Paramount // 1973 // 662 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // February 25th, 2010
Barnaby Jones is back on the case!
Barnaby Jones marked the return to TV for Buddy Ebsen, star of The Beverly Hillbillies, only a couple of years after that show's unexpected cancellation in 1971. While Ebsen, then 65, seemed an unlikely candidate for the role of a tough L.A. private detective, at least he remained a likable and comforting small-screen presence. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the show surrounding him. Barnaby Jones lasted a staggering seven seasons and that's pretty much all due to Ebsen's charm, because as a detective/mystery series, it's not even in the top rank.
Here are the 13 episodes collected on four discs:
"Requiem for a Son"
Barnaby Jones (Buddy Ebsen), a retired private eye, comes out of retirement to hunt down his son's killer.
"To Catch a Dead Man"
When a millionaire playboy (William Shatner, T.J. Hooker), fakes his own death, Barnaby is hired to find another man who may be involved.
An ex-con (Gary Lockwood, 2001: A Space Odyssey) who blames Barnaby for his conviction begins sending death threats to Barnaby and his daughter-in-law, Betty (Lee Meriwether, The Time Tunnel).
"The Murdering Class"
Two prep school students frame their tennis coach for an accidental death one of them caused.
"Perchance to Kill"
When a crooked attorney (Eric Braeden, The Young & The Restless) is forced to kill his partner, he attempts to frame a hippie (Richard Hatch, Battlestar Galactica) and his girlfriend for the murder.
"The Loose Connection"
Barnaby goes to Mexico to track down a missing person, not realizing that he has been set up as an inadvertent drug mule by a big-time heroin dealer.
"Murder in the Doll's House"
A famous writer who based his novels on his hometown memories has disappeared and Barnaby is hired to find out what secrets he may have revealed.
"Sing a Song of Murder"
When a rock star is killed in a freak accident, his crooked managers pretend he was kidnapped in order to keep the ransom money.
"See Some Evil, Do Some Evil"
A supposedly blind pianist (Roddy McDowall, Planet of the Apes) involved in blackmailing a rich businessman is the least likely suspect when the businessman is murdered.
When a rancher (Claude Akins, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo) is involved in a fatal hit-and-run outside a small town, Barnaby suspects that a larger and more sinister plot may be involved.
"To Denise, With Love and Murder"
A gigolo (Bill Bixby, The Incredible Hulk) is accused of murdering his rich wife, but may have actually murdered his mistress.
"A Little Glory, A Little Death"
The daughter (Meg Foster, The Osterman Weekend) of an actress who died mysteriously hires Barnaby to see if her mother's death had anything to do with a possible drug-trafficking ring.
"Twenty Million Alibis"
A jewel thief embarks on a publicity stunt for his new book but ends up accidentally killing a witness.
When people ridicule the hackneyed conventions of TV crime dramas, it's shows like Barnaby Jones they're talking about. The pompous narrator introducing each episode ("Tonight's episode: To Catch a Dead Man!"), the histrionic acting, the ridiculously convoluted motivations for murders-they're all here. Part of the Quinn Martin (The Fugitive) family of dramas, Barnaby Jones is, despite its longevity, one of the lesser shows of the bunch. It's not that it's terrible, just a middling detective series that would have been long forgotten if not for its star. People may remember it, but that's less because of the quality of its episodes and more because it's remembered as "that other show with Buddy Ebsen."
What it comes down to is the writing. It's not always bad, but it's never great and mostly not particularly good. This is the kind of show where, too often, the characters act like idiots because the plot requires them to act like idiots, since otherwise there wouldn't be a mystery for Barnaby Jones to solve. In "Sing a Song of Murder," the dead rock star's business managers come up with a harebrained scheme to extract a few measly thousand dollars to cover up the star's accidental death. Most viewers with even a cursory knowledge of show business will immediately realize that the managers could have made millions publicizing the star's death and repackaging his music instead. In "The Murdering Class," the prep school's administrator, who has presumably known the framed tennis coach for years, refuses to listen to even the most reasonable doubts about his guilt and also refuses to explain why, even at the end of the episode. The most unintentionally amusing moment occurs in "Murder-Go Round," when the victim of the hit-and-run murder patiently stands in the middle of the road until Claude Akins' character hits him with his slow-moving Jeep.
It also doesn't help that the acting is rather one-dimensional, even by '70s TV standards. Though there is a list of fairly big-name guest-stars, most of them play one of two characters that are interchangeable from episode to episode: the sneering villain, or the wide-eyed victim. Their motivations are equally repetitive: greed, infidelity, or just plain stupidity. Given such meager writing, the guest stars either ham it up unmercifully (Shatner, Lockwood) or look perpetually lost and confused (Hatch, Foster). The regulars don't fare much better. In all 13 episodes, poor Meriwether isn't given much to do. If anything, she's never really a character but the perpetually inquisitive substitute for the audience. As for Barnaby Jones, over the season the only two things we learn about him are that he loves to fish and he drinks milk. That's what passes for in-depth characterization on this show.
The combination of mediocre writing and undistinguished acting results in a show that's only an average detective/mystery series. All the usual clichés are here in spades. Every rich person has a maid and butler, every middle-class businessman is cheating on his wife, and every case is solved by Barnaby before the police even so much as finish taking notes. Barnaby even has his own miniature forensics lab which is apparently far more advanced than the one the LAPD has, although it mostly consists of microscopes and test tubes. In every episode, the lab scenes consist of Barnaby looking solemnly into the microscope and then announcing the full chemical qualities of whatever he's looking at. Similarly, at the end of every episode, Barnaby confronts the villain, who pulls out a gun and threatens to kill Barnaby, until the police arrive to save him. In other words, if you've seen Columbo, Cannon, or any other hundred cop/detective mystery series, you've seen this already. Even the token attempts at topicality, such as the anti-drug lecture in the middle of "The Loose Connection," are way too superficial to be significant. Quinn Martin was one of the ablest TV producers of the era, so the show looks nice and the pacing is crisp even in the weakest moments. Nonetheless, while Barnaby Jones is an agreeable time filler, there's really nothing noteworthy about it.
As for the DVD presentation, it's hit and miss. CBS/Paramount does deserve credit for the fullscreen transfer, which looks remarkably good for its age. Colors are vivid and there isn't much if any damage to the original film. The mono mix is decent as well, perfectly audible and without any noticeable flaws. The only extras are brief "Coming Next Week"-style promos for each episode, which are amusing but not crucial. The company has erred considerably, however, in one regard. During "The Murdering Class," the main villain refers to the tennis coach, who is black, with the expression "throw a light on the n -- -- r in the woodpile." Paramount, inexplicably, has chosen to bleep out the offending racial slur, which is ludicrous. The fact that the word is used by the episode's clear villain should indicate its loathsomeness. What's more, this is one of the few subtle pieces of writing on the show. By using the slur, the character explains one more possible reason why the prep school's predominantly white students resent the tennis coach so deeply, which gives the scene an unspoken but important added dimension. In its misguided attempt to kowtow to political correctness, Paramount has actually done damage to the show itself.
The only reason why Barnaby Jones could have lasted so many seasons is due to its star. The silver-haired Ebsen does look admittedly silly in the scenes where he's required to run or fight (in later seasons, a younger actor was added to the cast to fulfill the action hero role) but he remains just as charming and likable as he was on The Beverly Hillbillies. He's nice, soothing, and loaded with common sense, which makes him the ideal lead for a show like this one. If a TV star can be defined as someone you don't mind letting into your home once a week, Ebsen is definitely a TV star.
Barnaby Jones isn't a truly terrible or offensive show, but isn't a particularly great one either. Fans who grew up with the show will have no problem buying this set, but unless you're nostalgic for an old favorite or are a detective show completist, there's really no reason to go out of your way for it.
Guilty of not adding much to the genre. Paramount is also slapped with a
hefty fine for refusing to release shows as they were originally aired.
Review content copyright © 2010 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 662 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Not Rated