Monday, December 22, 2008

Mysteries on TV: A Look Back at the NBC Mystery Movies

Mysteries on TV

, your source for the most complete selection of detective, amateur sleuth, private investigator, and suspense television mystery series now available or coming soon to DVD, on Mondays typically profiles series that have DVD sets being released the following Tuesday. With the next new release of a mystery series not scheduled until after the first of the year, we thought we'd take the last three Mondays of 2008 to highlight some of our favorite series.

This week: the NBC Mystery Movies.

In 1971 NBC introduced The NBC Mystery Movie, an umbrella series consisting of alternating Wednesday night airings of Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan and Wife. The success of the format led NBC to not only add another series to the umbrella (Hec Ramsey) the following year but also create a second night of mystery movies (Madagan, Cool Million, and Banacek). Some of the new series weren't quite the rating success of the original three, so over the next 5 years NBC tried to find a fourth series in Tenafly, Faraday & Company, The Snoop Sisters, Amy Prentiss, and more. It wasn't until Quincy M.E. aired in 1976 that it found a winner. The concept was abandoned by NBC at the end of the 1976-77 season (though revived a decade later by ABC with the return of Columbo and Kojak, adding B. L. Stryker, Gideon Oliver, and Christine Cromwell). A lot of good mysteries were shown as part of a weekly mystery movie series, some of which are available today on DVD. Below are three of our favorites.

George Peppard played Thomas Banacek, a -based freelance insurance investigator in . He typically investigated the loss of only the most expensive items (an airplane, a race car, rare art, jewelry, etc.) and his fee of 10% of the insured value of missing property allowed him to lead a lavish lifestyle.

The vast majority of the episodes were of the "impossible crime" variety with the insured item vanishing in a most mysterious manner. Each episode ended with Banacek recreating how the theft occurred and producing, causing to produce, or simply explaining where to find the missing item. Granted, some of the solutions were as wildly improbable as the crime itself, but it was always entertaining to watch.

The series also starred Ralph Manza as Banacek's chauffeur Jay Drury (who often came up with his own "theories" on how to find the stolen items) and Murray Matheson as rare bookstore owner Felix Mulholland, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the most arcane subjects frequently came in handy in solving the case.

The pilot episode and 16 regular season episodes of are available on a single DVD set as the complete series. The individual seasons are also available separately.

We also enjoyed the early seasons of which starred Rock Hudson as Police Commissioner Stewart McMillan and Susan St. James as his wife Sally. Though the banter between the two could be syrupy sweet, there was usually a decent mystery plot supporting each episode.

Comic relief was often provided by two series regulars, Nancy Walker as the McMillan's live-in housekeeper Mildred and John Schuck as McMillan's right-hand man, Sgt. Charles Enright.

Due to a contract dispute between the studio and Susan St. James, Sally was written out of the series for its final season which, for that reason and several others, was the weakest and least watchable.

Only the first season of is currently available on DVD.

It's impossible to discuss the NBC Mystery Movies without including . Peter Falk starred as the Los Angeles homicide detective who always wore a rumpled overcoat, drove a battered Peugeot convertible, and was famous for the line "Just one more thing ...".

Created by multiple winning producers Richard Levinson and William Link, the episodes in the series generally followed a similar format. A murder was committed before the first commercial break with the audience in on who did it and how. The rest of the episode was devoted to Columbo uncovering the very small clue that implicates the killer, often a well-known guest star, and using it to trap them in the end.

By the time ABC resurrected Columbo in 1989 he had become almost a caricature of himself. The quality of the writing seemed to have slipped a bit as well. Still, it is a memorable series and will always be a standard of mystery television.

All seven seasons of the original on NBC are available on a DVD. The ABC episodes from 1989 and 1990 are available separately as movie collections.

Visit the Mysteries on TV website to discover more currently available on DVD.

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Lance Wright owns and manages Omnimystery, a Family of Mystery Websites, which had its origin as Hidden Staircase Mystery Books in 1986. As the scope of the business expanded, first into book reviews — Mysterious Reviews — and later into information for and reviews of mystery and suspense television and film, all sites were consolidated under the Omnimystery brand in 2006.

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