One of myriad television shows cashing in on a James Bond craze then at its height during the 1965-66 television season, Get Smart was a flat-out spoof that, by design, also incorporated elements of another eventual pop culture icon: bumbling Inspector Clouseau, played by Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark, films released almost simultaneously in America in the late-spring/early summer of 1964.
Get Smart was popular and, rather surprisingly, won several top Emmy Awards for star Don Adams and as the Outstanding Comedy Series for two years in a row later in its five-year run. Time Life released the entire series on 25 DVDs for $199.95 back in 2006. That super-deluxe-o-rooney boxed set (as Slim Gaillard might have put it) won the DVD Critics Award though I wonder how many hard-core Get Smart there really are in the world, and how many of those have that kind of disposable income.
This release of Get Smart comes from HBO rather than Time-Life. Apparently HBO holds the show's home video rights (while CBS retains free and perhaps pay TV) and they sublicensed the show to Time Life. This set of First Season shows uses the same clean transfers but includes only some of the original extras, which are limited to a few audio commentaries and episode audio introductions by co-star Barbara Feldon.
Maxwell Smart (Adams) is Secret Agent 86 for a Washington agency known as CONTROL, headed by the "Chief" (Edward Platt). Episodes follow Max on various missions, usually involving him working undercover with fellow agent and eventual girlfriend, Agent 99 (Feldon), often battling the forces of KAOS, the series' equivalent to the James Bond world's SPECTRE.
Some personal observations are in order: I grew up with Get Smart, first experiencing the series when it was syndicated in the early-/mid-1970s. Already a James Bond/Harry Palmer/Derek Flint fan, to say nothing of co-creator Mel Brooks' films, as a kid I initially thought the series was hilariously funny. I even remember quotes from episodes I haven't seen in 30 years or more. (Watching a man dribbling soup all down his beard, Max says, "Be careful, you're getting some in your mouth.") However, by the time Max and 99 (her real name is never revealed) got married in Season 4 and had twins in Season 5, this kid was pretty damn sick of the whole thing. (I was, however, first in a very, very short line of patrons eager to see The Nude Bomb, the ill-fated, incredibly unfunny Maxwell Smart movie.)
I say all this because watching Get Smart again literally for the first time in 30 years is a strange experience, with many elements (music cues, famous lines, familiar gadgets) utterly ingrained in one's subconscious (like it or not) yet now seen from a completely new perspective (from a child's to someone now middle-aged). Looking at it today, it's easy to see why I got so sick of it so quickly way back when it was running Monday-Friday in the early evenings on WXON Channel 20 in Detroit. Like most '60s one-joke sitcoms, particularly ones with highly specialized concepts as hijinks in German POW camps, astronauts cohabitating with luscious genies, or a family of monsters living in a haunted house, Get Smart established its formula in the pilot and from there on almost never wavered, at least until the ratings started to plummet and desperation began to set in.
In other words, Get Smart is pretty much the same show week in and week out, with not just the same type of jokes, but with literally the same jokes, those popular catch-phrases/punch lines that made Get Smart famous: "Sorry about that, Chief," "Would you believe...?" etc., etc.
Watching a big chunk of the first season shows, I found myself genuinely laughing out loud only once, maybe twice per episode, but in those instances either the joke or (usually) Adams' delivery of the joke was right on the money. Those honestly-earned laughs are almost enough to make Get Smart worth sitting through on a regular basis, but too many other jokes fall flat and the look of the show and the approach to much of the material is all wrong.
Adams, notably older than the other big movie and TV spies of his era (he was already in his mid-forties) is great at delivering dialogue; rather stoic, 95% of Adams' comedy is verbal - he's not very good at physical slapstick, though he's a good deadpan reactor. (In the pilot there's an inspired if throwaway gag involving a cigarette that's a scream thanks to Adams's timing.) Feldon is also a delight as Agent 99, innocently sexy without appearing stupid for latching onto Smart so devotedly. She's an underrated actress given too few chances to stretch her wings (see Smile, one of the great unsung films of the 1970s, for Feldon at her best). The real prize, though, is Edward Platt's long-suffering Chief of CONTROL, whose slow-burn style is like an intellectual Edgar Kennedy. The long-time character actor is a perfect match for Adams, and their scenes together frequently are the highlight of the episode.
Another problem with the show is its excessively drab visual style and lack of understanding the genre it was attempting to spoof. Shot on the Paramount lot, Get Smart is a singularly ugly-looking show. There's almost no attempt to convey any atmosphere, to suggest the look of other spy movies; everything is overlit and sets are minimally dressed. Compared, for instance to concurrent British shows like Danger Man and The Avengers, visually Get Smart is a real point-it-and-shoot production. And while some early episodes vaguely reference the Bondian universe - a character called "The Claw" (or "Craw") suggested by Dr. No, a razor-lined bowler hat inspired by Goldfinger, etc. - Get Smart quickly established its own insular world with little outside influence. That may have helped the show in the long run, allowing it to continue on long after the mid-'60s spy craze had died down, but first-time viewers will probably be surprised how little the show actually spoofs its own inspiration.
Video & Audio
Get Smart - Season 1 presents 30 episodes in their original full frame format on four sing-sided DVDs, with 7-8 episodes per disc. The shows appear complete, not time-compressed or musically altered. (They typically run 25 1/2 minutes.) The shows look sharp and if the colors seem a little drab that may be because they always looked that way; at least that's how I remember them in 16mm TV prints from 30 years ago, and these are a big improvement on those. The 2.0 mono sounds okay and the show is close-captioned.
Episodes include an audio introduction by Barbara Feldon, some of which offer interesting bits of trivia but oftentimes also merely spoil the plot of the show and give away surprises. Feldon also does a nice audio commentary on one episode ("Kiss for KAOS"), part of which pays tribute to Platt, a former opera singer she reveals. Co-creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry (the latter the series' story editor) appear separately on commentary tracks for the show's black and white pilot ("Mr. Big"). Brooks's is a disappointment; he doesn't have all that much to say, but Henry both confirms many of the stories Brooks relates, while adding some interesting observations of his own.
Honestly, I'm glad I wasn't tempted into dropping two hundred bucks for Get Smart when the box set was earning all those rave reviews. It's an okay show with, as stated previously, a couple of good laughs in most every episode, but it doesn't hold up as well as the best '60s sitcoms and plays very dated today. Rent It.
This month Stuart Galbraith IV celebrates his 5th Anniversary at DVD Talk. You can read the very first review here.