DVD Review: I Spy (The Complete Series)

I Spy was a revolutionary TV show on so many levels. The espionage series could have easily been another James Bond clone. The producers might have loaded up each week with dazzling gadgets the saved the day in campy ways. The world was waiting to see expensive toys that could top Thunderball. But the producers made a show that kept the humor in check and the focus on the agents. Show controversially cast Robert Culp and Bill Cosby in the leads. Their globetrotting cover was as tennis pro Kelly Robinson (Culp) and his trainer/manager Alexander Scott (Cosby). The duo had a chemistry that exploded certain markets. When the series debuted in 1965, there were still plenty of people who didn’t like to see minorities on TV. They were really upset that a black man would be equal to the white actor. I Spy: The Complete Series contains a series that didn’t play it safe.

Season One revealed another element of I Spy that beyond the usual television production methods. There had been other shows about stars visiting foreign countries. But unlike the usual movie magic, I Spy didn’t travel exclusively via stock footage. Culp and Cosby really did spend time on the streets of Hong Kong, Greece, Spain, Italy and Mexico. They didn’t shoot the entire episode in the various countries. They’d return to Hollywood soundstages and backlots for a majority of the action. Supposedly the travel logistics made I Spy the most complicated production schedule until Game of Thrones. The big secret exposed early in the series is how good Bill Cosby could act. Up to this point, most of America knew Cosby as a stand up comic on talk shows. There had been other comics that went from the nightclub to acting on TV. But most were in sitcoms. While there’s a bit of humor in I Spy, this is not Get Smart. There are emotionally intense moments during the spy games. Cosby is up for those moments when he’s sweating on the screen and not playing for laughs. Culp is a perfect match for Cosby since they both have a natural comic charm to their delivery. The duo come off as two guys that are working as a small team in a big world.

Season One launches with “So Long Patrick Henry” when Kelly and Scotty must persuade an athlete (Hogan’s Heroes‘ Ivan Dixon) from defecting to China. The duo must deal with a lot of agents lurking around Hong Kong. In a strange coincidence Nicholas Colasanto has a bit part. He’d kind of reunite with Cosby in the 1980s as Coach on Cheers. “Carry Me Back to Old Tsing Tao” also has an NBC Must See TV future star with Michael Conrad of Hill Street Blues. “The Loser” is one of those intense episodes when the guys nab a major shipment of heroin in Hong Kong. The mobsters nab Scotty and hold him hostage for the return of their drugs. Eartha Kitt (Batman) is a nightclub singer hooked on the smack. She wants to help Scotty, but can’t afford to loser her connection. “Three Hours on a Saturday Night” features another songstress in Julie London (Emergency!). Kelly has to get quick cash to pay for desired microfilm. “The Barter” centers around trading a kidnapped girl for a defecting scientist. Star Trek fans get a double dose with Roger C. Carmel (Harry Mudd) and George Takei (Sulu) in guest roles. “My Mother The Spy” has Sally Kellerman (M*A*S*H*) play a pregnant spy who needs to be smuggled out of Mexico. Turns out there’s a bit of baby daddy drama. What’s interesting is that Kellerman now plays Marc Maron’s TV mom on Maron. Did this baby turn out to have his own show on IFC?

The second season found the show a popular and critical hit. “Lori” is an interesting episode since it features a guest appearance from Greg Morris. He was just starting to play the role of Barney Collier on Mission: Impossible. His ability to play a high tech spy was assisted by Cosby breaking into the scene the previous season. “Trial by Treehouse” puts them in exotic California. They’re out to stop a plot to take down the power grid. Cicely Tyson and Michael J. Pollard (Bonnie and Clyde guest star. Sparrowhawk features Walter Koenig before he’d be beamed up to Star Trek as Chekov. “Bridge of Spies” gets Kelly’s eyes glued to the legendary Barbara Steele (Black Sunday). “Mainly on the Plains” has Boris Karloff (Frankenstein) play a man who loves Don Quixote. “Night Train to Madrid” stars Don Rickles. He was also a guest on Get Smart.

The third season had the duo looking a little more hip after the Summer of Love. “The Medarra Block” excites everyone with the arrival of Normal Fell (The Ropers). “A Few Miles West of Nowhere” brings a touch of Bond. Richard Kiel guest stars years before playing Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. “Happy Birthday Everybody” features Mr. Magoo and Popeye Doyle. Jim Backus (Gilligan’s Island) meets Gene Hackman (The French Connection) during a bomber’s revenge attacks. The third season proved to be the final outing since NBC decided to switch nights on their hit. Going up against The Big Valley and The Carol Burnett Show was too much. The ratings slipped badly in this era before VCRs and DVRs. The show ended its run. But it was far from forgotten. The series did very well in syndication.

I Spy holds up as a series because it didn’t play it safe. The producers didn’t cast a white guy instead of an untested Bill Cosby. They didn’t completely fake the international locations. They didn’t go Bond and dazzle audiences with super spy gadgets. They made a show that was true to itself. I Spy: The Complete Series brings together a special series that should have lasted longer except an NBC executive couldn’t keep their hands off the timeslots.

The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The transfers look fine. The location footage varies in quality. Seems they shot exteriors using 16mm sometimes so things look better. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. The sound comes through clear.

No bonus features.

I Spy: The Complete Series is how a buddy spy show needs to be made. Robert Culp and Bill Cosby remain iconic as field agents going around the globe fighting communists and criminals. This was how Americans TV traveled the world before Anthony Bourdain.

Timeless Media Group presents I Spy: The Complete Series. Starring: Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. Boxset Contents: 82 episodes on 18 DVDs. Released: June 24, 2014.

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