DVD: Nero Wolfe - The Complete
Season 1; The Complete Season 2
A&E Home Video, 8 discs combined
Reviewed by DJ Johnson
Once upon a time there was an extraordinary group of people who made extraordinary television for the A&E network. In an age when the trend was to use guest star power to dazzle viewers, they created their detective mysteries with a repertory company of actors, several playing different roles every episode. Their show was absolutely riveting, from the dialogue to the storyline to the photography to the vintage sets. Of course, they had a pretty solid blueprint to work with since Rex Stout did such a wonderful job creating the characters in his adventures of the great detective, Nero Wolfe.
The bad news is that A&E canceled Nero Wolfe after just two seasons due to low ratings. The show had and still has a devoted following, just not one large enough to give sponsers serious wood, so out it went to make room for something miles beneath it. The only good news is that the entire series is available in two box sets, The Complete Season One and The Complete Season Two. The combined sets total eight DVDs, 21 episodes, one feature film in letterbox format and a "making of" featurette. In all, over 25 hours of pure bliss for Wolfe fans.
Judging by the ratings that ultimately tied the cord around this show's throat, I have to assume most of our readers never saw it or even knew it existed. I, myself, didn't know about it until it was too late to save it. The DVDs have been my chance to see what I missed, and to see it commercial free. Television this good is so rare you find yourself craving it, wanting to watch two, three episodes in a row. The characters are perfectly fleshed out. Maury Chaykin's Wolfe is flawless: he's arrogant to a fault, grouchy, agoraphobic, food-obsessed, rude as hell, practically allergic to women yet showing no outward signs of homosexuality (or any sexuality at all, for that matter), fearless... to a point, obsessed with his ongoing experiments with orchids, and, most importantly, he's heavily dependent upon his assistant, Archie Goodwin, for he's the one who leaves the brownstone and gathers the clues. Timothy Hutton plays Goodwin with equal parts flair and shrug. He's dressed to the nines, has all the funny lines, the girls are batting their eyes like mad, but ol' Archie's always got that expression on his face that says "Yeah, I could take you to bed, but what's in it for me?" The show is called Nero Wolfe, but make no mistake, Archie Goodwin is the ultra-cool detective in these stories, and he's also the one who does the lion's share of the work.
He's also the one who takes the grillings and the guff from the dumb-as-a-post, every-detective-book-has-one copper, Inspector Cramer (Bill Smitrovich). Cramer's blood pressure reads in his brow as he screams over his brutally chomped cigars and into the face of the calm and often amused Archie, whose eyebrow shrug for "You really don't impress me much, cop," is just as cool as and not that much different from the one he uses on the girls. Maybe that's what cheeses Cramer off so much. All I know is you're always waiting for Cramer to have a stroke in mid-interrogation. But he doesn't, and Archie is forever returning home at 10 AM, sleepy but nowhere near rattled. Wolfe's rough exterior cracks during these moments as he asks Archie if he's eaten, if he's slept, and when the answer is no and no, he sends him off to bed like a concerned parent. The little secret that Chaykin lets us in on from time to time is that, beyond the fact that he cares about Archie, he knows he couldn't do what he does without him. It should be Wolfe & Goodwin Investigations and Mr. Wolfe -- and Archie -- know it. It's one of the most entertaining dynamics of the books and it's enacted brilliantly by Chaykin and Hutton.
And so it goes, for 21 episodes worth of remarkable entertainment not dependent on flashy effects, adrenaline-rush action or cheap sex. All sex is implied and left to your imagination where you can dress it up any way you want it. The chemistry between Hutton and Kari Matchett doesn't hurt. Matchett is one of the handful of actors who appeared in many different episodes as different people, a practice that is only slightly distracting at first as you find yourself thinking "Oh, hey, she was in the last one, wasn't she?" After a while, it becomes an entertaining part of the series. James Tolkan (Principal Strickland of the Back To The Future film series) is a very recognizable man who shows up from episode to episode in various roles, with and without hair and injecting a fun sort of menace to the proceedings. Of the chameleon cast members, the Quirk-Deluxe Award goes to Boyd Banks, who always put 110% effort into his off-the-wall characters, especially the hyper-strange Dinky Byne in "Champagne For One." Colin Fox adds a certain quiet indignation as the perpetually put-upon chef, Fritz Brenner, always at once a source of great frustration and pride to his boss, Nero Wolfe, who thought Fritz at least as indispensible as Archie.
All these characters were brought to life with care, and the sets, costumes and every detail, from the revolvers to the automobiles, were obviously fussed over to ensure authenticity. Timothy Hutton himself directed most of the episodes and really proved himself in that area in doing so. Yes, this show was so good it had to fail. It wasn't mass market pablum. Success stories like The West Wing and The Soppranos are few and far between. This one will just have to live on in these two box sets as evidence that quality doesn't necessarily equal success.
© 2004 - DJ Johnson