Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting our coverage on the best of Get Smart (1965-1969, NBC; 1969-1970, CBS), available in full on DVD and Amazon Prime.
Get Smart stars DON ADAMS as Maxwell Smart, BARBARA FELDON as Agent 99, and EDWARD PLATT as the Chief.
As someone who gets enjoyment from vintage entertainments in large part because of their historical value — how they tell us about the time in which they were first intended for consumption — I appreciate Get Smart for being iconically ’60s. Not only does it boast, like most ’60s comedies, a high-concept premise anchored by a big, unforgettable comic personality, it’s also a trendy Cold War fantasy, engaging in the era’s “spy craze” that was best embodied seriously by the James Bond films, which began in 1962, and comedically by The Pink Panther, released in 1963. However, I must admit that my decision to cover Get Smart was less about the nature or quality of the series itself than the pedigree of the people involved, for aside from being created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry — two talented funnymen whose auteurship is often a major source of contemporary focus — the show starred the hilarious Don Adams, a standup comic who had made the variety show rounds in the ’50s but had recently delighted audiences on the just-cancelled The Bill Dana Show. Additionally, it was executive produced by Mad Libs maker Leonard Stern, a seminal figure on this blog whose credits include classics like The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show, along with forgotten gems like I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster and He & She. We started talking about Stern in last week’s rerun post on The Honeymooners, for an association between these two series reinforces a central truth about Get Smart: all its major creative minds had a background in the comedy-variety world, which sparked a strand of sitcoms that, like sketches, were more enamored of their funny premises (or ideas/story) than by nuanced, well-defined characters. Now, okay, most sitcoms from this decade are in that idea-first category, especially the high-concept ones, but this variety aesthetic is extra obvious with Get Smart, for the winking foundation of its premise is analogous to one of the most common ways humor is found in sketch comedy: from parody. This is what Brooks was offering in his famous movie takeoffs on Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows, what Henry had employed on the U.S. version of the very topical That Was The Week That Was, and what Stern had been conditioned to do with Jackie Gleason’s Bickersons-like The Honeymooners (and then later supplied for Steve Allen’s primetime show, where he first worked with Adams — stay tuned).
Indeed, Get Smart is a parody of the spy genre — that’s how it was conceived, that’s how it is written — and more than just adding high-concept decorations to low-concept structures, like many of these ’60s fantasy shows, this is a beat-by-beat lampoon of an ostentatious story type. Therefore, it has ostentatious story, and derives the majority of its laughs from mocking their attached clichés. Character is but a means to this satirical end, and although, like many of these high-concept efforts, Get Smart offers a brilliant, iconic personality (Adams’ Maxwell Smart), he’s under the thumb of his series’ premise, which drives every script. In other words, seldom does plot exist because of Max or his apparent quirks. Oh, sure, his bumbling sometimes complicates his mission, and it certainly contributes to the show’s humor (with classic catchphrases in tow), but most story only arises out of the premise’s desire to spoof ’60s spy flicks/shows, and Max is subordinate to these prioritized intentions. So, while Get Smart uses its lead for its parodical aims — thereby making him vital (a quasi-incompetent goof is necessary here) — Max is not leading his show, the comic idea of sending up a genre is, and he has limited depth as a result of this idea-first, sketch-like design. What’s more, this diminished regard for character is even more glaring in the other two regulars: the chief and Agent 99. Both are used only in relation to Max — his boss and his lady partner — and they have scant functionality beyond these structural hooks. I mean, who is 99? She never gets a name, let alone a personality that could be developed for the sake of story or comedy. And even when NBC adds domesticity to the spoofable equation by forcing the two to marry, the new emotional stakes of their relationship never actually give Max’s better half a character. She still only exists for premise/story, but without the definition that would allow her to better serve or motivate it. Thus, Get Smart’s unideal display of character — which hinders the show, especially as it runs out of fresh tropes directly related to the spy element — is why I suggested above that my interest had little do with its nature or quality, for, frankly, I didn’t (and still don’t) think it’s a terrific sitcom. That is, even by the standards of this high-concept premise-led decade, the show is not sustainably crafted — it exists only for a caricatured comic idea, making it little more than a sketch… in sitcom form.
Accordingly, the show lives and dies on the strength of its ideas, and no matter who’s writing them — other notable scribes throughout the years include Arnie Rosen, Arne Sultan, Jess Oppenheimer, Allan Burns, and Chris Hayward — they’re all beholden to the premise, or the ideas that said premise requires. We’ll talk specifically about the series’ trajectory in the weeks ahead, but here I’ll note that none of these great writers is able to break Get Smart out of its chosen parameters; once the figurative well of mockable spy yarns/gags dries up, so does its quality, as their scripts’ use of character is never made to be compensatory — or allowed to be, based on Brooks and Henry’s established standards, where ideas matter most. As such, the best, most spy-spoofing plots unsurprisingly reside in the first two seasons, with a noticeable decline thereafter. And yet, while we often like to attribute this drop to changes at the top — for instance, Brooks’ contributions stop after One, Henry left in the middle of Two, and Stern’s own involvement was spotty, as he added other shows to his roster (some of which we’ll discuss soon) — I believe that had they remained in control (no pun intended), the same problems would have occurred, for this is what happens to all high-concept shows that subjugate character: they exhaust creative variations on their premise. And like sketch comedy, Get Smart is only as sharp as the weekly notion sustaining it. That said, one of the tonics to this problem is creating a buffet of possible idea-generators, and Get Smart does some of this; despite shallow character work, the series’ amplification of peripheral players in a well-built world helps to alleviate the narrative burden of direct parody. That means, by creating additional good guys like Agent 13 and Larabee, and bad guys like The Claw and Siegfried, Get Smart develops a continuity of drama (and comedy) that reinforces the show’s lampoon of filmed spydom, while instead making a clearer utilization of the series’ own particulars, à la a sitcom, as opposed to its genre-focused conventions, à la a sketch. Now, the writing is never able to surmount the simple fact that its ideas reign supreme (for better and for worse), but any internal support, even peripheral, is good — and this also extends to its celebrated technological gadgets, which drove a lot of the series’ appeal in the ’60s, primarily with its younger viewers.
I call Season Two Get Smart’s most ideal due to its cultivation of a unique universe, as “novelty meets knowingness.” In the sophomore year, the premise is still fresh enough to generate worthwhile plots, but the show has settled more into its complete identity, which includes the recurring use of fun characters like Siegfried (Bernie Kopell), who isn’t featured in One, along with all of Max’s famous gizmos (and catchphrases), for which the series is remembered today. However, if Two is the ideal, One is right behind it — it’s no slouch in introducing memorable players (Hymie, Claw, Harry Hoo, Agent 44, Parker), and it may even be the most consistent, as almost all its ideas honor the premise. And while I minimized Brooks’, Henry’s, and Stern’s involvement as it pertains to the show’s later quality, that’s not to say they aren’t instrumental to its early quality. In fact, story editor Henry, in particular, deserves much praise for establishing and routinizing the series’ pronounced comic ethos, which is another crucial part of its identity, as Stern’s guiding focus keeps plot on track — unlike later years, rarely is there an idea that doesn’t fit the show’s interests. As for where Get Smart fits within his oeuvre, although it, like all of Stern’s efforts, displays his New York variety origins, this one is “workplace” and unusually high-concept; most of his shows enjoy low-concept domesticity, relying more on character (as in He & She). Yet, next to The Honeymooners, this is his most lauded — Get Smart got four Emmy nods in 1966 alone! — for it delivers comic ideas that are, in this period, supremely well-rendered (with assistance from first season producer Jay Sandrich), worth studying for a joyful understanding not just of the ’60s, but also of its key architects’ styles, which all blend together, per the premise, for some pitch-perfect and hysterical satire. Ultimately, then, choosing to discuss this series because of its creative forces has revealed, in study, something better: even if Get Smart isn’t a great “sitcom” as I define it, for pure idea-based hilarity in half-hour form, its output in 1965-’66 and 1966-’67 (and even 1967-’68) is strong for what we’ve covered from this era, and I’m glad that its episodes are here. So, finding the samples that best satisfy its premise’s terms — and showcase both the iconic Maxwell Smart and these scribes’ mingled comic flair — is the criteria I’ve set when picking ten entries to exemplify this year’s finest.
01) Episode 1: “Mr. Big” (Aired: 09/18/65)
Max pairs with Agent 99 to thwart Mr. Big’s threat to blow up the Statue of Liberty.
Written by Mel Brooks & Buck Henry | Directed by Howard Morris
Brooks and Henry’s pilot beautifully establishes the series’ premise — with a terrific opening where Max’s iconic shoe phone rings while he’s watching a concert, and a delightful “meet-cute” between 86 and 99. There are plenty of laughs, the pacing is brisk, and even though the show will take time to build out other parts of its identity, this is a great primer for what Get Smart wants to be. Vito Scotti guests. (Also, it’s the only episode in black-and-white.)
02) Episode 2: “Diplomat’s Daughter” (Aired: 09/25/65)
Max tangles with The Claw while trying to protect a beautiful princess.
Written by Gerald Gardner & Dee Caruso | Directed by Paul Bogart
The first script by Gardner and Caruso — two scribes whom Henry had brought over with him from That Was The Week That Was — this installment feels even more like Get Smart than its predecessor, courtesy of many fun gags and the introduction of the series’ first recurring villain, the Craw, err Claw (Leonard Strong), who’ll return for an even better outing below. Also, 99’s jealousy creates an emotional stake that fuels the comedy by giving her a perspective.
03) Episode 10: “Our Man In Leotards” (Aired: 11/20/65)
Max goes undercover to stop a special freezing drug from being used on an ambassador.
Written by Mel Brooks and Gary Belkin | Directed by Richard Donner
There are a lot of solid shows here in Season One, but I’m bumping up “Our Man In Leotards” because, honestly, I wanted to highlight at least one more entry by Brooks, for his influence on Get Smart is almost as seminal as Henry’s in giving the series the imaginative spark that drives all its later successes — and this offering, while also featuring the premise ideally, is a memorable testament to the show’s sense of humor (which, as this script indicates, is often broad). Michael Pate and John Stephenson are among this episode’s many guest performers.
04) Episode 12: “My Nephew The Spy” (Aired: 12/04/65)
Max’s aunt and uncle visit, not knowing that Max is a spy.
Written by Arne Sultan & Marvin Worth | Directed by Bruce Bilson
Although I appreciate Get Smart for trying to avoid the common fantasy trope of the main characters having to hide their identity from others, dimensionalizing Max requires seeing more of his personal life, so when we’re able to meet some family, it’s usually a boon to his character. It can also be very funny, like in this outing (by Steve Allen scribes Sultan and Worth), which also boasts dependable Maudie Prickett and Charles Lane as Max’s unknowing aunt and uncle, to whom he passes off a captured KAOS assassin (Conrad Janis) as an old army buddy.
05) Episode 13: “Aboard The Orient Express” (Aired: 12/11/65)
Max and 99 step in when CONTROL agents are being murdered on the Orient Express.
Written by Robert C. Dennis & Earl Barret | Directed by Frank McDonald
Among the more famous offerings, this installment claims a well-remembered cameo by Johnny Carson. But I like it best for its tight scripting, which uses the ubiquitous train setting for a Murder On The Orient Express parody that works within the series’ necessary spy parameters. Also, this entry premieres Victor French as Agent 44, who always gets the lousy assignments.
06) Episode 19: “Back To The Old Drawing Board” (Aired: 01/29/66)
KAOS tries to kidnap a CONTROL scientist, with the help of robot Hymie.
Written by C.F. L’Amoreaux [alias Gary Clarke] | Directed by Bruce Bilson
Dick Gautier’s Hymie, a humanlike robot created by KAOS, makes his debut in this hysterical outing that’s on the short list for this series’ best, capitalizing on both Get Smart’s spy premise and its fascination with ’60s technology, which is a significant part of its charm. It’s also another show with boffo laughs — my favorite being the mirror routine with Adams and Gautier, who work well together in every episode in which the latter appears, but especially this one.
07) Episode 25: “The Amazing Harry Hoo” (Aired: 03/12/66)
Max gets help from Harry Hoo when a case takes him to San Francisco.
Written by Gerald Gardner & Dee Caruso | Directed by Gary Nelson
Like the Craw, err Claw, Harry Hoo (Joey Forman) is another iconic guest whom I wish the show used more often, for he’s a comic dynamo, allowing the text to ratchet up its parody — he’s a clear Charlie Chan takeoff — while leaning into the lunacy of the performances. As with “Diplomat’s Daughter,” this entry is culturally insensitive by 21st century standards, but it’s a time capsule from a specific time and place, and it’s an unmitigated success by that era’s metrics.
08) Episode 27: “Ship Of Spies (I)” (Aired: 04/02/66)
Max and 99 hop on a freighter to recover stolen plans for a nuclear weapon.
Written by Leonard Stern & Buck Henry | Directed by Bruce Bilson
Henry and Stern are the credited authors of this classic two-parter, the second half of which I’ve chosen as my MVE, even though they really deserve to be spotlighted together as one. After all, they collectively earned an Emmy Award — in 1967 — for writing, and they both operate with the same rewarding idea: Max and 99 are shipboard while hoping to track down a KAOS agent whom they only know by a mysterious clip-clop sound… which is everywhere.
09) Episode 28: “Ship Of Spies (II)” (Aired: 04/09/66)
Max and 99 continue their shipboard mission.
Written by Leonard Stern & Buck Henry | Directed by Bruce Bilson
Part II is my choice for this season’s MVE (Most Valuable Episode), because it not only benefits from the strong story as previously established, it also uses its narrative givens to create some of the funniest gags of the entire series — every scene is a delight, with more from Agent 44 (who’s replaced by 13 hereafter), a fun blunder from 99, a classic bit with deck chairs, a well-choreographed hallway routine, and a memorable turn from Harold J. Stone as the bad guy. If you were to pick any singular outing to represent Get Smart, this would be a good candidate.
10) Episode 30: “The Last One In Is A Rotten Spy” (Aired: 05/07/66)
Max goes undercover to retrieve a list of KAOS agents from a Russian swimmer.
Written by Stan Burns & Mike Marmer | Directed by David Alexander
I seldom see this excursion counted as a fan favorite, but it’s an excellent showcase of Adams’ Maxwell Smart persona (as he’s refined it over the course of this first season), thanks to a script by Burns and Marmer (two scribes with whom Stern had worked on Steve Allen) that emphasizes his efforts, both in the text via catchphrases and in the plot via his bumbling, which complicates and propels the entire story. Also, Alice Ghostley is hilarious as a horny Soviet.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the formative “School Days,” the performance-led “Too Many Chiefs,” the Brooks-penned “Survival Of The Fattest,” the narratively fun “Dead Spy Scrawls,” and two emotionally interesting outings called “Double Agent” and “Kisses For KAOS.” (Incidentally, I am not a fan of “The Day Smart Turned Chicken”; I think it’s one of the few entries here that lets down Get Smart’s premise.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Get Smart goes to…
“Ship Of Spies (II)”
Come back next week for Season Two! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard!
I’m happy to see you covering GET SMART, which remains my favorite sitcom of the ’60s. While I fully understand your quibbles with its character limitations–and I have read your stuff long enough now to know that you value character-driven stories and laughs above just about all else in a sitcom–I long ago gave GET SMART a pass on this criteria because I just don’t think I should be judging a series with GET SMART’S satirical intentions the same way I would judge a more conventional, reality-based sitcom like THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.
Some of the concepts and ideas are so brilliantly inspired in GET SMART, that the thought of the premise strikes me as just as funny as the execution of it (example: the Cone of Silence). I feel the same way about Mel Brooks’ best movies (Blazing Saddles might be the funniest movie ever made–albeit one so aggressively politically incorrect that it could never be greenlit by any studio today).
I also think that Edward Platt did incredibly underrated work as the regular-Army, forever put-upon Chief (basically, the Dreyfus role in The Pink Panther films). The show also did a deft job of slipping some saltier material (by mid-’60s standards) under the radar in a manner that few comedy series’ in the ’60s were even attempting to broach.
I am an unabashed fan, and my only qualm about calling Season One the series’ best is that Siegfried doesn’t come along until Season Two, and every Siegfried episode was a guaranteed winner.
Hi, Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.
You’ve been around here for a while now, so you know me well!
I share your enthusiasm for the strength of GET SMART’s comic ideas — well, in its early years, anyway, when it has good ones in fresh supply. However, my concern over the series’ use of character is more than just a quibble: it’s a diagnosis for why the writing fails to sustain its quality. You see, without the characterizations necessary to support and/or supplant stories directly related to the high concept, the show is limiting its opportunities for laughs and plot, both of which could have helped fuel its premised desire for parody as the run progressed. This is therefore a weakness, counterintuitive to GET SMART’s own goals and its achievement of regular, continued success.
Meanwhile, the value I put in character-led comedy is evidence-based: it’s a learned recognition throughout this blog’s run of how the Sitcom (capital S) best functions — regardless of era or premise. And while I am generally in favor of maximizing enjoyment by letting a show establish its own standards for episodic merit, a survey of other contemporary shows (emphasis contemporary) in the same genre is necessary when adjudicating any one piece for its overall quality, for comparison/contrast is the only way to truly pinpoint strengths and weaknesses in the context of an evolutionary study.
GET SMART doesn’t deserve to be exempted from an association with other sitcoms — and, yes, it *is* a sitcom in form, if not always in content — merely because there are areas where it doesn’t stack up favorably. If it warranted exemption, then I also wouldn’t be able to fully celebrate the parts that are proven to be relatively superior, like the strength of its comic ideas — well, in its early years, anyway — and that would be a shame, for I definitely want to celebrate whatever I sincerely can!
Stay tuned for my thoughts on Season Two — next week!
I love “Get Smart”. Thanks so much for reviewing it. Did not realize that only the pilot was in B&W. I think “Hogan’s Hero’s” also only had their pilot in B&W. Don Adams was amazing in the series. He and Barbara Feldon had great chemistry together. I agree that it is fun watching this series and seeing all the 60’s elements. My wife and I like watching “That Girl” for the same reason.
Hi, Smitty! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Yes, the HOGAN’S HEROES pilot was in black-and-white as well!
And, incidentally, THAT GIRL is at the top of my list for future “rerun” candidates. Stay tuned…
The reluctance to flesh out the characters does have a bit of a mitigating benefit of not having to really delve into Max’s incompetence, as the most recent “Get Smart” movie with Steve Carrell did — that film made him a source of disdain and contempt to others at CONTROL which in turn was designed to quickly boost the audience’s sympathy for the character.
As Brooks, Henry and Stern set things up in the original, Ed Platt’s Chief knows Max is inept, 99 seems to grasp it (though that often seemed to be situational based on this week’s story), and some of the people at KAOS get it. But almost everyone else at CONTROL was free to ignore the reality of that because of the shallow characterizations, where a fuller development of their personalities would have been tough to work around the bumbling that’s at the heart of the show — if anything, the later seasons of “Get Smart” leaned into this by making ineptness at CONTROL even more status quo, as Robert Karvelas’ Larabee went from a relative straight man in the early seasons to a source of comedy by Season 4 (William Schallert’s Admiral Hargrade at least had the advantage of being well past retirement age to explain his problems).
It definitely created a distance between the characters and the viewing audience that played out negatively in the later seasons, and which the marriage and the children was designed to try and fix. But if the goal was just rapid-fire gags, the lack of character development did permit the writers to stay focused on that, without getting sidetracked by anything other than finally running out of original ideas.
Hi, J! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I half agree; I don’t think GET SMART’s capacity for well-defined characters was inherently in opposition to its desired lack of self-awareness regarding Max’s parodically motivated ineptitude. That is, the show didn’t need its leads to acknowledge the comic irony of the premise in order for them to have the flaws, perspectives, and objectives necessary to better motivate humorous story that could affirm said premise.
However, I certainly agree with what I think is your larger point: the regulars’ lack of consistent awareness about something so seemingly obvious is a threat to their believability. I would only add that the audience is *always* more cognizant of Max’s unsuitability for his job than everyone else is (even the Chief), which means this is a foundational issue — it’s not unique to the later years specifically and it’s not a concern that could change enough to explain why the later years are inferior.
Stay tuned for more on the final seasons soon…
Looking forward to your thoughts on this show. Don Adams seemed to be born to play Maxwell Smart. ;-)
Any plans to cover Buck Henry’s other series “Captain Nice” as a Wildcard post?
Hi, MikeGPA! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Maybe. Stay tuned!
Thanks again for your excellent commentary.
My view is that a sitcom based on the spy genre pretty much had to be done the way Don Adams and the creators approached it, and that accounts for how well it did.
Smart has to be incompetent and oblivious (and the show not really address it) for the show to work. I don’t think this show works with someone like Bob Denver or Don Knotts in the lead. It’s interesting, though, when Gilligan’s Island did their spy parody episode, Denver chose to play the role straight, as a competent spy. That worked for that particular episode, but I don’t think it’s a sustainable approach long term, because it puts too much pressure on other elements of the show to provide humor.
Smart’s incompetence and catch phrases take some of the pressure off the plot and situation to constantly provide humor. They are a continuing, serial element. James Bond, a heroic spy, is already a fairly ridiculous character, and Smart’s incompetence actually humanizes a character whose “normal” version isn’t particularly relatable deep down.
The shows like Mr. Terrific or Captain Nice that openly commented on the hero’s incompetence didn’t work, because it subverts the actual plots too much. Smart’s incompetent, but he charges on regardless, and the show can riff off the nature of the villain and the situation towards its resolution. I also don’t want a self aware Smart with some nagging wife, again because it subverts the actual spy plots too much. Adams as Smart provided the humor through his approach, and also was committed enough to allow additional humor through the situation. It’s why the later episodes with the whole baby arc are particularly dire, they just don’t fit the concept of the show.
Smart’s incompetence also humanizes the overall concept by syncing up with things like the Cone Of Silence, which never works, despite Smart always wanting to use it. Or the idea the Control and KAOS have limited budgets.
There are some interesting parallels with Hogan’s Heroes, another show whose pilot only is in B&W. The Hogan’s Heroes pilot is more cartoonish than the rest of the episodes, whereas Get Smart set off in the opposite direction. Hogan’s Heroes did have a lot of character humor with Klink and Schultz, which was necessitated by its format where they are continued, unresolved antagonists. The format dictated the opportunities for character development. Similar types of development wouldn’t have worked for Get Smart.
Hi, jayz755! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I agree that the show couldn’t make its lead character, or any of its regulars, totally aware of the comic irony sustaining its parodical premise if it wanted to continue using said parodical premise as the major source of its comedy, but I’m not on board with the notion that a bumbling Max inherently humanizes him; heightened incompetence is even more unbelievable for a spy than Bond’s heightened competence, especially without some telegraphed awareness about the corresponding leap of faith the audience is asked to make. It’s an exaggeration, and an intrinsically illogical one, without emotional support.
Also, while this premise never would have been able to depict Max as a fully believable, dimensional character as a result of his satirically demanded outrageous depiction — which is *the* limitation of the series — it still could have better defined the particulars of his life and his personality, not to mention the other regulars’, to encourage different stories that would have prolonged the show’s ability to satisfy its spy-spoofing objective. Specifically, I vehemently disagree that GET SMART was incapable of creating relationships à la HOGAN’S HEROES that could have further developed the leads for better use in more motivated plots.
For instance, what’s stopping Max from having a rival at CONTROL? What’s stopping the Chief from having a love interest at KAOS? What’s stopping 99 from having a best friend who doesn’t know she’s a spy? There are dozens of possibilities that would put the characters, and the dynamics between characters in this case, into a more forward position, taking the burden off the premise’s narrative-based satire, while still upholding the comic lunacy of the concept (in a way that the gadgets can only do peripherally, without a bearing on whether an episode works or not).
There’s a reason the Siegfried offerings, particularly the early ones, are so popular — they create a continuity of character, which sparks comic story that also, most importantly, satisfies the premise. GET SMART absolutely could have done more of this — it was NOT the most perfect version of what it could be. Fortunately, though, it had strong enough comic ideas to meet its intended satire and be great for several years, and with such a constrained premise — and a constrained understanding of it — that’s a remarkable feat on its own terms.
More on a lot of these subjects (including the final seasons) soon…
I apologize if this isn’t the best worded (I actually prefer the spy parody genre better than the spy one itself): Are there other spy genre conventions that could have been used to develop character more? Or what elements of the spy genre do you think the show could have parodied / satirized even more to develop character?
In a way, in the post I am responding to you, you mention some other conventions that could have been used (rivals, family, work related issues, friends, etc.). With respect to these, which are more typical to sitcoms, I think the show could have also satirized / parodied typical sitcom conventions to develop character.
Hi, Christopher! Thanks for reading and commenting.
And no need to apologize; I appreciate the question.
No, I don’t think looking to more conventions/tropes of the spy genre is beneficial to the development of character, because, by definition, the emphasis is on the comic idea — the satire — instead of the characters themselves. That’s the whole problem.
Every suggestion I cited above is, as you noted, a more relationship-based arrangement typical of the sitcom genre. But they affirm the premise by working within the bounds of “Maxwell Smart is a bumbling spy” setup and therefore can reinforce the intended parody by contextualizing the high concept within more low-concept structures and ideas, which give more weight to character.
As such, I believe it wasn’t impossible to make the show more character-driven than it ended up being, even if the premise would always take prominence (along with the comic ideas that work best for it).
Stay tuned for more…
The Chief and 99 can have those relationships. But they’re spies. They don’t reveal these things, even to each other. We never learn 99’s actual name or much about her. Her love for Max humanizes her. We only learn the Chief’s first name because Max forces him to reveal it in court. Max is incompetent, so he doesn’t have the relationships with his relatives squared away, so it’s funny when they come by. 99 has either broken her ties or is discreet enough that everything is separate. And there’s no conflict and humor in that.
Mission: Impossible is a case in point of a contemporary espionage show where there were next to no reveals of character or personal characteristics of the heroes. It gets in the way of their jobs.
The spy genre is an inversion of some of these other shows where someone has a secret. On Bewitched, Darrin is still going to be an ad man without witchcraft. Tony Nelson is still going to be an astronaut without Jeannie. Even Hogan’s Heroes, the most similar successful show to Get Smart, Hogan and company are agents, but the POW camp was a real setting. Hogan can still have believable interactions with Klink and Schultz because there’s still a base identity to play off of. Max and the other agents don’t have that. If they have a relationship with someone, there’s going to be an ulterior motive. 99 isn’t going to put up with Gladys Kravitz, she’ll just move somewhere else. She wants to live somewhere without nosy neighbors or where she is doing the spying on the neighbors.
That’s why Get Smart focused on the workaday world of spies for the relationships it could build there. So the riffs on Max bumbling into reveals, 99’s love for Max, failed technology, and budget issues humanize the show as much as possible for this format. I agree that Siegfried helps in this manner also, but Siegfried is already a deconstruction of the format in how he was portrayed. Making that a primary focus rather than a relief element probably isn’t possible.
Hogan’s Heroes was obviously a riff if not ripoff of Stalag 17, also the several other popular POW movies like Bridge On The River Kwai, The Great Escape, and Von Ryan’s Express. Get Smart likewise with the Bond pictures and other spy movies of the 1960s. Some of these shows are simply limited by the central premise. As you so well pointed out with The Beverly Hillbillies, since the hillbillies can never get more sophisticated even having lived their for years, what once where fresh relationships become stale and cartoonish. IMO Get Smart did not have a lot of avenues for growth beyond what made the show work in the first place.
Yes, GET SMART has a limited premise because its need for parody restricts its regulars’ emotional sincerity and insists that the comic focus remain on supportive narrative ideas. As a result, it will always be idea-driven and will never claim fully believable, dimensional characters. (And, you’re right, the same applies for HOGAN’S HEROES. Parody is common with high concepts.)
But your conception of this show is indicative of its unmotivated shortsightedness. In dismissing the possibility for more character-based ideas with a claim that the spy profession automatically prohibits a personal exploration of its agents, you’re imposing an artificial boundary that actually goes against the series’ premised intentions, ignoring that its comic engine is satire, which is predicated on ridiculing norms/expectations.
That is, no, a spy shouldn’t be overly friendly with his neighbor, but an incompetent one could be. And this relationship might set up a recurring structure that would accrue its own continuity, sparking more than just gags, but also possible story and story beats, alleviating GET SMART’s need to constantly spoof external narrative conventions, for now it could instead deliver the same parodical humor through something specific to the series that’s more emotionally identifiable and dramatically fruitful — while, most importantly, keeping the premise intact and reiterated by highlighting said spy’s incompetency.
As with the series itself, you seem to *sort of* allow this potential with Max, but argue that the Chief and Agent 99 are unable to reinforce the same kind of irony. Why? I suppose it’s due to the belief that Max needs to be surrounded by competency in order to emphasize his own comic juxtaposition. I get that.
But in a world where everyone is working with an inept spy but isn’t fully or consistently allowed to acknowledge the extent of his ineptitude, the series itself, and its regulars’ emotional sincerity, is already made to be compromised, so seeking to preserve a logic that never actually exists — and further constrains the comedic storytelling by blocking possibilities that also honor the premise’s givens — is foolish and unnecessary, especially because getting more personal with the Chief and 99, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re as incompetent, or dumb, as Max.
In other words, pretending that 99 having a friend (an example I quickly cited) would make her as stupid or incompetent as Max is disingenuous — it would make her human, and complicate her job as a spy, thereby yielding story and laughs. That’s a win-win-win. As for making 99 and the Chief more familiar with each other in the workplace — the “workaday world” as you called it — that would have been a good start, for there’s even less of an argument to explain why we don’t know more of them as coworkers.
At the very least, humans coexisting in the professional sphere should yield some kind of interpersonal tension based on differing personalities. We don’t even get that — they don’t have personalities — not to mention the comic irony of everyday problems plaguing super serious “save the world” missions, which would have satisfied the series’ tongue-in-cheek high concept and its overall comedic objective. (The “going on strike” and “cutback” storylines are idea-driven, not character-driven, so while they achieve a similar satire, they don’t reveal to us anything about the leads or who they are. This means they provide nothing in the long term and are less satisfying than they could have been in the short term.)
So, ultimately, there’s no good excuse for treating the individual developments of the Chief and 99 as mutually exclusive with the show’s premise, for these ideas are not in opposition — in fact, developing them would have aided the series’ parodical goals and prolonged its qualitative longevity. That’s why I don’t blame the premise alone for GET SMART’s shortcomings — there was more it could have done.
(And, incidentally, I need to once again note that assuming Max’s bumbling would be used to “humanize” him to the audience misses the premise’s overt crusade for parody and the way it positions him within a world that doesn’t fully acknowledge his bumbling: a decision that forces him to remain more a credulity-stretching vessel for comic ideas — an upholder of the satire — rather than a believable purveyor of them in motivated story. This is therefore something that doesn’t bring us closer to his character, but keeps us further away, and it’s the result of a core limitation within the premise that can never be solved without a major change in intentions. This is also why it’s so hard, but not impossible, for him to inspire plot on his own, and why support from the other regulars, with uniquely defined characterizations for all, is a must.)