Deliver What You Promise: The Girl From UNCLE (TV Showcase #48)

After “The Man From UNCLE” grew to its enormous popularity, NBC decided that they wanted a spinoff, with a female lead. The creators of the show didn’t really want to do it, but the network did, and since Ian Fleming had offered the name of a female spy character years before, along came a show that not only failed to deliver what “The Man From UNCLE” had, but it even failed to deliver what it itself promised to be. What am I talking about? Let’s have a look at “The Girl From UNCLE”. 

“The Girl From UNCLE” (GFU for short) premiered in 1966, airing 29 hour-long episodes over one season, ending in 1967. The plot followed agent April Dancer, with her English partner Mark Slate, as they took assignments from their boss, Alexander Waverly. They, of course, worked for UNCLE and against THRUSH, which really made the show a true-blue spinoff; nothing really changed. In a way, that is. In another way, GFU was different from MFU entirely. Why did it fail?

First of all, the show aired during “The Man From UNCLE”‘s third season, which in my last post I said lost its whole audience because it tried to be a competitor to “Batman”, becoming goofy and campy, and GFU was no different. Although, it was priceless to see Boris Karloff playing a villainous old woman named Mother Muffin. I can at least give props in the goofy section for that one. So first of all, it started off doing the same tactics that got MFU cancelled, so it wasn’t a great way to start.

Unlike MFU, GFU characterised THRUSH as underpowered and stupid, not really threatening or ahead of the game. Whenever Napoleon and Illya were captured, I had no idea how they were going to get out of their situation. When April or Mark were captured, I wanted to see them create a way where there was no way, as MFU did, but it usually wound up involving a THRUSH agent doing something incredibly dim-witted, which allowed an easy way out for whoever was in the hot seat. I mean, for heaven’s sake, April didn’t even carry a gun but in one single episode, and she and Mark still managed to get the jump on THRUSH with ease every time. It’s kind of sad that Mother Muffin was the most conniving and unpredictable villain in the whole series. But that’s not all that caused GFU’s flop; it’s not even the most disappointing.

In season two of “The Man From UNCLE”, there is an episode called “The Moonglow Affair”, which introduced April and Mark for the first time, showcasing them saving Napoleon and Illya, and this served as the pilot for GFU. I highly enjoyed “The Moonglow Affair”, and was excited to see GFU. Why? First of all, the actors they had playing April and Mark were not the same as who wound up playing them in GFU; in “Moonglow”, they had excellent chemistry. In “Moonglow”, April has just finished training and is brand-new, while Mark is over forty and almost too old to be out in the field. It’s an unlikely partnership that plays out wonderfully, which would have made for a refreshingly different idea for a spin-off. While Napoleon and Illya were different in nationality, they were only a few years apart in age; having a twenty-year gap between April and Mark would have been an excellent idea, and it played out extremely well in the episode. But that’s not what happened.

First, they replaced the actors for April and Mark for GFU. Then they took away the age gap, making the key difference between the two their nationality, just like MFU. Then Mark became the punching bag for THRUSH, taking all the beatings that April couldn’t, because too much of that would have been seen as distasteful back then, given that she was a woman. April rarely seduced anyone and never killed anyone; she only ran around to complete the assignment, got captured, caught a THRUSH operative off-guard because he was doing something stupid, and then escaped, while Mark tried to rescue her but just got beaten up over it, eventually overpowering the opposition, because again, THRUSH was underpowered and stupid.

Was “The Girl From UNCLE” terrible? Well, it’s definitely not the worst show I’ve ever seen, and there are a few episodes worth watching. But it seemed quite lazily done to me, on every level, and the smartness that could have been the age gap was taken away. The show simply didn’t deliver on anything it promised, not on being just as good as “The Man From UNCLE”, or giving its own original twist on the UNCLE universe. What do you think?

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