The Man From U.N.C.L.E (1964–1967 USA)

uncleWhat made MFU such a hit? Maybe the male baby-boomers who thought the exciting life depicted here was how life was going to be. Women, travel, women, cool suits, women, weapons, excitement, women, etc,. Did I mention women? Sure beat the work-a-day world their Dads had to live in during the 1960s. They were in for a big surprise when they grew up. No UNCLE organization, no space travel, no huge amounts of leisure time. Meanwhile, the girlies who couldn’t get enough of Robert Vaughn just threw their knickers at the TV screen. What would it take to get his attention & make him desire them? In a word…THRUSH! 

Besides being on the leading edge of the fantasy trend, MFU was one of the 1st TV series to utilize a truly cinematic approach to the photography of the scenes, which makes the series more interesting and exciting. MFU also featured some elaborate fight sequences, stunts, and car chase scenes. MFU resembled motion pictures more than any TV series prior to it. MFU also featured TV’s first Beatle-haircut character, Ilya Kuryakin, who was quite popular with admirers of male beauty. It helped that David McCallum and co-star Robert Vaughn were both very fine actors with high personal appeal and good screen chemistry.

They set the bar for many other 1960’s heroic TV duos, such as Kirk and Spock, Adam West and Burt Gordon, etc. MFU was a ratings success and was appreciated by critics as well because of the dry banter and quasi-satirical touches (such as early episodes featuring an intro that broke the 4th wall). The success of MFU was a factor in the 1965-68 explosion of dramatic or quasi-dramatic fantasy TV shows: Mission Impossible, Wild Wild West, Time Tunnel, Lost in Space, the Invaders, Land of the Giants, etc. Two hugely influential series, Star Trek, and Batman, both premiering in 1966, were also part of this trend. Star Trek, to a large extent, was basically MFU in outer space…especially Season Two. And Batman was an simply an exaggeration of the the spoof element of MFU.

man-from-uncleToday, most popular cinematic and TV sci-fi owes something to Star Trek, and the whole superhero movie explosion that began in 2000 owes a debt to the 1966 Batman. Another way MFU broke ground was in outright sexiness. Compared to dramatic series before it, MFU had quite a lot of sexy stuff going on. (They even had the most beautiful woman/best actress of the 20th century in one of the early black and white episodes). But despite the sexual liberties, MFU never got political, except in the most oblique sense. Perhaps mild satire of nations and politics in general, yet never getting anywhere near jabs at actual identifiable persons or institutions. MFU’s first season was the best, the producers were still experimenting with the format, the humour and satire were used with restraint.

Then there was the crisp B/W photography helped mute the cartoonish elements of the series and gave it a certain resemblance to film noir. Subsequent seasons are generally enjoyable, but humour, satire, and camp increased in Season 2 and took over in Season 3. In Season 4, a new producer stepped in and the humour was greatly reduced and the camp eliminated. Season 4 is nearly as good as Season 1. It was too late and MFU was cancelled in early 1968. But, between 1968 and 1970, everything else from the mid-1960’s fantasy explosion was also cancelled. My pet theory is that the sudden and irreversible evaporation of ratings for ‘Batman’ in ’67-68 spooked everyone, causing them to flee the realm of fantasy as though it were a sinking ship…and no doubt, new trends were waiting to be mined.

man-from-uncle-check-suit-1

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Comments

  1. Excellent review, I’ve never seen the show before but am curious about it now! Any intentions on reviewing the 2015 film? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good idea! Yes, I will review the new version. 🙂

    Like

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