Judge Paul Corupe gives the third degree to this quirky, appealing mystery series from the 1970s, a decade almost as obsessed with crime shows as the 2000s.
"Oh, Mac!"—Sally McMillan (Susan Saint James)
The 1970s were the undisputed golden age of small screen sleuthing, an era that saw the prime time airwaves teeming with quirky, one-named private investigators, loose cannon homicide detectives and fey insurance agents. Between Colombo, Quincy, Rockford, Banacek, Kojak, McCloud, Cannon and Baretta, there were barely enough unsolved mysteries to go around, forcing NBC to develop the NBC Mystery Movie, a unique 90-minute "showcase" series that kept the network's growing roster of TV detectives on a less intensive monthly rotation.
One of the original residents of the NBC Mystery Movie stable was McMillan and Wife, a husband-and-wife team-up show that joined Columbo and McCloud for the Mystery Movie's long, seven-year run. Starring the gratuitously mustachioed Rock Hudson as a worldly police commissioner who often relies on his whip-smart wife, future Kate & Allie star Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife brought the screwball sleuthing of The Thin Man into the 1970s with a series of posh, whodunit mysteries. More than thirty years after its initial run, the show has finally joined its crime-solving peers on DVD courtesy of Universal.
Facts of the Case
After a long career as a criminal defense lawyer, Stewart "Mac" McMillan (Rock Hudson, Pillow Talk) is elected as San Francisco's police commissioner. With the help of the long-suffering Sgt. Enright (John Schuck, Brewster McCloud), Mac gets directly involved in police investigations, often doing the legwork and chasing down criminals himself. Giving McMillan a helping hand is his wife Sally (Susan Saint James, What's So Bad About Feeling Good?), the flighty daughter of a former police chief whose deduction skills are just as sharp as her wit.
McMillan and Wife finally makes its way to DVD with a double-sided, two-disc "Season One" box set, which collects the show's original two-hour pilot movie and seven 90-minute episodes from the commissioner and his wife's tour of duty on the NBC Mystery Movie. Here's what you get:
• "Once upon a Dead Man"
• "Murder by the Barrel"
• "The Easy Sunday Murder Case"
• "Husbands, Wives and Killers"
• "Death Is a Seven Point Favorite"
• "The Face of Murder"
• "'Til Death Do Us Part"
• "An Elementary Case of Murder"
A classy throwback to the timeless "whodunit?" formula, McMillan and Wife was a screwball mystery series obviously intended to appeal to the NBC Mystery Movie's female demographic. Light on action but heavy on romance and quirky comedy, the show is markedly inferior to its peers, but it still manages to exude a tangible charm that gave it a steady following throughout the 1970s.
Unlike the other NBC Mystery Movie police procedurals, which often gave away the identity of the perpetrator at the very beginning in order often focus on the investigation, McMillan and Wife was far more classically structured. Tackling high-society crime against a backdrop of dinner parties and important charity functions, the show can almost be seen as an antidote to the rampant testosterone and urban decay of McCloud—a smart, sophisticated little show that was usually more concerned with politely discerning the identities of kidnappers and cat burglars than blowing away murders and mob bosses, even if it meant tossing out obvious red herrings and a few well-worn plot twists.
TV mystery scribe Steven Bochco and humorist Burt Prelutsky were the show's only writers, and together they worked within the tight mystery formula to concentrate on the relationship between Stuart and Sally, crafting a show that was highly reminiscent of The Thin Man. Updating the starry-eyed banter of Nick and Nora Charles to meet modern expectations, the series keeps the focus distinctly on the lovey-dovey relationship between the two principals, indulging in silly word play and gentle humor to keep the characters interesting and the show evolving. It was a stroke of genius casting both former sex symbol Hudson and Saint James, who very much typifies contemporary femininity as seen by Hollywood in the 1970s. Hudson provides the solid base for the show with his personable yet firm presence, while the intelligent, cute and often frivolous Sally seems intended to appeal to both men and women. It may be an old recipe, but it's one that works, and the thrust of the characters is usually able to pull the show out of any scripting potholes.
To be sure, the shows in this season of McMillan and Wife are a mixed bag, most falling in the mediocre range. Plots and perpetrators are often easily guessed, and the show's occasional allowance for action—a bicycle chase down San Fran's winding roads or a machine gun attack on an airplane—lack tension and feel like they've only been included to help bump the running time up to the required 75 minutes. Still, there are some notable stand-outs to be had here, especially "'Til Death Do Us Part," a suspenseful show in which a murderer constructs an elaborate plot to kill Mac and Sally. The fun in this episode is in deducing how the killer is planning to do away with the McMillans after they return home to find that all the knives and scissors have been removed from the house. The season finale, "An Elementary Case of Murder," packs an interesting twist that may not be special in itself, but in the context of the often predictable early episodes, it quickly becomes a welcome highlight of this set.
Little changed over the course of the series, besides Saint James's eventual departure in the show's final season, but there are some interesting quirks that occur after the pilot episode in the first season of McMillan and Wife. As already discussed, the McMillans were upper-crust sleuths far removed from the gritty San Francisco streets, but there was obviously some feeling that they might be seen as too privileged by the audience. In the second episode, the McMillans' limo and chauffeur disappear, and they move from a spacious mansion into a more down-to-earth duplex. They did manage to retain their maid, Mildred (Nancy Walker, Murder by Death), but in one later episode, Sally remarks that she's simply a hand-me-down from her overprotective mother. These unpretentious touches are appreciated, even if it's still a little hard to believe that a police commissioner spends most of his time getting his hands dirty on actual cases.
While Columbo and McCloud often spiced things up with well-known guest stars, Hudson must have been considered enough of a star to carry McMillan and Wife himself. Joe E. Ross, Claude Akins, Wally Cox, and Tyne Daly are the biggest names this season can cough up, and they're not always featured in the same way as they were in the other Mystery Movies, as either murder victims or killers. This was true of the remaining seasons of the show as well, all of which forewent star power in favor of more antics from Hudson and the increasingly popular Saint James.
Like most TV on DVD releases from the 1970s, Universal's overdue McMillan and Wife: Season One isn't going to wow anyone on presentation, but it's adequate for the material at hand. The included episodes look sharper and brighter than those currently making the rounds in syndication, but minor source artifacts and grain crop up every now and again. The mono 2.0 soundtrack is pretty typical for a TV show from the 1970s, cramped and slightly muffled, but noticeably better than some of the other shows from this vintage. Music and dialogue come through more than sufficiently. Fans of the show will also be disappointed to discover that there are no extras included.
McMillan and Wife was certainly the least impressive of the three original NBC Mystery Movie shows, but it's still generally enjoyable as a whole. There are several rough patches in the first season, but fans of The Thin Man will certainly appreciate this "old school" twist on the popular 1970s detective show. More casual viewers, however, should probably stick with their Columbo sets.
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