Thursday, November 17, 2005

Review: Hart to Hart: The Complete First Season

In the retrospective featurette that graces the new DVD set of Hart to Hart: The Complete First Season, creator Sidney Sheldon accurately describes the sort of winky, black-tie tone he was aiming for in this serialized, early ’80s knock-off of The Thin Man films, in which Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers played a globe-trotting, make-cute husband and wife duo whose substantial personal fortune allows them to play amateur sleuths. With this in mind, the laidback charms of this show (after all, as the opening credit narration from co-star Lionel Stander cheerily notes of the Harts, “murder is their hobby”) can wash pleasantly over viewers seeking to relive their small screen past, when rakishness was embraced rather than castigated.

Wagner stars as Jonathan Hart, a self-made millionaire who is utterly bored with the business world. He runs his conglomeration of industries by loose proxy, leaving him the time to tend his magnificent coif and live a life of luxury and indulged inquisitiveness with his wife Jennifer (Powers), a former freelance journalist and his intellectual equal. Stander is their butler and sidekick, Max, who blends fruit-and-Jack-Daniels smoothies and is quick with a quip. While so many investigatory shows — be they cop, private investigator or, these days, forensic scientist — are little more than colorfully convoluted procedurals, one thing that’s notable about Hart to Hart is the amount of time it took to establish and delight in character. The cases the Harts tackle, therefore, are actually a little less than half the story, as the mock-exasperated interplay between the stars is what gives the show its true zing. The (little) action is dated and silly, sure, and the occasional stunt doubles among the worst you’ll ever see, but Hart to Hart has a great sense of its own style and mission.

While not without its low points (“Which Way, Freeway?,” wherein the Harts’ dog exposes an elaborate scheme to kill a reclusive jeweler and steal millions of dollars in gems, comes to mind), Hart to Hart works chiefly because of its leads. Wagner plays Hart in breezy, Steve McQueen-lite fashion, which isn’t as backhanded a compliment as it sounds; vacuumed free of his complications and surliness, one could see how the character of Hart — and indeed, this series — was a success with audiences, if never quite a critical darling. While it suffered some rocky reviews early on, Hart to Hart eventually went on to score six Emmy nominations and more than a dozen Golden Globe nods. Episode highlights here include a great opening pilot, “A New Kind of High,” “Hit Jennifer Hart,” “Cruise at Your Own Risk” and “With This Gun I Thee Wed.”

The full-frame transfers of the show look surprisingly good given their age, and the audio (in English and… Portuguese, with subtitles in the latter?) is equally crisp. Wagner and Powers sit with writer-director Tom Mankiewicz for a warm audio commentary track on the two-hour pilot. An abundance of anecdotes are shared (after a location set fire early during the shoot, the director of photography used gaffer tape to amend his novelty, pre-show crew T-shirt from, “I have complete confidence in my director” to read “some confidence”), and the banter between the three (“Did you learn that in star school?” jibes Powers to Wagner at one point) is loving and humorous. This track is a veritable blueprint for multi-party effectiveness, so balanced is it between yarns, interesting insight and quantifiable information. The aforementioned retrospective featurette clocks in at 22 minutes, and includes interviews with the stars, plus Mankiewicz, Sheldon, executive producer Leonard Goldberg and others. It too is a fantastic look back at the series, and a model of economic re-visitation — not too long, not too short.

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