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The Rockford Files
Season One

The Rockford Files Season One
1974-1975 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / min. / Street Date December 6, 2005 / 39.98
Starring James Garner, Noah Beery Jr., Joe Santos, Gretchen Corbett, Stuart Margolin, 'Angel' Martin Tom Atkins
Art Direction Robert Crawley, Robert Luthardt
Executive Story Editor Juanita Bartlett
Original Music Pete Carpenter, Mike Post
Written by Juanita Bartlett, Leigh Brackett, Stephen J. Cannell, Robert Hamner, Roy Huggins
Produced by Stephen J. Cannell, William F. Phillips, Jo Swerling Jr.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

James Garner never went out of favor, and he had a busy and varied big-screen film career after his breakthrough TV light-comedy series Maverick. He had some success in the early 70s with Support Your Local Sheriff and its sequel, but more sophisticated pictures like Skin Game didn't perform as well. The Rockford Files proved to be the TV series Garner could retire on (although he never really retired). He dusted off his 'warmly cynical' comic style from the westerns and with a few modifications emerged as Los Angeles private investigator Jim Rockford, an ex-con wise to the ways of the street but dignified enough to blend in with a full spectrum of potential clients.

The Rockford Files has probably never been out of syndication, as Garner is considered practically a family member of the average American household. Remember the Polaroid commercials he once did with Mariette Hartley? They worked off the two actors' bright personalities; many Americans thought they were married. It's almost a shame that nobody pursued teaming them as a detective couple as in the old Thin Man series.

Nobody forgets the basic setup of the Rockford universe as coined by ex Adam-12 writer Stephen J. Cannell: Each episode begins with a phone message giving Jim some humorous bad news. Jim lives in a ratty trailer parked (quite unaccountably) right on Santa Monica Beach. He doesn't carry a gun but often has one lying around the trailer. His dad Rocky (Noah Beery Jr.) is a likeable ex-trucker who hangs around a lot and is fast to offer Jim plenty of useless advice. Joe Santos is Dennis Becker, Jim's LAPD connection who grudgingly helps him out while chiding him for getting in trouble. Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett) is Jim's lawyer.

Jim occasionally tangles with another ex-con buddy, confidence trickster "Angel" Martin (Stuart Margolin). Angel is forever drawing Jim into shady deals, selfishly claiming that they're fair, or legal; in almost every case Jim has to bail him out.

The key to Jim Rockford is that we're forever wondering how honest he is. He pretends to be greedy as a way of staying one step ahead of the suspects and schemers he needs to deceive. The fun comes in finding out how events manage to deprive Jim of collecting even his expense fees. When he's not being conned into helping someone for free, something always happens to make payday evaporate.

Like Maverick, Rockford describes himself as a professional coward trying his best to avoid being beaten up by thugs, which happens anyway. He does get into a few extended scraps now and then, and rarely escapes without a bad bruise or sore ribs. There's little or no gunplay, which is refreshing, but almost every episode has criminals or thugs trailing Rockford and giving him a hard time. The mysteries are long on character and humor, and more than a few are halfway interesting as mysteries - there's no attempt to conform them to standard mystery formats, or to enforce an external morality.

Rockford is constantly being issued traffic tickets but he's partial to car chases - Garner was a race car enthusiast - and most episodes have an extended car chase. I read somewhere once that the car chase scene was the 'expanding joint' in the middle of each episode. If the show ran long, the chase would be short, and if the live action scenes timed out on the short side, the car chase would expand as needed to fill out the show's running time. Some episodes are more lavish than others but it's not unusual to hear a lot of vital exposition in detached voiceover while we watch Rockford's gold Pontiac Firebird driving in longshot.

Occasionally the show hints that Rockford has a girlfriend or two stashed away - in one episode he's looking for something in his sofa and pulls out a brassiere. His relationship with female clients sometimes resembles a light dating situation. The smart dialogue has stayed fresh, as it doesn't try to be directly hardboiled, and Jim Rockford is always imbued with James Garner's folksy, friendly manner. In other words, The Rockford Files is a consistently pleasant and satisfying entertainment.

Universal's DVD set of the first year of The Rockford Files packs 23 hour-long episodes into 3 DVDs, with 8 episodes on each double-sided disc. Featured guest stars include James Woods, Abe Vigoda, Suzanne Somers, Ned Beatty and Lindsay Wagner. The quality is better than okay for episodic filmed television. The original broadcasts of these shows may have been done from dailies of hot-spliced daily transfers, so even with remastering there is dirt and imperfect color from time to time. For landscapes and sunsets the cameramen favored coral filters.

In syndication The Rockford Files was often heavily time-compressed. I don't think the episodes on these discs are, although Rockford's theme music in the opening title sequence sometimes strikes me as playing too fast. But I watch for telltale signs of time compression and don't see them - movement isn't clipped and liquids don't pour too fast. I hope I'm right about this, and wish there were some objective way to determine these things at first sight.

Disc one has the set's one featured extra, an interview with Garner on "the genesis of the show and becoming Jim Rockford."

The Rockford Files Season One is the perfect gift for the millions of ladies who thought James Garner was the dream man - He's handsome, friendly, funny, and he likes to talk to women. I'm sure it will move a lot of units this holiday season.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Rockford Files Season One rates:
TV shows: Very Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: James Garner interview
Packaging: Three slim cases in Card sleeve
Reviewed: December 20, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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