"I Spy" Season One standard DVD review - Home Theater Forum and Systems - HomeTheaterShack.com

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post #1 of 3 Old 07-02-08, 06:29 AM Thread Starter
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"I Spy" Season One standard DVD review

This review will be a companion piece to the one I did on the "Ultimate Edition"
James Bond series...

After the release of "Dr. No" in 1962, both the film business and television were
glutted with spy movies and shows. That's the way both mediums worked, then
and now. Studios and networks wanted to latch onto a winning concept until
they saturated the market to the point where audiences grew sick of them. Then
they would abandon that genre for another one repeating the same cycle.

On television, the spy shows included "I Spy", "Secret Agent Man", "The Man
from Uncle", "The Girl from Uncle", "The Prisoner", "Mission Impossible",
"Honey West" and "The Avengers". They even moved into other genres with
the Western spy series, "The Wild Wild West" and sitcom, "Get Smart".
I enjoyed all of them as a kid but admitted by the end of the decade even
I grew tired of them. They were replaced with the next genre which was
science fiction which was an off shoot of the proposed NASA moon landing.

I just screened the first season of "I Spy" and found it considerably better
than I recalled as a child. It was produced by Sheldon Leonard who was
one of those workaholic producers of the sixties along the lines of Jack
Webb and Quinn Martin who had mutlible shows on the air simultaneously.
Considering the restrictions, written in stone broadcast dates and difficulty
shooting in these conditions, you can't help but admire these men.
Leonard was a former character actor who usually played gangsters or
tough guys in feature films of the forties and fifties. He played the
bartender in "It's a Wonderful Life" and Big Louie's right hand man in
"Guys and Dolls". His distinct New York wiseguy accent and tough appearance
made him a regular in movies. He wisely moved into television
in the late fifties and became one of the most successful
producers in the medium.

Leonard's shows were primarily comedies which included "The Dick Van
Dyke Show" and "Andy Griffith Show". This series
was a departure for him. It was created by the lead actor, Robert Culp,
who was also a notable teleplay writer. He came up with the concept
of a secret agent who used the cover of a tennis player and traveled
around the world on assignments. Leonard told him he had a more
interesting high concept. Two spys posing as tennis players and one
of them was black. While that is no big deal today, it was a major
one in 1965. It was the middle of the civil rights movement which
was split between mainstream (Martin Luther King) and radical (Malcolm X) factions.
King wanted blacks to be given the same opportunities as others.
Malcolm X wanted a revolution. Most moderately liberal black performers
and caucasian producers supported King's approach of course, Sheldon
Leonard among them. Culp suggested Bill Cosby as his partner
which was an unusual choice. Cosby was a popular comedian
but not a dramatic performer. Leonard agreed and they did a pilot and
the premise actually worked. The chemistry between Culp and Cosby
worked perfectly because they had decided on a specific approach.
Rather than make a big deal about race as NBC did when they used to
announce that they were 'proud to present Julia' which was a very
mediocre sitcom that featured a black actress, they would just ignore
it. A black and white team of spies would go on missions together
trading quips but protecting each other's backs. It was a critical
choice since the show doesn't date in this respect at all. Cosby later
became a spokesman for self reliance and education which put him at
odds with the radical (Marxist/Socialist) factions of the civil rights movement.

As for "I Spy" itself, it was exceptionally well written for an action
series. I was surprised how clever the plots were. They really
pushed the envelope with the censors. There are shows that dealt
with drug addiction and trafficking, communist infiltration and
prostitution. All of these were allegedly forbidden for mainstream
TV but they got away with it. The key to the episodes is the
relationship between the two men. They have a friendly rivalry
trying to seduce women between assignments.

There are many guest stars that pop up unexpectedly. Leonard
was clever in that he didn't credit who they were going to be until
the end titles. You'll see actors like Martin Landau appear as
guest villains. Even Sheldon Leonard himself does a cameo as
a gangster, what else. Among the best shows include an episode
where Culp has been infected with Amthrax and Cosby has to
track him down before he drops dead. Another one features
Mako as a front man who hides radioactive material in shellfish
and forces some natives to dig them up even though they'll
be contaminated. Each show was full of surprises and they
weren't predictable like other secret agent series.

One major attribute was the production value. It was a very
expensive series to produce since they shot on location in
Hong Kong, Japan and Mexico among other places. No other
series went overseas at the time just to create an atmosphere.
Very risky and daring on Leonard's part. Culp wrote the teleplays
for a number of the episodes and even directed one and he was
quite good in this capacity.

The audio commentary by Culp is also one of the best I've ever
heard. Rather than just fawn over his co-stars (which I hate),
he really gives a feel for what it was like to get such a complex
series on the air. His stories about a lead actor getting a stroke
and ending in a coma and having to cheat footage to make the
episode work was fascinating as was his relationship with Cosby
as a peformer and friend. His volatile partnership with Leonard
is also discussed as are the details of filming in Asia. The
comments are spread over many episodes. Sometimes they
relate directly to that story and other times they just continue
a train of thought he began previously. Culp is very charming
and fun to listen too. Too bad Cosby wasn't available to give
his take on the show.

As for the quality of the transfers, there are some problems.
The color and cinematography is excellent and it's clear they
were derived from 35mm sources. They almost look like
the James Bond movies with the vibrant images in exotic
locations. However, they have not
been restored and there is a fair amount of wear on many of
the episodes. Some look very clean, others have ample dust,
scratches and some off color shots caused by fading. The
main title sequence is consistently worn in every episode.
The discs look better than what you would see in syndication
in the sixties but are a far cry from the state of the art
digital presentations we've become accustomed to. They
should be digitally cleaned up for the future and certainly
before they appear in high definition.

So if you like spy movies or shows, this is a very good one
that stands out from the rest but be prepared for some
shoddy looking images in the collection. Fortunately, the
plots and acting are so fine, I think you'll still find them
entertaining anyway.

In summary picture quality B-, sound design B, cinematography A, story
and screenplay range from A- to B-.

Last edited by Richard W. Haines; 11-25-08 at 12:19 PM.
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post #2 of 3 Old 10-02-08, 12:44 AM
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Re: "I Spy" Season One standard DVD review

Very nice review.

I remember "I Spy" during it's first run, but the material was too "adult" for me to grasp at the time. I just found out that this series is viewable for free at hulu.com and I have watched several of the episodes, and plan to watch them all. Your comments about the commentary by Robert Culp on the DVD's will have me looking for the set on DVD now.

It would be interesting to know what today's 20-somethings think of this series. The "I Spy" series is set it a world far different from the one we live in now and I don't think younger audiences will "get" the more biting aspects. What was serious then (and still is to a few of us) is now seen as "camp" or "old fashioned" attitudes.

It is also interesting to compare Culp's character in "I Spy" to his Bill Maxwell character in "The Greatest American Hero" series. There are many similarities.
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post #3 of 3 Old 10-02-08, 02:51 AM Thread Starter
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Re: "I Spy" Season One standard DVD review


Thank you.

I purchased the other two seasons at Best Buy for about $12 each so I have
the entire eries. Season Two is also very good but Season Three starts showing
a decline and some episodes lost their edge and were campy or silly. While the
series always had humor it avoided outright sitcom type of comedy so when they
started incorporating slapstick, they were getting into "Get Smart" territory
which didn't suit the show.

While I thought Culp's commentaries were among the best I heard, there is one
on Season Two in the episode co-starring France Nuyen ("South Pacific") that was one of the worst I've ever listened to so I recommend holding off on it until you finish watching every episode. Culp must've had a bad hair day because unlike the other discussions he trashes participants on the show including Sheldon Leonard...primarily because the producer wouldn't pay to have his girlfriend, Nuyen, sent overseas to the shoot on spec for a script that he wanted to work her into but hadn't written. How could you blame Leonard? Culp states that he had a tantrum and refused to talk to the producer for a few months. After he finishes his tirade he complains that Leonard used to tell people that "Culp was talented but crazy" as a dig but I ended up agreeing with Sheldon. Culp comes off like a prima dona in this particular commentary...to the point where it made me watch his performances in a different light. Sheldon eventually did use Nuyen for a few episodes (she later became one of Culp's five wives) but there was no chemistry between her and Culp at all. Their incompatibility was disturbing to watch since he's usually charming with his other female co-stars. I wish they hadn't included that commentary in the box set.

Otherwise, you can see why the series was eventually cancelled. Difficulties with the star, a weak third season with some poorly written episodes and the cost of shooting on location overseas. I would say the first two seasons are the best and the third mediocre although it does have a few good scripts.

Last edited by Richard W. Haines; 10-02-08 at 04:59 PM.
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