During the mid-’70s TV mystery boom, CBS followed The NBC Mystery Movie’s “wheel series” concept and introduced The New CBS Tuesday Night Movies, rotating different 90-minute detective shows in and out of the same time-slot. At the start of the 1973-74 season, one of those regular Tuesday Night shows was Hawkins, starring Jimmy Stewart as a country lawyer—a sort of proto-Matlock. Alternating with Hawkins? Shaft. That’s right: Shaft, a TV version of the 1971 blockbuster film that helped initiate the “blaxploitation” boom.
The TV Shaft starred Richard Roundtree, same as the movies, and it sported an instrumental version of Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning theme song. Otherwise, the show had about as much in common with its source material as Hawkins did. On television, private eye John Shaft was less of an outsider or an agitator. One of his best friends was a cop (played by Ed Barth), and he spent most of his time helping out white folks. (In the series’ seventh and final episode, “The Murder Machine,” Shaft gets drawn into a case while escorting two dorky caucasian friends to the courthouse to get married. Not all that Shaft-y.) For the most part, the CBS Shaft is a typically slow-paced and procedure-oriented ’70s mystery-drama, and rarely makes that big a deal out of its main character’s race, which is odd, given that Roundtree was the first black lead of a regular prime-time detective show.
Of the seven episodes on Warner Archive’s four-disc MOD set Shaft: The TV Movie Collection, the best is “The Kidnapping,” which does work race into the plot, as Shaft is detained by skeptical deputies while he’s on his way to deliver ransom money to three white criminals who are posing as black. The episode doesn’t over-stress the racial politics of the case, but the tensions are plain, and add a layer of drama that’s missing from an episode like “The Enforcers,” which is about a group of respectable white men who hunt and murder criminals to keep the city from turning into a “jungle.” There, the specter of lynch mobs should loom larger, but the writers downplayed it, apparently not wanting their Shaft to alienate any potential audience. The result was a John Shaft that could’ve just as easily have been Thomas Banacek—except that on Banacek, the hero was at least allowed to be Polish.
Key features: None. This DVD set totally cops out.