I’ve been revisiting one of my favorite television shows from my youth: The Rockford Files. It is really nice when childhood obsessions turn out to be as good as you remember and that is definitely true of this show. In fact, it is a lot more complex than I was aware of at the time. Some things that were just distractions in my youth resonate very much. Like Rockford’s often questionable finances. Look where he lives: in a trailer on a beach parking lot. That’s where a surf bum would live. Yet I find it all incredibly believable. And it would be more so today.
Another aspect of the show that I appreciate much more now is Rockford’s prison friend Angel. Just like with the White Russian Marya in Hogan’s Heroes, I now think he is one of the best things about the show. Angel’s combination of cowardice and untrustworthiness not only make him an excellent element to spice up or propel plots, but he’s also really likable despite himself. The fact that his machinations always backfire makes him ultimately harmless. And since he is so predictable, Rockford can often use him to good ends despite Angel’s intentions.
But the biggest thing that I appreciate now is the portrayal of old people in the show. At the time, I remember a lot of groups that represented the elderly had nothing but praise for the show—especially concerning the portrayal of Rockford’s father, Rocky. I never especially got that. I saw that Rocky was a well developed and positive character, but I didn’t especially see how it was different from other shows. Now it’s clear. But I largely think it is incidental. The writers of the show (some of the best television writer ever) worked hard to create real characters, and Rocky just happens to be one of them.
After a while, though, I think the producers decided to go with it. In the fourth season, they produced an episode that dealt extensively with the issue of the value of the elderly in society, “The Attractive Nuisance.” Written by series co-creator Stephen J Cannell, the story revolves around a diner for truckers that Rocky has opened up with a new friend, Vince Whitehead. But it turns out that Vince is actually a small time mob boss, Vince Cappobianco, who is kind of undercover. Meanwhile, there is retired FBI agent Eddie LaSalle, who is trying to bring down Vince. And in the end, with Rockford’s help he does.
It isn’t a great episode, but the ending was amazing. Rockford’s difficult life continues on, but then it shows the three older men in succession. Eddie is in what looks like the FBI lunch room, with a bunch of young agents hanging on his every word while he explains how he brought Vince down. Vince is in prison talking to equally eager young inmates about how to launder money. And Rocky is at a truck stop explaining to some young truckers how to avoid brake problems. It was very sweet, especially coming from Cannell who was only 36 when he wrote it.
Is that kind of preachy? Yes it is. That’s something else I notice now that I missed when I was younger. The show is often a bit preachy. But it is usually for a good cause. And sometimes it is prescient. The last episode of that season was “The House on Willis Avenue,” which deals with private companies setting up a system of data collection about private citizens. Today, the overwhelming response to this information is, “So? I have nothing to hide!” But in 1978, The Rockford Files was sounding the alarm. It really was one of the greatest television dramas ever, and it is still relevant.
Update (1 May 2014 8:25 pm)
For the record, when I talked about the great writing, I wasn’t talking about Stephen J Cannell. The real gem of the show was Juanita Bartlett. Cannell’s plots tend to be a bit weak and his dialog could use work. Not that he’s bad.