The first season of Mannix was campy, relaxing fun for me, skating past criticism thanks to its likeable star, jazzy vibe, and my nostalgia for old-school episodic TV in the vein of Mission: Impossible and The Rockford Files. The series changes gears in a good way in season two, only increasing my enthusiasm.
In season one, wisecracking tough guy PI Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) was a fish out of water in the sterile corridors of Intertect, a massive nationwide detective agency in which he clearly didn’t fit. In season two the inevitable occurs: Mannix goes solo, relocating to the charming offices of 17 Paseo Verde in Los Angeles. Gone is corporate overlord Lew Wickersham (Joseph Campanella), Mannix’s stiff friend, boss, and foil at the agency. His repacement co-star transforms the series.
Arriving as Mannix’s loyal, supremely confident secretary is Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher). Peggy is efficient, charming, and supportive, and could have been a throwaway character. But she’s also unique: an African-American woman, a single mother, and Mannix’ best friend. Especially considering the era in which the show was produced, she brings a refreshing new dynamic to the show, in multiple ways. First, she diversifies the cast of what had been a blindingly white series. Second, she more than adequately replaces the cold, clicking computers of Intertect; as the widow of a former police officer, Peggy has connections on the force, and interestingly the writers deploy Peggy like today’s writers would use the supporting Google Fu/Hacker character: an instant source of plot-advancing information. Most importantly Peggy brings an emotional component to a heretofore rather detached show. Her platonic chemistry with Mannix is instant, and their genuine friendship and concern for each other frequently lends weight to what might otherwise be generic case-of-the-week proceedings. Finally, Peggy turns out to be a more-than-adequate foil for Mannix’s impulsive, risk-taking ways. Lew Wickersham could never quite hold his own against Mannix’ brash confidence; Peggy does not have the problem, and while she’s often only a sounding board, she’s also clearly an equal, not afraid to call Mannix on his bullshit or roll her eyes sarcastically at his outbursts. Unfortunately not every writer knew how to leverage Peggy, and she is often woefully underused; but the show is never better than when she and Mannix are collaborating, arguing, and worrying about each other.
Mannix‘s weekly mysteries are often fairly disposable from a plot standpoint; I’m in it for the atmosphere and the characters more than the cases. But occasionally these later seasons deliver something else the first season lacked: compelling, standout episodes. Four in particular come to mind: “The Silent Cry,” in which Mannix assists a deaf woman who by chance lip-reads the ransom demands of a kidnapper; the suspenseful “End Game,” in which Mannix goes up against a mad bomber who turns out to be an old army squadmate; “Return to Summer Grove,” which sends Mannix to his hometown and explores his Armenian upbringing; and “The Sound of Darkness,” in which Mannix suffers an extended case of hysterical blindness, and works to live with his condition while preparing a trap for a killer. If this last one sounds like a problematic Very Special Episode, it might have been but isn’t, taking its time and treating the premise sensitively. Connors and Fisher play the scenes so beautifully that it’s hard not to be moved.
Again, Mannix isn’t likely to resonate with contemporary viewers whose filters have been irrevocably altered by the brilliant television of the last decade. But it’s become a comforting, nightly ritual for me, lured by my nostalgia for the Paramount studio backlots and the cadre of Mission: Impossible writers, directors, composers, and guest stars who made the show happen. Connors and Fisher have become one of my favorite TV tandems, and I expect I’ll follow this series through to the end.