In The Rockford Files, James Garner played a PI who was in on the joke
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For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.
Some actors are born to be TV stars. The old cliché is that the medium rewards people we want to invite into our homes every week, and while that’s true, there’s a bit more to it than that. It rewards people who can create a compelling persona, then create an endless series of permutations within that persona, before reverting to the mean in time for the next week’s episode. TV also rewards people who do well working “small.” It’s not a medium that can handle a performance that goes over the top for too long. It’s a place for sidelong glances, half-smiles, and stolen moments between co-stars. It’s less of an insult nowadays to say that an actor is a “TV actor,” but it still doesn’t carry the weight of “movie star” or even “character actor.” But why? Finding those endless variations in performance while remaining recognizably the same character is a true challenge.
If ever there were an actor who was a true TV star, it was James Garner. Garner, of course, has had a long and healthy film career, one that rewarded him with box-office hits and an Oscar nomination. But his wry demeanor and “can you believe this shit?” persona made him a perfect fit for television. In a medium that invites talking back to the screen, Garner already seemed to be sitting on the couch with the audience, hogging the popcorn and shouting about how stupid the characters surrounding him were.
Garner starred in two big TV hits. The first, Maverick, came along at a time when television was inundated with Westerns, which were the crime procedurals of their day, lambasted by critics for their formulaic nature and popularity. Maverick approached the TV Western from a different point of view: It wanted to point out the ridiculousness of the genre by introducing elements of comedy. It didn’t rise to the level of meta-commentary; its plots were too straightforward. It just suggested there was more room for fun in these shows than current producers had found. And Garner was the perfect man to star in such a show. Given little to no chance in a competitive time slot that included The Ed Sullivan Show, Maverick caught on quickly enough that Garner’s career and esteem skyrocketed. He was the sarcastic viewer surrogate TV didn’t know it needed.
The Rockford Files, Garner’s second (and more enduring) hit, launched in 1974 as an attempt by Roy Huggins, the creator of Maverick, to apply the same sort of devil-may-care attitude to the private-investigator show, which was to the ’70s what Westerns had been to the ’50s. Again, he enlisted Garner, whose film career hadn’t taken off quite as much as it might have. Age had given Garner an affability that suited him, and seeing him turn up in any given episode was like seeing your dad come home from a particularly hard day at work. His sarcastic wisecracks and rumpled appearance only added to that mystique, and he shuffled through the show like he might realize there were cameras just beyond the fourth wall at any moment.
Perhaps surprisingly, given how big of a hit the show became in syndication, Rockford was only a top 20 show in the Nielsen ratings for one season, its first. Ranked 12th that year, the show subsequently fell off, despite staying in the same Fridays at 9 p.m. timeslot for most of its run. The show was a critical success, but as it became more acclaimed—finally winning an Emmy for best drama series in its fourth season—the audience seemed to lose interest. NBC started moving it around the schedule, and its ratings fell further. In the show’s sixth season, Garner’s health problems, stemming from a troublesome knee, shuttered production before that season’s episode order was filled, and only 122 episodes were produced, giving it two fewer episodes than Maverick, despite running for one more season.
The show’s popularity, even now, can be attributed to a number of elements. Universal, the studio that produced the series, was aggressive about getting the show into syndication. Local stations made it a staple of afternoon and late-night programming throughout the ’80s, and the show’s innovations were more appreciated in a decade that had taken more adventurous and daring approaches to the private-eye genre than Rockford had ever even attempted.
The series’ craftsmanship is also apparent. To this day, it’s the easiest drama series of its era to watch in marathon sessions. Huggins’ partner on the show was Stephen J. Cannell, a TV super-producer responsible for dozens of series throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Cannell was a man who favored pure entertainment and craftsmanship over innovation. Once he found a formula that worked, Cannell stuck to it as often as possible, slotting new locations and guest stars into an ironclad format. Each episode of Rockford features some variation on its formula: Jim Rockford encounters a client (who might have a connection to his past in prison) who retains his services, then gets drawn into a secretive world he knew nothing about, usually involving some element of the Southern California underbelly. There’s usually at least one car chase or fistfight, the better to let Garner show off his stunt performance skills. In time, Rockford cracks the case, and everything ends on a joyful freeze frame.
But there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in the Rockford formula—even when many of Cannell’s other formula-based shows have gotten old and tired. (Have you tried watching The A-Team recently?) Much of that is due to Garner and the show’s other cast members (including the gruffly lovable Noah Beery, Jr., as Rockford’s father), but just as much is due to Cannell’s eye for talented young writers who could give the show’s jokes and dialogue some zip. Indeed, the only writer to ever win any sort of award for The Rockford Files was a young David Chase, who got his big break on the program and would later go on to create The Sopranos. Chase’s work on the series doesn’t suggest what would come from his talent, but his scripts are brutally efficient little mystery stories, and they always give Garner some solid wisecracks. Chase won his Edgar Award for season three’s “The Oracle Wore A Cashmere Suit,” which is one of the series’ best episodes, teaming up Rockford with a so-called psychic he increasingly finds irritating.
There’s another reason the Rockford formula feels so modern: Every current case-of-the-week show essentially uses some version of it. Obviously, the basic formula outlined above wasn’t even original when the series first aired. But the show’s point of view on that formula was. No longer were the cases treated with deadly self-seriousness. Instead, unleashing Rockford on a case provided an opportunity to watch him do his damnedest to figure out what was going on, even as he seemed to be sitting back and mocking the stupidity of the thugs and two-bit lowlifes he encountered while doing his job. It was almost as if he knew he’d crack the case in the end, so he’d have some fun along the way. How is this any different from the glibly joking C.S.I. squints or every protagonist of every single USA drama? (In its best years, Burn Notice almost felt like a rough reboot of Rockford, only set in the world of spies.)
Like Maverick before it, Rockford took a well-worn genre and mostly respected its tropes, even as it poked holes in them and invited the audience to do the same. Guest stars—including Tom Selleck and Louis Gossett, Jr.—popped up as fellow private investigators, which was usually just an opportunity for the series to make fun of other TV detectives. Rockford Files was part of a growing movement in the ’70s that assumed the audience was familiar with TV formula—since the first audience that grew up with TV now had children of its own—and would be willing to let the series have a little fun with it. That movement would explode in the ’80s, and give us everything from Hill Street Blues to The Simpsons. (Another resonance with The Simpsons: Every episode of Rockford opened with another person calling to leave an answering-machine message for the detective, a device that left the show’s writers flummoxed to come up with new gags.)
There’s another interesting link between Rockford and The Sopranos besides the Chase connection: Rockford was one of the first tentative steps TV took down the long trail that would lead to Tony Soprano and the antihero explosion of the 2000s. Like most protagonists of the time, Jim Rockford tries to do basically the right thing, but he’s willing to bend the rules just a little bit to get what he wants, and he’ll make some jokes along the way to solving the case. Many of the other P.I.s of the era could be so stone-faced that Rockford’s sarcastic attitude looked like an inversion of the form. Plus, he was a down-on-his-luck guy who lived in a trailer, barely had the ability to make ends meet, and had a tendency to side with the downtrodden. He’d done time in prison (over a false conviction) and was well connected with Southern California’s seamier elements. Where many shows of the era depicted the region as glamorous, Rockford was happy to drive a sweet-ass car right into its underbelly, then laugh about it.
Finally, there was Garner, who took the role and made it the stuff of TV legend. His Bret Maverick was a great part, sure, but it’s for Jim Rockford he’ll be remembered. He could be callously flippant in one scene, then caring and concerned in the next, and Garner would play every note perfectly. In one episode after another, Garner became a tour guide to a world viewers wouldn’t want to live in but didn’t mind visiting, and he did it all while suggesting he was just as amused by the TV tropes and clichéd bullshit as they were. In James Garner’s work as Jim Rockford, TV perfected the eye-roll.
Next time: Rugrats