As the world once more goes Bond mad, with Quantum of Solace fever spreading across the globe as it opens in each new territory (pity poor old Uruguay where Bond fans have to wait another month for the film), it seemed apt to take some time to watch the first season of I Spy, a show which debuted in 1965 when the original Bondmania was at its peak.
The premise of I Spy was simple enough, though oddly the scriptwriters don’t go overboard attempting to explain it in the first few episodes: Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) is an international tennis player, while Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby) is his coach. Together they traverse the globe, Robinson accepting invitations from the rich and famous to play against them or simply taking part in tournaments.
But all is not what it seems as the pair are actually American spies working for the US Government, investigating nefarious goings on in various exotic locations. Mad scientists, rogue agents and gorgeous women are present in most of the first 28 episodes as the two spies move from Hong Kong to Vietnam to Japan and onto Mexico at the behest of their bosses.
There are a few things that make I Spy stand out from most of their contemporaries. Firstly, unlike most TV series of the day (and of the present day), the production team actually went on location to the places they were meant to be. The first batch of episodes are set in Hong Kong so we see the Culp and Cosby on and around the island, taking the Star Ferry and pacing the backstreets of Kowloon. This gives the series a fantastic energy and colour that is lost when series are filmed on back-lots in Burbank.
The other element that made me want to sit through this first season was the interaction between the leads. It’s fair to say that the show survives repeated viewing thanks to the banter of Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, the two constantly bouncing off each other from scene to scene. I’ve mentioned my admiration for Robert Culp before on this site and it was nice to see a younger Culp on form once again.
While the plots are frequently strong, I found myself wanting to see these two together as much as possible, much of their dialogue seemingly improvised as they take on the forces of evil with a quip and a glance at each other. Cosby’s comedy background is played on in these scenes, though Culp effortlessly matches his standard.
The humour of the show doesn’t mean that this is a spoof however, with many episodes flipping from lighthearted to deadly serious with little warning. The writers aren’t afraid to inflict pain on the characters, Culp perhaps getting more of these scenes than Cosby. On the other hand Culp does get the girl almost every week, so it wasn’t all bad.
Of the episodes, of particular note for me, each for very different reasons, were Chrysanthemum, The Loser, Return to Glory and It’s All Done With Mirrors. I probably appreciated the humour more than the espionage elements, no doubt due to the fact that turning an established formula on its head appeals to me, though it could also be down to the fact that I was looking for some escapism rather than too much diabolical double dealings and suchlike.
Intriguing, witty, clever and very much of its time, I Spy was a real discovery for me, a glorious globetrotting trip back to the swinging sixties in the company of two men who made it all look so easy in what must have been a demanding shoot. I’ll get around to seasons two and three during 2009 and look forward to seeing if the production team manage to maintain the standards.
The writer of a handful of episodes in the first season, Robert Culp contributes some interesting commentaries on their genesis and success. Less a scene-by-scene discussion, these are more like an extended essay on his involvement and are a nice bonus.
Image copyright hulu.com