Saturday, May 31, 2014

I Spy on DVD

By David Luhrssen
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In a swanky Hong Kong hotel room, two secret agents entertain an old colleague with beer and war stories; the colleague, by the way, delivered them a coded dispatch from headquarters. Kelly (Robert Culp) mutes his reaction when he decodes the message and finds that it orders him to kill the messenger.

“I Spy” was often like that. The popular network show (1965-1968) touched on moral quandaries from the twilight world of espionage—not always with the sophistication of John le Carre, but the questions were raised. “I Spy” was outstanding for many things, including the world-span of settings that ranged from blue-collar America (traitors lurked everywhere) to the posh precincts of Rome. Some episodes were actually filmed on location. “I Spy: The Complete Series” is out as a mammoth DVD set.

In its prime-time day, “I Spy” was startling most of all for its casting and characters. Culp received top billing, but Bill Cosby co-starred as Scotty, Kelly’s partner, not sidekick. “I Spy” presented its white and black protagonists as equals. Cosby’s presence might suggest he was injected into the series as a comic foil, but that was not the case. Humor sometimes emerged from the situations, yet Scotty was no clown for Kelly’s amusement. Sometimes, Cosby seemed sullen, as if modulating an anger that could not be expressed.

As in James Bond, Kelly and Scotty often got the girls after thwarting threats to the free world. But in “I Spy,” the bad guys were defeated by a combination of brawn and brains, straight shooting and careful analysis. Gadgets were left to 007.

 

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