Mar 26, 2010

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!

Not having seen any episodes, I was never sure how much of an actual spy show Scarecrow and Mrs. King was. Did its storylines lean heavier toward the spying of professional secret agent Lee Stetson (Bruce Boxleitner), codenamed “Scarecrow,” or toward the domestic comedy and romantic aspirations of housewife Amanda King (Kate Jackson)? I was happy to discover that it is very much a spy show—and an action-oriented one at that, with lots of gunfights and helicopter chases. Amanda is an ordinary person living an ordinary life (the producers go out of their way to make it as ordinary as it can possibly be–the epitome of 1980s suburban mundaneness) who one day (through a rather awkward contrivance) finds herself thrust into a secret world of espionage and adventure–and never looks back. The series is aggressively of its time, immediately bombarding the viewer with a plethora of Eighties fashions (lots of knitwear!), which enjoy neither the timeless style of the Sixties duds seen on shows like The Avengers and the early seasons of Mission: Impossible, nor the appreciable hideousness of the Seventies wardrobes found on The Adventurer and the later seasons of Mission: Impossible. Occasional pop culture references pop up as well (namechecks ranging from Nancy Reagan to Ralph Nader to Mr. T), adding to the nostalgia factor, while the Reagan era mentality of The Evil Empire pervades the plotlines. Scarecrow and Mrs. King doesn’t use made-up countries as its source of bad guys (well, for the most part anyway), and doesn’t refer vaguely to “Eastern powers” or anything like that, like most of the Sixties spy shows did. Most of the foreign spies haranguing our heroes come from Russia or other real Eastern Bloc nations, which is a refreshing change of pace from what’s come before.

Speaking of what’s come before, though, the basic formula borrows very much from that. The romantic escapism of a regular housewife becoming whisked off by a handsome, debonair secret agent and embroiled in mystery and adventure in exotic settings borrows heavily from 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.

Style and glamor (such as they exist in 1983, anyway) are the purview of Lee’s fellow agent Francine Desmond (former Playboy centerfold Martha Smith). Francine follows more in Mrs. Peel’s footsteps as a capable, accomplished female agent. Unfortunately, she’s very clearly presented as the bitch. She is Amanda’s nemesis at the Agency. She looks upon Mrs. King with disdain, and reserves particular disdain for the institution of motherhood. A professional woman, apparently, who’s serious about her career, can have no time for or interest in that. Making matters worse, it’s frequently implied that Francine has achieved her position of professional success by sleeping her way to the top. So for an action show with a female lead, Scarecrow and Mrs. King is definitely not very feminist, and represents an unfortunate step backwards from the 1960s.

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.

The main problem with the pilot is that its primary job is to get these two disparate characters together. The show’s title sequence, set to a terrific musical theme, does a better job of setting up the premise than the pilot does. In the credits, we’re treated to a quick succession of stock shots of Washington D.C. landmarks, thus establishing the series’ locale. (The surprising amount of actual D.C. location photography makes a welcome change from the same recycled LA locations we’re used to filling in for anywhere and everywhere, and gives the show a unique setting.) Next we get a montage of Amanda doing housewife stuff (apparently best represented by counting kids’ shoes and assembling those cardboard Halloween skeletons with brads for joints), thus establishing her vocation, and a quicker montage of Lee doing heroic spy stuff establishing his. Finally, we see some shots of them together in harrowing situations, and we get that they’ve teamed up. That’s all one really needs to know to enjoy the show, but audiences tend to like a bit more information, so the pilot shows us how it happened.

Lee’s on the run from enemy agents in one of those classic spy sequences that’s cheap to shoot as he dodges beneath parked train carriages and crosses the tracks. He’s even wearing a dapper white dinner jacket, thanks to an undercover assignment as a waiter the night before. (Everyone back at headquarters makes fun of him for that, in a nice jab at a spy convention established by 007. Of course, the show thrives more on reinforcing conventions than flaunting them, so as the series progresses we’ll see Lee in more tuxedos and dinner jackets.) He’s clutching a package containing critical information. What can he do? Escape in the bustling crowd? No. He’ll hand off the package to the a frazzled stranger wearing a coat over her nightgown: Amanda. (She’s just deposited her boring weatherman boyfriend, Dean—whose face we never see—on a train.) “Board that train and give this to the man in the red hat,” he instructs her. If that were it, his maneuver might make sense. But of course Amanda is reluctant to do the bidding of a complete stranger, so he has to plead with her and spell it out. In the time that took, the enemy agents still haven’t closed in, and any secret agent worth his salt could have made an easy escape. But no matter; the sequence was awfully contrived, but at least we’ve gotten our heroes together. Amanda boards the train to find it full of people in red hats: a Shriners’ convention. Therefore, she keeps the package. Just as well, because the agent she was supposed to hand it off to soon turns up dead.

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.

At headquarters we meet Francine, and Scarecrow’s boss, Billy Melrose (Mel Stewart), a fairly typical spy boss. Naturally, Melrose orders Scarecrow to track down this civilian housewife and reconnect to retrieve the package, and also naturally circumstances force Amanda to tag along on the rest of the adventure. Good thing, too, because she cracks the case with that recipe knowledge and saves Lee’s life in the process. There’s also a fancy dress costume party (another Avengers touch), but it’s happening in the middle of the day and not very glamorous. It’s also full of remarkably weird-looking and weirdly dressed people: pig masks and pope hats and alien antennae. One of the supposedly “hot” ladies who Lee knows scoffs derisively to Amanda, “Oh, you came dressed as a housewife!” setting the tone for the many, many derisive housewife comments she will have to endure from Francine and others throughout the series.

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!

Scarecrow and Mrs. King revels in all the conventions of every other Eighties adventure series, but instead of detectives going undercover on a football team or a dude ranch, it’s spies. By its third episode, “If Thoughts Could Kill,” the series is already resorting to brainwashing the main character (and a few episodes later Mrs. King will have amnesia), but that old chestnut is at least well executed. This one examines the evil lurking in hospitals, another suburban institution. Lee hates hospitals, so the contrivance to involve Mrs. King this time has Billy lining up a hospital volunteer to help him through his stay. And guess who happens to volunteer at the hospital?

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

I like the conceit in “Gift Horse” because it’s so utterly random. A visiting Middle-Eastern princess wants to tour an ordinary American school for ideas on improving her country’s education system, and she wants an ordinary American PTA mom as her guide! Guess who they pick? (Hint: it’s not Francine, who offers to “frump it up” for the part.) It’s even annoying Amanda by this point that the Agency doesn’t just go ahead and make her a regular agent. She wants to be trained!

“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.

They don’t really try to shoehorn a housewife angle into “Saved By the Bells,” either; instead Amanda becomes involved because she’s mistaken for Lee while feeding his fish. (These particular foreign agents don’t know the gender of “Scarecrow.”) You can be pretty sure this is going to turn out to be one of the season’s best episodes when it begins with Lee fighting a nun, who of course is really a male Soviet agent in drag! He takes the fake nun prisoner, but unfortunately the Russians demand him back in exchange for Amanda, who they believe to be Scarecrow. The Agency naturally disavows her, but Lee goes rogue and takes his prisoner, Rostoff, to a very creative suburban version of a Checkpoint Charlie exchange. They meet on a golf course, and each prisoner is handcuffed or bound to their golf cart, sent towards each other. A regular elderly golfer ends up in the middle of this, with comical consequences. If you want to choose one episode from the first season to gauge your enjoyment of Scarecrow and Mrs. King, definitely give “Saved By the Bells” a try. It’s fun, purely spy stuff!

“The Long Christmas Eve” finds Amanda trying out her homespun housewife wisdom on the KGB as well as the Agency, and her speech about the holiday spirit gets CIA and KGB agents to spend Christmas Eve together in a remote cabin in the woods and call a truce from trying to kill each other. Good thing, too, because WWIII seems about to break out with a whole unit of Russian soldiers on US soil vs. American agents! Lee’s reaction to waking up to find Amanda serving hot chocolate to his enemy is priceless. This episode also gets points for another moment of Avengers-like weirdness when an assassin dressed in a Santa suit blows up a phone booth.

“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.

Amanda eventually breaks up with Dean, putting her back on the dating scene, but that just opens her up to be picked up by a bad guy who gives her an ostentatious jewel with a bug in it in “The Artful Dodger.” So much for Billy Melrose’s excuse that nobody knows her! It seems like all their enemies do if they can pull crap like this.

The ongoing farce of Amanda hiding her spy work from her family starts to wear out its welcome as the season winds down, but we don’t get a reveal this year. Dotty remains blissfully ignorant even when she herself becomes entangled in an espionage plot in “Fearless Dotty.” (Hey, it’s bound to happen eventually if you live in Washington long enough, right?) We also don’t get any payoff in the will-they-or-won’t-they tension between Lee and Amanda this season, but as The Avengers proved, that’s probably for the better. We do get to see them undercover as a married couple at a resort in “Weekend,” and that scenario yields more helicopter dangling on Lee’s part.

Scarecrow and Mrs. King typifies an era that had no other spy shows to typify it. If you’re a student of spy show history, then this DVD set is obviously a must-buy. But even if you’re not, it’s likely to appeal to most fans of Eighties television in general, and it’s got more than enough spying and action to satisfy fans of earlier spy shows. The premise comes from The Avengers; just don’t expect the panache or progressive gender politics of that masterpiece.

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!)


Courtney Elizabeth said...

As a longtime fan of SMK, I'm glad to see that people are still enjoying the series! Yes, it is incredibly campy and (I assume) unrealistic, but taken for what it is, immensely enjoyable. Thanks for the review!

RosieP said...

Your description of Amanda King as some regressed figure of feminism is a little off-putting. In order for Amanda to be an amateur spy, she has to be skilled in hand-to-hand combat like Cathy Gale and Emma Peel?

I don't think so. Amanda has always reminded me of a younger, American version of Miss Foy from the 1938 movie, "THE LADY VANISHES". Amanda might not be a great "action figure", but she had brains. More importantly, she was just as intelligent or at times, even more intelligent than some of the others. That is why I have always been a fan of hers. She was probably more responsible for the revelation of more Soviet moles than anyone else on that show.

Why does a woman have to act like a second-rate man to be a credible spy?

CoolOne said...

One of my very favorite all-time series. I missed Season 4 when it was new, so I hope they come out with Season 4 next year (if not sooner!) and don't decide not to release the final season.

Anonymous said...

Great piece on a very overlooked show. BUT this is a wonderful piece of television that actually underscores (and in my mind) celebrates the power of women in domesticity and the subversive power that lies within that realm. While that may seem like a reach, I would like to call your attention to a few areas that I found problematic in your otherwise outstanding article.

In regards to Mrs. King, you write: "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."
--my first thought on this was bit was, isn't part of being a spy trying to secretive, unnoticed and blend-in as much as possible? What could be more subversive than a Donna Reed-style housewife? Especially in the Reagan-Cold War-80s?

You continue: "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."
--But this IS her power!! This IS her strength!! I think this is where I had the biggest case of hackles raised. For sake of argument, much like 21 JUMP STREET (TV show) we have to assume that she is trained in something other than pie-baking, right? So her Yin to Lee's Yang is to be able to infiltrate certain arenas that he would not otherwise be able to see/know/be aware of *whatsoever.* There are various articles that I have read about the empowered & strong idea of the domestic woman, the woman that everyone seems to consider to be too weak/boring/child-consumed to do anything but leave the home. It is almost as though the show is saying: Um, housewifery ain't for sissies, yo! To use a famous line, "Anything you can do I can do better!" just...with hairpins and cooking tools.

Finally, you state: "And unlike her trail-blazing forebears, she’s not at all stylish in what she does."
-- DUDE, it's the 80s. Have you seen the Phil Collins episodes of MIAMI VICE?? No one looked good. I do see what you're saying about the "frumpy housewife" thing here, but it seems more realistic than the sleek female spy who always maintains perfect hair, ass & outfit. Also, damning her aesthetics undermines her character's strength too, for the record.

Just some food for thought! Thanks for such thoughtful words on yet another obscure media work! :)