In 1973, the producers of the William Conrad detective series Cannon spun off a new show about a new character: Barnaby Jones, a milk-swilling retired private eye who returns to the business after his son is murdered. Barnaby Jones is very much in line with the other Quinn Martin productions of the era: a typical episode is broken into five clearly labeled acts, and paced sluggishly, with lots of establishing shots of cars pulling into driveways. And like the contemporary detective shows McMillan & Wife and Ironside, Barnaby Jones features an aging star settling into a late-in-life role as a TV lawman. The difference is that Barnaby Jones’ veteran leading man is Buddy Ebsen, the laconic Beverly Hillbillies star who looks more likely to nod off in an easy chair than to disarm criminals. Ebsen’s Jones was a new breed of action hero: one who rarely raises his voice or makes any sudden moves.
When Barnaby Jones finally ended its run in 1980, it wasn’t because the show had lost its audience, but because it had the wrong kind of audience. Even at the geriatric-friendly CBS, the show skewed too old. Yet a large part of the show’s enduring appeal is how calm it is. Though Ebsen is often shot from a low angle to make him look imposing and heroic, his character usually solves his cases with his eyes, not his fists. He spots the tiny clues—Columbo-like—but he also pinpoints the moral weaknesses in the people he’s investigating. Later in the series, the producers added a younger relative to join Jones on cases, but older viewers remained loyal to the show because of the way Jones looks down his nose at philanderers, alcoholics, and cocky kids of every class. He stood in for every graying member of Nixon’s “silent majority,” fed up with a world changing too fast for their taste.
The year Barnaby Jones went off the air, CBS debuted its new model for a detective show: Magnum P.I., with mustachioed hunk Tom Selleck scouring for clues in picturesque Hawaii. The following year brought Simon & Simon, another gumshoe adventure in a sunny clime (and featuring at least one hero with a mustache). Then in 1982, the ball kept rolling with Matt Houston, starring Lee Horsley (and his mustache) as a Texas oilman who relocates to Los Angeles and uses his fortune to indulge a passion for mysteries. Far removed from the even-keeled realism of ’70s P.I. shows, Matt Houston serves up a hero who drives flashy cars (serviced by a sexy female mechanic), and lives in a luxurious penthouse outfitted with a high-powered crime-solving computer. The cases Houston cracks are often kinky or grotesque, involving sex tapes, escorts, exploding socialites, severed heads suspended in gelatin… that sort of thing.
Lee Horsley doesn’t bring a lot to the role of Houston—he mainly does a twangy spin on Selleck—while Pamela Hensley actively grates as Houston’s helmet-haired, faux-sultry attorney/assistant. The show as a whole was hopelessly hokey even in the ’80s, and aside from the nostalgia factor, it’s not much more entertaining now. The tone, premise, and plots are meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but come off broad and brainless. Still, Matt Houston is notable as an outpost on TV’s journey away from—and back to—senior citizen satisfaction. In 1984, while NBC was launching Miami Vice, and ABC was a year away from debuting Moonlighting, CBS introduced Murder, She Wrote. By then, Matt Houston was limping through its final season, aided by an older character brought in to attract graying viewers. And who played the newcomer? Yup, Buddy Ebsen. No sudden moves indeed.
Key features: Nothing but vintage episode promos.