Stick with What You’ve Got: The Man From UNCLE (TV Showcase #47)

Many people don’t remember this show anymore, but back in its day, it was extremely popular. It was, after all, the first spy show in America, and one of the first in the world (although at least “The Avengers” was on before it in Britain). By its second season, there were over a dozen American spy shows. But this show was cancelled because its fans ran out on it. So how did a pioneer of the spy genre in America that inspired the creation of so many other programs lose its audience? Well, let’s have a look, as we examine “The Man From UNCLE”. 

“The Man From UNCLE” (MFU for short) premiered in 1964, airing 105 hour-long episodes over four seasons, ending in 1968. It’s popularity inspired a spinoff show called “The Girl From UNCLE”, a reunion movie in 1983, and a remake/prequel movie in 2015. The series focused on two secret agents, Napoleon Solo and his Russian sidekick, Illya Kuryakin, as they went on various missions given to them by their boss, Alexander Waverly. UNCLE stood for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, and they were constantly fighting the villain organisation, THRUSH, which never stood for anything in the TV canon. Sound familiar? Maybe Control versus KAOS in “Get Smart”? So where did MFU go right and then wrong?

In its first and most of its second season, MFU attempted to be a serious drama, not a comedy, and not even a witty adventure series like “The Wild Wild West” did. Besides the rare friendly jab between Napoleon and Illya, there was no humour whatsoever in the show. This was largely due to its co-creation and influence from author Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond series of novels, and was a consultant for the creation of MFU, even inventing the names Napoleon Solo and April Dancer (the star of “The Girl From UNCLE”). But Fleming’s books were written in a different time than MFU, with different tastes from its audience. Still, MFU was hugely successful, right up until season three.

During MFU’s second season, “Batman” premiered for the first time on television. Why the heck am I talking about “Batman”? Well, the show was intentionally campy and goofy, or “cringey” in modern lingo, but audiences ate it up, and it became an unprecedentedly popular show, to the point where it has stood for over fifty years now as a cultural icon. Unfortunately, MFU took it upon themselves to become a direct competitor for the “Batman” audience. Sound like a bad idea? Well, it was.

The end of the second season and the entirety of the third were filled with humour, cheesy characters and dialogue, silly villains with petty motives, and parodies of the spy genre in general, which now had grown to include enough stereotypes to start making parodies of. Personally, I enjoyed the third season, but that’s not what the audience who had grown to love MFU had signed up for, so they started leaving the show, while the younger “Batman” audience never wanted to see MFU anyway, so they just stuck with “Batman”. It seems to me a poorly-thought-through plan to mash two styles of show together that didn’t coincide at all. Although, to be fair, that’s easy for me to say fifty years later.

Season four returned to serious episodes, and it was the show’s darkest and grittiest season ever, but audiences didn’t want it anymore, so it was cancelled halfway through the season. So “Batman” went on, and MFU didn’t.

Is “The Man From UNCLE” worth watching? Absolutely. It was fantastic, and at least it didn’t turn out as badly as “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”, but it did get itself cancelled, and the lesson learned here is to stick with what you’ve got. What do you think?

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