Agents, provocateurs

I Spy

Devotees of mid-’60s cool get a cheap treat this week from Image Entertainment, which rereleases the full three-year run of TV-espionage touchstone I Spy in budget-priced, full-season DVD sets. (The label initially released the series early this decade in four-episode, single-disc packages, but these made no attempt to replicate broadcast—or any order.)

I Spy was to the The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as The Addams Family was to The Munsters. It ran from 1965 to ’68, largely eschewing the glitz of the James Bond films that inspired series creator Sheldon Leonard and the tongue-in-cheek levity of small-screen counterparts U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart. The show’s protagonists, Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) and Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby in his first starring role), were thoroughly de-glamorized working-class spies, more likely to get their asses kicked by Eastern Bloc goons or double-crossed by their craven Pentagon-intelligence bosses than shag babes or swill martinis. (Cosby’s Scott was pointedly a teetotaler, in fact.)

Even more radical was the racially progressive message of Scott’s equal-partner status with Robinson. This has been both overhyped and underestimated by TV historians, but it’s never less than fascinating to behold: In early episodes, ostensible leading man Culp holds back so Cosby can establish himself, while later in the series, he visibly balks at being upstaged by his hipper, more charming co-star. (The two actors are friends to this day.) That tension is part of what brings I Spy to life, along with Culp and Cosby’s incessant improvisational banter (wisely allowed free rein by show runners David Friedkin and Morton Fine) and its lovingly shot international settings, courtesy of location cinematographer Fouad Said. For his part, Culp wrote several of the show’s most compelling episodes, including series opener “So Long, Patrick Henry” and third-season existential heartbreaker “Home to Judgment.”