Judge Clark Douglas's review is based on a real-life crime story.
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If you're not familiar with the long-running television series The FBI, the primary piece of information you need is that the show was endorsed and overseen by none other than J. Edgar Hoover. As such, The FBI is precisely what you'd expect it to be: a no-nonsense, conservative, largely humorless crime drama that devotes an inordinate amount of time to celebrating the greatness of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Our hero is Agent Lewis Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Batman: The Animated Series), a hard-working agent who always gets his man. Always. He's assisted by the young Special Agent Jim Rhodes (Stephen Brooks, The Interns), a similarly devoted agent who always gets his man. They both report to Arthur Ward (Philip Abbott, The Young and the Restless), the assistant to the director of the FBI (Hoover's presence looms large over the proceedings, but he is never seen). Ward is responsible for making sure that his men always get their men. Over the course of the series, Agents Erskine and Rhodes get a whole bunch of men: bank robbers, serial killers, extortionists, runaway prisoners, etc. The FBI: Season One, Part One presents the 16 episodes spread across four discs:
I really wanted to like these first 16 episodes of The FBI, despite the fact that it's basically J. Edgar Hoover-approved government propaganda. The series it most strikingly resembles is Dragnet, another show that A) based all of its episodes on real-life cases, B) featured a no-nonsense protagonist lacking any significant moral flaws, and C) unrepentantly celebrated the government crime-fighting organization it represented. However, The FBI frequently proves as lackluster and tiresome (particularly in large doses) as Dragnet was crisp and involving.
The most immediate problem is that Agent Erskine is the kind of guy who makes the average life-sized cardboard cutout seem like an unstoppable party animal in comparison. It's not the fault of Zimbalist, who delivers his dialogue persuasively and does what he can to inject some measure of humanity into the character on occasion (these early episodes at least grant him an opportunity to act like a regular human being from time to time; as the series progressed the character would shed these elements). Few shows can overcome a tiresome protagonist. The fact that the protagonist has an equally tiresome sidekick doesn't help matters much, as Agent Rhodes adds very little of value to the scenes he appears in. Zimbalist and Brooks have zero chemistry together; failing to generate sparks in the bland scenes in which they discuss the motives of the villains.
The hour-long format was typically used for crime dramas of the era, but I can't help but feel The FBI could have benefited immensely from adopting Dragnet's lean, tight half-hour format. Almost every episode feels injected with filler, as scenes tend to meander and there's not much sense of momentum. The dull, no-room-for-gray-areas approach to the material adds to the tedium, as the characters are generally split into two basic categories: "With us" and "Against us." The self-congratulatory nature of the program feels even more irritating than it might have been simply because the show fails to entertain; we could more easily accept that the L.A.P.D. was awesome because, well, Dragnet was awesome.
Still, the show isn't a complete failure. The guest stars get to have some fun on occasion, as the villains of the program are generally permitted far more interesting personalities than the heroes. Consider Jeffrey Hunter's intense turn as the guy who strangles a woman to death with her hair (!), or Robert Blake's quivering performance as a Native American who unintentionally participates in a murder. Also appearing in this collection are such noted players as Robert Duvall (The Apostle), Beau Bridges (The Fabulous Baker Boys), Dabney Coleman (Boardwalk Empire), Leslie Nielsen (The Naked Gun) and Burt Reynolds (Smokey and the Bandit).
This Warner Archive release delivers a somewhat disappointing transfer that features a good deal of softness, scratches, flecks, dirt, and grime. It's not awful-looking, but I'd say it's a notch or two below par for most television releases of the era. Sound is a bit better, with the robust score (featuring a striking theme by Bronislaw Kaper) coming through with clarity. There are no extras of any sort included.
The FBI: Season One, Part One is a show which has aged rather poorly; a dull, unlikable product of its time and J. Edgar Hoover's moral code. In addition, Warner Archive's $40 price tag is a bit steep for a half-season of television presented in standard-def. Still, fans of the series should be happy to have the opportunity to revisit this quaint program after all these years.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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