A Quinn Martin Production. Starring Karl Malden. Also starring Michael Douglas.
With Guest Stars: William Windom, Peter Strauss. Special Guest Star Leslie Nielsen.
Tonight's Episode: "The DVD By the Bay"
An above average cop show and TV mogul Quinn Martin's last big success, The Streets of San Francisco (1972-77) succeeds in ways that are readily apparent. And, conversely, like most other genre shows from its era, once established it stuck to the straight and narrow. Its characters became frozen in time, rarely evolving or changing very much, while most of its plots and situations were pretty generic, if serviceable. Change the character names and any randomly selected teleplay might just as easily function as an episode of Hawaii Five-O or a dozen other shows.
To that end a Season 3, Volume 2 episode looks pretty much like a Season 1, Volume 1 or Season 2, Volume 2 one, and there's even less distinguishing Season 3, Volume 1 from Season 3, Volume 2. This won't be a long review.
The good news is that this and Volume 2 are being released at all. Season 2 streeted back in November 2008, a gap of nearly four years between seasons. However, CBS/Paramount has already announced Season 4, the last full season to feature Michael Douglas, for release next month. As before, the episodes look great and appear untampered with.
The show follows plainclothes detectives Lt. Mike Stone (Karl Malden), an unpretentious, old school cop, and sophisticated, Berkeley-educated Inspector Steve Keller (Michael Douglas), whom Mike clearly loves like a son. In the season's second episode, "The Deadliest of Species," Mike is practically ready to book the wedding reception hall when Steve begins dating his new upstairs neighbor (Brenda Vaccaro), both unaware she's actually a paid assassin with ice water in her veins. Vaccaro is excellent in this, channeling a hard-heartedness I'd never seen in her before, and it's interesting as one of the somewhat rare episodes to delve into Steve's or Mike's private lives at any length.
The plots of that and many another episode are faintly ludicrous, but even weaker Streets of San Francisco are carried to the finish line by Douglas and especially Malden, a priceless asset. Quinn Martin was extraordinarily lucky casting an Oscar-winning character star like Malden alongside a future star in his own right like Douglas, and for that matter an Academy Award-winning producer to boot (for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 1975). Indeed, in several late-in-the-season shows, airing in the spring of 1974, Douglas is largely absent, presumably to work on that film.
By all accounts the enormous affection Mike and Steve have for each other onscreen was synonymous with Malden's and Douglas's camaraderie off-camera. It's hard if not impossible to fake that, and their doting father/prodigal son relationship is the heart of the show.
Filming the series entirely on location in San Francisco also helps give it a look distinctive from the myriad Hollywood-based cop and detective shows, few of which (The Rockford Files being one exception) made Los Angeles a third character in the way San Francisco does here. (So much so that I found myself "Street Viewing" many of the locations to see what they look like today, almost 40 years later.) Even bland episodes such as "Letters from the Grave," filmed on Alcatraz Island and inside its infamous prison, get a big boost.
Most of Streets's scripts are routine and helmed by traffic-cop directors like Virgil W. Vogel and Barry Crane. But, occasionally, the show rises ever so slightly above the norm. The season opener, "One Last Shot," guest stars Leslie Nielsen as a cop whose drinking on the job is so out of control he accidentally shoots dead his partner (Jock Mahoney), pinning it on an innocent traffic stop suspect. Nielsen's clinical portrait of an alcoholic is realistic and disturbing, and Mike's and Steve's investigation plays authentic.
"I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" is probably the most interesting show from a political perspective. It appears this episode about draft dodgers hiding out near San Francisco via an underground railroad was written and shot in the spring and summer of '74, but in September of that same year, shortly before it aired on October 10th, President Gerald Ford offered draft dodgers amnesty from prosecution, prompting hastily-written narration explaining this, and (re)setting the episode to the recent past.
The episode bends over backwards to avoid taking a firm political position, though initially unsympathetic Steve makes no attempt to detain a group of fleeing draft dodgers in the end. Then again, the war was so unpopular by 1974 neither Steve nor the producers were going out on a limb, either.
Guest stars in Volume 1 include Leslie Nielsen, Jacqueline Scott, Susan Strasberg, Jock Mahoney, Joe Spano, Brenda Vaccaro, James Luisi, Barry Sullivan, Joseph Ruskin, Johnny Weissmuller, Jr., Bill Bixby, Andrew Duggan, John Davidson (in drag), Herb Edelman, Anne Helm, John Fiedler, Bernie Kopell, Denny Miller (a lot of ex-Tarzans on this show!), John Zaremba, Richard Bull, Don Stroud, Anthony Eisley, Joanne Linville, Steven Keats, Pippa Scott, Edward Mulhare, Mary Jackson, Herb Vigran, Woodrow Parfrey, Brock Peters, Mitch Vogel, Dabney Coleman, Robert Walden, Kenneth Tobey, James Griffith, William Campbell, Mariette Hartley, Clint Howard, Mike Evans, Herbert Jefferson, Jr., Hari Rhodes, Don Pedro Colley, Vivi Janiss, Francine York, and Murray Hamilton.
The full frame format Streets of San Francisco looks great, bright with strong color and impressive clarity. Disclaimers note that "some episodes may be edited from their original network versions," but the shows I looked at seemed complete, unaltered, and not time-compressed. The set is composed of the first 12 episodes of the second season, which aired September-December 1974, and spread over three single-sided discs. The Dolby Digital mono is fine. Unlike past seasons, which included an alternate Spanish mono track and Spanish subtitles, this is English only with optional English subtitles. There are no Extra Features.
It took time but this series has grown on me quite a bit, and I'm delighted to see the series continuing on DVD despite the wide gap between seasons. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.