TV: Mannix (Seasons 4-8)

Well, the great Mannix marathon is over. I’ve powered through all 194 episodes of this unsung private eye show, and while my inner modern TV viewer found it dated and repetitive, the comfort-food-seeking, old-school TV viewer in me enjoyed every minute of it.

Mannix chronicles the exploits of Joe Mannix (Mike Connors), a private detective in Los Angeles. Mannix is an old-fashioned hero: a former Korean war hero and college football star, a man of action and integrity who doesn’t care about money, runs toward danger, and lights up at the sight of a beautiful woman. While he’s his own boss, he more or less works as an extended arm of the police force, constantly staying one step ahead of the lieutenants that form his extended social network. Indeed, outside of Mannix’s loyal, ultra-competent secretary Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher), Mannix’s recurring police contacts provide the only real world-building continuity across eight lengthy seasons. Most frequent among his cop friends is Lieutenant Art Malcolm (Ward Wood), a no-nonsense old-timer with a skeptical eye and a foghorn voice, but the best is Lieutenant Adam Tobias (Robert Reed). Appearing periodically whenever he could escape his Brady Bunch duties, Reed played his argumentative interactions with Mannix as a cranky cynic, even as his respect and friendship shined through; his rapport with Connors is effortless, and his appearances are always a treat.

After an awkward first season, Mannix stepped up its game in season two with the addition of Gail Fisher, and really hit its stride with the season 3 episode “The Sound of Darkness,” a showcase episode for Connors and a breakout moment for Mannix as a vulnerable, relatable hero. Alas, the remaining seasons don’t deliver another episode quite as outstanding as that one, although there are still some highlights. Season 4’s “The Mouse That Died” has a nifty premise: Mannix stumbles across an enemy espionage outfit, who try to subtly take him out with a slow-acting poison; his subsequent illness and hallucinations make for  suspenseful ticking clock, not to mention wonderfully weird, Prisoneresque visuals. I also liked “The Inside Man,” wherein Mannix goes on a long-term, deep-cover assignment to infiltrate a New Orleans mafia oufit. If that one feels like a held-over Mission: Impossible episode, the two-part “Race Against Time” in season 7 may well be retooled Mission script: Mannix’s task is to smuggle a doctor into a Latin American dictatorship in order to save the life of a rebel leader. Here, Mannix really gets his Rollin Hand on. Alas, while I’m sure other favorites would jump out at me on a second run-through, setpiece episodes like “The Sound of Darkness” and “End Game” are rarities; Mannix is more about Joe Mannix than his cases, and the episodes tend to bleed into each other in the memory, filled with recurring actors in new parts, a consistent stable of directors and writers, and in at least two cases, scripts that were obviously re-shot from earlier seasons.

The repetitiveness of Mannix is disappointing, but also kind of endearing. The show almost always delivers its signature elements: good-natured banter with Peggy, skeptical exchanges with the police, vicious villainy, untrustworthy clients. After fifteen seasons of Mannix and Mission: Impossible combined, I could probably draw a map of the Paramount studio backlot, but recognizing these exteriors never ruined the moment—nor did the re-used soundstage interiors, which included a frequently made-over Brady Bunch living room. It’s all part of the cozy. Of course, there’s the action: for its era, Mannix was violent stuff, full of fistfights and shootouts and car chases. The show occasionally contrived some almost comical action sequences: Mannix, full cast on one foot, waddling for his life with a tractor trying to run him down; Mannix, bouncing uncomfortably over bumpy terrain in a dune buggy; Mannix, taking on a room full of thugs while in a straight jacket, thundering around like an out-of-control rhinoceros. It’s a rare episode in which Mannix doesn’t get hit over the head and knocked unconscious; I used to think Jim Rockford got clobbered a lot, but Mannix must be several cases of post-concussion syndrome beyond that. The fact that Connors is a rugged, physical actor who does many of his own stunts makes it easier to buy his toughness, not to mention get invested in his struggle. But the outcome, of course, is never in doubt.

mannix-splshAlas, the show never entirely cashes in on the potential of the terrific Gail Fisher, whose Peggy Fair is too often little more than a supportive background presence. Clearly, most of the writers didn’t know how to write for Peggy, who isn’t given much to do beyond serve coffee, share hunches, and raise her eyebrows at Mannix’s rash behavior or questionable decisions. The infrequent episodes that showcased Peggy usually placed her in some kind of peril to motivate Joe. An exception is “The World Between,” in which Peggy is wounded in the course of her duties and stumbles into a mystery while recovering in the hospital. In another unlikely episode, season 6’s “Out of the Night,” Peggy—a professional, single mother—goes undercover as a prostitute to help Mannix bust a drug ring, pulling off her role brilliantly. This episode is frustrating, because it shows Fisher’s range while being hopelessly out of character for Peggy; the experiment wouldn’t be repeated. Too often, she doesn’t appear at all. It does make those episodes wherein the Mannix-Peggy teamwork is on full display all the more worth savoring, and Connors and Fisher play the friendship so naturally and winningly that it lifts those hours up with heart and camaraderie.

Anyway, it’s hard not to see why the show focused so centrally on Connors, whose effortless charisma carries the series even through its weaker episodes. He’s a classic TV star, and clearly a consummate professional; it’s hard to imagine how rigorous those 24-episode seasons must have been for an actor appearing in nearly every scene. Mannix starts cocky, perhaps too perfect, but evolves into something more: an emblem of the regular joe trying to do the right thing, for his own reasons, despite the cost. It’s a kind of hero that might not play believably in modern TV, but nowadays that makes it refreshing, giving it a nostalgic charm. The world could use a little more Joe Mannix right about now.


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