Monday, June 15, 2015

Terrible Shows I Like: The Girl from UNCLE

To be clear, as “like” is a relative term, justifying any recommendation for The Girl From UNCLE requires some effort, even with the ‘terrible shows’ disclaimer. 

This series will not appeal to most casual TV fans. If you enjoyed The Man From UNCLE you’ll want to check it out; if you are a fan of Stefanie Powers from Hart to Hart, you may be curious about her first series. If you have an affinity for the “swinging ‘60s” era, or that decade’s tongue-in-cheek spy craze that launched with James Bond, you may want to explore all of its artifacts. 

But even with an open mind and/or a predisposition for the genre, many of you will not make it through all 29 episodes. I did, but it took awhile, and I don’t have a return visit planned anytime soon.

What eases the series ever so slightly into a ‘like’ category, beyond a mere 6-7 agreeable episodes, was the potential for fun that was clearly present but never fully realized. This, despite the best efforts of two actors with enough chemistry and charisma to invigorate less than adequate stories.

The Girl From UNCLE (I know technically it’s U.N.C.L.E. but that’s too much work to keep typing) was a 1966 spin-off of The Man From UNCLE (1964-1968), a clever and well-cast series that caught the zeitgeist of the times…and generated 60,000 fan letters every month addressed to Robert Vaughn (as the suave Napoleon Solo) and David McCallum (who became an international teen idol as Russian good guy Illya Kuryakin).

Like Batman, another ‘60s TV phenomenon, the show featured eccentric villains played by distinguished guest stars, and found a sweet spot between stylish action and self-aware camp: “We could make one of our daringly resourceful and nauseatingly punctual escapes – if only the door weren’t locked” laments Illya in a typical episode.

The 1966 episode “The Moonglow Affair” introduced Mary Ann Mobley as UNCLE agent April Dancer and Norman Fell as her partner, Mark Slate. The Girl From UNCLE was recast with Stefanie Powers as April, and Noel Harrison (the son of Rex Harrison) as Slate. Leo G. Carroll played UNCLE boss Alexander Waverly in both series.

April had Emma Peel’s fashion sense and gift for understatement, but none of her intelligence or fighting skills. For a trained secret agent she was, for the most part, incompetent. That’s not how Mobley played her in “The Moonglow Affair,” and one can only wonder why the character was not allowed to retain her aptitude and resourcefulness. Powers – stylish, sly, sexy – tried to give viewers a reason to care even as the show undermined her at every turn.

Noel Harrison is the series’ real find, even if like Stefanie he rarely received anything interesting to do. But whether an episode was trending as silly as Get Smart, or required a moment of playing it straight, as in the opening scenes of “The Double-O Nothing Affair,” Harrison adapted effortlessly to the inconsistent tone with Carnaby Street charm unscathed.

Fortunately, the show didn’t kill his career any more than it did his co-star’s – though he may be better remembered now as a singer.

If The Girl from UNCLE had given its agents something – anything – to build from, the result may have been more successful. But it didn’t, and I really cannot stress enough how badly this show was written. Episodes like “The Drublegratz Affair” seem virtually plot-less, meandering from scene to scene with no sense of direction or purpose.

One assumes they were trying to find the same quirky tone of its UNCLE predecessor, but I can’t be sure because many episodes are so inept it’s hard to figure out what they were trying to do. Any show that can make a writer as gifted as Jackson Gillis look overmatched should never have emerged when it did from the development stage.

Sometimes, they lucked into the right formula. The first show, “The Dog Gone Affair,” raises false hopes in a wonderful scene where April escapes an elaborate deathtrap without any help. “The Faustus Affair” ends with a Benny Hill-like chase through a mad scientist’s lab, that is so ridiculous I couldn’t help smiling. “The Mother Muffin Affair” is indisputably the best segment, thanks to a Napoleon Solo crossover and a nemesis played by Boris Karloff in drag. 

There’s also an interesting array of guest stars, including some that rarely appeared on shows like this. You expect Dom DeLuise (who appears in one of the better outings, “The Danish Blue Affair”); but when Stan Freberg pops up as a henpecked husband in the otherwise dreadful “The Carpathian Killer Affair,” or Peggy Lee plays a western saloon owner in “The Furnace Flats Affair,” it helps pass the time.

When I finished The Girl From UNCLE, I felt the same way I did after watching the 1984 film Supergirl, which squandered the perfect casting of Helen Slater. What good does it do to get the most difficult and important part of the project right, and just about everything else wrong? I’ve watched Supergirl at least three more times hoping it will somehow get better, and it never does. Kara Zor-El, meet April Dancer. She’s in another terrible show I like. 


  1. Mr. Hofstede, did you ever see "Once Upon a Spy," a 1980 TV movie that the underrated Mary Louise Weller did with a relatively young Ted Danson? Christopher Lee and Eleanor Parker (may they both RIP) were also in that movie, which was a busted pilot. It's now legitimately available on DVD.

    As far as "The Girl from U.N.C.L.E." is concerned, it's my understanding that Stefanie Powers wore a wetsuit in the closing credits, but never during any of the actual adventures.

  2. I have not seen that movie, but it sounds interesting. You are correct about the wetsuit clip. There were a few swimsuit/cheesecake moments but that was not the show's main selling point.

    1. Mr. Hofstede, have you watched any WWE Diva matches in the last decade? If so, do you think they have too often come across as blatant jokes? If the latter is true, did you often feel the same way while watching "The Girl from U.N.C.L.E."?

  3. Noel Harrison & his father, Rex, made Oscar history for so far being the only father & son to sing the Oscar-winning Best Song in consecutive years, Rex for 1967's "Talk to the Animals" (from Dr. Dolittle) and Noel for 1968's "The Windmills of Your Mind" (from The Thomas Crown Affair). I love Dusty Springfield's version of "Windmills", and Scooter from The Muppets sang a funny version of the song on The Muppet Show.

  4. When ever i felt bad that time i surely watch my fav programs, i really love it. Its really informative thanks for sharing this opportunity...
    TV Shows News