The Complete Series (1965-1970) (HBO/Time-Life-2007)
Okay, I have to admit it. I cheated a little. Whenever I review DVD box sets, I make it a rule to watch every single episode in the package. Usually I try to sit through all of the extras as well.
Unfortunately, as much as I have been loving this return to the show that is my favorite situation comedy of all time (sorry, Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer… you come in second), I am writing this review after just sampling around different episodes throughout the run of the series.
Sorry about that, Chief…
This breaking of my hard and fast rules of reviewing is in no way a reflection on the quality of the show. As I just said, when it is hitting on all cylinders, Get Smart is the funniest half-hour in television history.
It’s more a simple matter of time management. The Get Smart box set, as released by Time-Life, is an embarrassment of riches. Five full seasons. 25 DVDs. 138 Episodes. Countless interviews, extras and guest commentaries. As much as I hope to experience all of these, in order to do that before I write the review I would either have to quit my job and put my personal life on hold for several months or end up finishing this review sometime around 2011.
Therefore I cheated. I watched 110 episodes.
Would you believe 75?
Okay, how about 50?
Would you believe that I sat through five and I read the box liner notes?
Well, I beat out that last one at least.
Missed it by that much…
Actually, I probably caught 25-30 episodes. Of course, luckily I have been watching this series on and off my whole life, so it’s not like I haven’t seen probably all of these episodes at one point or another.
Because, as much as I love watching Get Smart, the one other problem with trying to binge on the series is that as brilliant and funny as the show is in small doses, if you watch too many episodes one after the other, they all start to seem a bit the same. The same basic situations. The same bad guys. The same femme fatales. The same types of gadgets. The same agents hidden in small places. The same catch phrases. Therefore it is always best with Get Smart to sit through a block of episodes over a few days and then put it away for a while, then pick it up again for a blast later on down the line.
However, speaking of catch phrases, Get Smart was staggeringly good at getting jokes In modern television, when each show tries desperately trying to get a punch line to catch on, it is kind of amazing to see how Get Smart spent most of the late 60s contributing at least a half-dozen catch phrases to the popular lexicon.
… And loving it.
According to the commentaries by series creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, many of these catch phrases came directly from Don Adams’ act. At that point Adams was a just about to be over-the-hill stand-up comedian (he was already in his 40s when he got this breakthrough role.).
Watching Adams disappear into the role makes it amazing that he took so long to be a superstar. Also that he never quite found another role that suited him as well. While Adams worked fairly steadily over the years (I’d love to get a DVD of his 70s sorta-game-show Don Adams’ Screen Test), agent Maxwell Smart of the super-secret spy operation CONTROL was a zeitgeist – a perfect marriage of performer and character.
It’s not a coincidence that Adams returned to the role in the 1980 movie The Nude Bomb, the late 80s TV movie The Return of Maxwell Smart (a/k/a Get Smart, Again) and a mid-90s short-lived return series (with a then-unknown Andy Dick as Max’s doofus son.). Not to mention the fact that many of Smart’s best bits were shamelessly recycled in his 80s cartoon series Inspector Gadget.
It also starred arguably the most attractive – and funniest – straight woman on 60s TV. Barbara Feldon was a model with little acting history when she landed the role of Agent 99, however she was also a perfect fit. Other brilliant recurring roles were Robert Karvelas as harried CONTROL flunkie Larrabee, Richard Gautier as Hymie the Robot (Maxwell Smart: “Hymie’s my friend.” Chief: “Your friend busted into my office, said he was going to kill me, smashed my desk to pieces, and almost strangled me with his bare hands.” Maxwell Smart: “Well, I said he was my friend, not yours.”), Bernie Koppell as arch-fiend Siegfeld, the head of the evil orginaization (“This is KAOS. We don’t shush here!”) and Red the dog as K-9 agent Fang.
Then there was one of the greatest slow-burn artists ever, Edward Platt as the harried Chief of CONTROL. (“The cone of silence?” he wailed plaintively and annoyedly numerous times over the seasons. “It doesn’t work. It never has. Max, please.”)
Brooks and Henry let out the true secret-weapon of the series in their commentary. Everyone realizes that it is a parody of the then-ubiquitous James Bond films – however, the real secret was the assumption that the Government was a massively incompetent organization. Therefore, no matter what brilliant things they created, it was a given that simple human error would screw it all up. Or, as Smart himself put it, “Well, 99, we are what we are. I’m a secret agent, trained to be cold, vicious, and savage. Not enough to be a businessman.”
The pilot episode – the only one which was filmed completely in black and white, by the way, opens with a bit of prestidigitation. We are in the middle of an opera house. Everyone is dressed in tuxedos, quietly watching. Suddenly, in the middle of a crowd, a phone starts ringing. People start looking around, trying to figure out whose phone is ringing. Finally, Smart stands up and leaves the auditorium to answer the ring.
We’ve all been through it and it’s annoying as hell. However, this episode was filmed a good thirty-some years before the cell phone. The ring was coming from Smart’s shoe phone – a miniature phone hidden in the heel of a shoe. This before-its-time flight-of-fancy was only one of dozens of interesting gadgets used in the series, stuff like laser blazers, pens which shoot poison darts and the aforementioned cone of silence, the perfect embodiment of brilliant technological advances that never quite work.
“I may never get to play with the Philharmonic,” Smart reasons, “but on the other hand, is Leonard Bernstein licensed to kill?”
As with so many series, as the seasons go on the show lost its mojo a bit and relied on some desperate sitcom gimmicks. Max and 99 get married. They have twins. Max gets a loud-mouthed mother-in-law. The show never needed any of these tweaks – Max and 99 worked better with a little sexual tension than as a couple and no show has ever been helped by the addition of babies.
However, even in the later years, when the series was a little hobbled it was still better than most of the series on the air. It even threw in the odd latter-years classic bit, like in the birth episode there was still a classic KAOS agent named Simon the Likeable (played by long-time commercial pro Jack Gilford) who is so pleasant that everyone fell under his spell… except, of course, for Max’s mother-in-law. However other episodes creak with anachronism. One that comes immediately to mind was the one with Larry Storch of F-Troop as the Groovy Guru. It was probably heavy back in the summer after the summer of love, but now feels like it should be in a time capsule with the “Blue Boy” episode of Dragnet.
So, yeah, not all of this is perfect. Any series that runs for years will have some clunkers. That said, Get Smart is more consistently funny than most series it came up with. Most old sitcoms are nearly impossibly slow watched with 21st Century eyes, but Max and his compatriots still groove. It takes comic styles like slapstick which feel faintly vaudevillian now and makes them feel fresh and new. (And even when Get Smart was in its hey-day, we were a decade-past-Lucy and slapstick was on its way out.) Get Smart offers more belly-laughs per half hour than any show in TV history. Yes, it’s that good.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 4, 2008.