Saturday, January 30, 2010

Burke's Law (TV)

Burke's LawExecutive Producer:
Aaron Spelling
Created by Frank D. Gilroy, Ivan Goff, and Ernest Kinoy
Starring Gene Barry, Gary Conway, Regis Toomey, Leon Lontoc, Eileen O'Neill
IMDB Entry
Television has had a long list of detective and cop shows.  Oddly enough, though, up until recently it has had very few successful mysteries.*  Audiences preferred action to puzzles.  One of the most successful -- and which should have had much more success if they hadn't made a disastrous change to follow the "trend of the month" -- was Burke's Law.
Like a lot of 60s shows, it had a gimmick.  But instead of a genie or a talking car, this was a gimmick of character.  Amos Burke was the chief of detectives for the Los Angeles Police Department.  He also was a millionaire and saw no reason to change his life style.  So he would show up at the crime scene in his chauffeured Rolls Royce and begin to find the key to the murder (it was always a murder).  But it was never grim:  it was played for laughs, with the suspects being outrageous characters whose over-the-top antics contrasted nicely with Burke's cool demeanor.
The character of Burke was  created by Frank D. Gilroy.  Gilroy wrote in all sorts of media, from novels to TV, to plays.** Burke first showed up as a character in The Dick Powell Show.  When Gene Barry decided to return to TV after his successful run with Bat Masterson, producer Aaron Spelling remembered the character of Amos Burke, which  fit in like a glove.
The episodes fit neatly into a formula:  someone was murdered*** and Burke would interview all the many suspects. Burke was smart, ironic, and witty and would often spout out some sort of wry aphorism about the situation, calling it "Burke's Law."   And, at the end, he would find the clue that solved the mystery Barry was just perfect for the role.
The show benefited by clever casting. The suspects were usually pretty recognizable stars, from both TV and older films, who probably enjoyed playing a small role.  They definitely seemed to enjoy what they were doing, overacting just a bit while Burke looked on calmly.  It was as much a comedy as a mystery.
The show also had some top-notch writers involved, including Richard Levinson and Williams Link (creators of Columbo), Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (Batman), John Meredyth Lucas (Star Trek and Mannix), Harlan Ellison (science fiction legend), and many other successful TV series writers. 
One particular line from the show has, in altered form, become something of a catchphrase.  It's usually quoted as an inventor saying "It doesn't do anything.  That's the beauty of it" and it seems to derive from an episode of Burke's Law where Burgess Meredith, when asked what his invention is for, says, "Why nothing, nothing.  That's the beauty of it."
The show was a solid hit for ABC for two years -- until stupidity struck. Not satisfied with a mystery show, someone decided to jump on the bandwagon of a trend, and promptly got run over.  In a case of revamping almost as bad as Bob, the show turned itself into Amos Burke, Secret Agent and had Burke trade in his badge for a spy's cloak and dagger.  The entire cast supporting was jettisoned**** and Burke became a James Bond wannabe.  The change was poorly thought out -- I remember those involved complaining that they had no idea where things were going -- and ratings dropped through the floor.  The show didn't last the season.
Barry went on to star in The Name of the Game and a revised version of Burke's Law that failed to recapture the magic. 
The original show was a first-class entertainment and deserves to be seen.  In a way, it was the Castle of its time -- a witty mystery based upon a cute gimmick that was as much comedy as drama.  It should not be forgotten.
*The CSI franchise showed at least one type of mystery -- the police procedural -- could make it in prime time. 
**He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Subject Was Roses  during Burke's run.  He also wrote for shows like Have Gun -- Will Travel and Wanted:Dead or Alive.
***They were titled "Who Killed _____________?"
****Not that they were all that important to the show in the first place.  They usually were just there to get Burke and the audience up to speed on details, to feed straight lines for another of Burke's Laws, to make wrong deductions about the crime that Burke only shot down, and to add muscle when gunplay was required.


Caftan Woman said...

When I was a kid I thought it was silly the way all those girls went crazy for Captain Burke. Maturity has helped me see the error of my ways.

I caught up with the series on TVLand Canada a few years ago and I'm enjoying Season 1 on DVD. I hope the second season follows soon.

The switch to spy was such a wrong move, but at least there are 60-some fun episodes of "Burke's Law" with a who's who of familiar faces and names.

Gerald said...

I wonder how many of those who knock 'Amos Burke Secret Agent' have actually seen it. I have the whole series on D.V,D. and like it enormously, particularly the two-parter 'Terror In A Tiny Town'. Good shows do flop occasionally. Perhaps with a better time slot ( not on the same night as 'I Spy' )it would have lasted longer.

Caftan Woman said...

I watched the Secret Agent revamp and while probably good of its kind (colour might have helped), I just couldn't get into it. Probably due to my own preference for a whodunnit over a spy story.

Gerald said...

I too think that colour would have helped 'Amos Burke Secret Agent'. 'Honey West' made the same mistake, as well as possessing a 1950's ambience which was out of place in 1965. Even so, I saw both 'Honey' and 'The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.' recently, and the Anne Francis show definitely came out on top.

Anonymous said...

A key point of the original series was the idea of guest stars per episode;- some of whom appeared more than once. At the time this was a novel development. I think it had been tried on previous series (Dragnet & Highway Patrol) but never took.