With the emphasis Nero Wolfe puts on eating and drinking well, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart expects Nero Wolfe to be the first drama series to appear on the Food Network.
"If you want the kind of detective who will dive in heedlessly based on requests from a stranger, Mr. Goodwin will give you some names and addresses."—Nero Wolfe to a client
"You're a goddamned screwball, that's all I know."—Inspector Cramer to Nero Wolfe
If I told you about a cable detective series about a crime-solving but phobia-ridden genius who rarely leaves the house, fears shaking hands with clients, eats lunch and dinner at precisely the same time every day, has a pathological fear of women, and constantly bickers with a streetwise, tough-talking assistant whom he relies on, you'd probably tell me you've already heard of Monk.
True, but the suspect under scrutiny here is Nero Wolfe. This A&E series premiered in 2001, a year before Monk made his debut and faded out with a summer run in 2002, raising suspicions that two phobic private eyes on the cable beat were one too many. Pfui!
Nero Wolfe differs from Adrian Monk mainly because while Monk goes out into the world to solve cases and hopes to overcome his phobias, Wolfe (Maury Chaykin, Dances With Wolves) has Archie Goodwin (Timothy Hutton, Iceman, The Falcon and the Snowman), his loyal assistant, bring suspects and witnesses to him so he can question them in the comfort of his office while sipping a microbrew beer. Instead of working as a means of curing his phobias, Wolfe works when he has to in order to support his insular existence in a stylish New York brownstone with a rooftop greenhouse for his prize orchids, eating gourmet meals prepared by his talented chef Fritz (Colin Fox, Mrs. Winterbourne). Chaykin points to this well-known character motivation in the "Making of Nero Wolfe" featurette. The wealthy Wolfe has built a cozy habitat suited to his needs, and doesn't want to interact with the world at large if he can help it.
One more difference between Monk and Wolfe: This reclusive hero weighs "one-seventh of a ton," as Archie puts it, thanks to his sedentary lifestyle and those gourmet meals, prepared with the best, farm-fresh, seasonal ingredients and microbrew beers. Listening to Nero Wolfe expound on his favorite recipe might provide you with a cooking tip or two, but be warned that he's an intense gourmet. How intense? He argues that those who boil corn in water instead of roasting it should be boiled themselves. Even Anthony Bourdain might have reservations about an argument like that.
The protagonist's agoraphobic tendencies make Nero Wolfe something that has eluded budget-minded TV producers for decades: the perfect "bottle show." Wolfe's agorophobia means that most of the action takes place in his West 35th Street brownstone. The stories are more believable when they're mostly limited to a few regular sets, such as Wolfe's office and that famous orchid room.
Wolfe, of course, wasn't created for television. The character—and the stories in this TV series—first appeared in Rex Stout's 1934 novel Fer-de-Lance and more than 70 subsequent stories. Filmic adaptations have been attempted before, most memorably a 1979 TV series with William Conrad, but nothing in that "bottle show" floated with audiences for very long, either. Pfui!
The show evokes retro noir images with its supporting cast and tongue-in-cheek tough guy narration by Timothy Hutton as Archie, but never too seriously. As for firm dates, there are few to pin down, although episodes evoke the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s variously, complete with period scores, clothes, and furnishings.
If you want to know the details of Wolfe's earlier life after watching this light detective series, read Rex Stout's The Black Mountain, which deals with Wolfe's life in Montenegro and lets Archie in on who his boss once was.
Facts of the Case
Nero Wolfe: The Complete Classic Whodunit Series (the word "classic" probably isn't appropriate for any 2001 show, since it implies age as well as quality) features all 30 hours of the series. Most of the episodes were two-parters (a likely contributing factor to Nero Wolfe's demise on TV), but that's not a problem on DVD, since you can view the whole thing at your convenience:
The plot elements in Nero Wolfe are standard: Someone arrives at Wolfe's door, trying to coax the genius into taking a case by summarizing the problem at hand. He reluctantly takes it, quite possibly after a murder has taken place to force his hand. Wolfe brings in the suspects, who generally bicker and try to implicate each other. The mystery gets solved with a wild gambit hatched by Wolfe, hopefully without prompting another murder. Archie rounds up the suspects so that Wolfe can deliver his conclusions before them and Inspector Cramer (Bill Smitrovich, The Practice), who just wants to know whodunnit as Wolfe launches into his elaborate explanations, only to get a curt "I'm telling you!" as Wolfe continues his spiel.
Then, there's the dame. There's always a dame. She could be the same dame you saw last week, too, because the show had one more unusual aspect—a repertorial cast. Most frequently, the dame is essayed by Kari Matchett (Invasion), who plays Goodwin's regular girlfriend Lily Rowan. While she plays differently each week, Matchett is at her most sympathetic as a troubled widow in "Prisoner's Base" and at her most hilarious as a 1960s-style swingin' nightclub singer who wins the heart of the "big man" as she takes an interest in his orchids in "Death of a Doxy."
Among the guest stars, you'll find Cynthia Watros (Lost) taking the role of the dame in "The Silent Speaker." Since the packaging doesn't have guest cast information, I was surprised when I watched Watros die as Libby on Lost after making a date with Hurley, then popped a DVD into the player and saw her die as Phoebe, who had just made a date with Archie Goodwin. This is as good a place as any to note that Archie lands more dates than Hurley does, but his dames often die—or prove murderous themselves.
Like many TV detective shows, Nero Wolfe puts its emphasis on humor, mainly through the bickering between Nero and Archie, rather than on the case. Interviewing of suspects at times is literally cursory, depicted with fast montages that just let you know it's been done but don't give you a clue as to what, if anything, Wolfe gleaned from the interrogations. The withheld bits of information that let you enjoy the detective's crazy stings sometimes leave Wolfe's deductions a bit too puzzling.
How does this play out? Take, for example, "Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Moe." The one-line summary in the TV listings would look something like this: "Wolfe spills a drop of barbecue sauce on his tie, setting off a murderous chain of events." That's not an episode description you'd expect to see on 24 or Law and Order, but the plot works here, since it plays up Wolfe's quirks perfectly.
"Wolfe can't stand a spot of his clothes, even in private, so he left it on his desk," Archie explains.
Immediately afterward, Archie greets a potential client, leaving her in Wolfe's office while he goes to fetch the detective. Wolfe's working with his orchids, so it takes a while for Archie to cajole him into coming downstairs. That's enough time for another, unknown visitor to Wolfe's office to make sure that the potential client never reaches her potential, strangling the woman with Wolfe's stained necktie.
The murder shakes Wolfe up enough that he loses his appetite, so we get to watch chef Fritz plead with the normally receptive Wolfe to have just a little bite to eat. When Wolfe does give in and take a bite, you know he's got a clue—finally.
Wolfe takes the murder as a personal slight, describing the police who troop through as an "army of occupation" and saying he feels "rancor" toward the killer. At least I think it was toward the killer; it could have been toward the police for messing up his office while conducting an investigation or Archie for letting a client in while Wolfe was with his beloved orchids, but I'll give Wolfe the benefit of the doubt.
While Wolfe rarely left the brownstone in the Rex Stout stories, this series adapts several of the stories in which he did step out into the world. The one that best gives viewers a snapshot of Wolfe is "The Next Witness," in which Wolfe and Archie become fugitives after Wolfe storms out of a courtroom, forcing Wolfe to conduct an in-person investigation so that he can return home to gourmet meals and the book he's reading. Chaykin's Wolfe isn't as reluctant as you might think here, instead relishing eating chili con carne in a diner and an overnight stay with friend and colleague Saul Panzer in a tiny apartment. Wolfe's still not adjusted—pfui!—but you see that he's trying.
When you get to the pilot movie, "The Golden Spiders," you'll notice that the first Chaykin-Hutton Nero Wolfe adventure emphasizes the case, detection, and action more and its humor only punctuates scenes, while the series put the tongue-in-cheek elements in the forefront. The change in tone appears to explain why A&E Home Video put it on the last disc instead of the first one. The widescreen version of "The Silent Speaker" is included here, but the added dimensions didn't appear to add any dimensions to the episode and sometimes just looked lopsided. A "Making Of" featurette wasn't bad, even though it was essentially an ad for the series fleshed out for a half-hour time slot. Because the series has a unique style, it might have been nice to hear Chaykin, Hutton, and some of the repertory players discuss that style in an episode commentary or two.
If you look at Timothy Hutton, executive producer and sometimes director of Nero Wolfe, you might notice a resemblance to Arthur Lake, the cinematic Dagwood Bumstead, before you saw any resemblance to, say, Humphrey Bogart. While Hutton doesn't look like a noirish tough guy, he pulls off the role of Archie Goodwin with a light touch, using the stylized production and emphasis on comic banter and characterization to his advantage. If you've also seen Sin City, you might notice that Hutton's intentionally exaggerated, stylized performance came first. His Goodwin is more tongue-in-cheek than Nero Wolfe fans might expect, but he is engaging in the role. It seems odd that Hutton's name is first in the credits though, since it's not An Archie Goodwin Mystery. Hutton's also featured more prominently on the package, too, enough so that viewers unfamiliar with the novels or the series might even think the skinny guy is Nero Wolfe.
Maury Chaykin's Nero Wolfe is also exaggerated, with his domineering over clients and his erudite displays of exasperation ("It is the malefic spite of a sullen little soul with a crabbed and envious mind" is his way of describing a confrontation with Inspector Cramer). Wolfe is adept at judging men's motives, but when an attractive woman is involved, he inevitable turns to Archie with the question, "Does she lie?," as Chaykin himself stresses in the "Making of Nero Wolfe" featurettte. When he, on rare occasion, leaves the brownstone, he looks much like you'd picture the hapless Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces in his hat and overcoat, giving us a visual indicator of his isolation. Still, he plays Wolfe with a majesty that lets us know that there is a great mind at work there.
You get some over-the-top performances from the repertorial players, whether it's the tough Cramer who spits out all his lines with a barely controlled anger toward Wolfe and Archie or the dames whose voices carry a trill of delight when they flirt with Archie. They're not aiming at reality, but at a tongue-in-cheek trip back to period movies, TV shows, or radio dramas. The most famous of the players might be late writer George Plimpton, who appears as Wolfe's lawyer and in other roles, and Joe Flaherty (SCTV) as Wolfe's doctor.
The sets here are done in predominantly bright colors reminiscent of a supervillain's lair from the old Batman series. Red and blue walls and yellow furnishings grace Wolfe's office. A man coming in wearing a bright green jacket looking like The Riddler doesn't seem out of place on this show. Women tend to be noirish dames in bright blue or blood red dresses. Archie wears jackets of bright blue or green himself much of the time. Even the reclusive Wolfe dons cheerful yellow shirts for his rare interactions with people. You'll occasionally see a face lost in shadows, but they've done a good job with the picture, even if the colors tend to give it a candy-coated feel.
The stylish look draws attention to itself. When I saw Archie writhing in agony from a poetry reading at Lily Rowan's apartment, contemplating baseball to take his mind off the torture, I was contemplating the chair the poet sat in. If you're into retro design, watching Nero Wolfe will help you decorate your next pad, too.
The tightly-budgeted "bottle show" nature of Nero Wolfe is hidden by arty camera work. "Disguise for Murder" opens with a jazz score over a sequence of a cigarette being lit by an unseen hand, a pan of a royal flush of hearts, the barrel of a smoking gun, and, finally, the cards being shuffled and tossed in the air, again by unseen hands. A scene in "Prisoner's Base," in which Archie watches over a woman unpacking a suitcase, uses fast cuts to convey his interest without lingering on it. Sometimes the colors seem darker than they originally were in this transfer, but not so much as to be a distraction. The music that's prominent in nearly every scene comes through with panache and it doesn't drown out necessary dialogue (although a few lines here and there are purposely overshadowed by it).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'll have to admit that the stylized retro feel of Nero Wolfe is an acquired taste and, while it's good to get away from the "let's let the camera linger on the clue just to make sure you've got it" style of Murder, She Wrote, this Nero Wolfe does go too far the other way at times. The character humor is less subtle than in the Rex Stout novels, and the puzzle elements in stories like "Poison a la Carte," which shows Archie charting out his murder suspects' positions to illustrate that he knows one is lying, work better on the page than on TV.
While I would have liked to have seen more of Nero Wolfe on TV, I also realize that the cherry-picking of the Rex Stout stories that best play on the quirks of Wolfe and Archie in this series could have caused the series to run out of steam over a run of five or six years.
If you're already familiar with Wolfe and Archie, or want to take a mental and visual trip back to the swingin' past, you'll love this show. With all the two-parters, this version of Nero Wolfe is much easier to get into on DVD than it was in its initial cable run. In this incarnation, its stylish production could make it a cult favorite.
Pfui! Not guilty! While lighter in tone than the original Rex Stout novels, this series will be satisfactory to Wolfe fans and capable of abating most, if not all, of their rancor.
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• The Golden Spiders series pilot
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