Chief Justice Michael Stailey submitted this review from the heliport of DVD Verdict's penthouse office.
"Better cock your pistols."
There's something unique about the Aaron Spelling television dynasty (no pun intended). Despite the passage of time and our ever-increasing standards of production values, looking back on a series like Matt Houston is nostalgic nirvana.
Facts of the Case
Matt Houston (Lee Horsley, The Sword and the Sorcerer) made his fortune in the oil business. Since then, he's built a corporate empire acquiring and selling a number of business properties "from diamond mines to soybean fields," while still making time for his Texas down-home interests—horses, cars, and women. Houston also has an unquenchable thirst for adventure, and considers himself somewhat of an amateur private investigator. To be honest, he's pretty damn good; which is why any time a family member, friend, or acquaintance encounters trouble or runs afoul of the law, he's the first person they turn to. Alongside lawyer/right-hand-gal CJ Parsons (Pamela Hensley, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century), nebish company executive Murray Chase (George Wyner, Spaceballs), ranch hands Lamar (Paul Brinegar, High Plains Drifter) and Bo (Dennis Fimple, House of 1000 Corpses), and best friend/LAPD Lt. Vince Novelli (John Aprea, Falcon Crest), Houston is on the case. Cue the theme song!
Matlock Houston—a role tailor-made for actor Lee Horsley—is an archetype we don't see any more. He possesses the stature of the Marlboro Man, the swagger of Clint Eastwood, the wit of James Garner, and the charm of Burt Reynolds. Oozing testosterone from every pore, women love him and men want to be him. Bouncing between his ranch in the Santa Monica mountains and a penthouse office in Century City, this Texas playboy does more investigating than anything else, leaving his business operations to the Chase brothers—Murray and Myron (John Moschitta Jr.)—and a bevy of beautiful female assistants. Houston was the American James Bond, complete with cutting edge computer technology (a somewhat sentient Apple III), mobile phones, a personal helicopter, two story interior waterfall, hot tub in the middle of the office, and a laundry list of ex-loves.
Matt Houston lives and dies on the strength of its writing and acting. When it's on, the show is retro cheese; a throwback to an era and sentiment long since lost to pressures of always-on technology and our resulting 24/7 lives. When it's off, you'll experience more than a fair amount of laughter and eye-rolling, thanks to outdated situations, dialogue, and overacting from the weekly guest players, while the core team manages to hold their own. Pamela Hensley plays beautifully off Lee's home-spun delivery and genuine sincerity. The two keep their flirtatious sexual tension in check throughout the first season, even when the stories fall flat. John Aprea plays the hard nosed, by-the-book authority figure well, enabling Lee's Houston to routinely color outside the lines. George Wyner's Murray provides a dash of neurotic comic relief, but the producers couldn't get a handle on how best to use him in tandem with or in replacement of fish-out-of-water Texas transplants Lamar and Bo. And despite the warmth and likeability of Penny Santon's Mama Novelli, she too was used as little more than set dressing when the story required.
Sadly, this was a series on the cusp of changing sensibilities. What started as an hour-long, tongue-in-cheek action/adventure in September 1982 suffered an uncomfortable slide into darker and grittier territory, thanks to a network trying to satisfy viewers' perceived hunger for stories like First Blood, Scarface, and a growing wave of slasher films. So what we get in this First Season is patented formulaic fun sullied by programming executive interference. It didn't help that the show was rooted on Sunday nights, with the Jack Palance hosted Ripley's Believe It or Not as a lead-in. Still, Houston drew high enough numbers to garner two renewals, and a then unheard of syndication deal which put all 67 episodes into heavy daytime rotation the year after its prime-time cancellation. Not bad at all. My only hope is that this DVD release will spark new interest in an audience too young to catch the show during its original run.
Twenty-three weekly adventures make up Matt Houston: The First Season…
• "X-22 (92 min Pilot)"—When international billionaire Nicolo Gambaccini is murdered launching a new ship, his daughter Serena (Barbara Carrera, Never Say Never Again) hires Houston (her former lover) to prove she didn't do it. This one lays the groundwork for the series, establishes CJ as the audience's window into Houston's world (through her voice over narration), introduces a rather large supporting cast, and effectively picks up the torch left behind by The Rockford Files which exited the airwaves two seasons prior. Familiar faces: Jill St. John (Diamonds are Forever).
• "Stop the Presses" (49 min)—When an old friend is critically injured while working for a sleazy tabloid publisher (Murray Hamilton, Jaws), Houston sets out to uncover which of the many shady characters in this man's life is trying to killing. Familiar faces: Heather Locklear (Melrose Place), Malcolm-Jamal Warner (The Cosby Show).
• "Deadly Fashion" (49 min)—The murder of a tempermental designer (Hollywood's infamous Mr. Blackwell) draws in Houston, who must prove his former girlfriend didn't commit the crime. Familiar faces: Britt Ekland (Live and Let Die), Vic Tayback (Bullitt).
• "Killing Isn't Everything" (49 min)—Professional football turns deadly, when an old college buddy (John Beck) is accused of murdering the team's owner. Houston stalks the sidelines and the locker rooms to smoke out the real killer. Worth seeing just for the ridiculously choreographed brawl with the team mascot. Familiar faces: Dick Butkus (My Two Dads), Forrest Tucker (F Troop).
• "Who Would Kill Ramona?" (49 min)—In a plot inspired by Sunset Boulevard, the comeback of a fading legendary actress (Janet Leigh, Psycho) is derailed when her much younger leading man is poisoned during an on-set press event. Was he the target…or was it his co-star? Good thing she's old friends with Houston. Familiar faces: Jill Whelan (The Love Boat), Caeser Romero (Batman: The Movie).
• "Recipe for Murder" (49 min)—Who's murdering the great gourmets of Los Angeles? A surprise visit by a high profile food critic (James Coco, Murder by Death) gets even more surprising when his partner's severed head shows up in the meal's Jell-O mold. What's worse, Houston's dear friend Prince Polansky (Sid Caesar, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) is charged with the crime. Whatever you do, don't ask about the green duck. Familiar faces: Hope Lange (Peyton Place), David Hedison (Licence to Kill).
• "Shark Bait" (49 min)—Riding the wave of the Jaws franchise. Sharks have begun killing attractive female lifeguards on the beaches of Malibu. Natural phenomenon or murder? Houston isn't going to wait around to find out, since a Houston Industries employee's daughter (Lori Loughlin, Full House) just graduated from lifeguard school. Notable for its use of underwater stock footage and a wacky dune buggy chase. Familiar faces: Lloyd Bochner (Dynasty), Michelle Phillips (Knots Landing).
• "The Kidnapping" (49 min)—When an Arab prince is kidnapped in-flight, the King's jealous brother becomes a prime suspect. Unfortunately for Houston, his good friend Buck (Hugh O'Brian, The Shootist) was flying the plane at the time. Can he fake a ransom and rescue the boy before the kidnappers realize they've been duped? The money drop is one of the most interesting parts of the episode. Familiar faces: Tina Louise (Gilligan's Island).
• "Joey's Here" (49 min)—So this is where James Cameron got the idea for Terminator! An electronics wunderkind (David Cassidy, The Patridge Family) is about the revolutionize the world with his service and entertainment robots, but the company is hemorrhaging cash and one of the owners decides to pull the plug. When the robots go into self-preservation mode and start killing anyone they see as a threat, Murray begs Houston to take on the case before his investment in "Joey's World" (the ultimate live-action video game) goes belly up. It doesn't get more ridiculously cheesy than this. Familiar faces: Norman Fell (Three's Company), Troy Donahue (Surfside 6), Jessica Walter (Arrested Development).
• "The Good Doctor" (49 min)—Houston hosts a fundraiser for his dear friend Cattle Annie (Jeanette Nolan, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) but there is an attempted murder of her business partner. When the finger of blame points in the direction of a fellow medical researcher (Gary Lockwood, 2001: A Space Odyssey), Houston will stop at nothing to uncover the truth. The series action level gets cranked up, with Houston strapped to a runaway gurney. Familiar faces: William Windom (Murder, She Wrote), John Davis Chandler (Adventures in Babysitting).
• "The Rock and the Hard Place" (49 min)—When promotion of a major prize fight gets out of hand, murder takes center stage, and Houston gets hired to figure out who's trying to kill The Champ (Dorian Harewood, Full Metal Jacket). Let's just say secrets can be more deadly than guns and knives. Familiar faces: George Takei (Star Trek: The Original Series), Stan Shaw (Harlem Nights), Richard Jaeckel (Spenser: For Hire).
• "The Purrfect Crime" (49 min)—A cat food empresario (Werner Klemperer, Hogan's Heroes) is mauled by a Bengal tiger in his own back yard, and his ex-wives—Zsa Zsa Gabor, Barbi Benton (The Love Boat), Pat Crowley (Please Don't Eat the Daisies), Janis Paige (Trapper John, MD)—hire Houston to help figure out who killed him. That way, they can get what they want, if not deserve, from their late husband's estate. But the deeper he digs, the more treacherous Houston's life becomes. Familiar faces: Sonny Bono (Hairspray) in a toga married to Zsa Zsa?!
• "The Yacht Club Murders" (49 min)—All ashore that's going ashore! While attending an exclusive yacht club party at the invitation of an old girlfriend (Mary Ann Mobley, Diff'rent Strokes), the loathesome newly-elected commodore (Alan Hale, Gilligan's Island) is murdered. What's worse, a cryptic warning was delivered the day before; leaving our heroes to unravel the mystery and catch the killer before Houston succumbs to sea sickness. Familiar faces: Dick Sargent (Bewitched), Shelly Berman (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Jean Kasem (wife of Casey Kasem), and Jimmy Baio (cousin of Scott Baio).
• "Whose Party is This Anyway?" (49 min)—In an homage to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, five dignitaries are invited to an impromptu Sunday evening business meeting/reception at Houston's penthouse office. Problem is, Matt didn't have anything to do with it, the office has been locked down, and a series of sophisticated remote control death traps are murdering the guests one at a time. Can Houston and CJ locate the killer before he/she strikes again? Familiar faces: Barbara Rush (It Came from Outer Space), Edward Mulhare (Knight Rider), and Stella Stevens (The Poseidon Adventure).
• "Get Houston" (49 min)—Here's where the series takes a sharp left turn. A dark corner of our hero's past is revealed, as the world's most notorious serial killer (Chuck Connors, The Rifleman) escapes from a Southern California mental institution to exact his revenge on the man who put him there—Houston. I wouldn't exactly call it "jumping the shark," but the network wanted a more intensely serious show, so they forced the character and its lead actor into an uncomfortable skin; that of a vengeful, shotgun-toting badass who will kill anyone trying to harm his friends. And where the heck are the FBI, CIA, and Interpol throughout all this? Directed by the late Kim Manners (Supernatural, The X-Files), the episode climaxes with a showdown in an abandoned amusement park, and features of the worst acting of Chuck Connors career. In further evidence of a tonal shift, two members of the supporting cast—Houston's comedic ranch hands Lamar (Paul Brinegar) and Bo (Dennis Fimple)—are unceremoniously removed from the opening credits and story consideration.
• "The Visitors" (49 min)—Steven Spielberg's influence seeps into this unintentionally hilarious episode, as Houston investigates the death of a noted UFO researcher (Robert Alda, Imitation of Life) and ends up with a close encounter of his own. Familiar faces: Dawn Wells (Gilligan's Island), Shelley Fabares (Coach).
• "Here's Another Fine Mess" (49 min)—Celebrity impersonators turn hitmen and start picking off CJ's sorority sisters. Can Houston decipher the common thread between them and locate the mastermind before CJ's number is up? Only with the help of the retired cop (Ernest Borgnine, The Dirty Dozen) who originally identified this psychotic killer. Familiar faces: Chuck McCann (Robin Hood: Men in Tights), Larry Harmon (the original Bozo).
• "The Beverly Woods Social Club" (49 min)—LA's bourgeois and political elite succumb to their own perverse eccentricities when a charity fundraiser turns deadly, a gossip columnist (Natalie Schafer, Gilligan's Island) ends up dead, and their deep dark secrets are about to be exposed. Meanwhile, Houston is kidnapped outside Mama Novelli's by…the Chief of Police?! Familiar faces: Michael Constantine (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Don DeFore (Hazel), Jayne Meadows (The Steve Allen Show), Ron Palillo (Welcome Back Kotter).
• "The Showgirl Murders" (49 min)—Houston's friend and celebrated Vegas entertainer Johnny Foster (Robert Goulet) turns himself in for the murders of several showgirls. It seems alcohol turns this otherwise jovial man into Mister Hyde. Matt doesn't buy it, and sets out to reveal who's framing his friend and why. Familiar faces: George Chakiris (West Side Story), Fred Grandy (Love Boat), Renee Taylor (The Producers).
• "Fear for Tomorrow" (49 min)—Despite a raging toothache, Houston sets out to clear the name of a friend who gave his life to blow the lid off a conspiracy to ship outdated blood supplies overseas and sell the good stuff on the black market. During a failed stakeout, Vince is shot and his life hangs in the balance, as Houston rushes to finish what his friend started. Unfortunately, not everything is as it seems. Familar faces: Tori Spelling (Beverly Hills, 90210), Tim O'Connor (Buck Rogers in the 25th Century), Paul Petersen (The Donna Reed Show).
• "A Deadly Parlay" (49 min)—Houston is framed for the murder of a promising young female jockey, Cindy (Lynn-Holly Johnson, The Watcher in the Woods), a woman he's known since the she was a little girl. It seems Cindy was about to abandon the American racing circuit and head to London, and many people would have lost a great deal of money as a result. One big problem: Matt has to go underground to solve the case before an aggressive police lieutenant locks him up for good. Familiar Faces: Ron Ely (Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze), Peter Isacksen (Under the Rainbow), Rod Loomis (The Beastmaster).
• "A Novel Way to Die" (49 min)—Who's killing the great mystery novelists of our time? Matt is determined to find out, when an author's convention turns deadly and the devious mastermind believes he's committed the perfect unsolvable crime. Too bad he underestimated Houston's talents. Familiar faces: Richard Anderson (The Six Million Dollar Man), Joseph Campanella, (The Colbys), Markie Post (Night Court).
• "The Hunted" (49 min)—Houston runs afoul of an international terrorist (Martin Landau, Ed Wood) who wants nothing more than his son released from federal custody for the attempted assassination of a US Senator—and Matt is the only material witness. A relaxing vacation turns into as hostage situation as CJ's life depends upon Houston recanting his testimony. Like that's going to happen. With the help of the US military, Matt transforms himself into Chuck Norris (circa Missing in Action) and storms the villains tropical island stronghold, guns blazing. This season finale sets the stage for even more intense action in seasons to come.
Presented in their original full frame aspect ratio, these restored transfers look worlds better than the 30-second broadcast promos that precede them. Sure, there is the occasional evidence of dirt and grain, but the '70s color palate is strong and detail more impressive than what you likely witnessed during the aerial antenna/pre-cable era. Unfortunately, the special effects are rudimentary, and limited budget chase sequences pale in comparison to what we're used to on television today. However, the 2.0 mono audio is surprisingly strong and further punctuates the value of this set. Sadly, Paramount continues its bare bones TV on DVD release strategy, so we don't get any new interviews or retrospective featurettes, something this series most definitely deserves. You'll just have to settle for my podcast interview with actor Lee Horsley linked in the Accomplices section of this review.
Like an old pair of jeans or a favorite sweatshirt, there's something comforting about 1970s and '80s era hour-long television. Shows like Moonlighting and Matt Houston should be required viewing for any writer heading into television today, as much for studying what doesn't work as what does. The playful swagger and period action is a welcome addition to the TV on DVD pantheon.
Not guilty, cowboy.
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