Tripwire continues its list of its Top 30 Crime and Police shows, selected by its editor-in-chief and senior editor. Here’s its 26th entry, NBC’s The Rockford Files…
26. The Rockford Files
Creators: Stephen J. Cannell, Roy Huggins
Stars: James Garner. Noah Beery Jr, Joe Santos
James Garner’s detective series is an overlooked gem that was subtly subversive, and a pivotal marker for the private eye subgenre. Garner’s sardonic, low-rent gumshoe was a perpetually down at heel loser living in a trailer in Malibu, Los Angeles, whose code of ethics and anti-heroic gait had a wee bit in common with Philip Marlowe, a role that he had played a few years prior to the show. What raised the bar with this programme was the ensemble of excellent character actors who evoked a sense of realism, not to mention the witty, barbed scripts that humanised the players while retaining the lighter touch required for the era.
Although a little formulaic, what kept the show going over the course of its 123 episode run was the easy going, bluff Garner, whose benign if curmudgeonly presence anchored the series – there were always some oddball, if not untethered characters to deal with, such as Isaac Hayes’ Gandy Fitch, Louis Gossett Jr.’s Gabby Hayes, Tom Selleck’s Lance White, or Jim’s nemesis Doug Chapman (James Luisi) but Rockford would deal with each with customary resignation.
The drama was rarely weighty or naturalistic, but (like the best of the ‘70s cop shows) was all about bending, if not breaking rules, with the ambiguity that would be crucial to later classics a deliberate measure that was a departure from the more anodyne, inflexible police procedurals of the ‘60s. There is however surprising depth here and there in the series, with amoral bit-part players being verbally put in their place by the jaded Rockford, not to mention the fight-averse lead taking the occasional beating – again, a signpost for what was to come. Equally significant was the quality of the direction, editing and the music score, three things that elevated the series while also being a major influence on Rockford scriptwriter David Chase, who as we all know went onto create The Sopranos (more of which later!).
The Rockford Files is on now on BBC2 in the UK and on Amazon Prime In The US