McMillan & Wife - Complete Series is an attractively and compactly boxed set of the popular and lighthearted 1971-76 murder mystery series starring Rock Hudson. Indeed, the set actually contains much more than its title might suggest, for it also includes McMillan, the 1976-77 continuation of McMillan & Wife produced after co-star Susan Saint James, the "Wife" of the title, left the show following a contract dispute. And it also has the entire run of The Snoop Sisters (1973-74), a short-lived whodunit that, like McMillan & Wife, was also part of the NBC Mystery Movie program but otherwise is unrelated.
The NBC Mystery Movie was a "wheel show," a format with some variations long popular in Britain but rare on American television. Essentially, different movie-length shows rotated within the same time slot. The NBC Mystery Movie, airing Sunday nights, initially consisted of Columbo (starring Peter Falk), McMillan & Wife, and McCloud (starring Dennis Weaver), but during the middle of its run a fourth series, Hec Ramsey (starring Richard Boone) was added. The concept was so successful NBC spun-off a second Mystery Movie series that aired on Wednesday nights. It was much less successful and of the nearly dozen shows that came and went only Banacek (starring George Peppard) and Quincy, M.E. (starring Jack Klugman), the latter quickly spun-off into its own separate, hour-long series, made any lasting impression.
Today, of course, only Columbo remains widely popular (and worldwide, no less). It was the only truly exceptional show of the bunch while the others were mostly routine and are remembered today more for their nostalgia value. Unlike Columbo and McCloud, which began as one-off TV-movies, McMillan & Wife was specifically created for the Mystery Movie series and tailored for star Rock Hudson, whose hugely successful career as a leading man in Universal Studios' movies of the 1950s and '60s was largely behind him. However, he was still a major star in 1971, having recently appeared in big theatrical features like Ice Station Zebra (1968), The Undefeated (1969), and Darling Lili (1970). Corralling him for series television was something of a coup.
Series creator Leonard Stern (Get Smart!) also lucked out in casting relative new face Susan Saint James to play McMillan's wife. Despite their 20-year-plus age difference, to say nothing of Rock's homosexuality, Hudson and Saint James have spectacularly good chemistry. While the show bears Universal's typically ugly factory-like visual style and the scripts are pretty generic, Hudson and Saint James are always entertaining to watch.
The set repackages earlier Millennium/VEI/NBC Universal season sets, collecting them into a single, sturdy box. (The box I'm reviewing is the VEI set originating out of Canada, but I assume their contents are identical.) The transfers aren't new, judging by their appearance, but are acceptable for what this is. Universal's 2005 DVD release of Season One used abominably bad DVD-18s pressed in Mexico, but all the discs here are single-sided, dual-layered and play just fine.
Another advantage these shows have over Universal's Season One offering, as well as its Columbo releases, is that these McMillan & Wife and McMillan episodes include the original NBC Mystery Movie opening (all from the Hec Ramsey period), featuring Henry Mancini's terrific theme and the iconic image of the silhouetted man scanning an orange-red landscape with a flashlight.
The series itself faintly echoes MGM's Thin Man series, with seasoned San Francisco Police Commissioner Stewart "Mac" McMillan (Hudson) frequently partnered with mystery buff wife (and daughter of an acclaimed criminologist), Sally (Saint James). The pilot film introduced another series regular, Sgt. (later Lt.) Enright (John Schuck), who inconsistently is bumbling in the pilot, perfectly competent in some episodes, rather dense in others. (Schuck is good in all of these variations, however.) Also on board is the McMillan's wisecracking maid, Mildred (Nancy Walker). Veteran actress Walker made a terrific comeback that year; concurrently she was a recurring guest star on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The six-foot-four-inch Hudson positively towers over the four-foot-eleven-inch Walker. In one episode featuring other short actresses (Marjorie Bennett and Selma Diamond), Hudson almost looks like a giant among Hobbits.
A problem with the series is the odd decision to have Hudson's character the Police Commissioner of a major American city, making it hard to swallow that a man in his position would be allowed to independently conduct criminal investigations and make inquiries on his own, or that in so many cases either he or his wife is intrinsically linked to the crime and/or its suspects. The pilot, for instance, has McMillan investigating the theft of an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus that had been in his wife's care, while another show has McMillan investigating a murder whose chief suspect is an old girlfriend. Not believable, even by TV's loose standards of storytelling logic.
Where Colombo's stories settled in to an ingenious and consistently entertaining formula, revolving around the slovenly, self-deprecating detective matching wits with rich and powerful suspects arrogantly pulling off "the perfect crime," McMillan's cases are more standard TV fare, and not very interesting. The series also makes little use of its San Francisco setting which, after the pilot, consists mostly of stock shots, Los Angeles locations, and extensive use of the Universal backlot.
But the two leads and the guest stars, some of which rarely did television otherwise, are appealing. Hudson was 46 when the series began, nearly twice Saint James's age (she was just 24 when shooting began), but he was still quite fit and handsome, though he'd age noticeably over the course of the series' run, almost like a two-term President. Indeed, one look at the cover art for each season exemplifies his radically changing appearance. Rock has shaggy hair and a big handlebar mustache during the first two seasons, then by seasons three and four he loses the mustache and looks more like Rock of the early '60s but wears frequently alarming early-'70s fashions. Then by McMillan he's more conservatively attired and middle-aged. Susan Saint James wears some pretty wild clothes throughout McMillan & Wife's run but always seems so comfortable and confident she comes off as stylish and hip almost always.
The Thin Man comparison the show often receives is mainly due to their excellent chemistry. He's low-key and, no pun intended, straight as an arrow, while she's kooky in a '60s free-spirit sort of way and full of energy. For those not familiar with the series, her character might favorably by likened to Margot Kidder's Lois Lane in the later Superman movies. Indeed, Saint James would've made a great Lois Lane herself.
So good is Saint James that episodes focusing away from her character (Sally becomes pregnant during the first season) are generally less interesting, though the season finale, "An Elementary Case of Murder," deserves points for making an old lover of Mac's African-American (and played by Barbara McNair). That the script treats this so casually is quite interesting, and may be a television first.
As with Columbo, episodes varied in length, alternating between 90- and 120-minute timeslots, though in McMillan & Wife's case, the shorter ones consistently play better, feel less padded, and are less likely to wear out their welcome.
Saint James had a contract dispute with Universal after McMillan & Wife's fifth season. My guess is the studio waited until the last possible minute before officially dropping her from the cast. In that first post-Saint James episode, Lt. Enright refers to Mac's wife (and his never-seen, barely-ever-mentioned son) dying in a plane crash, in dialogue that appears looped in postproduction. It was a sudden, callous, and utterly unceremonious end to the character, especially considering Mac spends the rest of the episode flirting with guest star Jessica Walter and Sally is never mentioned again. Universal really must have wanted to stick it to Saint James.
Nancy Walker also left the cast at this point, replaced by hyperactive Martha Raye, but after initially high ratings, undoubtedly due to audience curiosity about Saint James's character, the show limped along and was cancelled after just four episodes.
Guest stars during its run include Jack Albertson, Rene Auberjonois, Jonathan Harris, Herb Edelman, Kenneth Mars, David Huddleston, Vito Scotti, Paul Stewart, June Havoc, Wally Cox, Shepperd Strudwick, Joe E. Ross, Lorraine Gary, Ed Flanders, Tyne Daly, John Abbott, Oscar Beregi, Ron Masak, Don Stroud, John Anderson, Peter Bonerz, Andrew Duggan, Jackie Coogan, Claude Akins, Edward Andrews, Hazel Court, Richard Deacon, Marj Dusay, Cliff Osmond, Michael Ansara, Jack Carter, Bobby Troup, Cameron Mitchell, Paul Richards, Eileen Brennan, Philip Carey, John Astin, Carole Cook, Keir Dullea, Edie Adams, Charlotte Rae, Edmond O'Brien, Charles Nelson Reilly, Paul Winchell, Larry Hovis, Sheree North, Scott Brady, Albert Salmi, Dick Van Patten, Leon Askin, Henry Jones, Alan Hale, Jr., John Stephenson, William Demarest, Murray Matheson, Roddy McDowall, Roger C. Carmel, John McLiam, John Fiedler, Rita Gam, Werner Klemperer, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Feldon, James Olson, Tom Bosley, Dana Wynter, Nehemiah Persoff, Stephen McNally, Donna Douglas, Steve Forrest, Catlin Adams, Buddy Hackett, Rosey Grier, Rhonda Fleming, Dabney Coleman, Van Johnson, Alex Karras, Bert Convy, R.G. Armstrong, Pamela Hensley, Peter Breck, Barbara Bosson, Scatman Crothers, Howard Duff, Stefanie Powers, William Windom, George Maharis, Kenneth Tobey, Barry Sullivan, Jose Feliciano, Donna Mills, Don Keefer, M. Emmet Walsh, Susan Strasberg, David Soul, Pat Harrington, Jr., John Randolph, Dennis Patrick, Bernie Kopell, Walter Brooke, George Gaynes, Linda Evans, David Birney, Gretchen Corbett, Norman Fell, Eric Christmas, Jack Gilford, Frank Ferguson, Lew Ayres, Julie Newmar, Robert Loggia, Val Bisoglio, Barbara Barrie, Bill Dana, Richard Dawson, Milton Selzer, Meredith Bexter, Murray Hamilton, Don Porter, John Vernon, Ron Silver, Dick Sargent, Lola Albright, Macdonald Carey, Michael Constantine, Liam Dunn, Slim Pickens, Tab Hunter, Nancy Malone, Richard Kiel, William Daniels, Susan Anspach, Alan Fudge, Robert F. Simon, Dane Clark, Charles Drake, Jason Evers, Julie Adams, Kim Basinger, Karen Valentine, Dub Taylor, Lloyd Bochner, Nina Foch, Shirley Jones, and Tony Roberts.
Video & Audio
McMillan & Wife is presented in its original full frame format with decent, not great, transfers that are perfectly presentable for most users, though there's a lot of room for improvement (having seen Columbo in high-def here in Japan). Each season consists of six or seven movie length shows, typically spread across three discs. The Snoop Sisters episodes (see below) have what appear to be newer transfers which are much sharper, cleaner, and have better color than either McMillan or McMillan & Wife. The Dolby Digital mono is decent enough; no subtitle options. The inner cases helpfully include plot synopses, guest casts, and airdates.
The Snoop Sisters, starring Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick (who played Mac's mother on several McMillan & Wifes though probably best remembered as the witch who told Danny Kaye about the flagon with the dragon and its pellet with the poison) is a neat extra and a fun series. It, too, has its share of interesting guest stars including, in her last role, Paulette Goddard. It consists of four regular episodes plus the pilot film, Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate, which has Hayes and Natwick playing similar characters but with different names.
McMillan & Wife isn't great but it's enjoyable as TV comfort food. The Complete Series set is nicely packaged, and it's considerably less expensive than buying the season sets individually. 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.