Yes, I do watch a lot of old TV

One of my sidekick's many amazing super powers is the ability to be ignorant of virtually every culturally-significant piece of media produced in the past hundred years. I have no idea how. They lived in England until she was two, then moved back to the US, and no, they aren't weirdly religious -- her father sailed a desk in the Navy for a quarter century and her mother used to ride herd on middle schoolers. She just somehow managed to grow up in a bubble with a television that would only tune in PBS.

I, and occasionally other people, have made it our mission to show her all of these random things, from whence all the weird quotes and references come. Answer to obvious question: Moggie also has the magical ability to pay some fucking attention to the world around her. She figured out approximately what a flux capacitor was about a decade before we realized she had not actually seen Back To The Future, and told her to apply her butt to the couch and watch it or else. She made it almost to her college commencement before I found out she'd never seen Gilligan's Island.

Among these many and various pieces of film is The Man From U.N.C.L.E. We didn't get there directly, of course; this was after she admitted she'd never seen Get Smart, and then after I made her watch a couple episodes, admitted she'd never seen the series it was spoofing. And, as it happens, MFU was in fact on film -- there are dirt blots on the negative printed into the positive on some of the shots, and scratches on the positive, and these are the points of interest that I mention when watching old television shows. (Among other things. This probably explains why a limited number of people will watch TV with me.)

A lot of TV is stupid .Very stupid. Always has been. It's sort of the nature of the beast -- the smarter you get, the more specific you have to be, and specificity is the sort of thing national advertisers are allergic to. I'm not saying MFU isn't stupid, but one very big point it has in its favor is that it's self-consciously stupid, and sends itself up on a pretty regular basis. Bond movies are often quite silly, and your suspension of disbelief is supposed to keep you from noticing; The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is often quite silly, and usually either Napoleon or Illya will make a very pointed crack about it.

You know the show does not take itself very seriously when the heroes manage to have a telephone conversation that moves the plot along despite consisting almost entirely of one-liners, and ends with one of them crabbily demanding that his partner stop laughing and find him some trousers.

I personally think the first season is the wittiest, but you don't see it in syndication much; it was the only one not filmed in color. The writing is often rather sexist in the way that many things were in that era, but the exceptions are numerous enough to be noticeable. There are a lot of damsels in distress, but also a lot of hellcats and just plain competent women hanging around in ancillary roles. And everyone in their HQ, including the conspicuously multinational female secretarial corps, is armed -- all of the U.N.C.L.E. girls have holsters on their belts at the back. One of the reasons I haven't bothered seeing much of the spinoff The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., in fact, is that the execs suddenly balked at letting a female lead carry a firearm, which is just extra-stupid.

(One of the women, Heather McNabb, is in charge of a lot of their research, and of answering Channel D whenever one of them calls in. Whoever wrote that part, or at least whoever gave her blocking, must have actually worked as a lonely night operator at some point. I have, and in all seriousness, no one gives a shit what you do in that tiny little room as long as it doesn't prevent you from answering the phone when it rings. She does obvious stuff like knitting and cross stitch, but she's also seen engaging a few hilariously unexpected hobbies like working on some sort of clay sculpture, or laying on a deck chair in a bikini, under a sun lamp. No one ever comments on any of this, although a popped bulb in the sun lamp is the punchline to a throwaway gag. Napoleon seems even fonder of her than he is of the other random attractive women in the building.)

The series is also different in many respects from TV today in ways that might seem suspiciously bright now, although I've no idea if they were bright at the time. Being international spies, Napoleon and Illya do occasionally spout off in other languages. They'd be subtitled today; they aren't here, and the audience is presumed to be either educated enough to know or attentive enough to guess what the conversation is about. Vaughn invariably sounds American, but McCallum gets some of them right-ish (less the hilariously "TV" Russian accent). I would bet he knows a fair bit of French, although he probably doesn't think he speaks it. They also needed plausible deniability on anything even vaguely naughty they felt like putting into the script -- the network censors having largely quit, sneaking things past them has become a lost art form.

The production of the thing was kind of quirky. David McCallum evidently had a habit of disassembling props or meandering off into the backlot to go scuba diving in the studio tanks if left to his own devices for too long. Robert Vaughn was working on his PhD at the time, and had a tendency to wander the set with his nose stuffed in a book while they reset things for the next take. The two of them evidently became good friends almost overnight, and are a joy to watch even now. Joan Lunden managed to get both of them into the same ZIP code for an interview nearly fourteen years after the series ended, while she was on Good Morning America. They apparently hadn't seen each other once the entire time; they look and sound like they've never been apart. (She hasn't the faintest idea what McCallum's been doing, since he's been working in the UK -- Colditz and Sapphire & Steel, among other things.) I can't find the DVD set extras rattling around on YouTube, but Mog owns them and I've watched them, and the two of them quite freely admit that they're only in geographic proximity anymore when someone wants to talk about The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but it really makes no difference. It's the kind of friendship that apparently sparked rumors that the two of them were more than friends -- which strike them as somewhere between annoying and funny, at least in retrospect -- back when that wasn't necessarily standard tabloid fare.

I still keep an eye on both actors, and both are still working. The last thing I saw Vaughn is was a UK series called Hu$tle, where he got to be 'Papa Bear' to a load of clever con artists. McCallum, of course, has been on NCIS for a decade now and shows no signs of stopping; there is slightly less screaming over Ducky than there was over Illya, but mostly on account of the dude is eighty this year, and anyone who's still in the obsessive part of the fan base would probably break a hip acting like a teeny bopper.


  1. I beg your pardon! "anyone who's still in the obsessive part of the fan base would probably break a hip acting like a teeny bopper."

    Not so - I have photo proof of doing a headstand and other things in my yoga class within the past month or so.

    I haven't rewatched much of it, but I own the MFU boxed set in the aluminum trunk. So there.

    This generation keeps stealing out things.

  2. OUR things, not out things. Darn keyboards.

    1. My snark is largely hyperbolic. :) I actually work the reception desk at a dance studio a couple nights a week, during which time I have an excellent view into our largest studio, where women twice my age and more participate with more energy and enthusiasm than I could ever muster in an Africa drum dance class. For an hour and a half straight.

      If it helps, just imagine the brain cramps it gives us young'uns when we watch a lot of NCIS and suddenly have to figure out why we think the flirty old dude is charming instead of creepy when he hangs around with Abby. Consider it your legacy -- your TV spies of yesteryear have banged it into our heads that old isn't the same as useless and invisible. Which is kind of hilarious for the generation that vowed never to trust anyone over the age of 30.


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