Thursday, February 19, 2015

The end of the Rockford Files, 35 years later

I hated the idea of my Netflix account until I realized that I could watch every episode of The Rockford Files and Hawaii Five-O with it. The Rockford Files was only six seasons long, so I finished that while I'm still working toward the end of Hawaii Five-O (many thoughts to come on that).

Jim Rockford as played by James Garner was a world-weary, very cautious (you're forgiven for thinking that might mean "cowardly" on occasion) and mostly too-decent-for-his-own-good private detective. But give Rockford a break: he spent five years in prison for a crime he didn't commit until he received a pardon from the governor. Not that it mattered: once a con, always a con, according to many of the people he ran into. All he wanted to do was stay out of trouble and get his $200 a day, plus expenses for honest work. He had some clear boundaries: no domestic cases, and nothing that smelled of organized crime (smart guy). Of course, most episodes found him working a case that he had been dragged into for someone who had as little as he did, which meant that he was frequently short on cash even though he lived in a trailer.

The saying "with friends like that, who needs enemies" could have been something the writers had posted on their walls. Detective Dennis Becker (Joe Santos) begrudged him a phone call and if Rockford reported being shot at he wanted him to produce a witness before he'd file a report. He was also really quick to try and book him on something, and frequently let the even less friendly Lieutenant Doug Chapman (James Luisi) listen in on their conversations for something incriminating.

James Garner as the wry (and did I mention very good looking?) Jim Rockford
While Becker became more supportive after he was promoted to Lieutenant, Rockford's friend Evelyn "Angel" Martin (Stuart Margolin), an ever-hustling con artist, would sell Jim and anyone else out for a nickel. He had no such concept of honor among thieves, and Rockford frequently found himself with a gun in his face on Angel's account.

All of that drama was made up for by Rockford's father, Joseph "Rocky" Rockford (Noah Beery Jr.). He was very simple and could be known to nag Jim (they frequently butted heads about painting and fishing schedules), but he always had his son's back. If only Jim could be convinced to settle down with a nice girl...

In that regard, Rockford was as no-nonsense as he was in the rest of his life. He was highly unlikely to fall into the trap of rescuing the damsel-in-distress (although Kathryn Harrold as a blind stalking victim was irresistible), but he wasn't immune to the femme fatale (Susan Strasberg came thisclose to getting him good). For the most part, though, he was pretty no-nonsense when it came to romance; for the first four seasons, he was on-again, off-again with his attorney Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett). Her departure, coincidentally, signaled the demise of the quality of the show.

The Rockford Files had a much more comedic flair than other detective shows. Rockford certainly wasn't the first detective to throw around clever quips, but because he worked outside of the system he was as likely to roll his eyes and sigh about it as he did so. A lot of the storylines weren't necessarily funny- call me old-fashioned, but murder isn't funny- but Garner's grumbly, sarcastic delivery of his lines would mostly get a laugh. And while Rockford might not have been a felon, he was as much a clever con man as he was a detective. While he may have been more than happy to suss out information at the library (and away from anyone who might have a gun), when he needed to be suave Jim Taggart or Oklahoma oilman Jimmy Joe Meeker in order to triangulate a bad guy, he could do it in a snap. (And someone who has a portable business card printer isn't that reluctant to get in trouble, is he?)

That's a lot of what I liked, but it wasn't perfect. First of all, in most of the episodes there was a car chase; it was as predictable as William Shatner ending up on the roof of a car in T.J. Hooker. While I would still say that the writing was better than much of what's on television now, after a while whenever that came up I'd think, "Huh, that's what they used for filler back then." The rumor is that the damage to the car was one of the things that drove up the cost of the show, which led to some friction between Garner and the network, but I'm not close to anyone involved so I don't really know.

The other star of The Rockford Files
Worse than the car was the fact that the mysteries weren't always that well-conceived. Figuring out who the bad guy was and why they'd done it was usually easy enough, and when it wasn't it was frequently a throw away. The real point of the episode, many times, was to watch Rockford clever himself out of trouble and into catching the bad guy. For four seasons that was fine, but by season five the magic was gone. To the casual viewer (like me), it looked as if Garner wanted less screen time. Understandable, but then it wasn't really clear what the show was about.

Still in all, it was a very good show, just maybe not great. It could be argued that Rockford was a Seventies version of the Forties noir detective, but I don't think he was as bitter or nihilistic. Beneath all of the sarcastic jabs, he was just a guy who wanted to get paid for the work he did, and if he could help the little guy along the way, so much the better. All in all, decent and real, and popular culture is not hurt by such characters.