The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Burning through the box set, I can report the rumors of the show's decline are true. Still, like the stock market, there are small upticks in the downward slope. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was an early and influential example of the pop culture spy mania that gripped America and the U.K. in the mid-60s. A victim of success, the show passed from showrunner to showrunner, each with a broader and campier vision of what the whole spy craze was all about. Season 1, while not exactly heavy, took itself seriously. Intelligent writing, a fresh and engaged cast, and the Bond/Danger Man zeitgeist fully exploited. Season 2, now filmed and broadcast in color, opens with a 2-parter, injected with more money. Yet we have Rip Torn as a badguy straight from a pulpy old clifhanger. In The Alexander The Greater Affair parts 1 & 2 we first see the Batman-style elaborate deathtraps, the hammy acting, the juvenile vibe. Season 2 is all over the map, offering some subtle adventures and cool, but a few diversions into a cartoon version of the tape-recorder-and-pistol world we were introduced to in Season 1. Espionage gives way to outsize capers, but outsize in a season 3 Star Trek fashion predictable situations with a limited cast of extras. And soundstages that look like soundstages. Stars Robert Vaughan and David McCallum begin to phone it in on the flatter scripts. By season 3, set-spotters can identify several frequently repeating stages redressed but always identifiable. The round room that premiers in The Moonglow Affair as a Thrush fashion headquarters is back as various dojos, control rooms, houses, and more. 

The mansion set, never even redressed very much, will appear in back to back episodes as completelly different places. Time after time, the same green desk microphone shows up. Mismatched stock footage, even in black and white, is frequently used. In the real world, The troubled Girl From U.N.C.L.E. had spun off. Magazines, books, and a glut of U.N.C.L.E.-abilia crested. Season 3's sillyness had been turning off many fans and the ratings predictably slid. And yes, Napoleon Solo dances with a gorilla and a jungle girl in one of the most jawdropping betrayals of a show's vision. Why the phrase "Jumped the Shark" is not "Gorilla Danced" is beyond me. And then, late in season 3, after a string of forgettable episodes (plus a few decent ones), Sonny and Cher guest star. Not as themselves, but playing characters. Yet two Sonny and Cher hits play in the background, and there is a meta-reference to Sonny and Cher. Now, while all this is awful, there is entertainment value in watching these show on DVD. It's just not the same show it started off as. It transformed into an hourlong, higher budget version of Get Smart. And since I enjoy nearly anything in the spy or spy spoof genre, U.N.C.L.E. Season 3 is still up my alley. It's just frustrating thinking of what the show could have been if it had an advocate who understood it to pull the network strings. As expected, Season 2 and 3 have a noisy, multi-generation transfer full of analog artifacts. The sound never improves. And who can honestly prefer the Season 3 theme - full of sleazy saxophone? Here's looking forward to the short season 4.

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