Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Something amazing is on my desktop

And it isn't the MechaGodzilla in the background!  Though he is most impressive too (And well he should be, as he came here all the way from Japan via a curio gift shop in Nantes).  No, I'm speaking of the new full DVD boxed set of 1974's Ellery Queen TV series.  It's been unavailable up till now, and indeed I'd assumed I would never see it again till we were lucky enough to catch it running on BBC TV during our years in France.  As of this year, it's out on DVD and can be had from sources like Amazon for as little as $30.  And where it has an average of 5 Stars from 136 reviews, I might add, with nothing below a 4 star comment.

Ellery Queen is one of my favorite TV series of all time.  Why, you ask?  What appeal could there possibly be in a show set in the 40's but made in the 70's, full of 40's characters inexplicably sporting wide collars and bellbottom pants?  It's not in the stories or the acting or any of that, though all elements mesh very well, but is instead in the fact that Ellery Queen was the first (To my knowledge) interactive TV.  That is to say, you have to work your brain while watching it, and the best enjoyment doesn't come from sitting slack-jawed and passive while the show washes over you, but rather from watching it with a like-minded friend or spouse and working the mysteries yourselves.

You see, the hook is this - Unlike most other mystery shows where you're shown the killer, or the hero solves the problem using deux ex machina, Ellery Queen puts everything in front of you except the identity of the culprit.  Ellery investigates, and you get the clues as Ellery encounters them.  You're on an even footing with the TV detective until that magic point sometime around the 35-40 minute mark when Ellery breaks the fourth wall and turns to you, the audience, with his classic, "And suddenly I knew it - I knew who the killer was!  The clues were right there all along.  Did you get it?  Did you think it was the gardener too?  Or was that too obvious?  Let's see how you did."...  and then we're off to the suspect roundup and finish, when Ellery lays out the evidence and fingers the bad guy.

This works fantastically well on DVD, far better than it ever did on network TV thanks to the wonder of the pause button.  Watch this with a good friend and you're in for an hour of fun debate.  Watch.  Pause.  "Where did that guy just go?  How did he have a key to that door?"  Watch.  Pause.  "And look, he just walked past that door a few minutes later and it's standing open."  It goes like that.  You watch every interaction and every conversation, always on the lookout for those crucial slips that will point you to the murderer.  Emily and I have a grand time of this, going back and forth with a hundred crazy theories per episode.  And while the shows themselves are mellow and leisurely in pace, the tension mounts like mad in the living room as you're all watching the clock tick down towards that inevitable moment when Ellery will do his "Talk to the audience" schtick and you'll know there are no more clues forthcoming.  That's the worst of it, when you're back and forth on evidence and have NO idea who the killer was and seem to have missed everything, and you're literally two minutes away from Ellery's big speech.

So, as interactive TV goes, it's a big win.  Far ahead of its time.  It's the perfect evening's entertainment for any mystery-loving family or group of friends.  While the stories themselves may be standard mystery fare, it's the gimmick that (for once) is more than just a gimmick - It really is the raison d'être of the show.  And the coup de grâce lies in the show's stellar cast of guest stars - Every episode we are treated to walk-on parts from the likes of Vincent Price, Don Ameche, Dana Andrews, George Burns, Joan Collins, Eva Gabor, Roddy McDowall, Cesar Romero, and more.  And Jim Hutton's performance as the affable Ellery stands up to all these folks - It's a tragedy that he died so young, but we could all hope to leave behind such a memorial.
10/10 from me.

Oh, and by the way...  Did I even mention the excellent theme by none other than Elmer Bernstein?  Here's a typical intro, opening with the mystery layout and flowing into the marvelous opening music:

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