"Sweetie...a marvelous animal like you ought to be able to find a better way to earn a living."
The Armenian gumshoe's best-rated season...but disappointingly, a grab-bag of good-to-indifferent episodes. CBS DVD and Paramount have released Mannix: The Fifth Season, a 6-disc, 24-episode collection from the iconic private detective series' popular 1971-1972 season. If you've read my reviews for seasons three and four (you can read those here), you know I'm Mannix-happy...but except for an episode here and there, and some typically ridiculous Mannix-y moments of spectacular derring-do, this fifth go-around played all over the map in terms of quality―in weird contrast to this season's best-ever performance in the Nielsen ratings. No extras, of course, but the transfers look typically excellent for a Paramount vintage TV release.
As I wrote in my previous reviews, for the uninitiated in the world of Joe Mannix, West Los Angeles private investigator, a brief run-down of Mannix's set-up is in order. Having dumped the chilly confines of the MCA-like Intertect Agency four years before for his own home base of operations, private detective Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) pads down the stairs from his second floor apartment/office at 17 Paseo Verde, and accepts the always-waiting first cup of coffee of the day from his pretty secretary, appropriately monikered, Peggy Fair (lovely, husky-voiced Gail Fisher). "Regular Joe" Mannix, operating with that easy air of a man who may have received one too many cracks to the skull, slips on his regulation sports coat or windbreaker, and calmly awaits his first beating of the day. In between assorted batteries on his person, Joe finds time to entertain clients in his Spanish-themed office, track down suspects in his sleek British racing green 1971 Plymouth Cuda 340 convertible, complete with handy Motorola telephone (not a CB, but a real phone, complete with a clunky handle receiver, telephone number KG6-21-14), make time with any number of gorgeous women, verbally spar with either police Lieutenant Art Malcolm (Ward Wood) or Lieutenant Adam Tobias (Robert Reed, in an infrequent supporting role), and either beat or get beaten by apparently every known felon in the greater Los Angeles county area. Mannix always solves the case, and fees are only seldom if ever paid. Oh, and if you need to contact Mannix, and he's not in his office, and his car phone isn't answering...try Los Angeles County Hospital.
Hey, don't blame me for the shrugged-shoulders reception to this fifth season of Mannix. And it wasn't the recent heat wave making me cranky, either. When the set of discs arrived with Connors' face on the cover looking like something off the Armenian version of Mount Rushmore (sports jacket appropriately checked, as well), I was more than ready for some Mannix love. After all, seasons three and four were solid hits, with each one containing series' best episodes. Unfortunately...I'm not sure any of the 24 episodes here would meet the requirements of that lofty qualifier―at least none jump out in my memory (maybe Scapegoat or Death Is the Fifth Gear...maybe). Sure, they're watchable; even the worst Mannix episode is competent enough to satisfy your most basic cravings for standard mystery/private detective/vintage television conventions. The show is too well-produced, too well-written and executed, to produce anything less than a minimally-entertaining product.
But man did this ever feel like a season without a strong rudder. Now don't get me wrong: you know there's good stuff in this fifth season. The occasional smart line crops up, like the one noted above, or Dark So Early, Dark So Long's advice from Joe to a free-love friend ("Free rides are for hitchhikers: you can get let off in the middle of nowhere,"), Joe's super-cool toast in The Glass Trap ("To bullets that miss,"), or Robert Reed's wry "you make at least one mortal enemy a month," to friend Joe. And several set pieces are well done, as expected, including Dark So Early, Dark So Long's finale scramble over a pumping station (Joe jumps thirty feet to a cardboard box and sticks the landing without a hair out of place), Joe caught in a squeeze play between two killdozers in Wine From These Grapes, Joe blown up in a car garage in Nightshade), and not one, not two, but six attempts to run Joe off a curvy mountainous road (this beloved Mannix convention becomes almost impossibly hysterical after the third or fourth attempt). Ace editor and director Reza S. Badiyi (I believe he shot the iconic opening credits for The Mary Tyler Moore Show?) delivers a spectacular sequence of Joe going over a cliff in The Glass Trap, with Joe actually driving the car down the hill, the camera bouncing along as we see him desperately trying to keep the car righted (the sequence was so good they lifted it for the opening credits this season...and then re-used it outright for the To Save a Dead Man episode!).
And as always, Mannix-y moments that non-believers call kitsch (and that fans call pure gold) help keep the brand viable. In Cold Trail, ski-shooting Joe shows up with not one but two delectable snow bunnies...before he's almost harpooned with a chucked ski pole); Vic Morrow gets the D.T.s in Days Beyond Recall; and the Weirdest Class Couple Award goes to Dean Stockwell (complete with Hanna-Barbera Hair Bear Bunch fro) and Shelley Fabares (with a long, straight, scary hippie 'do a la The Manson Family Girls' House of Hair) in A Step in Time. And Murder Times Three opens up with a beautifully surreal piece of unexplained violence: Joe evading two bikers bent on putting tire tracks all over his body (reminiscent but not quite as good as last season's spectacular sequence in What Happened to Sunday? when Joe tries to outrun two murderous muscle cars).
Solid mysteries do show up here, too, including ace Mannix director Sutton Roley's (he's unfortunately pretty much a no-show this season) A Step in Time; The Glass Trap, which also features a pretty nifty scuffle in a small plane; the interesting Murder Times Three, where Joe has to solve three pending cases to find out who's trying to snuff him out; and screenwriter Frank Telford's Catspaw is a twisty whodunit, giving Gail Fisher a chance to emote a little. Lovers of goofy vintage TV will absolutely adore Scapegoat, where Touch Connors gets to play his "evil twin," as it were, hilariously blinking his one sleepy eye as the surgically-altered double bent on stealing a set of fabulous jewels. The season's final episode, Death Is the Fifth Gear, is probably the season's best, with someone from Joe's race car team (!) trying to kill him with psychedelic drugs. Featuring plenty of freak-out scenes of Connors flipping his lid, it's an amusing little mystery, especially now filtered through our appreciation of early 1970s network TV depictions of the drug scene.
That all sounds like a fun season...but it's not the whole season. Too many of the episodes are either flubbed, too familiar, or entirely forgettable for my liking. Episodes like To Draw the Lightning, Cry Pigeon, and Babe in the Woods fail almost completely to register with the viewer, while overly clichéd mysteries like Cold Trail, Woman in the Shadows, and A Choice of Evils play like "best of" moments from earlier seasons...of countless other detective shows. Results can even be laughable (for all the wrong reasons), such as the silly Days Beyond Recall, where Skid Row bums (courtesy of the Paramount city backlot set) act like rambunctious Bowery Boys to help Mannix track down juicehead Vic Morrow (how do you screw up an episode with the brilliant Morrow screaming at bugs crawling all over him?). Even an excellent outing like Run Till Dark is mired by an illogical center (kids are hiring Mannix again for a job???) and details that are at best, ridiculous (no one pays Mannix for this investigation...an investigation he deepens by handing out C-notes―presumably his own― for information. Whaaaaaa?). Those kinds of miscalculations almost outweigh the good efforts here, giving this fifth season of Mannix a distressingly uneven feel.
But what do I know compared to viewers back in 1971? They loved this season of Mannix―so much so that they elevated it to the vaunted Nielsen Top Ten for the only time in the show's eight seasons. Leaving its soon-to-be powerhouse Saturday night line-up on CBS (where shows like All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Jeffersons would rule for years), Mannix was placed at the 10:00pm Wednesday night slot, following The Carol Burnett Show (23rd for the season) and Medical Center (13th for the year). Facing zero competition from either fizzling Night Gallery over on NBC or the Anthony Quinn-starring dud, The Man and the City over on ABC, Mannix quickly became the go-to show to get viewers over the mid-week hump. Too bad that CBS (and probably schedule-switching meddler Bill Paley specifically) couldn't have left well enough alone: after this one brief shot at glory, Mannix was moved again for the 1972-1973 season...with disastrous results against powerhouses The ABC Sunday Night Movie and The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie.
Here are the 24 episodes of the 6 disc set, Mannix: The Fifth Season, as described on the back of the front cover:
Dark So Early, Dark So Long
A Step In Time
Wine From These Grapes
Woman In the Shadows
Days Beyond Recall
Run Till Dark
The Glass Trap
A Choice of Evils
A Button for General D
The Man Outside
Murder Times Three
To Save A Dead Man
Babe In The Woods
The Sound of Murder
A Walk in the Shadows
To Draw The Lightning
Death Is The Fifth Gear
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.