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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

JAKE AND THE FATMAN: SEASON TWO -- DVD review by porfle

"Jake and the Fatman" was never one of my favorite series--it came along when I was losing interest in sitting around watching "old people" shows with my mom and dad. But now that I'm older myself, I'm beginning to enjoy hunkering down to watch stuff like this on DVD.

With ten episodes on three discs, JAKE AND THE FATMAN: SEASON TWO begins with a two-parter that explains why veteran district attorney J.L. "Fatman" McCabe and his police detective partner Jake Styles have suddenly moved their operation from Los Angeles to Honolulu, Hawaii. It all has to do with the murder of Jake's former-cop friend, who conveniently wills his awesome beachfront pad to Jake. McCabe zips over to the island (which, incidentally, is his old stomping ground) to help Jake track down the evil hitman who did it, and before you know it Honolulu's District Attorney (James Karen), who's itching to retire, ropes McCabe into taking his place! All that's left is for them to transport the Fatman's young assistant Derek (Alan Campbell) and his beloved bulldog Max across the big water, and before you can say "aloha" the team is complete.

The real story for the move (according to IMDb) is that after "Magnum, P.I." went off the air, CBS still had its Hawaii studio sitting around gathering dust. So they revived "Jake and the Fatman" (which had been cancelled after one season) and relocated the characters to the sandy shores of Honolulu. This proved to be just the shot in the arm that the show needed and it continued for a full five seasons, later returning to L.A. when CBS' lease on the Hawaii studio expired.

The show looks like the usual network drama from its era, with production values that range from good to a bit iffy, but the tropical location is a perfect backdrop for the casual, laidback atmosphere of the series. In fact, once you get used to the leisurely pace and start liking these characters, it's a fun "hang-out" show in which the plots aren't all that important. Even so, the stories are involving enough, and occasionally offer some strong dramatic moments along with the usual hokum. There are times, in fact, when the acting and writing come together in such a way that you may be a bit taken aback by how good a scene is--and this happens often enough to keep the show consistently interesting.

I was especially surprised at how much I liked Joe Penny as Jake. What a good actor he is here--handling the cool action stuff competently (without the usual martial arts or clever quips), while still coming across as a regular guy. A skilled actor, Penny's low-key approach to the role works very well, especially in contrast to his more flamboyant co-star. J.L. "Fatman" McCabe is a classic William Conrad character in the tradition of "Cannon." Conrad's so good I could watch him in anything, and this show gives him a chance to do what he does best, which is to be himself. As his assistant Derek, Alan Campbell adds a little comedy relief due to his love-hate relationship with McCabe but remains a believable character who is helpful in their investigations.

The guest stars range from great to not-so-good, with few of the familiar character actors who so often grace the older classic TV shows. The initial two-parter features old pro James Karen as the outgoing D.A. and Amy Steel of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 in a cringe-inducingly bad performance. Some of the few recognizable actors in later episodes include Khigh Dhiegh (Wo Fat of "Hawaii Five-O"), Ben Piazza, Alex Cord, Lenore Kasdorf, Ramon Bieri, Frederick Coffin (LONESOME DOVE's Big Swede), and Charlie Brill.

The "I'll Never Smile Again" episode, which is somewhat reminiscent of DEATH WISH, contains two truly remarkable performances, one from David Schramm as a mugging victim who may not be all that innocent, and the other from a young Brigid Conley Walsh (who has since had quite a prolific television career) as his troubled daughter. Both are outstanding and help make this one of the high points of the collection. Another notable episode is "Why Can't You Behave?" (you may have noticed that all the titles are from old blues songs) in which McCabe is forced to choose between protecting his crooked, weaselly son Daniel (Tom Isbell) and upholding the law. The episode also features a nice cameo from bluesman Clarence Clemons.

Michele Scarabelli and Patricia Sill are very good as cops' wives whose husbands are cut down in the line of duty in "They Can't Take That Away From Me." The final episode in the set, "Snowfall", is an exciting yarn about cocaine and counterfeit money which contains a couple of blazing shoot-outs and features a young Michael Madsen.

The DVD set contains no extras. Production values vary, so the image quality isn't always that sharp. Old pros such as Bernard L. Kowalski, Jackie Cooper, and Don Medford are on hand to direct. The musical score is often nicely jazz-tinged, and while I wasn't very impressed the first time I heard Dick DeBenedictis' main theme, it really started to grow on me after a few listens.

I wasn't expecting much from this set, but JAKE AND THE FATMAN: SEASON TWO turned out to be quite a lot of fun to watch. William Conrad at his best, a dynamic Joe Penny, and those gorgeous Hawaiian locations add up to several hours worth of solid entertainment.
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