Tuesday, March 16, 2010

David Janssen's Eyes: Kafka TV

(Reprinted from PopKrazy)

Well before Harrison Ford was jumping into waterfalls and trying to stay one step ahead of Tommy Lee Jones terrifying case of lockjaw there was The Fugitive as a television series. What a strangely downbeat and moody bit of television this inexplicably popular series was. It ran for 120 episodes from 1963-67, was created by Roy Huggins (The Rockford Files), starred Richard Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble, the falsely accused title figure, and the last episode remains one of the highest rated in TV history.
Having recently hitchhiked through the full first season (Paramount DVD, 4 discs, $38.99), my dim memories of the series needed a serious recharging. The TV show was neither a cut-and-run suspense machine as I thought, and Janssen’s central figure was far more complex and decidedly less heroic than I recalled. What actually attracted me to this show as a Beaver Cleaveresque pre-teen? It depicts a monumentally grim world, with the truly laconic Janssen sleepwalking from one location to the next, all the while pursued by his equally tortured nemesis, the visually drained and dogged Barry Morse’s Lieutenant Phillip Gerard. The show allows for no reoccurring characters outside of the intertwined duo (a twosome that were decidedly weird for primetime—-both twitchingly neurotic, hollow and haunted), as Kimble stays on the road and on the run, backing himself into the deep shadows of America’s backwaters, stumbling into the briefest friendships and quickly doomed romances.
Janssen’s performance is almost perverse, considering the tenure of the times, the weight of the world on his sagging shoulders, eyes blinkered with inner pain, and a gravelly monotone that oft times barely rose above a mumbled whisper. What kept people watching back in those pre-Vietnam days of eternal optimism? The odds are loaded every which way against Janssen’s Kimble—if he finds his elusive one-armed man and proves his innocence the series is over. Did the 1963 audience tune in because of some internal desire for capitulation? Did they harbor secret wishes to watch a dream deferred, as when three-quarters of the way through each and every episode Janssen’s hardcore sad sack would watch his brief idyll poisoned and his temporary hopes deflated, heading off to the lonely, decidedly non-Kerouacian highway, an ex-bigtimey Doctor (one of the epitomes of the American dream during that era) shrinking and tucking himself into another obscure dark corner, a TV protagonist half broken by the continual twists of fate?