Judge Clark Douglas hides his true identity by posing as an international Mario Kart pro.
Cosby and Culp are on the case!
Kelly Robinson: "Don't you ever bring a silencer?"
Facts of the Case
Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice) is an esteemed tennis player currently traveling the globe in the company of his invaluable trainer Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby, The Cosby Show). At least, that's what they want the world to think. In truth, Robinson and Scott are secret agents working for the Pentagon. Over the course of three seasons and 82 episodes, the two agents travel to a wide variety of exotic locations and take down an equally wide variety of sinister villains.
It's a melancholy fact that the majority of modern viewers who hear the title I Spy will inevitably think of the unfortunate 2002 movie starring Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy. There were a number of reasons that big-screen update of the television series didn't work, but the biggest was that Wilson and Murphy just didn't have much chemistry together. In truth, chemistry between the leads is the only thing which really made the original I Spy work in the first place. In many respects, it's a pretty ordinary show, filled to the brim with predictable plotting. Even so, when Culp and Cosby start riffing with each and improvising their way through routine scenarios, the show springs to life and becomes something considerably more entertaining than it has any right to be.
It's worth noting that I Spy was produced under rather unusual circumstances. Due to the fact that the series actually shot on location around the globe rather than filming in a studio every week, a full season of scripts had to be completed before shooting began. Naturally, the short time frame led to a number of scripts which felt undercooked, which is part of what seemed to inspire Cosby and Culp to try jazzing up the dialogue with improvisation. It's almost startling to consider what a difference there is between the loose, easy chemistry the two leads share and the stiffer, more traditional dialogue elsewhere. Both men do an exceptional job, but it's Cosby's dry wit which steals the show most frequently. Though I Spy is generally regarded as a mere stepping stone to bigger and better things (the beloved, iconic The Cosby Show chief among them), it's easy to see why the series made Cosby a star.
I Spy also happens to be historically significant for being the first television series to cast an African-American in a lead role. The most remarkable thing about this is that the series almost never comments on the character's race. Considering that the show was produced in the midst of the civil rights era, that's a fairly notable achievement. As far as the show is concerned, Alexander Scott is just a smart, funny guy who's good at his job…and who happens to be African-American.
The show received decent ratings over the course of its three-season run, but shooting on location caused I Spy to go over budget on a regular basis. The cost of production combined with general flimsiness of the scripts ultimately led to the show's cancellation (though it surely didn't help that the show was banned by some southern TV stations for racial reasons). Still, it's hard not to be impressed by the ambition of the whole affair. It's rarely great television, but it's distinctive enough to stand apart from a whole lot of what was airing during the decade. Unlike similarly-themed spy shows airing at the time (The Avengers, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), I Spy avoiding throwing fantastical villains or gadgetry into the stories. One can't quite call it realistic, but it comes a lot closer than a lot of shows of the era. Plus, it's a kick to see all of the high-profile guest stars and up-and-coming actors who make appearances over the course of the show's run: Eartha Kitt, Gene Hackman, Martin Landau, Boris Karloff and many other instantly recognizable performers pop up in colorful supporting roles throughout the series.
Sadly, I Spy: The Complete Series has received a rather underwhelming DVD release. It's clear that little restoration work has been done, as the episodes often look rough. Softness and general visual murkiness afflict a large portion of the episodes, which is a pity given the atypically expensive production design. I suppose the show doesn't have enough of a following these days to merit a full-blown restoration, which is a pity. The Dolby 1.0 mono tracks are simple but effective, with the dialogue blending nicely with the jazzy, energetic music (most of which was provided by Earl Hagen). Sadly, no supplements of any sort have been included, though at least the packaging is sturdy: three solid individual season cases housed inside a fairly thick cardboard box.
The box set may be a bit underwhelming, but I Spy is a fun show worth rediscovering. If you're willing to be patient with some of the plotting in order to enjoy the delightful Cosby/Culp banter, you'll have a good time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Timeless Media Group
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