Jun 6, 2007

Colon Bonanza: DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Complete Second Season

Colon Bonanza: DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Complete Second Season

The second season of Mission: Impossible is sublime spy entertainment. The first season was incredibly solid already, but when Peter Graves replaced Steven Hill as team leader, things really clicked into place. There was nothing particularly wrong with Hill’s Dan Briggs; most of the First Season episodes are top-notch, and Hill is a fine actor. But his performance was too understated for my taste, and Graves brought an extra dose of charisma to his team leader, Jim Phelps. That was exactly what was needed to really cement the team together, a charismatic leader instead of a wallflower.

The rest of the Season One crew are still in place, and Martin Landau has been promoted from "Special Guest Star" status to full-time cast member. His Rollin Hand remains the scene-stealing performance, the flashiest and–at this point–most indispensable IMF member. Greg Morris is again excellent, and his character of Barney Collier becomes more fleshed out in Season Two. Peter Lupis is still generally under-utilized as strongman Willy Armitage, but ably handles whatever little business the episode demands of him. Barbara Bain remains a joy to watch as she inhabits dozens of different characters to seduce and con dozens of foreign generals, diplomats, arms dealers and crooks. She also looks better this season, though she’ll still never convince me as the sex bomb her character of Cinnamon Carter is supposed to be. This classic line-up would only be together for two of the show’s seven seasons, and the cons are all still relatively fresh at this point (except for the one where Bain plays some sort of psychic/astrologer/swami. That one’s already kind of been done to death...) so I can’t imagine that Season Three manages to top Two.

Mission: Impossible follows a very strict model for each episode and, after working out a few kinks in the first year, the writers and directors have it down to perfection this season. This is precision television making. Every episode starts with a series of clips specific to that episode cut together quickly to the heart-pounding sound of Lalo Schifrin’s famous theme music. In an era when film trailers were still frequently slow and laborious, it’s amazing how exciting M:I’s editors managed to make these shows look. From there we’re into the familiar sequence in which Phelps gets his mission (if he decides to accept it!) via a tape that usually self-destructs, but sometimes he’s politely asked to "please destroy the tape in the usual manner" himself. In such a rewarding show with so little to disappoint, I’m always slightly disappointed when the tape can’t be bothered to destroy itself and Jim has to do it. Call me shallow.

The tedious team selection comes next, and it’s not really necessary this season, as Jim almost always selects the same four members! (It is kind of funny to see who he rejects each week though. I wonder if those 8x10s are of network execs or producers’ pals or some sort of inside joke?) Then we get Jim’s briefing to the team, and they concoct the elaborate scam or heist they’ll be running this week, giving us enough glimpses of it to tantalize, but not enough to figure it out. As I said in my First Season review, Mission: Impossible is more a heist or con show than an espionage one, but these unsavory jobs are sanctioned by "the Secretary," so it’s alright. Today, with shows like Thief and Hustle, audiences no longer demand the same moral high ground of their television heroes that they did in the Sixties, but back then, the guise of a spy show was pretty much the only way to watch and root for basically criminal activities week after week (see also: It Takes A Thief, in which Robert Wagner was a cat burglar pressed into service by the US government). In its time, it was an ingenious concept.

The planning stage usually involves electronics wiz Barney showing off some sort of Q-like gadget, and Rollin rehearsing an ingenious slight of hand. Everyone learns their roles and we’re off on the impossible mission, which usually begins with Cinnamon using her feminine wiles to ensnare some evil sad-sack schlub.

Despite such a stringent structure, such a predictable formula, the writers were amazingly adept at keeping each episode fresh and interesting. While you always know they’re going to pull it all off somehow, you’re on the edge of your seat as to how. And the actors make the how a joy to watch.

In the season opener, "The Widow," for example, the team turns a cartel of major drug buyers against their suppliers in Marseilles. They first remove one of the dealers from the picture by staging a really neat elevator accident. They use vibrations, pre-recorded sounds and strobe lighting to make the man believe that the hotel lift is plunging twenty floors. Having him out of action enables Cinnamon to step in as his "widow" while Rollin sets up shop as "the competition." All of this leads to a surprisingly brutal conclusion in which the team actually engineers the dealers’ executions at the hands of their buyers. Subsequent missions often, in their course, lead to the villain’s demise, but "The Widow" is a rare example of the IMF agents actually, intentionally manipulating the deaths of their enemies. For a show where the Paramount backlot (often the same exact buildings!) subs for every city from Paris to Cairo, this episode does an especially good job presenting Southern California as the South of France. There aren’t too many exterior shots, but the ones there are are effective.

"Trek" finds the heroes hunting for missing gold (crucial in the fight against Communism, of course) in another exotic location, this time a South American desert as played by... you guessed it, SoCal! (Also effectively, though.) There’s lots of action in this one, making it closer to the film series the show inspired. We get several violent shootouts (rare for M:I), close-quarters fisticuffs and even Jim dangling from the runner of a helicopter piloted by Barney! Again, it’s a bit more violent than the show will become, with one nefarious character enduring some rather horrific torture (resulting in blindness) at the hands of another.

Most episodes are tamer than that, though, focusing on elaborate schemes instead of physical contact. In "The Emerald," for instance, the team builds a phony ship cabin to trick a foreign agent into believing he’s on a tramp steamer. In "The Survivors," they concoct one of their largest scale cons yet: staging a fake San Francisco earthquake in order to resolve a hostage situation and trap enemy agents. The means they use are just as clever, fun to watch and utterly far-fetched as those to fake the elevator plunge, only on a larger scale.

They go on to reach the largest possible scale when they stage a whole nuclear apocalypse in "The Photographer," arguably the quintessential Mission: Impossible episode. In this one, the team creates a 360 degree panorama of burnt sky destruction to surround the periscope from a bunker, so that guest star Anthony Zerbe (Licence To Kill) sees a barren wasteland when he peers through. It’s a bit tricky to explain exactly how that benefits them, but Zerbe turns in a fantastic performance as a fashion photographer with complex motivations for becoming a spy. (The actual Blow-Up-inspired photo shoots on their very mod sets inject a rare sense of period into the series; whereas The Avengers and The Prisoner reveled in the Pop Art styles of their times, M:I rarely dabbles in psychedelia, which would make it rather timeless if it weren’t for its hopelessly Cold War political setting.) Most of the team has to "die" in this one too, feigning a realistic gunshot wound complete with squibs. The deaths look awfully well rehearsed, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise with the amount of times each agent has had to fake their own death. (Martin Landau gets the prize for taking a tumble over a cliff-side in "Trek" only to grab hold of a carefully-positioned net while a realistic dummy makes the actual plunge!)

Even without a scheme as elaborate as staging the end of the world, other episodes manage to capture our attention with interesting locations or impressive directorial touches. "The Astrologer" has both, presenting Cinnamon’s paparazzi-covered airport arrival in a surprising, hand-held "cinema verite" style and setting most of the action in the limited confines of an airplane, mid-flight. (Unfortunately it’s one of those already-overused Cinnamon posing as an astrologer stories.) "The Emerald" (a gambling scenario reminiscent of the first season’s standout "Odds On Evil") is set nearly entirely aboard a cruise ship. And another standout, "Echos of Yesterday," offers super-quick, almost subliminal sepia-toned flashbacks to show an old Nazi remembering his murdered wife when he sees Cinnamon made up to look like her. (That episode also contrives a scenario in which it makes perfect sense that Rollin needs to impersonate Adolf Hitler!)

Even episodes without such gimmicks remain entertaining, often thanks to the strong performances from all involved. "The Bank" calls for them to pull off a bank robbery (totally justified because the bank’s corrupt manager is both an East German Communist and a neo-Nazi for good measure!) with a scheme that reminded me somewhat of Spike Lee’s Inside Man. "The Seal" similarly justifies pulling a heist on a J. Paul Getty-inspired millionaire industrialist art collector (J. Richard Taggart, played by Darren McGavin) by setting it up that the collector has illegally acquired a jade seal stolen from a small "Asiatic nation" of political importance to the United States. (Wrongfully acquired Getty artifacts creating diplomatic problems with the countries from which they were plundered? The writers must have been listening to some of Cinnamon’s Nostrodamus-like predictions!)

Taggart’s penthouse vault is protected with all the latest security wonders, including a pressure-sensitive floor. But rather than dangling from the ceiling like his cinematic spawn, Jim finds a more unusual solution: he uses a trained cat to retrieve the seal! Unfortunately, the feline team member did not get his own 8x10 in the dossier at the beginning.

Whether outlandish, down-to-earth, or somewhere in the middle, every episode of Mission: Impossible - The Second TV Season is a skillfully-crafted, highly watchable piece of spy escapism. This is a hugely entertaining collection of one of the most deservedly famous spy shows of all time. The presentation is great across the board, although chapter menus for the individual episodes would have been nice. The packaging matches that of the first season, and again it’s well done. It may have taken Paramount a long time to finally get around to taking their classic TV library seriously as a DVD commodity, but now that they’re releasing shows like Mission: Impossible and The Wild Wild West–and doing such a great job with them–they deserve a lot of praise.

Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Seventh TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fifth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fourth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The First TV Season here.
Read my review of Peter Graves in Whiplash: The Complete Series here.


Marty McKee said...

The 8x10s were definitely in-jokes, and it apparently became something of a status thing among CBS execs to get their photos in the dossier. I've recognized William Paley, Bruce Geller, and Allan Balter among the "rejects."

Tanner said...

Thanks for the info, Marty! That's cool.