Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ironside / Banacek

In the mid-'60s, the TV detective show began to undergo a change in style and attitude, prompted by the stylish vigor of contemporary cinema and the burgeoning youth-culture revolution. Ironside was at the vanguard. Set in San Francisco—and regularly acknowledging the city's hippie exoticism—Ironside starred virile ex-Perry Mason hero Raymond Burr as a paralyzed police chief heading a crack team of diverse detectives. Traveling around in a tricked-out, wheelchair-accessible paddy wagon, Burr solved impossible crimes—beginning, in the 1966 pilot movie, with his own shooting—while exposing viewers across America to the realities of drug use, rock music, Vietnam angst, and the unexpected capabilities of minorities.


That last point is likely what made the 28 episodes on the Ironside: Season 1 set so instantly popular. The show hewed to the style of the times: a lot of close-ups, punctuated with the occasional extreme angle and moments of weirdly expressionistic editing, all in service of scripts that were largely exposition. But the mysteries were tricky, and Burr himself was a likeably gruff bastard, inclined to homilies like, "Chili happens to contain every food element needed to support life," and to working a case long after every reasonable person had given up. With a former African-American juvenile delinquent and a pretty blonde investigator by his side, Burr proved that chicks, blacks, and cripples could get the job done, without making anyone too uncomfortable.

By the time Ironside went off the air in 1975, smart detective shows were epidemic. One of the weirdest was Banacek, starring George Peppard as a cocky investigator specializing in insurance cases. Before theft victims could collect on huge claims, Peppard would swoop in and promise to find the lost goods, for 10 percent of what the insurance company would've paid out. A typical Banacek episode has Peppard chasing anything in a skirt while attempting to solve what are essentially locked-room mysteries. In one episode, a coin collection disappears from a sealed safe; in another, a football player vanishes from underneath a pile of tacklers. The eight episodes on the cheap, somewhat dull-looking Banacek: The First Season set each run 70-odd minutes and tend to be slack, even with Peppard spouting "old Polish proverbs" and occasionally punching people out. But Banacek rocks the epilogues, as Peppard gathers all the suspects in a room and breaks down the dastardly deed. In the heyday of the TV detective show, every series needed a hook, and this was Banacek's: explaining not just whodunit, but what the hell was done.

Key features: None on Ironside; PDF files of vintage TV Guide crossword puzzles on Banacek.