The early 1970s were an unprecedented time for mystery shows on television. Back in those antenna-on-the-roof days we had such greats as Columbo, Kojak, Ironside, and Cannon to choose from, among others. The genre was so ubiquitous that Tavaras even had a hit single titled “Whodunit,” featuring the cuckolded vocalist asking “Hey Baretta, won’t you please go get her,” and “For crying out loud, somebody call McCloud.”
One of the great features of these programs was the weird personality quirks of the lead characters. As Kojak the bald Telly Savalas had his lollipop, Dennis Weaver was cowboy Columbo, and William Conrad reveled in his obesity as Cannon. It was into this mix that the would-be Wizard Of Oz Tin Man, Mr. Buddy Ebsen strode as Barnaby Jones.
Barnaby Jones was a classic Quinn Martin production, and debuted in 1973. Growing up, I remember the show as a staple in our one-TV household, and enjoying it very much. It wasn’t until the recent release of the first season on DVD until I got the wonderful weirdness of the whole thing though.
I never really questioned why a senior citizen was pursuing criminals at the time. But the pilot introduces the whole scenario fairly plausibly. Barnaby had turned over his P.I. business to his son, who took on a bad client and wound up dead. The senior Jones investigated and solved the murder, and found himself missing the game. None of this would have happened without the invaluable help of friend Frank Cannon though, with William Conrad making the first of a number of appearances as Cannon on Barnaby Jones.
The involvement of young Lee Meriwether in the stories is also laid out here, as she is the widow of Barnaby’s son. Her role expanded during the course of the series’ run, and she provides a nice foil for Ebsen.
Another aspect of Barnaby Jones that I never really noticed originally was the action. It is mostly implied, in deference to the sixty-something star. This adds an interesting edge to scenes where he is seemingly up against the proverbial wall, and comes up with novel ways to get out of the situation.
Almost out of the box, Barnaby Jones was a hit, and the guest stars on the first season reflect its status. Every episode of the first season featured noteworthy actors, including Jack Cassidy, Wayne Rogers, Bill Bixby, Roddy McDowell, and Nick Nolte, among many others. My personal favorite first season guest star has to be Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner. The pudgy, goateed, long-haired Shat looks like Dobie Gillis gone to seed in the first scenes of “To Catch A Dead Man.” It’s worth the price of admission alone.
For fans of bonus features such as commentaries and deleted scenes, there are none included with the set. Extras are limited to the original 60 second promos for “next week’s episode,” that ran at the end of each program.
For me, those types of things were never a big deal anyway. Outside of the period details, such as the gigantic Ford LTDs everyone drives, and the great leisure suits everyone seems to wear, there is another aspect to this show I found compelling.
My grandparents belonged to what Tom Brokaw has called “The Greatest Generation.” They were roughly Buddy Ebsen’s age when Barnaby Jones aired. I think that seeing someone their age on TV solving crimes was something fairly special for them. The “older” murder-mystery star was a format that was followed to great success by Murder She Wrote, and Matlock later on. But Barnaby Jones did it first, and wrote the book.
Barnaby Jones ran from 1973 to 1980, and I would have to see some of the later episodes to make a call on how good the first season was, comparatively speaking. But the 13 episodes that comprise the Barnaby Jones First Season four-DVD set are uniformly excellent. They provide a great alternative to the current hopeless glut of "reality" in TV-land.