Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Challenge of Three-Part Stories


I’ve done a few pieces about two-part episodes of classic shows and how, when they’re done right, they often rank among the most memorable entries from their respective series.


But it doesn’t happen all the time. Looking back it seems that for every successful two-part tale there is one that did not merit the extra running time, resulting in a story with superfluous subplots stretched with stock footage and other filler.


So if the track record for two-part stories is spotty, what must the verdict be for those with three parts?


Not as bad as you’d think, surprisingly. The reason, perhaps, being that many two-part shows start out as single episodes that get expanded somewhere along the way, while three-part stories are plotted from the beginning to fill a feature-length running time. The risk is in hoping viewers will return for all three installments. Today with DVRs that’s not an issue; but in the Comfort TV era before the VCR audiences had to watch the show when it was scheduled, so part one and part two better be intriguing enough to bring everyone back for the finale.


Here are six examples of shows that pulled it off – and one that did not.


The Hawaii Trilogy

The Brady Bunch

Travel is a common theme in these super-sized stories, and the Brady Bunch’s fourth season trip to Hawaii offers a prime example of how to do it right. From the beautiful beaches to the Pearl Harbor memorial, viewers enjoyed a virtual tropical vacation as the story unfolds. 


The final installment was certainly over-the-top for this series, with Vincent Price hamming it up as a paranoid archaeologist, but all is forgiven when he joins the family at the luau that ends their eventful trip. Replicas of the “tabu” idol Bobby finds at the construction site have become popular collectibles among Brady fans. 



Batman Vs. Lord Ffogg


Another travel adventure, as the Dynamic Duo visit “Londinium” after the mysterious thefts of historic treasures. But in this case there was no actual visit to London, which almost becomes a running joke within the story – witness the barely redressed set for Commissioner Gordon’s office serving as the office of Gordon’s British counterpart.


Batman deduces the guilty party within minutes of his arrival, suggesting the Londinium police are no more capable than those in Gotham City. It’s the infamous Lord Ffogg (Rudy Vallee) and Lady Penelope Peasoup (Glynis Johns), who run a school for shoplifters in training. This is one of the better third-season stories, and provides a better-than-usual showcase for Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl.  



“Lost in Spain”

Family Affair

One more travel story, as the Davis clan visits Spain, where a bus mix-up separates Buffy and Jody from Mr. French. It’s all shot on the studio backlot but it feels more authentic than many Europe-set shows, especially as the twins wander through the rural countryside while the rest of the family continue their desperate search. Eventually they find their way to a farmhouse, where the couple inside feeds them but is wary of reporting their location to the police. As always, Family Affair takes a more grounded and realistic approach to plots that have played out on dozens of other sitcoms, resulting in a story in which everyone’s fears feel more genuine, even though we know everything will end happily.


“Kill Oscar”

The Bionic Woman

This was the story that introduced the Fembots, which in the 1970s were popular enough to inspire their own action figures. No one who watched these shows first-run could forget when the Fembot’s face plate was removed, revealing electronics circuits and wires surrounding two creepy bulging eyes. 



The female robots were created by Dr. Franklin, a slightly mad scientist with a secret island base who plots to steal a device that can control the weather. That’s the kind of role that screams for a veteran scenery-chewer like Ross Martin – but instead they brought in the great John Houseman to give the part more gravitas –and it works. 



“Gold Train: The Bullet”


Matt has a bullet lodged near his spine, and Doc doesn’t want to risk performing an operation to remove it. They put the marshal on a train so he can see a specialist, and the train is held up by a gang led by guest star Eric Braeden. It took 17 seasons for this venerable western to serve up a three-part story, so no one should be surprised that it delivered plenty of action, drama and romance. Fans were delighted to see Milburn Stone return as Doc, after an extended absence following the actor’s bypass surgery. But the most memorable moment featured Amanda Blake, as Kitty (finally!) talks to Matt about the love she felt for him throughout the years.



A Man Called Smart

Get Smart

Of course you’ll want to watch all three parts of this story, which was originally intended for theatrical release. But it’s the first installment that features a masterpiece of slapstick comedy starring Don Adams, a stretcher and a revolving door. Adams, whose distinct voice and catchphrases were a big part of the show’s success, never utters a word throughout the sequence, and still earns huge laughs. There is also an innovative opening chase scene that portends Adams’ association with Inspector Gadget. 


The Falcon

Mission Impossible

Here’s the one that didn’t work, which isn’t surprising as Mission: Impossible also struggled with two-part stories. Fans already missing Martin Landau and Barbara Bain would have their patience with the series further tested by this bloated assignment: the team must stop a usurper’s plot to steal the throne of a princess. When M:I starts lifting plots from Disney, it’s not a good sign. 




  1. It is worth noting that the original "Transformers" TV series in the 1980s was led off by a three-part pilot miniseries.

  2. Oh, and Wayne Rogers's short-lived crime series "City of Angels" (1976) was led off by a three-part pilot entitled "The November Plan." Did you ever watch THAT one, Mr. Hofstede?

  3. I can't believe all these years later that I am able to say the Hawaii episodes of Brady Bunch sucked.In fact I think was the end of me watching program.