labor at establishing a reputation for oddity if he were ready at the slightest provocation to revert to normal action.”

However, the biggest issues with the series come down to the character of Wolfe himself.  Nero Wolfe eliminates most of the character’s less likable habits.  Wolfe is never lazy and never has any hesitation about taking on work. He doesn’t have the mercenary sense of Wolfe in the book.  The one negative trait he’s left with is his opinionated nature on orchids and cooking. Other than that, if he’s not dealing with a murderer, he’s a large teddy bear of a man who is actually called “sweet” in one episode.

The problem with that is it’s not true to the nature of Nero Wolfe. It’s like the opposite of today’s “grim and gritty” reboots  where instead Wolfe is relieved of the burdens of his faults and rough edges. Yet, the decision calls to mind G.K. Chesterton’s warning, “Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel.”  The way the character is written, there’s a whole lot less Nero Wolfe to him.

Rex Stout wrote Wolfe as a fully developed human being, replete with flaws. In the course of the books, Wolfe does have many great moments where he surprises you and you get see more his sense of honor, his kindness, and his appreciation for different parts of his family. Yet, it’s done in a way that’s understated and true to Wolfe’s approach to life.

Since the series gets Wolfe wrong, it hurts the most important relationship in the books, that between Wolfe and Goodwin. In the books, the two men have gifts and talents that compliment each other and have an almost symbiotic relationship. However, they also tend to clash because of their differing personalities, with Archie providing his unique interpretation of Wolfe’s actions and beliefs.

While Wolfe is technically the employer and the boss, Archie is the one who balances Wolfe’s checkbook and often times has to spur  Wolfe to work when he would rather sit around and read all the day long when he’s not eating or tending his orchids. Several times, Archie has to deal with Wolfe losing interest in a case and his “relapses” into a semi-depressed state.

It’s an interesting state of affairs that provides for lots of interesting plots in the books. In the TV series, the two work together with little friction at all. The only exceptions are a book-accurate scene  in The Golden Spiders and a scene in the final episode where Wolfe orders Archie not to go to a meeting that Wolfe feels is a trap and threatens to fire Archie. Archie chooses to quit instead. It’s not great, but this conflict is as close as the series get to capturing the nature of these two characters.

Next week, we’ll finish up and talk about the individual episodes and my overall thoughts on the series.

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TV Episode Review: The Avengers: The House that Jack Built

Series: The Avengers
Season 4, Episode 23
Original Air Date: March 5, 1966

“The House that Jack Built” begins atypically for an Avengers episode. Mrs. Peel (Diana Rigg) shows up to find John Steed (Patrick Macnee) developing photos. There’s no big case. She just stops by for a friendly chat before heading off to look at a house her solicitor sent her a letter saying she’d inherited.

When Mrs. Peel arrives, she’s trapped inside the house and forced to wander through a series of confusing rooms, traps, and weird contraptions seemingly meant to reduce her to a state of terror.

This is a brilliant episode. The directing is superb, giving this situation a very haunting claustrophobic atmosphere throughout. The design of this house and the all related traps lends to the suspenseful feel.

This episode is also a showcase for Diana Rigg. While Steed finds clues that put him on Mrs. Peel’s trail and allow him to be in on the finale, the focus is on Mrs. Peel as she creeps through this house with few words. Rigg is superb. Mrs. Peel is one of the few female characters on television in this era who wouldn’t break out in hysterics. Rigg plays Mrs. Peel with appropriate coolness, without portraying a flippant bravado that would take the viewer out of the episode.

While the Avengers had a fun light touch, this episode shows the series could work with a serious and suspenseful tone, too. This episode is a classic that’s well worth watching.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Broadchurch Series 3 Review

Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch had a fantastic and brilliant first series (see my review here.)  It focused on the effect of the murder of a boy on a small British town and the search for the killer. The cast was superb, led by David Tennant as Detective Inspector Alec Hardy and Olivia Coleman as Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller.

Series 2 was, in my opinion, a bit of a mess. Miller and Hardy are in different positions within the police department. It focused on the ludicrous trial of the killer from series one that ends in his acquittal. Meanwhile Hardy and Miller work unofficially through a tedious mystery that had nothing to do with the small town but had some stakes for Hardy to settle an old case that had haunted him.

Series 3 is set two years after Series 2 and finds Miller and Hardy have both reset their lives. They’re back in their old positions when 49-year-old Trish Winterman (Julie Hesmondhalgh) reports she was raped at a party. Miller and Hardy investigate the case. Meanwhile, Beth Latimer (Jodie Whitaker) is the mother of the boy murdered in the first series. She shows up in series three, working as an advocate for SARA (sexual assault response association) but is estranged from her husband Mark (Andrew Buchan) who remains unable to find closure after their son’s killer was acquitted.

The process of investigating the crime is handled solidly. It’s a good procedural which was almost Dragnetesque at times (particularly in the first episode) as it took us step by step through the unique process of investigating the crime in the United Kingdom and showing what the victim experiences and what forensics they take as they try to preserve any evidence. It’s told with sensitivity and without sensationalism.

Julie Hesmondhalgh gives a believable and relatable performance as Trish. The story handles her in a realistic and sympathetic way. Not all of her actions are sympathetic, but they’re understandable within the context of what she’s going through. Hannah Millward plays Trish’s daughter well, creating a character caught between her mom and her estranged dad, who is one of the suspects in the case. She’s a likable and well-written character.

The stars turn in their usual great performances. The chemistry between Hardy and Miller has matured. Hardy is brilliant and caring, but he’s also no-nonsense and can be abrupt and harsh which Miller tends to soften out. In Series 1, they clashed frequently, but by Series 3, they’re comfortable with each other. Although, at times, it’s obvious he still annoys her.

However, there has been a balancing of the two characters. Hardy has softened a tad over time, while Miller has become a bit harder after the events of Series 1, which can be seen in her interactions with her father and her son.

Both are raising children on their own. Hardy has brought his daughter to Broadchurch so they can have a second chance while Miller is raising her young son and daughter alone.

The series runs headlong into the issue of the state of sexuality in Western Civilization today and the type of men produced by a society over-saturated with pornography. This is illustrated throughout the series and hits home for both detectives. Miller catches her son using and distributing porn, and sexual pictures of Hardy’s daughter are sent throughout the high school. This leads to one of the most memorable scenes where Hardy confronts the perpetrators and gets very Scottish on them.

The series message and the issues it raises are timely after the revelations of late 2017 and raises serious questions that society has to come to grips with.

The development of the Latimers is a realistic tale of contrasts. Beth has not forgotten her son and is dealing with the grief, although her husband’s drama is making that a challenge. She has taken stock of her life and taken that grief and used it to help others. The Latimers’ teenage daughter Chloe (Charlotte Beaumont) has grown. Mark’s inability to deal with it leads to tragic territory but is also very brilliantly performed.

For all that’s praiseworthy about the Third Series of Broadchurch, there are issues. In many ways, the greatest problem with Broadchurch Series 3 is that it isn’t Series 1.

With the exception of Trish and her daughter, the new characters add little depth. They are suspects, witnesses, and the friends and family of them, unlike the vibrant characters of Series 1 with ticks that made the audience care about them. One such character was totally dropped from the series finale, with us not finding out what happened to her and her husband.

This is typical of a detective drama. With few exceptions, outside of the detectives and close supporting characters, we’re concerned about most characters to the extent that they can provide a clue to help us solve the case. Broadchurch Series 1 was unique it won’t be easy to ever recapture that lightning in the bottle. That might be a case for leaving well enough alone and only making one series of Broadchurch, but it’s not an argument against the quality of the subsequent series.

The problem is Chibnall tried to make it feel like series one, particularly in bringing back characters. Reverend Paul Coates (Arthur Darvill) returns to deal with the declining church attendance in town. And newspaper editor Maggie Radcliffe (Carolyn Pickles)faces the Broadchurch Echo’s scummy corporate owners. They plan to close the local office of the Echo. Both Darvill and Pickles are solid performers and did great work in the first series. However, in Series Two, their work is wasted. Both characters are thrown into random scenes throughout the first six episodes, only achieving tangential relevance to the “B” plot of the series in the seventh episode. Only Maggie has a scene that ties into the series’ main plot. It’s good, but I question whether it was worth all the wasted scenes throughout this entire series.

There were also new characters who didn’t make much of an impact. Veteran character actor Roy Hudd played Ellie’s widowed father David, who mainly served as an object for Ellie’s contempt and occasional tirades, as well as managing to kick the already depressed Paul Coates.

While there’s much to the series’ message, it may undermine itself by painting with too broad of strokes. It would be easy to conclude from this series that Alec Hardy is the only decent man left in Broadchurch, if not the UK, or even the entire planet. Every other man we get to know is a fiend, a coward, or otherwise weakly leaving the women in their lives to pick up after them. Even Hardy almost takes a passive approach to a problem that has his daughter wanting to leave Broadchurch and needs Miller to get him to man-up. A bit more balance would have made the series more impactful.

Overall, Broadchurch Series 3 is a good crime drama with two strong leads,  great supporting actors, and a timely message. However, its attempts to live up to the greatness of Series 1 fail to do so and detract from the viewer’s experience.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

 

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