This is Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger. At the tone leave your name, message, and fanboy hate mail. I'll get back to you.
Our reviews of The Rockford Files: Season One (published January 11th, 2006), The Rockford Files: Season Three (published February 6th, 2008), The Rockford Files: Season Six (published January 21st, 2009), and The Rockford Files: Movie Collection, Volume 1 (published November 4th, 2009) are also available.
"This is Jim Rockford. At the tone leave your name and message. I'll get back to you."—Jim's answering machine message
Read that charge again: "This is Jim Rockford. At the tone leave your name and message. I'll get back to you." Not much to it, is there? Just a nondescript answering machine message, like any out of a million others across the country. Yet fans of The Rockford Files thrill to those words. That's the beauty of Stephen J. Cannell's first hit series: He takes everyday charm to a whole new level.
Two standard points are de rigueur when dissecting the enduring success of The Rockford Files: the everyman appeal of the show, and the natural, comfortable fit between Jim Garner and his laconic P.I. Jim Rockford would think poorly of me for using a term like "de rigueur" to describe his show. He would scowl, take a drag from his cup of coffee, and get rid of me as expediently as possible. Not get rid of in Sopranos fashion, with concrete shoes and a throw from the pier. No, he'd just make up a story about being late for an appointment and then hustle me to the door. That's the plain kind of guy he is. And as time wore on, Rockford Files viewers grew more and more entranced with these trivial moments that made this show tick. None of it would have worked without Jim Garner's phenomenal charisma and low-key take on the material. Siskel's famous litmus test for an acting performance was "is this less interesting than a documentary about the same actors eating lunch?" Garner's PI pretty much did just that. He went fishing, he ate lunch, he got calls from bill collectors or his dry cleaner…and it was fascinating. People could see themselves as Rockford or as one of his buddies, which gave the show an innate appeal.
I have to come clean because my take on the show is skewed somewhat. People may be able to see themselves as Rockford, but my dad was Rockford. I mean it: During the run of the show, my dad, Jim, was a private investigator who eschewed handguns, liked to go fishing, and went undercover to bust up embezzling rings and such. He drove a modest car, dressed down when he needed to blend in, and took cases exactly like those Rockford took on. Think he tuned in every week? You bet. And there I was in my footie pajamas, thinking The Rockford Files was some kind of P.I. training program. Fortunately, even the filter of my childhood experience cannot totally color the facts: The Rockford Files was recently named the best detective show of all time by TV Guide. So any residual enthusiasm I have for the show is justified.
Though the first season is good, Season Two is arguably the better set for fans. For one thing, its main extra is the series pilot that was missing from the previous boxed set. Though Jim's dad is played by Robert Donley instead of Noah Beery Jr., the essential chemistry of the show is captured perfectly out of the gate. Speaking of chemistry, another reason to prefer this season is that the writers and cast began to ignore executive mandates in favor of doing their thing. See, Cannell had based The Rockford Files around a "regular guy" P.I. with a self-deprecating sense of humor. That humor was often forcibly excised from Season One by squirrelly execs, but it's back for Season Two.
Season Two gives us these fine episodes:
• "The Aaron Ironwood School of Success"
The basic gist of these episodes is that an old buddy/damsel in distress comes knocking on Rockford's door. He's drinking coffee, or arguing about bills, or getting cheap takeout…you know, regular guy stuff. Before he knows it, Rockford is up to his neck in a plot involving the mafia/crooked millionaires/corrupt real estate developers—a plot he tries desperately to extricate himself from post haste. But somehow his sense of pride is awakened, and Rockford does something sneaky to bring the perp to justice. He often winds up in jail/loses his shirt/gets punched out for his trouble. That tongue-in-cheek synopsis doesn't do justice to the pleasing cadence of any given episode, which is better than the formula.
The season starts off with a delightfully hammy performance by James Hampton (Sling Blade…and I could swear I saw him playing an Aaron Ironwood-ish character in Out of Sight, too). Perhaps the quintessential Rockford "buddy," he emerges from the past with a pasted on smile and a whole heap of trouble in his wake. Cannell et. al re-establish the Rockford formula by putting Jim into a "dare to be a hero" situation. He must choose between saving his friend's business or standing up to the mob. Naturally, he throws the business to the wolves and gets away as fast as he can, telling Mr. Ironwood to kiss his grits (or something to that effect).
The next episode evidences some of the pacing problems that Judge Paul Corupe pointed out in his review of Season One. Rockford poses as an oil tycoon and sets up a derrick on the lawn of a resort. It is an amusing sight gag…but do we really need a fifteen-minute montage of drilling footage to get the point? Fortunately, the delicious heat between Rockford and the hottie of the week starts up in this episode with Audrey (Linda Evans, Dynasty), a con woman who gives Jim a run for his money.
Indeed, there are many fine female companions for Jim this season. My favorite is the fiery P.I., 'Tina' Dusseau (Stefanie Powers, Hart to Hart), who drags Rockford into more than her fair share of trouble—including sniper attacks and police entanglements. Jesse Welles (Soap) also makes an impression as a bereaved Colonel's daughter; she would go on to play a couple more Rockford damsels in later episodes. Between the jail baits, femmes fatale, and just plain brassy women Rockford encounters in the course of his work, there's lots of eye candy.
But the show has a serious side, perhaps best represented by "The Hammer of C Block." Gandolph "Gandy" Fitch (Issac Hayes) shows up on Jim's doorstep and calls him "Rockfish" (in a voice so deep it would thrum your internal organs if the mono track in this set had been a little stronger). This is one ex-con with an attitude. Turns out he was technically innocent of the murder rap and he wants some payback. The twisted finale is so piercing and so morally gray that it is difficult to tell who was in the right. It left me thinking about the law, suicide, paternal responsibility, and love.
Deep stuff for a detective show. In fact, this season is remarkably consistent, with great-to-good episodes at every turn. The only clunker in the bunch is "Where's Houston?" and even that one is watchable. Between Garner's considerable charm, the show's great chemistry, the consistent writing, and the comely guest stars, there is a lot to like. Throw in a vintage Cannell interview and the series pilot—you have a winner.
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Scales of Justice
• Series Pilot
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