A Look at Nero Wolfe Episodes
Most TV versions, the two 1930s feature films, and the CBC radio series took the approach of adapting Nero Wolfe stories written by Stout. The Old Time radio versions of Nero Wolfe created original stories for Wolfe. The 1981 TV series is unique in that it chose to do both with six episodes based on Wolfe stories and eight original episodes.
I’d split the six adaptations into three categories. The good, the bland, and the bad:
This series features the only adaptations of “Might as Well be Dead,” and “Murder by the Book.” I enjoyed both of these novels, and was mostly pleased with the TV adaptation of them. The biggest challenge is the one hour format, which does lead to a lot of compression. Still, the essential story line from both books are transferred over quite nicely.
“Before I Die” was the only Nero Wolfe short story adapted and was an odd choice given the series’ contemporary setting. The original, “Before I Die” was set after V-E Day. In the heat of the war, Wolfe had patriotically refused to use black market meat. However, with the war all but over, rationing continued so enough meat could be provided for starving people in Europe. That didn’t seem like a good reason to skip his favorite cuts of meat to Wolfe, so he ends up becoming involved with in a dangerous dispute between two crime families to get black market meat. It’s a story with a lot of humorous and ironic moments.
Setting the story in 1981, that’s all lost and Wolfe’s involvement is more pedestrian. Thankfully, the underlying mystery has some pretty good twists, but it’s unflavored compared to the colorful original.
Death of a Doxy was adapted as, “What Happened to April?” where a woman with ties to one of Wolfe’s investigators is murdered. As Orrie Cather was not in this TV series and Saul Panzer was Wolfe’s only freelance operative on TV, the story was changed for TV to have Panzer accused. Unlike in the book, the relationship between Panzer and the murdered woman was strictly platonic.
Most of the key plot ideas from “Death of a Doxy” was carried over to the TV episode. However, the story was sucked of all of its flavor. The character of Julie Jaquette, one of the most interesting characters Wolfe ever met up with, is nowhere to be seen in the TV show.
I can understand why certain elements of the original story were changed as “Death of a Doxy” was a darker story. However, that doesn’t excuse the changes as they have chosen one of the many Wolfe stories that could be done justice on 1981 network television.
Adapting In the Best Families was the weirdest decision made on this series. “In the Best Families” was the third novel in the Zeck trilogy. In it, after crime boss Arnold Zeck interferes with yet another Wolfe case, Wolfe leaves the brownstone, apparently retiring and ordering his home sold. Archie is ticked off by this and starts his own private detective agency and runs it until Wolfe returns, having lost a ton of weight, grown a beard, and infiltrated Zeck’s criminal organization in disguise.
The problems with adapting this story are multitude, particularly for this series. First, without the first two novels, the extreme nature of the housebound Wolfe’s actions are not justified. Those first two novels are vintage stories. One deals with an old time radio program, the other includes Wolfe exposing a Communist in part of his plan to catch the murderer. You would have to make a lot of changes to fit these into 1981. In addition, you have to get rid of the weight loss element since the actors old enough to play Wolfe will struggle to lose a large amount of weight quickly. Of course, to do this story right, you would need at least two episodes for this story as well as episodes to build up to it.
What we get instead is a one-hour adaptation of, “In the Best Families” where Zech’s character is renamed to Arnold Dorso. Like in the novel, after Dorso attacks the Brownstone, Wolfe abandons ship and announces his retirement. Since Dorso and Wolfe have no history, this makes little sense. However, instead of embarking on a cunning scheme to bring down Dorso, Wolfe goes undercover as a chef at his favorite restaurant, Rusterman’s.
Wolfe’s TV brilliant plan involves Archie pretending the hours that have passed since Wolfe abandoned him have made Archie willing to take on a life of crime. The story then continues mostly according to the basic plot of the book, but with all the changes, the plot is nonsensical and Dorso looks likes a colossal fool.
If “In the Best Families” succeeded at anything, it was making the mystery more interesting. In the book, after Wolfe left, the mystery of who committed the murder was put to the side and dealt with in a perfunctory manner at the end. However, in the TV adaptation, Wolfe’s ruse takes less time and is nonsensical, so the solution to the mystery is more interesting by comparison. In addition, Conrad does a bang up job delivering it. Both he and the murderer were standing (contrary to Wolfe’s typical M.O) but here it works like a charm as the shots are beautifully framed. The denouement of the episode was a nice end to what had been a train wreck of an episode.
“The Golden Spiders” started out well with the visit of a local neighborhood kid to see Nero Wolfe that found Archie letting the boy in just to annoy Wolfe. However, the boy has a tip on a potential case that gets Wolfe interested and Wolfe agrees to split any reward. The boy is hit by a car with clear evidence that he knew something. Wolfe begins to investigate and unravel the complex web of lies around the events.
The biggest change is one I can understand. Unlike in the book, the boy lives. In fact, not only does he live, he makes an appearance in the last episode of the series. I can understand you couldn’t broadcast a mystery in 1981 where a child is killed. It’s an upsetting idea, and it’s always a challenge when adapting The Golden Spiders.
However, this episode was the most hurt by the decision to adapt Nero Wolfe novels into one-hour episodes. The story is confusing and poorly paced, and includes a sex-related twist that wasn’t in the book and comes out of nowhere on TV.
The Original Stories
I much preferred the stories original to the TV series over the adaptations. I won’t list all of them, but they slot comfortably under the category, “Typical 1980s Mystery fare.” Two episodes, “Gambit” and “Death and the Dolls” got technical Emmy Nominations.
I enjoyed seven of the eight of the original stories. The most interesting of them were, “The Blue Ribbon Hostage,” “Death and the Dolls,” and “Gambit.”
In “Blue Ribbon Hostage,” a burglar breaks into Wolfe’s orchid room and makes off with his most expensive orchid. He shows up to blackmail Wolfe into helping clear him of a murder charge in exchange for the return of the orchid. I love the concept of this story, it’s a plot I could imagine Rex Stout writing. The mystery is clever and the relationship between the burglar and his ex-wife is kind of sweet. The story does have a somewhat unrealistic consequence of the kidnapping, but otherwise this is an exciting episode.
“Death and the Dolls” opens with a rich man getting on a yacht and it being blown up. The man’s daughter comes to Wolfe suspicious her father was murdered by his new young wife. (Christine Belford, Banacek) This is a clever story with a pretty surprising conclusion.
In “Gambit” (no relation to the Wolfe Novel of the same name, ) the Brownstone is taken over by a man who fought in Wolfe’s unit in World War II and who Wolfe had reported for betraying the unit. The man had gotten into the Brownstone several times by pretending to be various repair people and interacting with a different member of the household on each visit and going with a slight disguise (only one of which was obvious.) This is a suspense-filled episode as Wolfe’s own house is turned against all of its inhabitants and the episode does have a few nice surprises.
My least favorite original episode was, “Sweet Revenge” which has a criminal that Archie and Wolfe put away back out and seeking revenge. After “Gambit” and “In the Best of Families,” this was the third episode in a fourteen episode series that featured someone coming after Wolfe or Archie which makes this repetitive. The key to the mystery is realizing the villain is wearing a ridiculous disguise. I give the episode credit for giving us a rare dose of real Archie-Wolfe tension even though the execution is only so-so.
Some TV shows are so bad, it’s painful to watch. Nero Wolfe isn’t one of them. While a lot in this series is not true to the books, this series can be enjoyed in the same manner as the 1951 radio series, which had many deviations from how Wolfe operated in the books.
In general, I find myself in agreement with Peter Boyer of the Associated Press, “I know, I know, the show pales next to The Rockford Files. But I’ve tried it a couple of times and I think there’s a good TV series there, obscured, admittedly, by some inane scripts.”
In his biography written by Charles Tranberg, William Conrad is quoted as saying, “I was really excited about doing a show called Nero Wolfe. I thought it couldn’t fail. Here we had one of the most popular characters in mystery fiction; everybody has read a Rex Stout novel. The books still sell, although they were written 50 years ago. But do you know how long we lasted? Just 13 weeks. Try to figure that one out.”
The reason Nero Wolfe didn’t come back was it was broadcast in the 1980s. From the late 1960s on until the late 1980s, Americans were treated to many popular detective and police shows. The glut of options meant many fine detective shows didn’t make it due to the stiff competition. Good series like Ellery Queen and Hawkins only lasted a single season and those series had far fewer issues than Nero Wolfe. In addition, Nero Wolfe was expensive to film, and it wasn’t going to get a chance to recover from a sub-par start.
The series is worth watching for fans of Nero Wolfe. You get to see the best representation of Wolfe’s orchid room on film, adaptations of two Nero Wolfe stories that haven’t been done elsewhere, and assorted Easter eggs. In addition, the original to the TV series episodes represent new Nero Wolfe stories, some of which are good. Give the DVD set comes with a made-for-TV movie adaptation of The Doorbell Rang, the DVD is a solid buy.
If you don’t care much about Nero Wolfe, but like TV detective shows from this era, this isn’t a bad series, but there are too many better ones to buy.
Overall, I’ll give the DVD box set a dual rating of satisfactory and a numeric rating of 3.5 out of 5.
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