VCI entertainment has released the first half of the first season of Burke’s Law. (The first season had 32 episodes; they’ve released 16, with the other 16 hopefully to come later this year.) This was, as the end credits tell us, “Produced by Aaron Spelling,” and, oh, boy, is it ever an Aaron Spelling production. It was his first hit as a producer, starting his almost 40-year reign over the world of trashy TV, and it holds up about as well as any of Spelling’s other hits. Which is to say, not that badly at all, if you’re in the right frame of mind. I also think it’s strangely relevant in a time when more and more people are trying to do shows that are vaguely Spelling-esque, shows about the steamy, sexy intrigues of wealthy people. The producers of MVP: The Secret Lives of Hockey Wives could have taken some notes from Spelling on how to make a successful sexy, trashy show. (Update: speaking of MVP, check out Diane Kristine’s interview with Mary Young Leckie, co-creator of the CBC show that may have a second life elsewhere. So maybe they don’t need to take notes after all.)
Ken Levine explains the premise better, but in brief: Burke’s Law stars Gene Barry as Amos Burke, a millionaire womanizer who, when he isn’t occupied with booze and babes, is the Captain of homicide for the L.A.P.D. He is independently wealthy and works for the police because he likes fighting crime. (The Simpsons was probably referring to this show when they came up with the following exchange: “You’re a millionaire, and you’ve got all the babes you want. Why aren’t you living it up in your palace in Europe?” “Well, let’s just say I… hate crime.”) Every episode is called “Who Killed [name of murder victim]?” and begins with Burke being driven to the scene of the crime by his Asian manservant Harry, who, in one episode, hints that he used to be Kato from The Green Hornet.
Spelling’s big innovation in this show was his use of, and aggressive promotion of, the “all-star cast.” Watch this promo for an example, and then I’ll discuss this further:
Most murder-mystery shows would cast the usual mix of character actors as the suspects. Burke’s Law tried to cast every suspect with somebody the audience might have heard of before, or at least might remember from somewhere. Spelling realized, basically, that most suspects only have one or two scenes in a show like this and that actors who might not be available for an entire episode might have time to appear in only one or two scenes. And so the format of every episode just has Gene Barry talking to each of the suspects in turn while we try and remember who they are. The biggest talent pool the show drew on was former star actresses who weren’t getting parts in movies any more because they were over 40 ( geez, it sucks to be a woman in Hollywood, I mean it): Lizabeth Scott, Arlene Dahl, Mary Astor, Ruth Roman, Jan Sterling, Joan Caulfield, Janet Blair, Corinne Calvet, Yvonne De Carlo and Ida Lupino; these are among the actresses who used to play leads in major movies and wound up being suspects in these first 16 episodes of Burke’s Law. Add to that the up-and-coming starlets (Elizabeth Montgomery, Tina Louise, Barbara Eden) novelty performers (Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon appear in different episodes) comedians (Don Rickles, Paul Lynde, Carl Reiner) beloved elderly character actors (Edward Everett Horton, Joan Blondell, Charlie Ruggles) and occasional casting coups like Sammy Davis Jr. and David Niven — and this is all from the guest star lineup in the first 16 episodes — and Spelling had invented the all-star format that he would later revisit with The Love Boat and Hotel. And by doing so, he made Burke into a cop show that appealed to women as much as or more than men:
The show also introduced all the other elements that would become Spelling trademarks. Rich living was a Spelling staple; everybody lives in glamorous surroundings, wears great outfits and swills martinis. Another thing Aaron Spelling always gave us, of course, was titillation. While he never violated any actual censor rules (a woman may be found naked in Amos Burke’s bed, but she’s fully covered by a sheet and he most certainly does not get into that bed with her), he filled every episode with innuendo and skimpy outfits. Or innuendo about skimpy outfits. (Corinne Calvet, talking to Amos Burke while wearing a bathing suit: “I have life insurance, but I’m not as fully covered as I should be.”) Spelling’s cheerful lewdness, and his tendency to have female characters wearing as little as the censors would allow, prompted an anonymous reader of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to write, after an early episode where Tina Louise plays a stripper:
The December 2 showing of “Burke’s Law” was just too much. Week after week this show has brought us an endless parade of half-clad women, unfaithful wives and now a stripper.
I ask you, is this the proper viewing for children? Do television producers think that because we do not take our children to burlesque houses they will bring it to them in their own homes? It’s about time something was done about shows of this caliber.
Refusing to watch is not enough, for soon there will be nothing decent left to watch. If the majority of viewers want decent shows instead of trash like “Burke’s Law,” let’s band together and say so.
As a Spelling production goes, this show has better scripts than most — Harlan Ellison wrote several episodes, including one that involves the murder of a Hugh Hefner-like magazine magnate — and unlike most of Spelling’s ’70s product, this one has a sense of humour about itself. (It doesn’t make fun of itself enough to make us feel guilty for watching it, but it does have enough humour to suggest that we should be watching it for fun, not serious detective stuff.) But it’s still a Spelling production: every week the plot is the same, there’s very little action, the mysteries are no good and the acting is… um… variable. It is, in other words, the same exact kind of thing we’d see from Aaron Spelling into the ’70s, and the ’80s, and the ’90s, right up until the end. It’s not quality TV.
So why do I admire Spelling? Because he didn’t stint, he didn’t hold back. A lot of people have produced trashy television about guest stars, titillation and conspicuous consumption. Most of them aren’t very successful at it, because they seem embarrassed or ashamed. You can’t say that about Aaron Spelling. Whether it’s Burke’s Law or Charlie’s Angels or Dynasty or 90210 or Melrose Place, he will always give us what we want without apology: over-cooked melodrama, minimal clothing, catfights, and obscenely rich people. He caters to our basest instincts without ever trying to hint that we’re bad people for wanting to watch this stuff. And that’s why he always could give the public what it wanted while his imitators mostly could not: because he had no shame and he knew that we don’t have any either.
He was not ashamed to end an episode of Burke’s Law with a catfight between supermodel Suzy Parker and Britain’s former answer to Marilyn Monroe, Diana Dors. (Spoiler alert: this scene gives away the ending of this episode, written by Harlan Ellison. But honestly, you’re not going to watch this show for the complex solutions to the mysteries anyways.)
VCI’s set is fine; every episode is uncut, 50 minutes, and while there aren’t any real extras, the set does include a good selection of vintage commercials and a few episode promos narrated by Barry. The transfers look very good, though it sounds like too much noise reduction has been used on the audio in spots, making it sound acoustically weird. Hopefully VCI will bring out both seasons of this show, which, like a lot of Spelling shows, started really big and then burned out really quick: after the second season, Spelling tried to capitalize on the Bond/U.N.C.L.E. craze by transferring Burke to the CIA and retitling it Amos Burke, Secret Agent, and it died almost immediately thereafter. Aaron Spelling: He had no artistic integrity, and we love him for it.