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"Nero Wolfe gets what Nero Wolfe wants, or he throws a tantrum and I get fired."—Archie Goodwin
This is television done properly. To put it succinctly: fine job. If you like intricately wrought detective stories, pick this set up with pride. If you're like me and can take or leave the mystery genre, Nero Wolfe is worth a look because of its exceptional craftsmanship.
Success for television versions of the Nero Wolfe stories has been elusive until now. Producer-director-star Timothy Hutton has brought us a richly detailed, accurate, and devilishly amusing take on Nero Wolfe. There is a brief list of things the series creators got wrong, balanced by one-seventh of a ton's worth of things they got right. Nero Wolfe is a rare television series that will enthrall almost any audience.
Facts of the Case
This series of episodes is based upon Rex Stout's prolific body of work. The central partnership in the Nero Wolfe mysteries is between Nero Wolfe (Maury Chaykin, Dances With Wolves), an overweight but brilliant recluse, and Archie Goodwin (Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People), his dashing but provocative assistant. Wolfe shuffles around his New York brownstone tending to orchids, eating gourmet meals prepared by his Swiss chef, Fritz Brenner (Colin Fox, Beautiful Dreamers), and solving mysteries by pondering evidence brought to him by field operatives Saul, Fred and Orrie (Conrad Dunn, Fulvio Cecere and Trent McMullen). As Wolfe's right-hand man, Archie flirts or strong-arms his way to suspects and evidence while avoiding police entanglements. With an irate Inspector Cramer (Bill Smitrovich, Thirteen Days) breathing down their necks, the pair usually manages to convince suspects to convene at Wolfe's office, where he tricks the culprit into giving herself away. The entire affair is punctuated by snappy wisecracks from Archie and scornful diatribes from Wolfe.
Hutton and company obviously take pride in crafting these episodes. They spin a believable version of Wolfe's world for us, leaving us to marvel at their attention to detail. Period recreations are never simple, but I defy you to find anomalies.
It isn't just the sets and props that resonate; it is the warmth of the environment and characters. The ladies are so beguiling that you want to reach through the screen and caress their cheeks (I presume that the female viewers might have a similar reaction to Timothy Hutton). Through soft lighting and smooth dialogue we perceive a flirtatious tone. Other times call for hard lighting and hard words, and the very same sets and characters provide ominous tension.
Part of the magic is an outrageous color palette of purples and golds painted over a noirish mise-en-scène. Good sets make us want to be in them, and I'd love to poke around Wolfe's brownstone. (As long as Wolfe himself is not home, that is: The man is intimidating and not at all pleasant.) Careful compositions are revealed in sparkling detail; I've seen few television-to-DVD transfers of this caliber. Pores, beads of sweat, eyelashes, and other facial features are readily discernible. Wolfe's fat and florid face glowers at us with accurate, natural color. The fair women seem to have a layer of light hiding beneath their skin. Periodic flaws emerge, such as twittering around fine lines, but in general you will find the transfer pleasing.
Boogie-woogie meshes with classical in the score, creating a jaunty period vibe. Original music is haunting, dramatic, or uplifting at the right times. The music brings you further into the world.
The real jewel is the cast. The acting is top-notch in each episode, fueled by obvious chemistry among the actors. The series leads, particularly Hutton, Chaykin, and Smitrovich, stockpile simmering resentment and admiration that mount as the episodes wear on. Later episodes are richer because we know the history and we're aware of the reasons behind mutual dislike and grudging appreciation.
Hutton takes the lead through palpable enthusiasm for his role. Hutton is an actor who chooses projects. Nero Wolfe obviously struck him the right way, for he produced, directed, and starred in a handful of the episodes. I have difficulty discerning sometimes whether Hutton's jaunty gait represents an accurate interpretation of Goodwin's character or barely suppressed joy on Hutton's part. Either way, he dives headlong into the character, putting his stamp on it for all time.
Chaykin's brand of irascibility might give some fans pause, because he seems to lose his temper frequently. I say "seems to" because I choose to believe that Wolfe's outbursts are carefully considered means of attack. You'll notice that his diatribes often produce specific results. Whatever the case, it is hard to deny that Chaykin's vehemence and aloofness are entertaining to watch.
I could go on, mentioning each actor by name, but the truth is they all shine. Ensemble casts like unity, so in that spirit I say fine job to all. However, one detail bears emphasis. The non-recurring roles are played by a single troupe of actors that take on different parts as needed. The troupe includes (but is not limited to) James Tolkan, Kari Matchett, John L'Ecuyer, George Bloomfield, John Pepper, and Debra Monk. Tolkan lends his trademark bulldog intensity, while Monk gives her characters quirky grace and a hint of pranksterish glee. I most enjoyed Kari Matchett's masterful flirtations with Hutton, and I fell prey to her dimples more than once. It is remarkable how chameleon-like the actors are, assuming vastly different stances and inflections to create distinct characters. [Author's Note: It has come to my attention that John L'Ecuyer, George Bloomfield and John Pepper are directors, not cast members. Chalk it up to the dearth of clear cast info on the web.]
On one hand I appreciate the writers' refusals to pare down the stories. Few shortcuts are taken with the material, leaving densely convoluted plots. This also imparted a tendency in me to give up. Often, I would just rubber-stamp an opinion that the mystery had been adequately and cleverly solved while barely grasping the periphery of that cleverness. Of course it is this complexity, combined with stellar characterizations, that grants a high rewatchability factor to the episodes. Note that there are minor spoilers below, such as who the episode's victim will be. To avoid spoilers, avoid the first paragraph of each summary.
• "The Doorbell Rang"
"You're waving your legs around because your tail is between them."—Nero Wolfe
The series is introduced through a feature-length episode that pits Wolfe and Archie against the FBI. A rich political dilettante named Rachel Bruner draws the attention of Hoover's outfit by distributing copies of a book that critiques the FBI's methods. In retaliation, the feds are harassing her. She asks Wolfe to force the FBI to stop their surveillance of her and her friends. Is Nero Wolfe up to the imposing task, particularly when the situation is muddied by murder?
It seems that everyone's first exposure to Nero Wolfe tends to leave them in a befuddled stupor. I have come to this conclusion by introducing several people to this boxed set, but never with the same episode. The first episode they watch often strikes them as slow and confusing. Yet with the second episode, whatever it may be, people seem to laugh more, ponder more, and generally appreciate the eccentricities of the show.
I only mention this phenomenon because "The Doorbell Rang" was my first exposure to Nero Wolfe, and it left me in a befuddled stupor (until the end, but we'll get to that in a moment). The episode has little in the way of character introduction. As I watched this fat man berate his capable assistant, I wondered what all of the fuss was about. Is Nero really as popular and entertaining as I was led to believe?
Having watched the rest of the set (and having formed a more favorable attitude toward it), I can only wonder whether unfamiliarity was the culprit. Nonetheless, I found this episode slowly paced. The customary banter doesn't seem to have hit full steam. In addition, a pesky black-and-white twittery band across the top of the screen distracted me throughout the episode.
"The Doorbell Rang" earned its keep with the denouement, which
neatly wrapped up an entire host of loose ends. It was a creative knot to tie,
and it gave me an appreciation for the wit behind the characters. Emboldened by
this glimmer of excitement, I tackled the next case.
• "Champagne for One"
"You said I would demean myself. You didn't say I would get involved in an unprofitable homicide."—Archie Goodwin
Archie is roped into attending a dinner party for unwed mothers. When he arrives (to the chagrin of the hostess), he is informed that one of the mothers has threatened suicide and that she has cyanide in her purse. Soon afterward, she dies of cyanide poisoning. Everyone swears it is a suicide. Everyone, that is, except for Archie.
The pace and dialogue pick up a little, providing more of a sense of
movement. Archie's character is unleashed in full. The mystery itself isn't as
involved as later episodes, but to hit full stride in episode two is
• "Prisoner's Base"
Wolfe: Your presence here, Miss Eads, is preposterous. This is neither a
rooming house, nor an asylum for hysterical women. It is my—
A mysterious woman asks to stay in Nero Wolfe's brownstone, and Archie all but agrees. When Nero discovers her presence he casts her out. Shortly thereafter she is killed. Archie feels responsible and goes out searching for her murderer, but only with Wolfe's help will he uncover the truth.
If Archie's character came into its own with "Champagne for One," "Prisoner's Base" brings us the full measure of Wolfe's character. In fact, both Archie and Wolfe are at their argumentative best, sniping at and harassing each other with aplomb. There is a running feud over Archie's paycheck that highlights the ridiculousness of grown men acting like boys on the playground. Their byplay alone is enough to hold our interest.
Fortunately, we get much more. There are women: sensual, flirtatious, maddening women with lacy things and pouty lips. There is an angry, relentless plot. Above all, there is a thorny murder mystery laced with political ramifications and police incompetence. "Prisoner's Base" fires on all cylinders.
In one tense scene, Archie has to act quickly to avert disaster. He thinks at lightning speed, but even as his solution tumbles out we can see its flaw. To say the least, disaster wins the day. What honesty! Archie's deconstruction of the events is a moment of piercing commentary on the human condition.
Another memorable scene has Archie confronting a grief-addled widow. He
asserts his presence in her life with ease. Her reactions of shock are
priceless. In fact, nearly every interaction between two people in this episode
• "Eeny Miney Murder Moe"
"Rancor is a pimple on the brain!"—Nero Wolfe
Though irascible, Nero Wolfe rarely loses his cool. It takes the murder of a woman in Wolfe's office with his own necktie to accomplish such a feat. With Wolfe addled, Archie must pick up the slack. Wolfe will have to suck it up, because the suspects in this case are four smart lawyers, one of whom was seen in a compromising position by the deceased.
The inflammatory relationship between Archie and Wolfe reaches new heights
when Archie uses a dead woman as ammunition to harass Wolfe. Such calloused
repartee reveals just how deep their interpersonal struggle goes:
The dialogue almost takes on life, becoming its own character. Good dialogue
makes a story better, but great dialogue becomes its own destination. At times I
failed to pick up on what was happening in terms of the plot because I was so
enamored of the dialogue. Wolfe's speech about rancor becomes a running thread
through subsequent episodes.
• "Disguise for Murder"
Wolfe: We still have plenty of ham left?
Wolfe opens his doors to the Manhattan Flower Club for a showing of his orchids. The resultant flood of guests represents about 20 flower enthusiasts and 200 gawkers curious about Nero Wolfe's residence. For the second time, a woman is murdered in Wolfe's office, which leads an irate Inspector Cramer to take over the brownstone.
The actual mystery takes a back seat to brimming tensions between Cramer and Wolfe. The episode is somewhat slow and unbelievable, but scathing dialogue makes up for it.
The episode also features artistic opening shots and creative reuse of a set from the previous episode (a card game conversation continues). This is a technique we will see repeated shortly when scenes at a flamingo dance club span two episodes. Touches like this give Nero Wolfe class.
Archie shines in a dangerous ruse in which he takes to the streets in a
cat-and-mouse game that is reminiscent of film noir. The last scenes are hair
raising; Nero Wolfe rarely contains pure action sequences, so the effect
• "Door to Death"
Nero Wolfe: May I sit down?
Nero Wolfe travels to Westchester to ask the Pitcairns' gardener to defect to his brownstone. When he arrives in Westchester, he finds that a woman has been murdered and his would-be gardener is the prime suspect. Completely out of his element, Wolfe must infiltrate the mansion and trick the murderer into a confession in time for dinner.
We've learned over the course of these episodes that Wolfe is something of a neurotic. He never leaves his home, and he seems particularly uncomfortable with physical activity of any kind. The payoff in this episode is in watching Wolfe navigate alien territory, where obstacles such as mud puddles and tree branches thwart his resolve. The episode becomes character-based slapstick that relies on Wolfe's dignity for its fuel.
The investigation itself is interesting because Wolfe and Archie resort to
less scrupulous tactics to win the day. It is amusing that Wolfe exercises the
utmost decorum when $100,000 is on the line, but when an accomplished gardener
is the prize he will stoop to mudslinging, forced entry, and blackmail.
• "Christmas Party"
Archie claims to be engaged and piques Wolfe's curiosity. Wolfe uses a creative means to spy on Archie at a Christmas party, which comes in handy when Archie finds himself mixed up in murder.
I won't go so far as to call this one a bad episode. It is the only non-A episode out of the bunch, but it still earns a B. Simply through contrast, it seems a bit weaker.
Things rest on shaky ground. We never buy Archie's proclamations of love.
The whole premise of Wolfe leaving the brownstone just to spy is hard to
swallow. The murder and subsequent investigation are full of twists and action,
but some of the twists make little sense. However, the Nero Wolfe
trademarks are all in place, so how bad could it really be?
• "Over My Dead Body"
"Chinless scoundrel! Never trust a man without a chin!"—Nero Wolfe
Wolfe's long-abandoned daughter arrives in New York from Eastern Europe to ask his help. She is swept up in intrigue involving diamonds, foresting rights, and royalty. Nero holds his daughter at arm's length while he investigates the issues. His daughter happens to be an accomplished fencer who works as an instructor. When her foil renders a man dead, Wolfe may find that a woman scorned is deadly. One thing is clear: People will kill for the royal decree in Wolfe's hands, and he has to figure out what to do with it.
Everything is right with this episode, from its dark tone to the convoluted
plot to the spite-filled characters. We learn quite a bit about Nero's past, his
motivations, and why he keeps emotion and women at bay. Archie is in top form
but takes a back seat to the fireworks between Nero and the women. "Over My
Dead Body" is both harsh and touching, stoic and kinetic. As a finale to
the season, it is just explosive enough to blow us away while retaining complete
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The problem has been adequately handled, but you should be aware that early editions of this boxed set contained cut episodes. When it was brought to their attention, A&E reproduced the set with all footage included. A round "Collector's Edition" sticker tips you off that the set is complete.
This sticker is a bit ironic, however, because Nero Wolfe—The Complete First Season is distinctly un-collector's-editionish. The extras are so completely unsatisfying that I'd almost rather they weren't included at all. Two limp "Cast" filmographies give half-hearted information about the two lead actors. It would have been a true extra had A&E taken the time to really detail the cast, specifically the non-recurrent roles matched to the recurrent actors who played them. This information is not in the IMDb or in any of the top Google searches, which pretty much leaves you scanning the credits and taking notes if you want to trace the actors through their roles. Another notable omission is the pilot episode, "The Golden Spiders," which I understand is on set number two.
Though the audio and visual aspects are generally laudable, certain annoyances arise. An oscillating black-and-white line plagues the top of several episodes, which is thoroughly distracting. If you view on a standard television or you can adjust your overscan this may not be an issue, but for those without the capability it will be frustrating. The precious dialogue is sometimes muffled, so that I had to back up a few times and hunker down for serious lip reading. Closed Captioning is supposed to be part of the package, but I never got the captions to show.
Mystery and nonmystery fans alike owe it to themselves to invest in Nero Wolfe. After an episode or two, you will eagerly anticipate the next wisecrack from Archie, the next outburst from Wolfe. It isn't just a tale or two with some nifty twists; it is a world that you will enjoy exploring. Part comedy, part drama, and part mystery, Nero Wolfe is all entertainment.
Pfui! This is flummery!
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