Thursday, April 28, 2016

Never Saw It Coming

Even the greatest of television shows give us too much information -- sound and visual; and certainly story. Strange, considering we do not require background for most characters going in. The locations are normally familiar to us. So is what might be called the "moral architecture" of the show: we grasp in terms of style and meaning where it will go, and where it will not. The best episodes in the best series, usually by miracle, seem to contain these presumptions almost as distraction, using them to deepen and complicate the mysteries already at the heart of the matter.

For the first 20 minutes of its 48-minute length, "Counter Gambit" (an episode of The Rockford Files from the middle of its initial season) gives us nothing but false information. Two ex-cons with sudden new freedom hire private investigator (and ex-con) Jim Rockford to find a missing girl and her $250,000 of missing pearls. They expect Rockford to locate the girl, soften her up, get the lay of her apartment, then grab the loot. The only question seems to be whether the P.I. will return honor among thieves, or turn the necklace over to the cops.

Not exactly. The story begins way past middle and only after wrap-up can we understand what's really happened. "Counter Gambit" -- originally premiering for NBC on January 24, 1975, written by Howard Berk and Juanita Bartlett, directed by the fine actor Jackie Cooper -- is one of the great con episodes in TV history. Secretly dense and complicated, it feels like it was set up by the Rockford crew that week in about six seconds, the story was shot out of the trees, and no one ever saw it coming. It is perfect.

So many nice turns. Ford Raines as Manny Tolan. The wonderful Noah Berry Jr. twice briefly. M. Emmet Walsh as a particularly sweaty "insurance investigator." Garner throughout. Mary Frann luscious and seven years away from becoming Newhart's Joanna Loudon. And Stuart Margolin's first meaningful appearance as Angel Martin. (Margolin had directed a previous Rockford episode.) Not yet the corrupt and sniveling Angel we all know, "Counter Gambit"'s Angel is more endearing and smarter. (The scene inside the 1970s porn house is one of the funniest in the series.)

Eddie Fontaine steals it as Moss Williams.