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Reviewed by Will Harris
or as fondly as “The Rockford Files” is remembered by television aficionados, the adventures of private detective Jim Rockford were never what you’d call a huge ratings success. Although the series earned a Top-15 rating during its first season (#12), it was a series of diminishing returns for the next four seasons (#32, #41, #46, and #59), so it was no real surprise when the show’s sixth season turned out to be its last. The reality, however, is that the cancellation of the series was less to do with its ratings and more to do with Garner’s medical problems (bad knees, a bad back, and an ulcer) making it rough for him to fulfill his preference of doing his own stunts. As a result, “The Rockford Files” went on hiatus after 12 episodes and never came back, which turned “Deadlock in Parma,” which aired on January 10, 1980, into an unanticipated series finale, and a disappointing one at that, since neither Rocky nor Dennis Becker made an appearance.
Season Six may be short of episodes, but there’s at least one full-fledged classic in the bunch: the two-part “Lions, Monkeys, Tigers, and Dogs,” which features a rare television appearance by Lauren Bacall, who was still quite gorgeous even in her late 50s. (I say that like she isn’t still gorgeous now.) Bacall plays Kendall Warren, a woman who lives above her means as a result of the friendships and business acquaintances that she’s cultivated over the years, but when she finds herself the target of a killer, one of those friends – Princess Irene Rachevsky (Dana Wynter) – steps in and hires Rockford to keep Kendall safe and find out who’s after her. Watching Garner and Bacall play opposite each other makes “Lions, Monkeys, Tigers, and Dogs” a worth-buying-the-set episode; you start off thinking that it’s a little weird to see her flirting with Rockford, since she’s a little older than his usual type of woman, but Bacall’s still got it, and between her looks and her smoky delivery, you actually start rooting for him to make an exception.
There’s another two-parter this season: “Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Will Never Die,” written by David Chase and guest-starring Marcia Strassman (“Welcome Back, Kotter”). The episode doesn’t hold up as well as the one that precedes it, however, probably because the music industry – which drives the events – has changed so dramatically since the late ‘70s. Chase has better luck with “Love is the Word,” where Rockford is reunited with his old flame, blind psychiatrist Megan Dougherty (Kathryn Harrold), only to find that she’s engaged to be married; it’s an episode which spends far more time on the relationship between Jim and Megan than criminal activities, offering more of a look into their feelings toward each other than you might expect. One wonders how much more of Jim Rockford’s psyche might’ve been laid bare if Chase had been given another season to work with the character. Another pleasant surprise is “The Big Cheese,” written by Shel Willens, which almost feels out of place in Season Six, given how much it resembles the tone of the show’s earlier years. (Makes you wish Willens had written more than one episode for the series.)
Unfortunately, not every episode is necessarily up to the standards set by the series over the course of the preceding years. The return of Lance White, the nicest private detective in the business, is pleasant enough, but it only serves to remind us that the character’s one-trick nature is best appreciated in small doses. When Jim and Rocky visit our 50th state in “The Hawaiian Headache,” it feels more like an excuse for the cast and crew of the show to take a vacation than a particularly great episode.
But you know how the cliché goes: even the worst episode of “The Rockford Files” is still better than a lot of the crap on TV, and even the weakest season of the series is still something that fans of the show are going to want to own. Let’s just hope that Universal doesn’t loiter around too long before beginning to release the series of eight TV movies that followed in the mid-1990s.
Special Features: Nary a one. This isn’t terribly surprising, given how few features have popped up on the “Rockford” sets, but given that Universal has several cool “Files”-related things sitting in their vaults, like episodes of “Richie Brockelman, Private Eye,” you’d think they could’ve managed to throw some of those items onto here.