Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week we’re concluding 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. With ROBERT KARVELAS as Larabee.
The final season of Get Smart finds the series hopping from NBC to CBS for a short-lived stint that, despite the move, doesn’t disrupt the ongoing decline we’ve been charting. If anything, there’s just an acceleration of long-running trends, especially those discussed last week in relation to Four, when the show was unable to let the network-mandated marriage of 86 and 99 aid its premise-related satire, thereby rendering stories either totally non-parodic (due to a lack of support from the series’ internal givens — i.e., the characters) or externally parodic of genres and works too far removed from its necessary spy tropes (because this idea-based sketch-like premise had already run out of fresh ideas in the absence of ample support). What’s more, this new development wasn’t used to flesh out the leads either (particularly 99), although new head writers — executive producer Arne Sultan and his right-hand man for the latter half of Four and all of Five (when Sultan was splitting his time on The Governor And J.J.), story editor Chris Hayward — did sink their teeth into the nevertheless limited persona of Maxwell Smart, who became even more cartoonish during this quest to maximize his comic utilization in driving plots that were also growing more ridiculous, as a function of the show’s struggle with premise-affirming ideas. Indeed, the series’ dwindling capacity to fulfill its premise has long been the cause of its slow erosion of quality, and while last week I said my threshold for ridiculousness was high — because of its high concept — my credit limit is exceeded here in Five because of this further slide, which is not only a result of the simple fact that premise-affirming ideas are even harder to come by than they were last year, but also because Get Smart’s new network actually has a flawed understanding of the series, revealed in decisions that contribute to this aforementioned acceleration of inferiority. You see, CBS only picked up this low-rated (but still critically viable — thanks to a lack of competition) reject because it needed a 7:30 plug-in. What do I mean by a “7:30 plug-in?” Well, Mike Dann, Executive VP of Programing at CBS, had a hole in his schedule at 7:30 on Friday, a popular time for younger viewers, and when he learned that Get Smart was available following NBC’s axing, he snagged it under the belief that it was a good fit, and, if not, could be made a good fit with just a few tweaks. (More here.)
This was misguided, for the genre Get Smart wants to mock is sexy and sophisticated, and conventions of the domestic sitcom should only be used to emphasize its desired satire, which is not rooted in familial matters. Now, NBC had already blurred this distinction by moving it to an earlier time with a younger draw (8:00 on Saturday) and by adding domestic trappings whose parodical possibilities went ignored, but, it was a HUGE step in the wrong direction when CBS slotted the show even earlier, forced another Sweeps stunt — a pregnancy and birth — and expected the storytelling to recognize this new audience it was tailored to reach. Accordingly, the struggle to conceive appropriate story was exacerbated by CBS’ more boldly misguided notions, as now the series would be going for viewers with shorter attention spans who needed sillier material, but didn’t require sincere explanations, allowing for the kind of total silliness that’d make most adults disconnect, for beyond just the shift away from premise-affirming ideas in favor of external satire predicated on unfit outside sources (in the absence of internal support), this lurch towards near-fantasy — a world where, for the sake of plot, the rules of common sense can’t apply — highlights what has been the central issue all along: this is an idea-based show that can no longer come up with ideas to reinforce its spy-based premise. In fact, here in Five, Get Smart is too often relying on anything but its premise to spark narrative jollies, and while that partially means indulging the bad taste that comes with the network’s directive (which makes an implied excuse for these failings that in turn creates a sense of camp), this is the same trend we’ve been following for weeks, as it basically means the show is still not meeting its promise of deriving story/comedy by lampooning its chosen genre. And even though the family gimmick isn’t a full albatross (few shows are totally non-parodic), Barbara Feldon gets more chances to be funny (not from a characterization, just from being featured more), and there’s Larabee, whose presence isn’t significant but still manages to be additive for all the reasons previously noted, Get Smart has always been a sketch in sitcom form, and now this sketch is so tired, it’s mocking itself instead of mocking its genre. In short, it’s outlived its premise, and that’s typically the trajectory of this kind of show: they’re fun… but not for long.
01) Episode 113: “Pheasant Under Glass” (Aired: 09/26/69)
Max and 99 try to free a professor whom KAOS has trapped in a glass dome.
Written by Chris Hayward and Arne Sultan | Directed by Don Adams
Season Five’s new demo interests are on display in this premiere, a fast and mostly funny affair that is designed for short attention spans and crams a lot into its 25 minutes, including an opening acknowledgment of the recent moon landing, a brief introduction to the year’s pregnancy arc, cameos by Martin Landau and Phyllis Diller (which are hysterical but patently illogical, in a sequence about Max disguising himself after being outed by the newspapers), and a comic plot that (fortunately) uses the series’ spy premise appropriately. Ned Wertimer guests.
02) Episode 114: “Ironhand” (Aired: 10/03/69)
The new head of KAOS is after plans for a CONTROL weapon.
Written by Lloyd Turner & Whitey Mitchell | Directed by Don Adams
My choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Ironhand” earns that distinction for representing its season well while simultaneously feeling the most like a “classic” Get Smart, by virtue of a plot that derives external satire rooted in the premise, thereby reinforcing the show’s identity. It also boasts a hilarious script by Lloyd Turner and Whitey (Gordon) Mitchell, who started contributing last year but really come into their own here in Five, offering many of this era’s finest samples — not because of their command of story so much (those problems still exist), but because of their basic understanding of how to instill the series’ established comic ethos in their text. For instance, this is another fast and funny affair, with a comic yet menacing villain, a winking yet not campy awareness of the genre, and a great centerpiece — Operation Baby Buggy Switch — which maybe dominates the entry’s appeal, but is genuinely fun and dramatically legitimized by the pregnancy arc. Again, this all makes “Ironhand” both a throwback to a better time and a favorable look at some of this year’s specific trends. Also, Billy Barty appears, and there’s even the return of Agent 44, now played by Al Molinaro.
03) Episode 124: “Is This Trip Necessary?” (Aired: 12/12/69)
A KAOS pharmacist plans to poison D.C.’s water supply with a hallucinogenic drug.
Written by Dale McRaven | Directed by Ron Joy
Vincent Price is the outrageous villain du jour in this memorable outing that finds the series leaning into its sillier aesthetic with a wannabe-mod plot about hallucinogenic drugs. It’s big and broad and, as with most of the year, designed for shorter attention spans with a lack of concern for logic — it’s in the Batman mold (fun for kids, camp to adults) — but its comic boldness comes in a narrative affiliated with the series’ premise, making it better than most.
04) Episode 126: “Moonlighting Becomes You” (Aired: 01/02/70)
99 investigates how a radio drama is transmitting messages to KAOS.
Written by Chris Hayward | Directed by Alan Rafkin
Barbara Feldon’s 99 anchors this amiable offering that guests the intimidating Victor Buono and is set in the world of radio, which is surprising given the year’s focus on younger viewers. Naturally, 99’s increased usage never actually yields a personality, but it’s one of the only plots where she’s a central figure by herself, and with Max participating in the climax, this is an atypical Get Smart that nevertheless doesn’t reject its necessities (unlike the prior installment, which was sans Don Adams). Ron Husmann and Maudie Prickett also appear.
05) Episode 130: “The Mess Of Adrian Listenger” (Aired: 01/30/70)
Max and the Chief are the next names on the hit list of a CONTROL killer.
Written by Chris Hayward | Directed by Charles R. Rondeau
Pat Paulsen gets a few fine laughs in this sometimes sober excursion that’s A) a little too narratively obvious without enough of a parodical purpose and B) isn’t consistent by way of comedy — there are some hilarious scenes, and then others totally devoid of humor. But, on the other hand, it emphasizes Don Adams’ Max and Ed Platt’s Chief, who work well together and, despite the emotional strain of forcing them to doubt one another, manage to make these shortcomings worth overlooking (at least enough for me to be able to put it on this list).
06) Episode 131: “Witness For The Execution” (Aired: 02/06/70)
Max is charged with guarding a KAOS defector.
Written by Lloyd Turner & Whitey Mitchell | Directed by Alan Rafkin
William Schallert, better known for his recurring role as the Admiral, returns in this installment as a different character entirely — an antagonist out to kill a KAOS defector. The trivia of his inclusion boosts this entry’s appeal, for it’s otherwise a run-of-the-mill episode with a few yuks and a story that fits the series’ particulars without resorting to external parody beyond its chosen genre — which is, to be fair, more than we can say for most of Season Five’s output.
07) Episode 132: “How Green Was My Valet” (Aired: 02/13/70)
Max and 99 go undercover as a maid and butler.
Written by Gloria Burton | Directed by Dick Carson
It’s a Bill Dana reunion when Don Adams shares the screen with his old costar Jonathan Harris (who went on to Lost In Space during the interim), now playing the stuffy villain in an embassy that 86 and 99 infiltrate by posing as a butler and maid. As with the above, I’d be lying if I didn’t say the trivia of this guest bolstered its appeal, but the teleplay (by Adams’ sister) is itself solid, with enough moments of comedy and not too much of the era’s disconnecting absurdity.
08) Episode 133: “And Only Two Ninety-Nine” (Aired: 02/20/70)
A KAOS imposter tries to impersonate 99.
Written by Arne Sultan | Directed by Don Adams
Get Smart returns to the evil twin gimmick — or, to put it in espionage terms, the imposter gimmick — for an entry that maybe isn’t the best of this catalogue, but is certainly a highlight by Five’s standards, courtesy of another funny teleplay and a premise-affirming story that showcases Barbara Feldon’s 99, who, once again, is deprived of a real characterization, but actually gets more agency and therefore more laughs. Nicholas Georgiade guests.
09) Episode 137: “Do I Hear A Vaults?” (Aired: 05/08/70)
Max and 99 have to get the Chief and Larabee out of a locked vault.
Written by Chris Hayward | Directed by Alan Rafkin
One of the year’s most popular, this outing is also among the most amusing by way of character, utilizing a premise in which Max accidentally locks both the Chief and Larabee inside a vault with a limited supply of air. This is a choice concept because it stems from the lead’s bumbling characterization and takes advantage of the era’s cultivated comic interplay between Ed Platt and Robert Karvelas. If the narrative was a little more affiliated with the spy genre — and the pacing was brisker, per this season’s norm — it would be my MVE. Very funny — and smarter than Five’s baseline. Also, Ned Glass and Herb Voland guest.
10) Episode 138: “I Am Curiously Yellow” (Aired: 05/15/70)
Max falls prey to hypnosis during a scheme by KAOS’ The Whip.
Written by Lloyd Turner & Whitey Mitchell | Directed by Nick Webster
The series’ finale isn’t a spectacular showing, but with a story that fits the premise, another menacing Asian villain whose depiction chafes against our contemporary sensibilities but otherwise satisfies the need for genre-based parody, and a script with a reliable command on the roles that each regular (and now Larabee) plays in story — including the laugh-motivating Max — this is a favorable representation of Get Smart in its final stretch. Victor Sen Yung guests.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: both parts of “And Baby Makes Four,” which is little more than a Sweeps stunt that fails to situate its domestic trappings within the series’ needed satire, but does enjoy a fun guest turn by Jack Gilford as the villain, “Rebecca Of Funny-Folk Farm,” an uneven Rebecca parody that ignores the show’s premise too much for my liking, but isn’t without its funny moments (particularly in the climax), and two outrageous outings in the winkingly bad pile — “The Apes Of Rath,” which has a goofy story that I’d probably appreciate more with a better guest, and “Smartacus,” which is camp personified. Also, “Ice Station Siegfried,” the entry Don Adams sat out after a disagreement over its script, claims the series’ last use of Siegfried and Starker, and if Maxwell Smart — the show’s main attraction — wasn’t replaced by an undefined proxy (Bill Dana, in a fruitless endeavor beyond his own control), it would have made the above list. (Incidentally, I’m not a fan of “The Treasure Of C. Errol Madre,” as it’s another lame excuse for Adams to trot out his Humphrey Bogart impression, with little of the series’ premise or the type of satire it needs.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Get Smart goes to…
Come back next week for the start of another rerun series, which — I promise — isn’t going to become a regular feature between shows covered here, but is necessary now as we transition from the 1960s to 1970s! Also, stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!