Judge Victor Valdivia is a geriatric private detective. He's not old, but he's in worse shape than Barnaby Jones.
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.
Facts of the Case
Here are the 13 episodes collected on four discs:
"To Catch a Dead Man"
"Perchance to Kill"
"The Loose Connection"
"Sing a Song of Murder"
"See Some Evil, Do Some Evil"
"To Denise, With Love and Murder"
"A Little Glory, A Little Death"
"Twenty Million Alibis"
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 Rebuttal Witnesses
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.
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