TV – Kolchak: The Night Stalker

It took me a long time to work my way through Kolchak: The Night Stalkerand it may, in fact, be overly generous to say that I truly watched it. But the semi-professional TV historian in me felt compelled to see this one through, at least as background viewing. It does, after all, possess a quirky place in the canon as an early, quite literal “monster-of-the-week” show, with a lingering influence on subsequent genre fare. That influence may be undeniable, but unfortunately the content itself doesn’t hold up terribly well.

The eponymous hero is Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin), a rumpled gadfly journalist who works for the Independent News Service in Chicago. Technically, Kolchak reports to bureau editor Tony Vicenzo (Simon Oakland), but his stubborn curiosity frequently compels him to disregard Tony’s conventional assignments in pursuit of edgier, stranger stories involving supernatural phenomena. Kolchak’s dogged, obnoxious methods have made enemies all over the city, particularly with the revolving door of police lieutenants that oversee the bizarre mysteries he’s trying to solve. But in the end, Kolchak has an uncanny eye for uncovering the inexplicable dangers that lurk in the shadows of the city—even if he can never quite manage to convince the wider world of his shocking discoveries.

On paper, Kolchak: The Night Stalker is a promising idea, and it’s certainly easy to see how its DNA found it way into more accomplished successors like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A modern viewer with specific, throwback proclivities might get a kick out of the way its episodic-reset rhythms crash into quirky, unique-for-its-time subject matter. But overall, the show is derailed by a main character whose unlikable traits—chauvanism, intellectual bullying, know-it-all arrogance—are never quite redeemed by better qualities, or even compelling competence. Largely steered by an early-career David Chase, Kolchak generally pits the clumsy, blowhard antics of its hero against rosters of skeptical guest stars in unpleasant argument, ultimately culminating in a close call with the weekly menace. Unfortunately, this is Chase in his rambly Rockford Files mode rather than his eloquent Sopranos mode, which means there’s a glut of semi-clever banter and stream-of-consciousness, but no captivating depth. The show’s flaws might have been mitigated by Kolchak being more charismatic and competent, but he is essentially an unruly, boorish, insubordinate reporter who spends every episode disparaging almost everyone he meets—especially poor Tony. (Oakland may have one of TV history’s most thankless roles in this one.) Is it a ground-breaking show that deserves notoreity? To a degree, sure,  but its nostalgic charms likely won’t resonate for those who missed the initial discovery window; for me, it certainly missed the mark.

Darren McGavin in Kolchak: The Night Stalker
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