The Rockford Files
Starring James Garner
Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Available Jan. 15, 2008
To me, a television show like The Rockford Files functions as a form of kryptonite in relation to contemporary network programming. In short, even a single minute of the quality, imaginativeness, humor, and soul of this series brings the crap inhabiting today’s TV airwaves to its collective knees and renders it useless.
Perhaps more importantly, the show serves as a glorious document of an infinitely cooler time and place in American history and pop culture. In The Rockford Files, men still behave like men, grown women dress like grown women, and — for some largely incomprehensible reason — characters in their twenties and thirties (who, unlike their counterparts on recent television, are balanced out by an equal, if not greater, number of forty-somethings, fifty-somethings, and beyond) actually conduct themselves like adults instead of overgrown, size-zero teen idol–wannabes with lower-back tattoos. Concerning these latter folks, their complete absence is one of the more deeply refreshing things about this show. As for other notable absences, pop in any Season Five episode, and for fifty extremely entertaining, commercial-free minutes, you also won’t see a single cell phone, BlackBerry, ATM, laptop, Williamsburg hipster, frat-guy-turned-hedge-fund-manager, or fascist elected official telling you he’s a defender of freedom. Remarkable what a difference thirty years can make!
The Rockford Files originally aired from 1974 through 1980 and centers on the life of fictional private investigator Jim Rockford (played by James Garner), whose background includes status as a former convict who receives a full pardon before the series even begins. Rockford lives in a trailer only a few dozen yards from the Pacific Ocean in Malibu. His father, Rocky (played by Noah Beery), lives in a house not too far away. The investigations for which Rockford is hired invariably place him in harm’s way, which is a problem for him, because he rarely carries or uses a gun (a circumstance which held throughout the show’s entire run). Likewise, they frequently leave him at odds with the local police precinct, where Sergeant (and later Lieutenant) Dennis Becker (played by Joe Santos) chides Rockford early on for having some “interesting ideas” about the precinct’s function within Rockford’s investigations. To add insult to injury, said investigations never seem to pay well either, despite Rockford’s high (for the time, at least) fee, which he’s never able to collect in full at the end of each episode, due to some miscellaneous swindle perpetrated unto him. Nonetheless, Rockford perseveres and consistently stands for what’s right, even though his lot in life never really improves.
The series premiered only a few weeks after President Richard Nixon’s resignation, and the character Jim Rockford appropriately projects, to some extent, the weary cynicism felt by many toward authority at that point in time. In that regard, The Rockford Files was quite different from the prevailing TV detective shows of the years leading up to it, as its protagonist — although clearly one of the “good guys” — was by no means a square, and was not part of any law enforcement organization. Rockford was no Joe Friday, for example, even though both characters were equally dedicated to justice; indeed, hardly any of what he does throughout The Rockford Files’s six seasons is “by the book.” Which, of course, is a key aspect of the series’ enduring appeal.
The twenty-two episodes of Season Five contain pretty much all of the elements that made The Rockford Files a truly great television show. With the lone exception, unfortunately, of Gretchen Corbett — who, from Season One through Four, played Beth Davenport, Jim Rockford’s lawyer and never-altogether-official girlfriend. (Apparently only one Let’s Scare Jessica to Death alumnus may appear per Rockford Files season; in the case of the season at hand, it’s Alan Manson as Dr. Carl Rainer, in a two-parter entitled “The Black Mirror.”) Not to worry, though: replacing Corbett is none other than Bo Hopkins as John Cooper, Rockford’s new lawyer. What Hopkins lacks in terms of being a good-looking, petite, twenty-something female, he more than makes up for in terms of badass-ness.
Like the four earlier seasons of The Rockford Files already released on DVD, this one is worth purchasing if only for the sheer number of cool guest actors that appear in it. In one Season Five episode or another, you’ll see Robert Alda, Allan Arbus, Steven Bauer, Sorrell Booke, Eugene Davis, Hector Elizondo, Mary Frann, Ed Harris, Robert Loggia, Richard Moll, Rita Moreno, John Pleshette, Richard Romanus, Tom Selleck (in a private investigator role that may well have inspired the series Magnum, P.I.), Ted Shackelford, Joe E. Tata, and Abe Vigoda, among others. The writers in this season are no slouches, either: David Chase (eventual creator of The Sopranos) even penned a few of them. Neither are the directors (e.g., Reza Badiyi of Mission: Impossible fame). Finally, for the musically inclined viewers out there, the opening theme for Season Five is unchanged, and happily retains what is arguably one of the greatest electric guitar solos in the history of recorded sound.
Unlike the previously released seasons, however, the DVD issue of Season Five sadly contains no extras. At least a couple of the earlier-issued seasons featured a single bonus episode from the next, yet-unreleased season, but Season Five appears to have broken with that tradition. Luckily, there’s plenty of Angel Martin (played as perfectly as ever by Stuart Margolin) in it to take one’s mind off of this regrettable circumstance. One of the more amusing episodes (“The Empty Frame”) finds Angel enjoying newfound clout as the result of his brother-in-law becoming a police chief. For not the first time in the series, he accordingly immerses himself in luxury, even getting business cards that read simply, “E. A. Martin — Discreet Arrangements.” On a related note, one way to quickly determine whether you’re genuinely hooked on The Rockford Files is if you’re able to reflexively spout what the initial “E.” stands for in that context. (Hint: It’s also the first name of a speed-reading course that was advertised heavily on television in the 1970s.)
All in all, I give The Rockford Files: Season Five an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Definitely worth the money. Indeed, in these times of economic recession, it’s important to spend your TV-shows-on-DVD budget wisely, which isn’t always easy amidst an ever-expanding sea of glitzily packaged video garbage. To paraphrase the inimitable words of a certain Manny Tolan stand-in from Season One: “That’s the thing you gotta keep in mind — TV shows on DVD are tricky.”