A previous version of this review appeared in 2018.
More than a decade prior to becoming universally associated with the character of Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, George Peppard played Thomas Banacek, a Boston-based, Polish proverb-spouting insurance investigator. He makes a comfortable living solving cases the insurance company couldn’t crack, and collecting ten percent of the insurance company’s savings.
The series aired from 1972-74 and it focused on classic impossible mysteries. How does a football player on the field disappear in front of thousands of fans? How does a million dollars in cash vanish from behind a locked display case? How does $23 million in paintings vanish from a truck transporting it?
Banacek takes no case where the missing item is less than a million dollars in value. While a murder usually happens in the course of the investigation, it’s not guaranteed. The focus is on the big property crime, not on violence.
Banacek was part of NBC’s Mystery Wheel, so its original running time with commercials was 90 minutes, with the shows themselves running a shade over 70 minutes in length. This allows for plenty of development, particularly in the early episodes, without a lot of fluff. A grand total of seventeen episodes were released.
Throughout the series, Peppard was supported by Ralph Manza, who provided comic relief as Banacek’s chauffeur and erstwhile sidekick, Jay. Manza’s character would occasionally take a crack at the solution that would invariably be off-base. Murray Mattheson played Felix Mulhol, a bookstore owner who seemed to know everything about everything.
Banacek was portrayed as God’s gift to women, at least for those who weren’t looking for a serious relationship. Among the Banacek women was future Lois Lane Margo Kidder. However, scenes in bed were avoided throughout the series, as mere verbal hints were all that would be allowed.
The second season did see some changes. In the first season, the insurance company is more than happy to hand over six-digit checks in order to avoid seven-digit losses. However, in the second season, an insurance company exec tries to thwart Banacek with the help one of his own investigators, Carlie Kirkland (Christine Belford), who tries to maintain an on-again, off-again romance with Banacek while trying to beat him out of his exorbitant fees.
This was a bad move, as it tampered with the show’s dynamic, slowed down the stories, and didn’t add anything to the plot. Kirkland wasn’t particularly likable. In one story, she wormed her way into an investigation, asking to learn from Banacek while on a leave of absence from the company, and then tried to sell him out to her insurance company. The character didn’t appear in the last two episodes of the second season, since the episodes were set outside of Boston.
The second season disc for Banacek contains the original pilot, which shows a bit of the original conception. In the original conception, Banacek only works cold cases that haven’t been solved in sixty days, and the executive comments on how much money the insurance company has squandered on investigators’ pay and expenses searching for millions of dollars in gold. Perhaps this is why the producers went with a format where Banacek came on with a promise of reward soon after the items were stolen. It made more economic sense. In the case of the pilot, they ended up out all the money they paid the investigators plus the reward.
Peppard plays Banacek differently in the pilot. He is a quieter, less flippant character. He spends a good fifteen minutes straight at one point, on screen but saying nothing. He speaks with conviction, explaining why he hadn’t changed his last name to something less obviously Polish.
Jay and Carlie are also in the pilot. Jay is quite different. He owns a limo rental business based in Dallas rather than being Banacek’s employee, and simply drives him around. He also pulls a classic double-cross when he bribes the operator to listen in on Banacek’s phone call and overhears a key clue, which he used in hopes of collecting the reward. Definitely a different conception than the loyal albeit dimwitted character who’d appear in the rest of the series.
Banacek is certainly not an essential mystery series. Unlike Columbo, Poirot, or Monk, Banacek is one of those shows you can take or leave.
Peppard is at his best as the wise-cracking detective who stays one step ahead of cops and official insurance investigators while hunting down items of unbelievable value.
The first season is a well-performed series with great mysteries, solid plots, and great solutions. The second season has too much airtime taken up by Carlie Kirkland and that drags down the stories. Still, even that season has the great entry, “If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn’t He Tell Us Where He Is?” as well as the fairly good, “Rocket to Oblivion.”
Overall, I’d give the series three 3.5 stars out of 5.0 with Season 1 getting 4 stars and Season 2 getting a 3.
Availability: Banacek is now easier to watch. When I last posted a review of the series five years ago, it was very hard to get a hold of. Today the Complete Series is now available on DVD. For a sixteen-episode series and a pilot, the $54.99 price tag is a premium price compared to most other 1970s detective shows, even when taking into account the longer length. However, for fans of the series or Peppard, it may be a worthwhile purchase.
If you’re curious about the series, you can watch the series for free (Pilot not included) with ads as part of Amazon’s Freevee service by clicking here.
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