Spenser: For Hire: The Complete First Season (1985-86) DVD Review: Great '80s Neo-Noir

The criminally neglected cult ABC TV series starring the late great Robert Urich returns courtesy of the Warner Archive.
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Anyone who has so much as flipped on a television set once for even only five minutes is probably quite well aware that detective shows are easier to find than one's own ass with the assistance of both hands and a flashlight. Now, when it comes down to finding a good detective series, however, things can become rather tricky. It certainly isn't easy in this day and age, what with their being seventeen kajillion different television channels full of tripe at our disposal. Believe it or not, it was even harder back when we only had three networks to choose from, and this was due in part to the fact that the censors of the time could be far more spineless and sniveling than the morally-questionable people in power today.

Plus, when we only had three networks, it seemed more likely that a show - even a well-received one - could get the axe at any minute just because somebody thought they had something better in the works. Why, I fondly remember when the newly-formed FOX network came into play and decided not to let the short-lived comedy series Second Chance an opportunity to live up to its name. Or the time NBC official pronounced Walter & Emily as dead on arrival. And these were just comedies, people; imagine the amount of serious shows they waded through over the years that weren't even detective stories!

And then there was ABC's Spenser: For Hire.

First broadcast in 1985, the late-night (well, prime time) series based on a collection of novels by author Robert B. Parker followed the casework of Boston-based private detective Spenser (aptly depicted by the late Robert Urich) - a character so cool, that it's the only name he goes by. A former policeman, current gourmet, and ever the well-read fellow to boot, Spenser (spelled with an "S" just like the poet, something he elucidates throughout the series) isn't your average, everyday hired gun. Though highly proficient with the law itself, Spenser often tends to take matters into his own hands; his preferred method of "shoot first, ask questions later if they're still alive" would only be equalled by the deliberately outrageous of Sledge Hammer! - the cult classic comedy series that premiered the following year.

But of course with Spenser, the violence wasn't played for a laugh. In fact, the series became deadly serious on several occasions, long before the hard-hitting gritty type of detective show that would follow in the years to come.

Axed too soon due to shifting schedules and budgetary restraints - the series was one of the few shows of the time to be filmed on location, something that few productions even do to this day (there's a reason every place looks like Canada today, people!) - Spenser: For Hire soon became a fond, fleeting memory to its loyal fanbase, all of whom should rejoice over the Warner Archive Collection's much-anticipated release of Spenser: For Hire: The Complete First Season on DVD. This set has been a long time coming; so much so, that I sheepishly must admit that I had forgotten the series even existed prior to reading the announcement of its release. (And yet I remembered that the perfunctory Pat Morita cop show Ohara existed. Go figure.)

Happiness isn't an entirely common commodity here. Dealing with the decidedly adult issues of murder, kidnapping, sex, and occasionally drifting into such taboo waters such as abortion and incest, Spenser: For Hire wasn't the typical '80s private investigator show. Its presentation, however, was as tried and true as could be, with star Urich narrating each episode of the series just as his pulp-fiction predecessors had done in all manner of media previously. The fact that he moves into an out-of-commission fire station adds something to the neo-noir feeling (that, and Ghostbusters was released the previous year). Joining Spenser throughout the series is Avery Brooks, cast as the well-dressed hired gun Hawk - a role as far-removed from Brooks' more famous Star Trek: Deep Space Nine character Benjamin Sisko than can be.

Developed as the cooler, more sinister side of Spenser's own persona, Brooks often serves as our lead's deus ex machina - with a big gun always on standby, and a past (and sometimes current) history of working for powerful rich men on the wrong side of the law. In the series' pilot, "Promised Land" (based on the late Mr. Parker's award-winning 1976 novel), Hawk is under the infrequent employ of Boston's notorious criminal kingpin, King Powers (Chuck Connors). As the season marches on, Hawk becomes Spenser's regular backup when the going gets tough (and it does quite frequently) while still occasionally filling in for the baddies every now and again.

Much like the morally inclined Spenser is able to kill in self-defense without fear of repercussion from the police, Hawk is able to assassinate a menace without having to worry about his conscious. (Brooks would reprise the character in a failed spin-off series, and the character of Hawk would also be played by, among others, Ernie Hudson in future TV adaptations - thus establishing two very clear Ghostbusters connections, which is something I thought I would point out for no reason whatsoever there, kids.)

Joining the regular cast for the first season is actress Barbara Stock as Spenser's love interest, school counselor Susan Silverman. She's there to comfort our hero when his own conscious starts to weigh in its two-cents' worth, all the while battling her own sometimes torn feelings for a man who puts his life on the line every day. (The character was written out the series after the first season when ratings started to drop; their relationship having become too formulaic and repetitive, no doubt.) Ron McLarty, who would later land the role of a lifetime in one of the worst-received TV shows of all time, the ill-fated Cop Rock, plays a slobby Boston PD sergeant who could do without Spenser; the great Richard Jaeckel is the wiser police lieutenant who regularly allows his old colleague to wreak havoc so long as it gets the job done.

Were Spenser: For Hire to return to television today (Parker had announced a second coming on his blog before his death in 2010, but nothing ever came to light after that), it's doubtful that much would have to be re-written to make it edgier. Alas, they would be hard-pressed to find the same amount of familiar faces that Spenser: For Hire - The Complete First Season employs as guest stars. Among the assortment of up-and-comers (many of whom became quite popular years later) are Geoffrey Lewis, Deborah Rush, Anthony Heald, Patricia Clarkson, Angela Bassett, William H. Macy, Paul Dooley, Earl Hindman, D.B. Sweeney, Richard Jenkins, Shirley Knight (as Jaeckel's wife), Jimmy Smits, Gail Strickland, John Davidson, and Brad Dourif.

The Warner Archive Collection presents all twenty-two episodes of Spenser: For Hire: The Complete First Season spread out over six dual-layered discs. The initial pressing of this title was committed to traditional DVD as opposed to the Manufactured-on-Demand DVD-R sort, so seek those out if you're a perfectionist in that department. No special features are included, but between the fact that longtime fans can finally cross one of the show's three seasons off of their wish list is great enough, and the spectacular 1.33:1 presentations of this shot-on-film series (it never looked this good when I first saw it on ABC back in the '80s, I can tell you that!) is substantial plus.

Highly recommended.

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