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downshifting . . .
on January 4, 2009
The third and final season of I Spy, finds undercover US agents, tennis player Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) and trainer Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby), back in exotic locations, engaged in intrigue and adventure. Though by now, the tennis player cover story is thinner than tissue paper. Producer Sheldon Leonard's method of shooting the series remains the same as in previous seasons, with his crew filming a block of episodes on location, and then returning to Hollywood to wrap them up.
Robert Culp's passion for I Spy was intense. In addition to acting, he also wrote seven of the eighty two episodes in the run of the series. In his commentary for `Home to Judgment', the last episode that he wrote, Culp expresses his frustration that for most part, the various writers for series, failed to capture the true sprit of the characters, in the same way that he did. Disappointed that his vision and writing style was not emulated, he and Bill Cosby were continually reworking scripts, in order to bring them more in line with their perceptions of their characters. These script modifications, Culp explains, were one reason why it was difficult to find writers to work on the show
Culp's expectation that his work would be used as a blueprint, by writers who did not share his vision, or understanding of the characters, was perhaps unrealistic. By year three, Kelly and Scotty are almost joined at the hip, living together in their own world, often detached to some degree, from the reality of the situation. Their freewheeling outrageousness and irreverent humor, is part of the program's appeal, but when things go too far, as they often do, credibility suffers. I Spy attempted to stay close to reality, and did not deal with grandiose schemes for world domination, or venture into fantasy as others in the spy genre did. Having credible stories was very important. With many new writers aboard, the uneven quality of the stories is not surprising. Overall in the final season, there is less violence, action, and romance than Season Two, but with still lots of issues with plotting.
Greece and Morocco are the settings for the first set of episodes, which feature a number of fabulous scenic and historical locations. In `The Lotus Eater', a disillusioned Kelly contemplates leaving the spy biz for a beautiful girl. Other solid episodes are `Philotimo', where a boy who is a musical prodigy, asks the agents to help him to defect, and `Now You See Her, Now You Don't', where they search for a missing mathematician. It seems that each season, Scotty becomes involved with a woman, who then meets with tragedy. `Laya', featuring Janet MacLachlan is that episode for Season Three. In a reoccurring role, Harold J. Stone guests as Zarkas, a Greek cop who after helping the Americans several times, turns into an enemy in a surreal adventure called `The Seventh Captain', where a group of island dwellers take revenge by dressing up in ancient Greek attire, and complete with dancing girls, ceremonially dispose of their enemies by placing them inside a hollow statue, and filling it with wet cement. Very wacky stuff.
Back in America, `Apollo' begins with a rare incident related to tennis, where after a tiff with Kelly, Scotty gets a job as a guide at a NASA facility, to bait a spy ring. Kelly saves the day with some high altitude heroics. On the trail of a drug ring, Kelly and Scott tackle a baffling mystery in `This Guy Smith'. An intriguing episode with several twists, that take a very heavy toll on Kelly's body. Diana Muldaur guest stars.
As detailed in the commentary track for Culp's `Home to Judgment', the episode blends a chase story, with treasured memories from Culp's childhood. In a situation stripped down to the basics, the danger seems more real, as the tension builds to a suspenseful and exciting conclusion. This kind of edginess is something that Season Three could have used more of. As in previous seasons, the commentary is full of information, nostalgia and passion, including covering the importance of composer Earle Hagen's contributions.
The series finishes quite strongly in Mexico, highlighted by several harder edged adventures. "Turnabout for Traitors', features a desperate Kelly on the run, trying to prove his innocence. Wounded, and in dire straits, he finds an unlikely ally in his quest to uncover the truth. Evil, ruthless, over the top nut jobs are rare on I Spy, but a notable exception can be found in `The Name of the Game', where Lloyd Nolan gives a delightful performance, as retired US General who has a bit of a temper. He cold bloodedly pushes a girl off a cliff, then in classic tradition, plans to hunt down and kill Robinson and Kelly safari style! The final episode of the series, `Pinwheel', is set in Acapulco, and features Arlene Golonka, as a spunky agent posing as Kelly's wife, to help the guys obtain information from an enemy agent.
After a rocky start in the Mediterranean, things improve, and the series finishes on an up note. In the final season, the violence is toned down, as are the instances of having beautiful women pop up practically everywhere. Season Two featured a multitude of fabulous female guest stars, including Cicely Tyson, Anna Karina, Rafaella Cara, Joey Heatherton, Barbara Steele, Carol Wayne, Diana Hyland, Anna Capri, Barbara McNair, Leticia Roman, and Marianna Hill, just to name a few. It is not even close in Season Three, as the guys spend most of their time with each other, rather than in the company of the fair sex.
Part of the 60's spy craze, the legacy of I Spy is that stars Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, broke the color barrier on television. It may not seem very significant now, but interracial leads in a prime time series was quite radical then. Bill Cosby, who began in stand up comedy, won an Emmy for his performances in all three seasons. Culp calls `Cos' his best friend, and apparently their relationship is still on good terms, so it is a complete disappointment that there is absolutely no contribution from Mr. Cosby, in any of the three season sets. His absence leaves a huge void, and regrettably so much of the story is left untold.
The I Spy season sets are quite affordable. Unfortunately besides Robert Culp's commentary tracks, there are no bonus features. Exercise care when removing the discs from the case, as they are sometimes held so securely that they can actually be cracked in the center when trying to remove them.