Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Do Not Leave This World Without Tracking Down The Fugitive

Taking my TV viewing preferences as a whole, there didn’t seem much hope that I would enjoy The Fugitive.

It’s a somber show that is not fast-paced or action-packed, there is almost no humor, and the protagonist, Dr. Richard Kimble, suffers through the most tortured existence of any character created for television (though Oliver Queen on Arrow is catching up).

For someone who values classic TV as a means to escape the harsher realities of life, a show this relentlessly downbeat is an unlikely destination.

And yet…I would cite it as one of television’s ten best shows, and I am entranced by it every time.

The series is justly revered among classic TV fans, but it’s still not as celebrated as it should be, because it was not syndicated as often as the sitcoms and lighter dramatic fare of the 1960s.

Several episodes were released on videocassette in the mid-1980s, and this was when I saw it for the first time. The series aired on A&E in the ‘90s but I didn’t have cable then, so I didn’t revisit the show until the year 2000, when TV Land aired a 24-hour Fugitive marathon to promote a deservedly short-lived remake starring Tim Daly. My VCR was running round the clock to capture them all.

The Fugitive finally hit DVD in 2007. Hardcore fans (and make no mistake, there are Fugitive fans as ardent as those for Star Trek and Game of Thrones) were outraged about music substitutions. While the purist in me was on that barricade with them, at the time I was just too happy to finally have access to every episode to really care. 

Even if you have enough interest in classic television to visit this blog, it’s possible you haven’t had a chance to get to know this series. The purpose for this entry is to let you know that this must stop. Find it, watch it, and thank me later.

The premise is covered in an opening credits sequence narrated by William Conrad: Indiana doctor Richard Kimble is convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to death. He claims he saw a one-armed man flee the scene. No one believes him. He escapes when the train taking him to prison derails. The police lieutenant escorting him to the death house, Philip Gerard, becomes obsessed with his recapture. 

From such broad stroke set-ups TV shows both great and terrible have been made. But The Fugitive was Les Misérables for television, as compelling in its medium as Victor Hugo’s literary masterwork.  

The pilot, “Fear in a Desert City,” provides a perfect illustration of the series’ strengths. Kimble is working as a bartender in Tucson, just one more in a litany of menial jobs. He meets a sympathetic woman, he runs afoul of local law enforcement, and flees before he can be captured. 

But it's not just what happens but how it happens, and how David Janssen, who never won the Emmy for his portrayal of Kimble, inhabits this role on a cellular level. You believe his every skittish reaction to a squad car parked across a street; the lonely desperation of a man trying to prove his innocence by tracking down his wife's killer in a world that predates Google by 30 years; a “victim of blind justice” cast adrift in a relentlessly dark and hostile existence bereft of any permanent home, prospects or friends.

Throughout the show’s four seasons he is most often found in rural areas, a skilled physician taking day labor work and trying to blend in among poorly educated people. Though he keeps his head down and doesn’t talk much they sense he’s not like the rest of them. Some react with kindness, some with curiosity, some with hostility. 

But he’s still a doctor, which was a brilliant decision on the part of series creator Roy Huggins. As much as Kimble needs to distance himself from his former life to stay alive, he is also compelled by his vocation and his conscience to help if someone needs medical attention. As soon as he does, he knows people will wonder how a migrant worker picking strawberries in Salinas knows how to perform a tracheotomy, and his days there will be numbered. Yet Kimble repeatedly compromises his own safety to help the kind of person that society ignores.

Lt. Philip Gerard, played by Barry Morse, was Javert to Kimble’s Valjean, and a formidable adversary throughout the run. Gerard only appears in about one-third of the episodes in every season – another wise and all-too-rare example of restraint in service of the drama. If Kimble kept narrowly escaping Gerard 25 times a season, the series becomes a Road Runner cartoon. This way, when Gerard does get close, it ratchets up the tension to unbearable levels.  

Once you grasp the premise, you know that in a typical episode Dr. Kimble is not going to be captured, or killed, or exonerated, because that would be the end of the show. Yet the series teases each of those outcomes repeatedly, and does it so well you can’t help but wonder how Kimble is going to get out of another no-win situation, or how the end of his nightmare will elude him once more.

To illustrate, I present “The Iron Maiden,” a typically solid season two episode. Kimble is working construction on a missile silo in the Nevada desert. The site is visited by a U.S. Congresswoman, who is injured at the bottom of the shaft. While Kimble tries to help her, a press photographer snaps a photo that makes the national news. Gerard sees it and immediately heads for the site. Before he arrives an accident strands several workers, including Kimble, 200 feet below the surface. By the time the equipment is fixed, his identity has been exposed. There’s only one way out of the shaft, and when he surfaces Gerard is there waiting for him. How will he escape this time?    

For a series so groundbreaking in its format, its lack of a permanent setting or supporting cast, and its inversion of traditional hero and villain roles, there was one cliché to which The Fugitive was not immune. That would be Kimble’s capability to make every woman he approaches fall in love with him. Certainly the show had to be aware of how this trope became abused. But perhaps, given the tribulations he endures for four seasons, it seemed only fair to allow him a few hours of pleasure with guest stars like Lois Nettleton, Suzanne Pleshette, Hope Lange and Susan Oliver.   

The Fugitive finale was famous as the most-watched episode of network television up to that point, garnering an astonishing 73 share. It’s satisfying but not perfect. I always thought the final moment between Kimble and Gerard should have been more substantive. And it would have been wonderful to insert brief clips of previous characters Kimble met in his travels, smiling as they read a newspaper account of his exoneration.

Still, since most shows did not receive the luxury of a definitive final installment, we are fortunate that Kimble’s saga ended at all. There was concern over how it would impact the series’ syndication appeal, and perhaps that proved to be valid. But viewers were so invested in the series that they deserved closure.

So here is my final appeal to those who missed The Fugitive, and already have too many other things to do to worry about tracking down episodes of a 50 year-old series. If you care about great art, and you think a life well lived requires taking time to experience some Shakespeare and Mozart, some Donatello and Picasso, some Keats and Shelley, some Beatles and Stones, and in television some Lucy and Twilight Zone, make sure The Fugitive is added to that list. It really is that good. 


  1. Mr. Hofstede, what do you have to say about other Quinn Martin TV shows? Have you seen the 1977 Donna Mills telefilm "The Hunted Lady"? In it, Ms. Mills plays a policewoman who goes on the run after being framed for homicide. Like so many other TV movies of the 1970s, it was a busted pilot.

  2. When I binge watched this show for my TV When I was Born blog, I was struck at exactly how well written and well crafted it was. Today a show of that quality and premise would run on AMC or HBO. I even suggested the first three black and white seasons were the last great film noir shot in America.