The Ten Best GET SMART Episodes of Season Four

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week we’re finally continuing 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.

If we had to take an intermission, it came at the best time, for many fans draw a natural line between Get Smart’s first three years and its last two, largely because of a change in quality. Now, as you may know, there’s a tendency to blame this era’s change — a decline, really — on what delineates Four and Five from their predecessors. For most, that means targeting the network-mandated marriage of 86 and 99. For others, it means looking behind the scenes, at changes in the writers and their new sensibilities. And still another popular school of thought hinges its criticism around these years’ looser fidelity to logic, particularly with Max, whom many charge as being less intelligent, and therefore less believable. But my study has revealed that disappointments from this final era are merely extensions of percolating trends from even its greatest seasons, and, frankly, we’ve already pinpointed the core problem undergirding them all: Get Smart is “aligned with the idea-driven form of situation comedy, where the comedic premise — in this case, a parodical one — matters more than the characters within it. In this design, success is most dependent on having good ideas — comic storylines that reinforce the intended satire within the bounds of a high concept. Unfortunately, the shelf life of a series like this is unavoidably brief unless there are regulars who can both support said high concept and eventually propel comic storylines that meet its demands.” Sadly, these last two years definitively prove that the show never cultivated “the well-defined personalities that scripts are going to need when the novelty of the premise is gone and the original ideas directly related to satirizing a genre are no longer in fresh supply,” for that’s exactly what happens — the novelty of the premise is gone and the original ideas directly related to satirizing a genre are no longer in fresh supply. This is the crux of why Four and Five fail. And indeed, all of these accompanying concerns are familiar, for as we saw in Three, the series’ dwindling ability to explicitly spoof elements of the spy genre (or works within it) has never been countered by any internally rendered satire from story-inspiring characters (they aren’t defined enough); instead, the shtick has remained externally focused… eventually turning to genres or works that have little to do with the premise and accordingly don’t belong (like Rear Window and The Prisoner Of Zenda).

However, 86 and 99’s forced marriage (with a wedding that NBC designed to boost the show’s eroding Nielsens) is often seen as the cause of this inferiority, as Max’s newfound domesticity is a narrative construct that never yields more utilizable characterizations and also seems antithetical to the series’ parodical aims, injecting a grounding emotional bond (à la a sitcom) into a winking storytelling that has no room for anything beyond gags (à la a sketch). And yet, contrary to most, I don’t think the marriage is intrinsically opposed to Get Smart’s premise, and I don’t blame the chronically ill-defined, nuance-less characterizations on this, a late-stage development. First, the clichés and conventions of the domestic sitcom could have been used to further the show’s sendup of spydom via juxtaposition, emphasizing the contrast between Maxwell Smart’s personal “normalcy” — something agents of James Bond’s ilk don’t have — with the tropes and trappings of his professional career, which would get lampooned simply by being in this new low-concept comic context, heightening every genre-led tweak. Second, this new romantic bond could have helped foster, if not legitimately well-developed characterizations (especially not for Max, as his existence as a tool for parody limits his capacity for dimension — not entirely, but significantly), then at least a relationship that could propel ideas, which is what this series needs most. For instance, although 99’s feelings for 86 have been sporadically acknowledged in previous seasons, mainstreaming them here could have provided her with a new perspective, objectives, and even flaws, which all could have potentially generated comic conflict in collision with his. But alas, the season falters on both fronts. Instead of 99 actually getting more of a personality, our new personal understanding of the character is essentially confined to the introduction of Jane Dulo in the recurring role of her mom… which is fine — she’s a funny, albeit shallow, addition — but just as we saw in Season Two, peripheral distractions don’t open up the principals themselves for story. What’s more, the year struggles to properly pair its satire with its new development, too often leaving ideas either totally domestic and non-parodic (e.g. Max gets an engagement ring stuck on his finger) or only externally parodic and, by this time, not well linked to the chosen premise (e.g. a Bonnie & Clyde takeoff).

Either way, it points to the same thing: the show is no longer concocting fresh story directly affiliated with the spy genre. Now, because these final years seldom manage to strike gold — while doing little for the characters, mainly 99 — it’s fair to acknowledge the writers’ role in this ongoing decline, for they don’t seize upon the opportunities before them. However, I also believe these problems would have existed, to a large extent, no matter who was then writing the show, for its standards of success have always been fixed around the quality of ideas, and even at the series’ peak, it was clear that unless the characters were quickly positioned to help shoulder more of this premise’s story-cultivating burden, ideas would run dry and quality would then curdle. So, as a result of previous inaction, there’s only so much that can be done at this point with Max and 99 if the show is also going to preserve its premise and adhere to its own established standards. As for the writers, 11 of the year’s first 13 scripts are credited to four titans — Leonard Stern and Arne Sultan, who, of course, were major participants during Get Smart’s best seasons and clearly understand the series, and Allan Burns & Chris Hayward, who had just won an Emmy for their work (with Stern and Sultan) on Talent Associates’ He & She, a paragon of smart writing that conclusively proves their collective excellence, primarily with regard to character. If they — and especially Stern, who was previously hailed for his command of story — are unable to produce a strong collection of episodes, we can assume the problem transcends them. In fact, although the series’ storytelling in this era can’t consistently calibrate domesticity within its premise-rooted satire, and I’d plainly call 99’s lack of definition a chronic, seminal flaw, these low-concept character-oriented writers do attempt to use their strengths to improve the show. Yes, they struggle in coming up with good ideas that honor the premise (which, one could argue, was already tapped out), but they truly try to emphasize the series’ central characterization, who is its most crucial internal particular, and, because of his obligation to the premise, its boldest regular presence. To wit, I think it’s largely because these writers yearn to latch onto a great character in story befitting the series’ needs that they end up magnifying the only thing they know about him: his parodically charged ineptitude.

As such, you may notice that Max heightens in these final years — he’s goofier, more extreme — and for some, that’s disqualifying. But I’m less bothered by this, for the show’s satirical bent always rendered him an unbelievable character — making that leap was part of the premise — and while I do agree that the crusade for new comic story forces him to become even broader, or more cartoonish, I see all of this as a foundational conundrum. If Get Smart wasn’t so dependent on external sources of parody and could have instead maximized its possibilities with the lead so that he might better support internally created but premise-related ideas, Four would not only be less desperate for story, but there would also have been more to Max, such that when these scribes went to rely on him more, they wouldn’t be digging into something quite so limited. Plus, more basically, this is always a show where ideas inform character, so if there were better ideas, ones that centered Max more precisely in his James Bond sendup, his depiction wouldn’t feel so strained. Meanwhile, it’s also important to note that the latter half of Four — run by Sultan and Hayward (after Stern’s and Burns’ exits) — actually minimizes the heightened Max by beefing up Robert Karvelas’ Larabee, the Chief’s doltish assistant, who beyond aiding the spy-spoofing objective, both provides a reason to move away from the domesticity that it don’t know how to handle and helps to deemphasize Max’s silliness by putting him in a more collectively silly world. Again, some fans don’t consider a more all-encompassingly silly and less logical aesthetic to be beneficial — I agree; but it’s less of an issue for me here in Season Four than it is in Five, so I’ll save my thoughts on this for next week. As for Larabee himself, he, like Siegfried, can honor the series’ identity without harming the main character, so I support his usage… even though most scripts at the end of Four still fail to land, for the core problem remains: the show lacks premise-affirming ideas, as the leads can’t contribute internal satire in story, while all the external satire is tenuously connected to the premise. Thus, when NBC cancelled Get Smart in 1969, it may have still been a respected, Emmy-winning property — one that appealed to another network with its own goals — but its creative glories were long out of sight, and the ten entries I have picked to exemplify this year’s finest are proof.

 

01) Episode 88: “Snoopy Smart Vs. The Red Baron” (Aired: 09/28/68)

Max and 99 are on a mission to save the potatoes in Idaho — where 99’s mother lives.

Written by Mike Marmer | Directed by Reza Badiyi

My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Snoopy Smart Vs. The Red Baron” is one of only two scripts this year credited to former regular contributor Mike Marmer. Yet despite being an outlier in that regard, it’s actually a terrific sample of this particular season, boasting a narrative that can balance the engagement of its two central characters with spy trappings that satisfy the premise’s parodical necessities, essentially pulling off what only a few on this list can. That said, like Season Four itself, it’s still a comedown from past MVEs. For instance, Jane Dulo is introduced (in her first of three appearances this year), and, as suggested above, she’s a bit of a caricature whose depiction is both single-dimensional and incapable of actually exploring 99 any better. However, her inclusion does mark an attempt to do more with the leads’ personal lives and she’s a reliable source of laughs. Speaking of laughs, Bernie Kopell’s Siegfried and King Moody’s Starker are on hand too, and every story with them is better for it — adding internally built satire to what is otherwise, in this case, an externally predicated lampoon of Snoopy vs. the Red Baron. So, the major problems of this era are present, but in one of Four’s most flattering packages. (Also, Newhart’s Mary Frann has a small role.)

02) Episode 89: “Closely Watched Planes” (Aired: 10/05/68)

Max and 99 go undercover on an airplane.

Written by Arne Sultan and Chris Hayward & Allan Burns and Leonard Stern | Directed by Bruce Bilson

The bulk of this installment takes place on an airplane, where Max and 99 are both undercover, and while some big location-based shows rely more on their selected gimmicks (e.g. the year’s golf excursion, “I Shot 86 Today”) instead of the premise or the characters, this one reinforces the central concept through the spy genre’s technological interests, and it’s therefore a worthy addition to the series, with its identity relatively well-supported (for this era).

03) Episode 94: “The Return Of The Ancient Mariner” (Aired: 11/09/68)

Max has to protect his new best man, Admiral Hargrade, from the evil Chameleon.

Written by Arne Sultan and Chris Hayward & Allan Burns and Leonard Stern | Directed by Gary Nelson

William Schallert returns as the Admiral, a doddering nonagenarian who makes for a haha-boosting recurring player whenever he’s able to appear. In this offering, he needs protection from an enemy agent known as the Chameleon, who — in an example of what we’ll see more next week, when the series more regularly abandons logic for increasingly fantastical stories — is able to disguise himself as any form he chooses, which, naturally, leads to a lot of suspicion… particularly with Max and 99’s new interior decorator, Mr. Bob, played with characteristic verve by former He & She regular Jack Cassidy. Beyond these guests, though, the entry marries its spy plot to the leads’ personal life — the Admiral is now going to replace Hymie as Max’s best man — and that’s narratively intelligent (much more than most of this year’s output).

04) Episode 95: “With Love And Twitches” (Aired: 11/16/68)

Max swallows a top-secret “drinkable map” right before his wedding to 99.

Written by Arne Sultan and Chris Hayward & Allan Burns and Leonard Stern | Directed by Gary Nelson

With a big Sweeps wedding — the network’s focus when mandating an engagement arc and marriage — this outing is evidence to the year’s more larger-than-life comic storytelling, featuring a unique but ridiculous plot where Max swallows a “drinkable map” that is going to break out as a rash on his chest, but only if he remains upright for the next 48 hours… during which he’s supposed to get married. Fortunately, my threshold for the series’ broadness is high — again, I think the premise alone covers a huge leap — and this functional episode manages to compensate with big laughs, some of which come from guests like Alan Oppenheimer, 99’s mother, and, once more, the always funny Admiral. Big, but not disappointing.

05) Episode 96: “The Laser Blazer” (Aired: 11/30/68)

99 hires a maid who’s secretly a KAOS agent trying to retrieve a secret weapon.

Written by Mike Marmer | Directed by Jay Sandrich

Julie Newmar guest stars in this fun offering as a maid whom 99 hires, not knowing that she’s a KAOS agent out to retrieve Max’s new weapon: a blazer with a laser beam in its pocket. What I like best about this entry — aside from its script, by Marmer — is the way it’s able to juxtapose a typical domestic sitcom notion (the sexy maid) alongside an equally featured tech-based spy idea that highlights the premise’s absurdity and keeps some intended comic irony at the fore. And in being able to situate the new domesticity within that satirical genre-specific espionage requirement, this is an MVE contender. Also, it’s one of several shows directed by Jay Sandrich, and it includes Leonard Strong (formerly The Claw), who evokes memories of past classics.

06) Episode 97: “The Farkas Fracas” (Aired: 12/07/68)

The couple next door is a pair of KAOS agents.

Written by Arne Sultan and Chris Hayward & Allan Burns and Leonard Stern | Directed by Jay Sandrich

As with the above, “The Farkas Fracas” is one of the only episodes from Four that does a good job of using this new arrangement in Max’s home life to support the parodic premise, thanks to not only a typical domestic sitcom construct — the nosy neighbors — but also narrative beats that meet the spy-spoofing objective. Now, unlike the above, I can’t claim the script does most of the heavy-lifting (although it does find a recurring gag for 99 that allows her to help motivate some of the comedy), for actually, I think this one is most notable because of its guests — Tom Bosley and Alice Ghostley (who appeared in an affable first season segment as well). It’s because they don’t seem like spies that the comedy lands and the elemental satire is sustained.

07) Episode 99: “Schwartz’s Island” (Aired: 12/21/68)

Max and 99 are stranded on an island with Siegfried and his latest weapon.

Written by Arne Sultan and Chris Hayward & Allan Burns and Leonard Stern | Directed by Bruce Bilson

Siegfried and Starker are back for this amiable offering that strands its central duo on an uncharted isle and enjoys winking at Gilligan’s Island (see the title’s tribute to creator Sherwood Schwartz). But it does so subtly and without any desire for external parody — instead, it hits the satire through its use of these hilarious recurring villains, and their relationship to Max, deriving most of the laughs from givens created by the series itself… like any good sitcom!

08) Episode 109: “Leadside” (Aired: 03/08/69)

A menacing KAOS agent in a wheelchair vows to get revenge on Max.

Written by Lloyd Turner & Whitey Mitchell | Directed by Gary Nelson

With an ostentatious spoof of Ironside defining the episode’s antagonist, “Leadside” nevertheless isn’t just a sketch-like parody, for it actually uses the series’ spy premise well in a year that doesn’t. Additionally, there’s a great rapport between the CONTROL agents — 86, 99, the Chief, and Larabee, who is officially integrated into the series around Four’s midpoint and, by this script, already has enough of a personality to infuse all of his scenes with comic support. It’s for their more character-rich material, goosed by Larabee specifically, that I feature this one.

09) Episode 111: “The Not-So-Great Escape (I)” (Aired: 03/22/69)

CONTROL agents are being captured and taken to a KAOS prison camp run by Siegfried.

Written by Arne Sultan and Chris Hayward | Directed by Don Adams

Season Four’s two-part finale benefits greatly from the inclusions of Siegfried and Starker, who enliven a heavy takeoff of The Great Escape, Stalag 17, and Hogan’s Heroes, another idea-driven high-concept sitcom with parodical intentions. But Part I sets up its narrative with an emphasis on how its spy-based circumstances can get everyone into the camp, so it’s a decent example of a plot from this era that’s not premise-affirming, but can affirm the premise in its plotting.

10) Episode 112: “The Not-So-Great Escape (II)” (Aired: 03/29/69)

Max tries to break himself and the other CONTROL agents out of KAOS’ prison camp.

Written by Arne Sultan and Chris Hayward | Directed by Don Adams

While Part I better uses the show’s identity to motivate its external parody, Part II is sustained by the performances. This half hour takes place all in the camp as the text begins to more directly invoke The Great Escape, but the circumstances of the plot share prominence with these larger-than-life players, including Siegfried and Starker, who are never better. So, there are many laughs — it doesn’t exactly feel like Get Smart, but it’s funnier and displays the characters and their relationships better than Four’s other similarly parodic two-parter (mentioned below).

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention include: two entries close to the list, “The Day They Raided The Knights,” which is comedically worthwhile for Larabee’s usage, and “Absorb The Greek,” which pairs Max’s personal and professional worlds when 99 tries to play matchmaker with the Chief and her mother, along with “The Worst Best Man,” which features Dick Gautier’s Hymie, “A Tale Of Two Tails,” which guests Fred Willard and has an amusing idea about Max teaching spy school, and “To Sire, With Love (II),” the second half of a two-parter that revisits last year’s The Prisoner Of Zenda parody, but combines it this time, per Four’s new romantic stakes, with some elements of The Guardsman. Meanwhile, I don’t like these offerings, but I also want to cite “Shock It To Me,” which includes Tom Poston (for whom Get Smart was originally written), and “The Impossible Mission,” the year’s premiere, which has a grand comic centerpiece and seems to want to focus on Max, but otherwise has little to do with Get Smart’s premise and fails to motivate its big romantic confession.

 

*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Get Smart goes to…

“Snoopy Smart Vs. The Red Baron”

 

 

Come back next week for Season Five! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!

4 thoughts on “The Ten Best GET SMART Episodes of Season Four

  1. I tend to enjoy season 4 as I like seeing Barbara Feldon. Is this the season where Don Adams missed an episode due to a contract dispute? The Max-less episode is not very good. Thanks for reviewing Jackson.

    • Hi, Smitty! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      No, the episode you’re thinking of is from Season Five: “Ice Station Siegfried,” in which Adams allegedly refused to appear because he was dissatisfied with the script.

      As for enjoying Feldon, I wish her increased usage this season translated into more of an actual characterization!

  2. In this case I am the one wanting the character development!

    Case in point being your MVE, Snoopy Smart vs. the Red Baron. I was disappointed in 99 bringing Max to meet her mother. Of course, we don’t learn her mother’s name either, she’s just 99’s mom, hah hah. Left unexplained is that since Max knows where 99’s mother lives, he could have easily investigated her through public records, or at least attempted to, in curiosity over who he’s marrying.

    Developing a passion for secrecy for 99 could be a consistent character trait, be consistent with the focus of the show, and funny as well. But the format of the show was to run through its plots in a checklist fashion, and to get laughs. Max meets 99’s mom because it’s something people that are going to get married do. 99’s mom is funny. Mission accomplished. The fact that we don’t know 99’s name is played for a gag, nothing more.

    This show could be very funny, certainly. 99 is given more comedy this season, better material. But no character development, whatever she does is just to fulfill the plot needs and to get laughs.

    With the lack of convincing character connections, the domestic material is often a chore and detracts from the spy elements due to the lack of deeper meaning.

    I would agree that the show could have developed stronger characters and stayed rooted in the spy idiom. But it would have had to turn away from its format of fulfilling plot points and landing gags. Adding 99’s Mom and domestic beats wasn’t going to matter if the tone stayed the same.

    Thanks for the reviews!

    • Hi, jayz755! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      In case there’s some confusion, I also find 99’s mother to be “a caricature whose depiction is both single-dimensional and incapable of actually exploring 99 any better.” And I agree that “Snoopy Smart Vs. The Red Baron” is an accurate reflection of this and all of Four’s main concerns, especially 99’s lack of definition, which I insisted above was “a chronic, seminal flaw.” In fact, that’s why this particular entry was an ideal MVE: “the major problems of this era are present, but in one of Four’s most flattering packages.” I said “flattering” for several reasons noted above — one of which is that the introduction of 99’s mom is among the most “personal” developments ever afforded to her character during the course of the series, and it’s therefore a victory on these limited terms. Please revisit my thoughts above for more.

      Meanwhile, I don’t think the primary cause of why so many fans find these newfound domestic elements unsatisfying is the shallow characterizations — for unless paired with a premise-affirming story, they’re simply not going to work anyway — instead, it’s what both their inferiorities represent: the series’ self-restricting conception of its idea-driven premise, which has created fixed standards regrettably locked around a genre-based and parodical high concept that was never allowed to let its internal givens shoulder some of the weekly narrative burden. That is, GET SMART has deliberately remained more of a sketch than a sitcom, obsessed with a certain comic idea that’s been in naturally limited supply and denied reliable help. This has been my thesis throughout our coverage and I’m glad it seems to have been persuasive to you!

      Stay tuned next week for my thoughts on Season Five!

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