Judge Mike Rubino self-destructed five seconds after writing this review. And it was his first one, too...
Our reviews of Mission: Impossible: The First TV Season (published December 13th, 2006), Mission: Impossible '88 Season (published December 8th, 2011), Mission: Impossible '89 Season (published February 28th, 2012), Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season (published May 6th, 2009), and Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season (published December 5th, 2007) are also available.
Expect the impossible!
Good morning, Jim. The DVD set you're looking at is for Mission: Impossible Season Two, a solid release of a classic television show. It ushers in some refinements to the series as well as this man: Peter Graves. You may remember him from the film Airplane!. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to read the rest of this review and forget about those Tom Cruise movies…for good. Good luck, Jim.
Facts of the Case
If you caught the first season of Mission: Impossible you probably have a good idea how the show works. But for the uninitiated, here's the rundown:
Jim Phelps is the leader of the Impossible Missions Force (IMF), and each episode he's given what appears to be an "impossible mission" (I know, you didn't see it coming). From there, he assembles his team of undercover agents, introduces some gadgets, and gets to work accomplishing the mission. The show follows a strict formula almost every episode, and while the setup is always the same, the plots are always impressively unique. Because of this setup, the show is extremely episodic, and plotlines almost never carry over. That means that you don't need to know anything about the show or the previous episodes; just sit down and watch!
Unlike the Cruise movies, the show focuses more on playing mind games with the enemies. The IM Force will go to great lengths to create elaborate traps and fake sets in order to liquify the brains of the bad guys. In this season, the team even fakes a nuclear explosion for a pair of evil-doers hiding out in a bomb shelter. They spare no expense for the mission and, of course, they always succeed.
Mission: Impossible was born out of the Cold War spy craze in the late 1960s, and it was one of the most successful shows of its kind. Season Two brings a lot more polish to the series, and also steps up the complexity of the missions, making Jim and his gang of spies work that much harder.
The first thing viewers will notice with Mission: Impossible Season Two is the absence of the first season's hero: Dan Briggs (played by Steven Hill). The season's first episode, "The Widow," begins with a broad-shouldered, white-haired Jim Phelps (played by Peter Graves) pressing play on the tape recorder. They make no mention of the switch, and there weren't any storylines that carried over from the previous season. Dan Briggs just disappeared, and I hardly miss him. Gone are Hill's stiff deliveries accompanied by elbows that never left his hips. Graves plays the role of ringleader with more confidence and charm, and is a welcome breath of fresh air to the series.
The rest of the Impossible Missions Force returns this season, and Martin Landau finally becomes a full-time cast member (if only for one season). Each of the characters has his or her own skill to bring to the mission: Rollin Hand (Landau) is a master of masks and magic tricks, Barney Collier (played by Greg Morris) is the mechanical wizard, Willie Armitage (played by Peter Lupus) is the muscle man, and Cinnamon Carter (played by Barbara Bain) is the woman—so she does all the flirting and girly undercover work. While the show sometimes introduces one-shot characters to help out on a specific mission, the crew generally stays the same. The chemistry between all of the characters can really be felt in this second season, and their banter and camaraderie seems more genuine than before.
Mission: Impossible plays by its own rules, which are generally: Tension over action; keep the audience guessing up until the last minute; keep locales generic so as not to outwardly offend; and offer next to no wrap-up.
Unlike the popular films, this show follows a very slow, plodding pace that relies on tension and confusion instead of big set pieces and explosions. Sure you'll find action in every episode, but it's usually confined to one or two scenes. Instead, the show takes the brains over brawn approach, in which the IMF members try to outwit the bad guys so that they implode and destroy themselves. The general "slowness" of the show is a welcome change of pace when compared to some of today's action-dramas, but I know it's not for everyone. Kids raised on high-adrenaline shows like 24 and the Mission: Impossible films will probably find the original series somewhat boring. It's a show that requires today's modern viewer to slow down and really take in this orchestra of espionage. If you can do that, you'll be rewarded with some great entertainment.
Each episode begins with the setup: Jim arrives at some strange location, finds a tape or a record, gets the mission, and watches the recording burst into smoke (which is always accompanied by this weird magical jingle for some reason). Jim then returns to his generic bachelor pad and begins choosing the operatives for the mission. In the second season of the show, this sort of ritual seems rather pointless. Nine times out of 10, Jim is picking the same core group of folks—and really, you can always see it coming: they're the only ones with color photos in the dossier. But the show sticks to its formula, even when it's superfluous. The scene that follows is Jim going over the plan with the team just enough to get the audience interested, while at the same time revealing next to nothing.
From the setup onward, the show requires your utmost attention. Yes, it moves slowly, but it also packs small meaningful clues along the way. Sometimes, the plan goes bad and things have to be improvised, other times, Barney will plant some sort of gadget early on and it won't make an appearance until the end of the episode. The show does a great job of stringing you along, and making every commercial break a mini-cliffhanger (usually involving a gun).
The direction of the second season's episodes is much cleaner than that of the first. The show is still filmed with a very cinematic eye, but gone are some of the abrupt editing hiccups and jump cuts. Each episode has the production values of a full-length movie, which is one of the reasons the show is still so watchable today. The show bounces back and forth between steady camera shots, usually during the espionage scenes, and shaky hand-held shots for action scenes. The shift between these two camera setups allows even the most mundane action scene to pop with excitement and panic. The show also takes a chance by introducing some very thoughtful framing. The camera will sometimes track low to the ground and wind up behind a tire, shooting through its center. In another scene, the camera might switch to a bird's-eye view, looking directly down at the action as a body is passed between two cars on a busy street. These camera angles elevate the show out of the traditional tel! evision setup while adding to the suspense. Most vital to the tension of the show is the constant use of the zoom. At least half a dozen times an episode, the camera will quickly zoom in to frame a character's eyes or stress the fact that someone is holding a gun. Mission: Impossible uses this technique almost as much as the kung-fu films of the time, lending more credence to the show's cinematic aspirations.
Season Two also features a number of two-part episodes that sport higher production values, exotic locales, and a deeper, more intricate plot. The first two-parter is called "The Slave," which features the crew infiltrating an underground slave-trading ring in a Muslim country. The story featured a grander plan and was generally very rewarding in the end. Later in the season, they did it again with "The Council," which featured the IM Force taking down the mafia. I would venture to say that this second two-parter was one of the best episodes in the season.
I love the fact that CBS and Paramount are releasing old shows like Mission: Impossible, but I just wish more time was being put into the production of the DVDs. The set doesn't have any special features, which is a true shame. This show begs to at least have a making-of documentary, exploring how the episodes were put together. It would also be nice to hear from members of the cast that are still alive, as well as the show's creators. There were a number of spy shows at the time, but this is the only one that survived as long as it did. CBS should be championing that with these DVD releases, using the popularity of the movies to reintroduce a new audience to a fabulous old show.
The video quality of the DVD transfer is a mixed bag. The video doesn't seem to have been remastered or touched up at all, so what you see is essentially what folks saw back in the 1960s. Sometimes the picture quality is rather excellent, filled with vibrant colors and sharp imagery. Other times, however, the picture is overcome with grain—usually during any of the quick zoom shots. This is all clearly from the show's original filming, and isn't any fault of the DVD release, but it would have been nice if CBS would have spent some time cleaning it up.
In the audio department, the show sounds fairly good. One of the most important aspects of this show was its timeless score. From the opening match strike to the ending credits, the show features fantastic spy jazz from Lalo Schifrin. There's nothing more rewarding than having the show's theme kick in the second the mission is completed, and the Dolby Digital transfer on the DVD does a great job with that. Again, the only issues with sound can be traced back to the show's original filming. Occasionally an actor will be muffled for a line or two (this seems to happen a lot to Willie for some reason).
I am continually impressed by the packaging design of CBS television DVDs. They do a great job capturing the look and feel of the series. Season Two comes in a metallic-blue slipcase with four translucent slim-line DVD cases holding seven discs. In an effort to appeal to people familiar with today's Mission: Impossible films, the box features the updated movie logo (you know, the sans-serif italics with the line cutting through it). Each DVD case features an episode list, in order of the original air date, complete with episode descriptions. The cases and discs each feature pictures of the different cast members. Overall it's a great presentation.
We are told to expect the impossible with this series—and you can surely do just that. The sneaky setups and over-the-top plots the IM Force hatch are never a letdown, providing you've got the patience to pay attention. It's a great show to watch on DVD. I just hope that eventually CBS puts out a season with some special features.
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