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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Jake and the Fatman - Season One, Volume One
Jake and the Fatman - Season One, Volume One
Paramount // Unrated // July 8, 2008
List Price: $36.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted July 19, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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Ah, the occasional surprises which turn up on DVD, to say nothing of our uncontrollably changing tastes as we age. After volunteering to review Cannon because I thought it might be a moderately enjoyable show (it is, just) I figured I ought to take on Jake and the Fatman as well. Both are CBS DVD/Paramount releases, both star William Conrad. Expectations were running low; this was after all one of myriad "old fogy" shows made in the wake of Murder She Wrote, series that appealed almost exclusively to a middle-brow demographic of senior citizens and aging baby boomers, right? But, as with another Dean Hargrove/Fred Silverman-produced series, Diagnosis: Murder (a spin-off from this, actually), Jake and the Fatman proved far more entertaining than one might have expected, perhaps far more than it has any right to be. Slightly embarrassed though I may be, I'm also duty-bound to tell it like it is: Jake and the Fatman is a really fun show.

CBS DVD's Jake and the Fatman - Season One, Volume 1 includes 11 episodes, the first-half of the show's 22-episode premiere season (1987-88). The series was shot on 35mm but, like a lot of shows at the time, actually finished on tape. The results here are about as good as possible short of pulling everything out of boxes and cutting everything over again on film.

After Cannon got canned, Conrad returned to the lucrative world of voice-over work, narrating projects as varied as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Hudson Hawk. He did a Cannon reunion film and a short-lived but well regarded TV series based on Nero Wolfe. He guested on Matlock as a District Attorney named James McShane, and that served as a dry-run for his Los Angeles D.A. character on Jake and the Fatman, Jason McCabe.

I suspect Silverman and Hargrove also had another inspiration for the character: Orson Welles' crooked police captain Hank Quinlan in the classic noir Touch of Evil (1958). Though Quinlan was amoral and ruthless and McCabe is honest and (ultimately) warm-hearted, they share a lot of similarities. Both are grotesquely overweight, unshaven and slovenly, law & order celebrities on account of their high conviction rate, both are wily and deceptive, going to extreme lengths to get their man. One's good, the other evil, but essentially they're two sides of the same fat coin.

McCabe relies on a personal special investigator, Jake Styles (Joe Penney, formerly of Riptide), whose roguish undercover identities allow for an extravagant lifestyle: fancy sports car, fine imported leather furniture, etc. McCabe, by contrast, is an unpretentious slob, at least that's the public image he likes to perpetuate, right down to his equally slovenly, slobbery Bulldog (which looks just like him). Also along for the ride is Alan Campbell as neophyte Assistant District Attorney Derek Mitchell.

Though just 66 when Jake and the Fatman went into production, Conrad had aged noticeably, even compared to his Nero Wolfe stint six years prior. He's both more frail and fatter at the same time, and his strong baritone has become somewhat shrill. (Something distractingly funky is also going on with his upper row of teeth; he may have played everything but close-ups without an upper bridge and/or dentures. He looks much worse on the show than in publicity shots like the above.) Nonetheless, the actor seems to be having the time of his life on the series, and much of that enjoyment is transmitted to the audience. Conrad obviously relishes the courtroom scenes, where he gets to make like a combination Perry Mason and Clarence Darrow. He also clearly loves playing scenes where he gets to pull fast ones on murder suspects, tricking them to confess or give themselves away. He's alternately cantankerous and warm with his staff, and overall McCabe offers far more acting opportunities than Cannon ever did. It's a memorable TV character.

As a mystery, like Diagnosis: Murder the series falls back on hoary cliches, some so old that they're almost new again: one murderer who smokes French cigarettes foolishly puffs away at the scene of the crime, leaving his rare butts for Jake to find. Another murderer smugly wipes his pistol, the murder weapon, and silencer clean of fingerprints but forgets to do likewise with the unused bullets left in the gun. This kind of thing went out with Charlie Chan, but Conrad plays these cliches like they were innovative concepts and keeps it all very entertaining.

The series also borrows from other shows. Its investigation/preliminary hearing structure owes something to the 1963 series Arrest and Trial. Robert Culp, a frequent guest murderer on Columbo makes a similarly-styled guest appearance here. Though not quite up to that great series, this Jake and the Fatman episode is respectably entertaining. Curiously the pilot, a TV-movie-of-the-week, aired as the second episode rather than the first, and just three days after the first show aired. (I watched the pilot first, then the first-aired episode, which is probably the way to go.) The wonderful Anne Francis plays a part in the pilot not too far removed from Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil, but the part seems to have been cut down in post-production, perhaps owing to a decision not to include her in the rest of the series, a shame.

Guest stars in this set include Robert Reed, Bruce Greenwood, Anne Francis, Tim Russ, Dwight Schultz, Don Stroud, and Mark Goddard.

Video & Audio

Unlike CBS DVD's release of Cannon which should look great but instead looks blah, Jake and the Fatman looks blah but better than Cannon, considering. Titles and some opticals have that ugly video look but most of the show looks pretty good for something finished on tape. Episodes aren't time-compressed and seem to have retained all their original music. The 11 shows are on three single-sided discs. Audio is mono English only with no subtitle options.

Extra Features

The only supplement are episodic promos of limited interest.

Parting Thoughts

If you're a fan of B-movie mysteries of the 1930s and '40s, or of classic shows like Perry Mason, you may be surprised at just how entertaining Jake and the Fatman - Season One, Volume 1 can be. It's pricey for just 11 shows, but still Recommended.

  Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is now available for pre-order.

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