|SURE HE COULD USE HIS FISTS, BUT JOE MANNIX WAS PRETTY GOOD WITH A GUN, TOO|
Mannix, which ran on CBS from 1967 to 1975, was a series that always seemed to have one foot in the past and the other in the future. For its first season, private detective Joe Mannix (the wonderful Mike Connors) worked for a corporate agency named Intertect, where his boss Lew Wickersham (Joe Campanella), a man who saw the future of detective work based in computers, massive research, and probability matrices, served the traditional role - usually performed by a police detective frienemy - of "being the man Mannix gives a headache to". With the corporate way cramping his style, Mannix goes out on his own for the second season, where his secretary Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher), one of the first black actresses to play a prominent regular role on a drama series. These were both forward-looking aspects of a series that, as Mike Connors himself once admitted, was a throwback to the noir detectives of the '40s, bearing little resemblance to the real world of the modern-day gumshoe.
Mannix was another in a long line of series that, at one time or another, bore the title "most violent program on television." It was a title that the series earned; I can't remember, off the top of my head, an episode in which Joe didn't engage in at least one or two fist-fights with an adversary. Often, at least in the first fight, Mannix would absorb an unusual amount of punishment, particularly for a good guy; he was always being clobbered from behind, belted in the stomach, bushwhacked in an alley, used as human target practice - you name it. Sometimes he'd suffer more than one of these indignities, and other times he'd get them more than once. No matter; by the time the episode wrapped up, you could be certain Joe's adversary would get paid back double. At least.
Bob and Ray did a parody of Mannix called "Blimmix," in which the protagonist was invariably beaten to a pulp by a thug. And in other hands the series might have been hard to take, were it not for creator Bruce Geller (who was also responsible for Mission: Impossible), stars Connors and Fisher, and a series of intelligently written scripts.* That allowed the series to move beyond cliche and presented us with a three-dimensional protagonist; one who really did care about his clients, didn't let cynicism rule his life, and was capable of forming warm, genuine relationships with people both inside and outside of work. Joe Mannix wasn't a misogynist, a man who drank to forget, a shady operator, a wisecracking smartass. He was a man who liked what he did, believed it had some worth, and got a sense of satisfaction out of helping people. He also showed you could have a close platonic friendship with a member of the opposite sex (Peggy in particular, though there were others), without hopping in the sack. JoAnn Paul's And Now, Back to Mannix provides a great overview of the many qualities that made Mannix different from the run-of-the-mill detective drama/police procedural.
*We shouldn't forget about Joe Campanella; though he appeared only in the first season, he was a great foil for Mannix; long-suffering, frustrated, always wondering why Mannix couldn't just follow the rules like everyone else. In the hands of a lesser actor, Wickersham would have come across as a pill, but thanks to Campanella it was easy to sense the intelligence and warmth behind the blustery facade.
But for all that, there's one very good reason Mannix shows up on my Saturday-night lineup: it's a good, fun program. Yes, I like seeing Joe beat the crap out of the bad guy. Yes, it's satisfying when the killer gets hauled away from the cops (even if it's not as satisfying as seeing him get the crap beaten out of him). The stories are interesting at least and compelling at best. And, in case it hasn't been mentioned already, Mike Connors provides the perfect combination of hard, two-fisted action and intelligent, compassionate understanding, without becoming a cartoon caricature in either.
It worked with the viewers: Mannix was a consistently solid performer in the ratings, won several awards during its run, and left the airwaves after eight seasons and 194 episodes only because of a dispute over the re-airing of episodes in a late-night timeslot. Next to The Rockford Files, it was probably the most loved, most well-remembered PI shows of the era. We could use something like it on TV again today.
Alas, the one thing that keeps me from watching Mannix every Saturday night is that the season sets aren't cheap, and they don't come up for sale very often. (Another reason why eBay is a couch potato's best friend.) But whenever the disposable income goes up, another season set goes in the collection. And it's an investment well worth it.
So to recap, here's the summary of the Hadley network's Saturday night lineup:
Mystery Science Theater 3000
Next time: we begin Sunday's lineup with the most heroic G-man ever to roam the television airwaves.