Friday, December 31, 2010
Unpacking U.N.C.L.E. — Phase One
Merry Christmas to me — and to my family, since we have collectively reached the stage where the television can no longer be watched in seclusion. This was cause for some mild anxiety on my part: while we all seem to be on the same page when it comes to Get Smart, Star Trek and the occasional Bonanza episode, I Spy was given a unanimous thumbs-down and The Prisoner was greeted with cool disdain. As for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., it had been years since I last watched an episode, and what I remembered didn't recommend itself.
However the packaging is so gee-whiz kewl! that I momentarily belayed my misgivings and wallowed in its flashy, evocative gim-crackery. When it came time to give the show a spin, I recalled Robert Fulford's dictum that the history of a television series falls into four periods — Primitive, Classic, Baroque and Decadent — and cued up the second season (In Living Color!) first.
It's a hit! Judging from the first half-dozen episodes in season two, it looks like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. found its groove early and shifted from Classic to Baroque the minute it introduced color. At this point the writers still took the characters, peril and complications seriously enough to maintain genuine narrative tension, while the acting and direction indicate that everyone involved was happy to be there.*
U.N.C.L.E. builds on the myth of the office as the place where all the fun happens. Napoleon Solo gets grabby with the secretary in a fashion that would land him in irons today, but whenever he encounters the fairer sex on the field, he and his buddy treat them as an inconvenience if not an outright annoyance. Indeed, everything about the field is an inconvenience. The action can take place in an exotic (inevitably fictional) foreign country where the women are lush and the gadgets are shiny, but both the women and the hardware end up complicating the job, which exists to be completed so that the agents can return to the office as quickly as possible. Compared to the froufrou interiors of various embassies and lairs, the aesthetic inside U.N.C.L.E. headquarters is starkly utilitarian. But then that's the aesthetic to most rumpus-rooms from the same era. And there are hints aplenty that these cool kids do enjoy a good rumpus.
Most U.N.C.L.E. fans regard the first season as the best, with the second and the fourth seasons falling behind respectively. Apparently the third season more than qualifies as The Decadent period. The actors speak ruefully of those episodes, which slid into a level of camp that made Batman seem the very embodiment of subtlety. Even the Time Life packagers apologize — more than once — for its inclusion in the set.
That may be the unwatched season in this house. The other three, mind you, remain in demand. Stay tuned for further thoughts, once the contents of the briefcase have been exhausted.
*One episode begins with heartthrob Ilya Kuryakin deep undercover as a street troubador in South America. He strums his guitar, flamenco-style. Then he begins to sing: “Hava Nagila, Hava . . . .” For those keeping track, we are observing a Scottish actor playing a Russian posing as a Hispanic musician singing a Jewish folk song. This is the generation that invented irony.