July 20, 2014

I ain’t laughin'

He was a clean-cut lady killer in an era when handsome usually meant Neanderthal jaws and inexplicable facial hair. Like every other private dick, he had a gun, but he rarely needed to take it out of his cookie jar. And when other TV networks raked in the ratings with Charlie’s Angels-esque jigglievision and bionic supermen, he was unapologetically nuanced and vulnerable. 

I speak of Jim Rockford, the tragicomic TV icon embodied so deftly—dare I even say elegantly?—by one of entertainment’s most gentle of trickster gods, James Garner. Garner died Saturday at 86. 

Wiser folk know that Garner was more than just his seminal 70s-era dramedy series. He was Maverick. He was the Greatest of Escapers. He was in The Notebook, for chrissakes, and came away just as unscathed as Ryan Gosling, not that many of the tweens noticed. Media historians celebrate him as one of the first actors to excel in both TV and film, both comedy and drama, long before the Matthew McConaugheys would swoop in and swagger along the road that Garner helped pave for them.

But it’s the Rockford character that I cherish the most, and not just because of Garner’s portrayal. If you haven’t seen The Rockford Files, or, at least, the best episodes in the 6-season series, you’re missing out. 

The writing, plotting and characters still hold up to today as an example of what TV can do when it refuses to be pigeonholed as a comedy or a drama or a detective series. Perhaps most impressive of all, the show worked as an incubator for some big talents of today’s TV golden age, including David Chase, creator of The Sopranos. Stephen J. Cannell, who went on to co-create the 21 Jump Street franchise, and Juanita Bartlett, whose company produced the series In The Heat of the Night, got their start there too.

Even the show opener was a little gem. Each episode started with a message playing on Rockford’s answering machine. The messages offered windows into Rockford’s rumpled world of cons, meatheads, good time girls, and exasperated holders of IOUs. Sometimes the messages spoke for themselves. Other times, we only got enough to guess what Rockford had done to earn such a message. My favorite went like this: “Hey Rockford, very funny. I ain't laughin’. You’re gonna get yours.”

In honor of one of my favorite TV characters, here’s a list of episodes worth streaming. Right now.

The Queen of Peru. Thieves hide a stolen diamond inside Rockford’s barbecue grill. Then a vacationing family steals the grill, and the chase is on. Written by David Chase.

White on White and Nearly Perfect. Before there was Magnum, there was P.I. Lance White, the maddeningly perfect anti-Rockford who’s introduced in this episode. Meet the funnier, pre-wingnut Tom Selleck.

Paradise Cove. Jim's Malibu neighborhood becomes the site of a treasure hunt for a stash of gold bullion, stolen fifty years earlier. A classic caper story filled with loopy characters, plus an impressive three (3) car crashes all engineered by Garner, who did his own stunts. 

The Hammer of C Block. Worth it just to hear Isaac Hayes’s nickname for Rockford. 

Drought at Indianhead River. A showcase for series regular and occasional episode director Stuart Margolin.  Even now, his supporting rogue, Angel, is one of TV’s best-fleshed-out confidence men. In this episode, Angel thinks he’s a real estate mogul, but he’s being used by the mob.

If you want to indulge in a real Rockford appreciation spree, you won’t regret it. This’ll get you started.

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