14 Private Eye Shows That Coulda Been Contenders
I don’t know how many of you remember the Trio Network on American television sometime around 2005 or so. It was this culty, pop-culturey grab bag of arty-farty pretensions and good ol’ TV; a kinda of very hip, occasionally snarky PBS.
But anyway, they ran this show for a while called Brilliant But Cancelled, where they’d run episodes of old TV shows that, in their mind at least, coulda/shoulda been contenders. And later on they spun it off into a series of streaming videos and DVDs.
A great idea, and it always made for a good, if not always great, watch. The problem was that very few of the crime shows they chose, at least according to the episodes that were aired, were actually all that brilliant. Although, yes, they all had potential, and not one of them really lasted more than one season. Some of them didn’t even get to air all the episodes that were filmed.
I mean, really. Delvecchio? Gideon Oliver? Staccato? Okay, at least the last one had its style to keep it warm, but the others were, well, less than brilliant.
So I figured hey, why don’t we cobble together our own list of Brilliant But Cancelled Private Eye Shows? I posted the question to our mailing list, our Twitter feed and a few other places, and this is what we came up with…
Now, keep in mind that brilliance is in the eye of the beholder, but most of these shows, if not exactly brilliant, came awful damn close and all of them deserved better than they got.
Here are the results, listed chronologically…
- The Outsider
This Roy Huggins creation was in many ways a dry run for The Rockford Files seven years later. Darren McGavin played David Ross, a low-rent ex-con private eye and milk drinker. One of the first of the sensitive, compassionate eyes to be featured on television (he didn’t even carry a gun usually, and he kept his phone in his fridge, right beside his milk), echoing literary eyes such as Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, and anticipating television’s Harry O. It only lasted one season, but is fondly remembered, and the few episodes I’ve seen hold up.
Starring Brian Keith as Ross Macdonald’s heart-on-his-sleeve eye, this show impressed those lucky enough to catch an episode. All four of them or so. Alas, it landed in the middle of television’s gimmick-laden detective era (Fat cops! Blind cops! Wheelchair cops! Old cops!). What chance did a compassionate, intelligent, middle-aged private eye have? Especially one played by Uncle Bill of Family Affair?
- City of Angels
Co-creator/writer Roy Huggins thought Wayne Rogers was miscast as 1930’s Los Angeles private eye Jake Axminster. Rogers thought the scripts and direction sucked. They were both wrong. This was a well-done, well-acted period piece, and a particularly fine (and rare) example of true hard-boiled detective network television.
- Richie Brockelman
They tried it everyway they could, as a stand-alone, and as a spin-off of the The Rockford Files, but nobody would bite. Too bad. Pressed to the wall by the bad guys, his motor-mouth running full-speed, rookie P.I. Richie Brockelman was a true wonder to behold. And a delight to watch. What the hey…
- Tenspeed & Brownshoe
And speaking of motormouths… Nobody ever did cowardly con men better than Stephen J. Cannell, and Ben fast-talking Vereeen as E.L. “Tenspeed” Turner, unofficial partner of nerdy accountant-turned- P.I. Lionel Whitney (Jeff Goldblum) was simply a joy to behold.
- Beverly Hills Buntz
If you blinked you missed it, but this Hill Street Blues spin-off brought back Dennis Franz’s Norman Buntz, (complete with pants) and his old pal Sid the Snitch, trying to make a go of it as low-rent gumshoes in decidedly upscale Beverly Hills. It was a hoot; a half-hour buffet of bad luck, bad decisions and bad clothes, but it was also sharply written and clever. Alas, it was dicked around by the network and bounced all over the schedule before it was canned. Maybe if Norman had dropped his drawers…
- Leg Work
Margaret Colin as private detective Claire McCarron was young, smart and refreshingly human. And undeniably sexy. Classy and sassy, this show probably scared away television audiences not used to babes with the ability to speak in complete sentences. Evidently, not only do women on television have to have boobs, but when it comes to P.I. shows, it helps if they ARE boobs.
- Private Eye
Okay, this one really was eye candy. But man, did it look good.
- Shannon’s Deal
Film director John Sayles’ detective drama about disgraced lawyer Jack Shannon had good writing, intelligent scripts, a suitably dressed down, hard-boiled tone, some strong acting, an engagingly cast, a great jazz theme by Wynton Marsalis and even a 1990 Edgar for “Best Television Feature or Miniseries.” But none of it was enough to save the show and it folded after just thirteeen episodes, spread out over two “seasons.”
- Black Tie Affair
This clever summer replacement series, originally scheduled to run for 13 30-minute episodes, was shut down after only four episodes. Written, directed and produced by Jay Tarses, it featured a reluctant private eye/used record store owner (yeah, he sold vinyl) who only takes cases to keep the store going. It certainly wasn’t hard-boiled, but it was witty, fairly sophisticated, and mildly satiric, it featured a great ensemble cast (including Bradley Whitford, Maggie Hahn and Kate Capshaw) and offered some fairly intelligent viewing. It was, of course, doomed from the start.
- Total Security
Certainly not the best show here, but in the drought of late-ninties detective shows, it was a pleasant, entertaining, and sometimes moving example of the genre. By-the-book former cop Frank Cisco runs a private security firm and tries to keep it clean, while at the same time trying to get a grip on his past, searching out his birth father. Meanwhile, he reluctantly hires an old friend, Steve Wegman (played by Jim Belushi), an effective (but slightly shady and eccentric) operative. The mixture of straight detective drama and Wegman’s comic relief wasn’t always well-done, but it was definitely getting into stride when ABC pulled the plug.
- Vengeance Unlimited
As Ted Fitzgerald so succinctly put it once, “It’s The Equalizer on acid!”
The closest television has ever come to the ensemble private eye drama; a stylish and clever upscale take on Joe Gores’ DKA model.
This one never quite worked for me, but it sure had its fans. And to tell the truth, the final arc took a dark, nasty turn that finally came close to what we’d been promised all season long, with one of its main characters facing actual jail time. The season finale gave me great hope for the second season… but it never happened.