SPENSER FOR HIRE was a show I missed watching during its 1985-88 run on ABC, but the concept of a Robert Urich P.I. show filmed on location in Boston has long intrigued me. I'm happy to finally be catching up with this series thanks to the Warner Archive, which recently released Season 1 on DVD.
The opening scenes of the pilot immediately caught my attention, as it features a shootout filmed in Boston's historic Granary Burying Ground, which I've visited on multiple occasions. The pilot as a whole did a great job of capturing the Boston atmosphere as as I remember it from my trips, from historic sites to gray skies and slush on the ground.
The series does capture a few of the bad things about the '80s: Bewildering plaid-on-plaid clothing combinations, big bubble hair on some women and unbecoming shag cuts on others, a few unsubtle guest stars who act like they're on DALLAS, and the incessant swelling of music in the spots where the show originally cut away to commercials.
Clearing those aspects aside, mostly I liked the show a lot. There are also fun aspects to the '80s setting; for instance, it's hard to believe, but in the '80s characters still had to find pay phones when they needed to make a call in a hurry! It wasn't all that long ago, and yet so much has changed.
I also loved touches such as Spenser's poor Mustang being riddled with bullet holes throughout the pilot, and his home in an abandoned fire station is a genius idea. The first time he pulled his Mustang into the station I fell in love with it.
Spenser is a complex and interesting character who gradually reveals more of himself as he interacts with others; it's an intelligent show with thoughtful dialogue, and, as mentioned earlier, the locations are terrific. It's great to spend time with the likeable Bob Urich, an actor who left us far too soon. He was 55 when he died of cancer in 2002, leaving behind his wife, Heather Menzies (Louisa in THE SOUND OF MUSIC), and three children.
Barbara Stock is a bit bland as Spenser's girlfriend Susan; it's hard to get a handle on what makes her tick and what she and Spenser have in common. On the other hand, Avery Brooks' mysterious Hawk is an intriguing character, stylish, unpredictable, and with an interesting way with words. Some of the dialogue involving Hawk's character is shocking to ears in 2014 -- the "n" word is used early on -- but the show's handling of racial issues is one of the things which makes it interesting, and Hawk is always the one who emerges with his dignity intact.
With just three lead characters and a couple supporting actors, there does tend to be considerable focus on guest characters. This can be a negative if they're uninteresting or overplay. On the other hand, there are a number of notable guest stars who are fun to see. The third episode, "The Choice," about a pair of psychotic young killers, boasted not one, not two, but three future Oscar nominees: Patricia Clarkson (her very first screen role), Angela Bassett, and William H. Macy. Chuck Connors plays a mobster in the pilot, a role he would play again in Episode 4; there's a great scene in the pilot where he and Spenser cut a deal at a Celtics game.
This is an excellent release from the Warner Archive, and I'm looking forward to seeing more SPENSER in the future. (Update: Here's a review of Season 2.)
Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD collection. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website. Please note that the initial sets of this series sold at the Warner Archive site are traditionally replicated (pressed) rather than burned on demand.