DVD Review: Scarecrow and Mrs. King: The Complete First Season
Scarecrow and Mrs. King, which ran on CBS from 1983 to 1987 may well be the only bona fide hit spy show of the entire decade, making it a fairly important entry in the canon of spy TV. It’s taken a long time to appear on DVD, sought after by nostalgic fans and by curious viewers like me, who missed it in its day, but now, thanks to Warner Home Video, The Complete First Season is finally available. And thank goodness, because it’s a lot of fun!
The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which usually paired agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin with an ordinary woman week after week. But Scarecrow and Mrs. King, somewhat surprisingly, owes far more to The Avengers. Like that show, it follows the exploits of an experienced male secret agent (Stetson instead of Steed) paired with an amateur female partner (King instead of... King. Or, more famously, Mrs. Peel or Mrs. Gale). Beyond that, though, it also follows The Avengers’ successful template for generating exciting domestic spy storylines. The Avengers drew on all the oh-so-very British institutions of everyday life in England (particularly as perceived by Americans, in a canny move) such as milkmen and nannies and butlers and public schools and the RAF and found evil plots lurking in these noble institutions. Scarecrow and Mrs. King does the same thing with all the institutions of Eighties America: suburbia, Winnnebagos, the Army, Avon ladies and football, to name a few. As on The Avengers, enemy agents always lurk just below the surface of all of these things. Scarecrow and Mrs. King exposes these dangers in plain sight, tapping into storylines that their audiences can relate to and providing escapism for all viewers, not just housewives.
In finding the show’s place in spy TV history, of course–and in popular culture at large–it’s equally enlightening to examine its differences from The Avengers. For starters, feminism has apparently taken a major step backwards between the Sixties and the Eighties, contrary to what history books tell us about the women’s rights movement of the intervening decade! Mrs. Peel and Mrs. Gale were both referred to as “talented amateurs.” They were experts in all number of fields and made important investigative deductions based on this expertise, they spoke foreign languages and most importantly they could fight. Cathy and Emma (Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg, respectively) always handled more of the combat than John Steed (Patrick Macnee). And they were permitted to indulge in all of these traditionally male arenas (on TV anyway) in style, thus preserving their undeniable femininity while staking their places in what had been up until that point a man’s world. Poor Mrs. King, however, almost two decades later, has dropped the “talented” from “talented amateur.” She’s hopeless in a fight, and leaves the combat to Lee. She does draw on her areas of expertise, but those areas have reverted to 1950s ideas of gender. In the pilot, she solves the case by using her knowledge of recipes and cookbooks. In another episode, she makes a crucial connection by postulating that a woman whose hairdryer conked out would immediately turn to the nearest potential replacement rather than risking a frizzy coiffure. And again and again she draws on knowledge accumulated as a parent or den mother. In other words, she’s allowed to excel, but only in traditionally female arenas. And unlike her trail-blazing forebears, she’s not at all stylish in what she does. Again and again, Amanda is presented in the frumpiest attire imaginable to Hollywood costumers (sweatshirts, headbands and all manner of horrible sweaters) in an attempt to make housewives the nation over identify with glamorous former Charlie’s Angel Kate Jackson as one of them.
The other major difference between this series and The Avengers is in the tone. The Avengers reveled in weirdness and the outré; Scarecrow and Mrs. King sticks with less spectacular, more down-to-earth plots. There are, however, a few glorious moments of Avengers-like weirdness updated for the 1980s, such as an ice cream truck that slowly makes its way down a suburban street playing its eerie tune as its occupants fire Uzis. So while it’s instructive to compare the two shows, I’m not saying that you’ll automatically be a fan of the latter just because you like the former. I’m also not saying you won't, however, for despite its lack of social progress, Scarecrow and Mrs. King is quite a fun show, with compelling lead performances and likeable characters with good chemistry. You might not get all that from the pilot, but it becomes evident in subsequent episodes.
Lee enters his spy headquarters through a Georgetown brownstone (like any good spy HQ) and gets in the closet, which turns out to be an elevator which he rides down into a cavernous underground base with little airport-like transport vehicles ferrying people about. This is “the Agency.” It’s never referred to as the CIA, but that seems to be the implication. And, if so, this Agency does an alarming amount of work on US soil, something the real CIA is forbidden to do. But we forgive such things in escapist TV series. HQ owes something to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, and as in that series everyone has to wear a badge in the base.
In the early episodes, Lee is for some reason adamantly opposed to being partnered with Mrs. King. “A partner’s a guy who laughs at your jokes, he loans you his socks and one day he takes a bullet through the head for you,” he declares, lamenting the past. The Scarecrow works alone! But not for long. Week after week, Billy Melrose will find excuses to pair his top agent with a housewife. First up, in “There Goes the Neighborhood,” it’s a mission in suburbia.
“Billy wants us to pose as a run-of-the-mill suburban couple, see if anything is going on. And he thought it would be nice if at least one of us were authentic,” explains Scarecrow to a skeptical Mrs. King.
“Oh,” she says, “Well, I don’t have to ask which one of us that might be!”
“Look, I have spent years operating in places like Morocco, Istanbul; I’ve mastered French, Dutch... a little Urdu... but what the heck do I know about everyday life? So how ‘bout it?” he presses.
“Three days,” she bargains. “Time off to see my boys?”
“Sure, sure,” he promises. “And when this is all over, you never have to see me again!” Of course, that’s not true. And the kicker is that, for security reasons, she can’t mention one word to her friends or family, including her live-in mother, Dotty (Beverly Garland), or her two sons. As for her lack of training, well, that’s handled with another quick line from Scarecrow: “Amanda, you don not need training for this one. It is a simple case. I mean, nothing bad ever happens in the suburbs!”
That’s quickly proved incorrect (as it was again on a Season 2 episode of Chuck), of course, as one of their neighbors soon turns up dead. This episode actually does quite a good job of cleverly subverting Eighties suburban conventions and finding that Avengers-like danger lurking in the mundane, thus establishing an effective template for the series. The neighbor’s death is part of a conspiracy to smuggle arms in Avon-like “Connie Beth” cosmetics. There’s nothing scarier than a horde of housewives singing creepy songs at a Connie Beth meeting! All the housewives happily warble, “She’s a Golden Circle Girl, yes she is!” as Amanda is ushered at gunpoint (invisible to the singing women) through the “Golden Circle” gate. While Amanda is limited to housewife fight moves like spraying a bad guy in the face with hairspray, Lee gets to show off his spy moves in a swordfight using the spiked end of pink yard flamingoes!
The excuses don’t get much better. In “Magic Bus,” Billy needs an ordinary housewife to embark on a cross-country journey in a Winnebago that’s really an armored weapons system. Unfortunately, the RV doesn’t even make it out of Amanda’s driveway before its commandeered by bad guys, but for Amanda still has to stick along for the ride because only she can identify the culprit. Or something. As you’re probably gathering, the excuses are lame, but they certainly aren’t detrimental to enjoyment of the episodes. That comes not from the thin premise, but from the chemistry between the actors. Despite Amanda’s faceless boyfriend, there’s a clear screwball comedy sexual tension developing between her and Lee, and Francine’s competition with and outright hatred of Amanda is pretty funny. (In Francine’s defense, Amanda does get kind of annoying with her endless homespun “aw shucks” stories about her kids week after week!)
They’re really stretching stretching thin the housewife involvement excuses by “The ACM Kid;” now there’s a kid computer expert who witnessed an abduction and Lee needs him to cooperate with the Agency... but what does he know about kids? Francine, as a modern, professional woman, is equally helpless. So Lee calls up Mrs. King and says he’s got a problem that’s not in his area of expertise, but that she’d be good at
“Amanda,” reasons Billy, “Surely you realize that your value to us is that of a civilian. I don’t need another agent.”
Francine gleefully adds, “Were you to become a known operative, your usefulness would be over!”
“Yeah, it’s great that you don’t know anything!” Lee chimes in. “Hell, the enemy could torture you for weeks and not get a thing!”
Amanda holds her own: “Oh, well, I appreciate that, but I... I don’t think staying alive would compromise my usefulness too much, do you?” The lady’s got a point, but it won’t be addressed this week. Still, at least the housewife excuses appear to be done with. Henceforth, Billy’s excuse for using Amanda will be that she’s an unknown operative. Apparently, all of his regularly agents are utterly useless because the enemy knows all of them. This means that, still lacking any formal training, Amanda finds herself in the Cinnamon Carter role of seductress in “Service Above and Beyond.” Lee is her handler, leading to a Notorious scenario as she gets herself into trouble with foreign spies. As a special treat for fans of the genre, Walter Gotell shows up as a KGB agent far less friendly (and more dangerous) than his Bond persona of General Golgol.
“Remembrance of Things Past” pays tribute to the Sixties spy series that influenced this show. The plot finds a former TV spy turned Agency janitor after a big screen flop killing off the real dashing, handsome young agents because he’s been disfigured. No, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s a fun idea. Doug McClure plays the former TV spy, which is cool to see, but it would have been even cooler had it been one of the actual Sixties spy heroes. The late, great Robert Culp would have knocked this part out of the park. Oh well.
Another trope of Eighties television is the lookalike, where this or that character has a double who afford the actor or actress to do a funny accent for one episode. “Dead Ringer” is that episode for Season 1 of Scarecrow and Mrs. King, and it’s Francine who has the double—a dark-haired Hungarian agent eager to defect. The Commie Francine doesn’t get along with Amanda any better than the American one, so she causes problems with Dotty and the boys when forced to stay in the King household. This episode also gives Lee a chance to show off his love of hanging from helicopters, which he does a lot. Amanda also gets a good car chase of her own when she takes her station wagon careening across Georgetown lawns.
There are no extras on Warners’ Scarecrow and Mrs. King: The Complete First Season, but it earns points for its packaging. A single-width five-disc flipper slides snugly into a nice slipcase. The slipcase is a good addition to this Paramount-style packaging, because it gives you the title on the top of the box, which helps if you store your TV DVD sets end-out. It’s also classy, as is the rest of the packaging, from the tastefully revamped title treatment (a vast improvement on the Eighties original) to the full-size picture on the back of the case. The stock shots in the opening credits appear noticeably grainy, but they really only serve as a basis of comparison to demonstrate how good the rest of the video looks for Eighties television. This transfer has the Universal Eighties series easily beat. Altogether, Warner has assembled a very nice package, and I hope it sells well because I’m eagerly awaiting Season 2! (And I don’t want it to come out on Warner Archives after enjoying this snazzy packaging for Season 1!)