I’m going to give you a little test.
What do Barnaby Jones, Frank Cannon, and Jim Rockford have in common?
How about Theo Kojak, Mike Stone, and Sam McCloud?
Can you hum the theme song from Cannon?
I have rediscovered parts of my childhood on METV. 70’s cop shows. Quinn Martin productions. I was young when these were on first run, and I didn’t understand them, but I watched them. Some of them covertly. I watched others with my grandparents. As I rewatch them now on this retro TV station, I think about the impact they must have had on my then forming mystery writer’s brain.
The formula. The 70’s didn’t have story arcs on shows, for the most part. Sure, Quincy may date someone for a couple of episodes. But generally, what happened in an episode stayed in an episode. And as a viewer, I expected that. What I learned: Stories need to be contained. What I had to unlearn: Story arcs are a good thing, and not everything gets tied up in a bow.
Where are the women? Watching these shows with a 2014 world view, I am really struck by the lack of women, and almost complete absence of people of color. In too many ways, little has changed over the past forty years, but when you watch the opening credits of Cannon, and every guest star is a white man, it gives one pause. And watching Frank Cannon hitting on a young woman does not age well. What I learned: The world has changed, a bit. What I have to unlearn: That the norm doesn’t have to have white men as the heroes.
Mystery matters. The shows that aged the best (IMHO) are the ones that pay attention to the mystery. Not all do–sometimes the “bad” guy is clear from the beginning, and catching them is the story. But others spend time setting up the mystery, and it still pays off all these years later. See Columbo as a prime example. Murder She Wrote (80’s, not 70’s) also stands up. As does Perry Mason. 50’s, not 70’s, but still oh so wonderful. What I learned: My preference for traditional/cozy mysteries dates back to those days. Columbo remains a favorite. What I had to unlearn: When the story isn’t working, adding a plot twist out of no where doesn’t satisfy. And that playing it safe isn’t fun.
Secondary characters mean more and more. As I am working on my own series, and building a town and a cast of characters, I have been thinking a lot about secondary characters. And what role they play in overall stories. Over the course of a series, are some characters off limits for major story lines? Interesting to watch a show build up those secondary characters over the course of a series, and deal with changes. And also deal with how much we see them. Rocky is a great secondary character on The Rockford Files, but he isn’t in every episode. But what would Perry Mason be without Della and Paul? And Remington Steele benefited from the appearance of Mildred.
Watching old detective shows is a great way to pass the time, and to consider their effect on me as a writer. How about you? Any fond memories of those days? Any guesses on the quiz?