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Where Have You Gone, Jim Rockford?

Against humanity's better judgment, the '70s are making a comeback. And accompanying all that nostalgia is the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture we thought we rid of back on that fateful day in 1981 when we set our leisure suits on fire and used the ensuing conflagration to melt down all our Village People 45s.

Women's fashions? Once again, horrible. Fleetwood Mac? Touring. John Travolta? Gainfully employed. Personal hygiene? Right down the crapper. The White House? Occupied anew by an inept Democratic governor from a southern state.

But most of all you can tell that the '70s are back by the re-emergence of that most '70s-ish of TV show concepts -- the Swingin' Detective Show.

Those of you alive in the '70s, you should remember the Swingin' Detective Show format... provided your long-term memory synapses weren't permanently damaged by that "special" batch of RC Cola you drank just before the Pink Floyd-Yes doubleheader at the Sports Arena back in '77.

You take a detective, give him some hip clothes, fabulous hair and a killer set of wheels. You saddle him with a lovably dopey sidekick, a well-meaning but inept cop and a leggy secretary with whom he can trade innuendoes. You throw in a couple of celebrity guest stars each week. Then you set him loose to solve crimes and make with the wisecracks.

Cannon. Barnaby Jones. Mannix. Robert Urich as Dan Tanna in Vega$. They all patrolled the streets of the 1970s... as opposed to the Streets of San Francisco, which Michael Douglas and Karl Malden managed to patrol well enough on their own, thank you very much. They took the crimes that no else could solve and solved them. They hunted down the punks no one else could bust and busted them. And then, after it was all said and done, and they had tossed their last wisecrack with Gail Fisher or Robert Reed, they always got the chicks.

Except for Cannon, who was very, very fat. And Barnaby Jones who was very, very old. But I think you see my point.

At their best -- The Rockford Files, say -- the Swingin' Detective Show was an entertaining hour of television. And at their worst, well, they were Matt Helm.

Even today, if you're able to get past the coo-coo threads, there aren't that many better ways to spend an hour of your TV-watching time than to settle down in front of a Rockford Files rerun. That's largely to the credit of James Garner, who -- when not battling studios in a snit over residuals -- turned in some criminally under-appreciated work, first on the old Maverick series and later on Rockford.

(Perhaps not totally under-appreciated. Garner did win an Emmy in 1977 and they don't give those things out to just anybody... Burt Reynolds, notwithstanding.)

Garner was a winning, likable presence on a show that, more often than not, delivered the goods. The supporting work from the likes of Noah Beery, Jr. and Joe Santos was solid. The stories were entertaining. And most importantly, it was all done tongue-in-cheek. The makers of The Rockford Files realized they weren't trying to cure cancer. They were just trying to entertain people for an hour every week before letting them return to their otherwise miserable 1970s lives.

Which brings me to the Swingin' Detective Show of today. Which brings me to Dellaventura.

I don't want to give the impression that I consider the evening I spent reviewing the exploits of Dellaventura, Froggy-voiced Teddy and the rest of their zany pals to be just another eye-glazingly awful example of the unending Hell my life has become.

Make no mistake -- I consider it to be that. But I saw Dellaventura not just as a bad show deserving of mankind's scorn and derision before it's savagely beaten and left behind to die the death of a scoundrel. Rather, I saw it as a source of entertainment for children ages six to sixty.

I took the liberty of inventing these Dellaventura Party Games -- sure to brighten up your next Kiwanis meeting or bar mitzvah or any other social gathering.

Much like the old party stand-by "Truth or Dare," this game asks players to put themselves in the black suit and dark sunglasses of America's favorite Detective, Anthony Dellaventura! Players are presented with a situation and forced to answer the question that has puzzled scholars since the dawn of time... What would Dellaventura do?

A punk has just sawed the head off your wife's third cousin's college roommate? What do you do?

A) Bark orders on my cell phone.
B) Bark orders at my froggy-voiced sidekick.
C) Wander around the streets of New York speaking in incomprehensible voice-overs until the crime solves itself.
D) All of the above.

You are confronting the punk who has been making annoying phone calls to the home of your former partner's nephew's barber. What do you say to him?

A) "What did you think of my work in 'The Pickle,' punk?"
B) "That's the Dellaventura philosophy. The world is full of a bunch of stinking punks."
C) "I just want to get the punk that did this to an acquaintance of a friend of mine!"
D) "The noble Brutus hath told you that Caesar was ambitious. If it were so, it was a grievous fault, and grievously hath Caesar answered it."
E) "Why, you no good punk!"

You are casting the important role of your froggy-voiced sidekick in your new detective series on the CBS television network. Whom do you cast?

A) Your son
B) Your other son
C) Your wife's third cousin's college roommate
D) Some punk

In this hilarious frolic, players use their keen wits to try and pick out which quote is a highly-stylized Dellaventura voice-over and which ones are just the insane rantings of a madman! Here's a sample:

A) "Heaven to me is a bagel."
B) "I know the human heart."
C) "Joe Fallon christened your son! He christened your son!"
D) "He was a murderer and he'd suck the blood of his own people."

So which one of the above is an example of the kind of sterling writing you'd expect from a top-notch TV series like Dellaventura, and not just a bunch of trite, strung-together cliches?

That's right! They're all from Dellaventura!

For serious partiers, over the age of 18 only! Or for those who have a fake i.d. and the key to their parents' liquor cabinet. Whichever.

This spirited diversion invites all participants to enjoy their favorite libation during another spine-tingling episode of Dellaventura.

  • If Danny Aiello is wearing black, have a drink.
  • If Danny Aiello is wearing sunglasses, have a drink.
  • If Danny Aiello speaks in a voice-over, have a drink.
  • If Danny Aiello matches wits with some punk, have a drink.
  • If you spot the name of a relative of Danny Aiello's in the credits, have a drink.
  • If Danny Aiello glowers, have a drink.
Me, I usually don't make it past the first commercial break.

The popularity of the Swingin' Detective Show waned a bit in the 1980s. Oh sure, you had your Magnums, your Equalizers, even your Matt Houstons trying to fight the good fight, solve the unsolvable, and keep the genre alive. But by the end of the decade, the Swingin' Detective Show was reduced to Jessica Fletcher springing forth from Cabot Cove, Maine, to whatever glamorous locale where some ditzy guest star managed to get themselves eighty-sixed. A fine show Murder, She Wrote was... provided you were cashing Social Security checks and making sure to pay your AARP dues on time. Because while she may be many things -- a fine actress, an admirable singer of show tunes, a good and conscientious citizen -- the one thing Angela Lansbury is not is swingin'.

But now we're in the midst of a veritable Renaissance of the Swingin' Detective genre. This year, TV networks introduced three new shows which feature guys solving crimes who are, to some degree, swingin'. And if your definition of swingin' includes moody lighting, gory dismemberments and Lance Henrikson, then you can consider Millennium to be a returning Swingin' Detective show as well.

I haven't seen Players or Total Security yet. But I have given Dellaventura, the other rookie Swingin' Detective Show, a look-see. And if this is what passes for a Swingin' Detective Show nowadays, then Jim Rockford must be spinning in his grave. Except, of course, for the fact that James Garner is alive and well.

Dellaventura stars Danny Aiello, a respected character actor who made a name for himself giving fine supporting performances in "Bang the Drum Slowly," "Moonstruck" and "Do the Right Thing." Lately reduced to working in unwatchable Big Screen piffle like "2 Days in the Valley" and "The Pickle," Aiello is now taking a crack at television in Dellaventura where he plays a hack actor reduced to starring in a half-ass TV series so that he can keep cashing a cushy paycheck and living in the manner to which he is accustomed. Whoops. That's not right.

Actually, Aiello plays Anthony Dellaventura, a New York City cop so cheesed off over that pesky Bill of Rights and its protections against abuses of authority by the state that he becomes a private investigator. Armed with a cell phone, he swaggers through the mean streets of New York, donning dark sunglasses, clad all in black and helping out innocent people whose lives are adversely effected by the cruel machinations of punks.

Oh, Dellaventura may have a gruff exterior. But on the inside, he's just a lovable palooka and all-around swell guy. I know this, see, because Aiello is always telling the audience that via one of Dellaventura's frequent, interminable voice-overs.

"Part of the Dellaventura philosophy is you can't step over someone who's lying on the sidewalk," Del tells us one week as he patronizes some poor, unfortunate wretch. "Not without losing a piece of your soul."

No problem. I already lost a piece of my soul listening to drivel like that.

Dellaventura is assisted in his quest to rid the world of punks by a team of lovable subordinates, each harkening to their own cliche. There's Gerry, the tough-as-nails but beautiful token woman, who thankfully wears halter tops and leather pants with alarming frequency. There's Jonas, the black guy who's skilled with computers. There's Teddy, Dellaventura's froggy-voiced fuck-knuckle of a sidekick who's always saying the darndest things. And there's Huggy Bear, the snitch with a heart of...

Um. Never mind that last one.

(Froggy-voiced Teddy -- Binzer to Aiello's latter day Dan Tanna -- is played by Aiello's spawn Ricky. And fellow spawn Danny Aiello III is listed in the credits as a producer. Which explains why CBS opted for the seemingly tongue-tying title of Dellaventura. It ain't much, but it certainly sounds better than Aiello Family Employment Project.)

I think the Dellaventura theme song -- loosely transcribed in spite of the sharp, throbbing sensation round about my temples -- pretty much explains the premise of the show better than I could.

Let Me Tell You A Story
'Bout The Good and The Bad
I Wish Today The World Would Stop
Being So Sad.
There's So Much Evil Around Us
I Wish I could Die
All I Know Is That I Was
Born To Cry

Yes. Hopefully the Aiello family was kind enough to pay a handsome royalty to whatever high school sophomore they borrowed that poem from.

Last week's episode began with Aiello looking at out Ellis Island and feeling philosophical enough to grace us with one of his many, many voice overs.

"My grandfather came from the old country, and I don't mean New Jersey. The day he became a citizen was the second proudest day of his life. The first was when he married my grandmother. She was as American as marinara sauce... but she loved her adopted country. New York is full of stories like that."

Unfortunately, the one Danny just related to us was not even tangentially related to the plot of that evening's show. We're whisked away immediately to where a married couple is happily jogging in the park... that is, until they're set upon by a gang of Russian punks, who shoot the man in the head and almost do the same to the widow before she manages a daring escape.

It turns out the woman was the best friend of Dellaventura's deceased wife, and the man... well, he was a retired U.S. marshal. The police -- numskulls that they are -- believe it's a simple mugging. But Danny... Danny knows better and soon he's roaming the streets of New York, looking to exact revenge on the punks that offed his wife's best friend's husband.

(In an example of the rut Dellaventura finds itself in just four episodes into its first season, the previous week's episode also featured Aiello avenging the murder of a slain law enforcement officer with whom he was friends. I assume we can only await future episodes where Danny tracks down the killers of his gardener, his college roommate, the guy who writes his voice-overs and some guy he met on the subway a couple of weeks back.)

So how does Dellaventura go about untangling this web of crime? By strutting around like a big shot mostly, grabbing his cell phone and barking out orders to his crew of merry, crime-solving pranksters. Then, he hits the streets, pushing his weight around any punk he can find until they spill the information he wants to hear.

In one laughable scene, Danny happens upon a Russian thug extorting money from a grocer. Danny smacks the thug around, makes him give the money back and spews out some trite line of dialogue about how he's just another punk "afraid of rolling up their sleeves and making an honest buck."

Now, try this in real life and any self-respecting Russian thug won't stand for that kind of crap. Dellaventura would wind up gut-shot, bleeding to death in some gutter, and the world would be a better place. But on Planet Aiello, all the punk can do is to submit meekly to Dellaventura's mere presence and mumble some half-hearted threat about revenge.

"The system may give you a chance," Dellaventura tells the punk. "But with me, you got no chance."

This is where Dellaventura is at its most ludicrous. Danny Aiello holds no legal authority. He has no more power of arrest than you or I. Yet, he can stare down assorted punks and by just raising an eyebrow over his black sunglasses, can reduce them to whimpering pools of recrimination and contrition.

This is simply no way for a Swingin' Detective to behave. Rockford always got his man through guile and scheming, not through bluster and poorly written voice-overs. He would assume fake identities, break and enter whenever possible and more often than not get kicked upside the head.

But when Rockford solved a crime, it seemed like the logical result after carefully he carefully tracking down all the leads and analyzing the clues When Dellaventura wraps up a story, you get the sense that it's because if he doesn't, then the 11 o'clock news is going to get bumped that night, and won't that tick off the wacky weatherman?

In this particular episode of Dellaventura, it seems that the ex-fed was, in fact, whacked by a Russian Mafioso, who, in a tactical blunder, tries to abduct the widow in broad daylight, allowing himself to be easily caught by Dellaventura and his team of Junior CrimeStoppers. Seven voice-overs, seven times answering his cell phone and one instance where Aiello calls someone a "punk" later, the Case of the Russian Thugs Who Offed the Husband of My Dead Wife's Friend is all wrapped up in a neat tidy package.

I know this, see, not because of clever writing, or well-paced story-telling making up a gripping hour of TV. I know this because in Dellaventura the pieces all fall into place in the most perfunctory and obvious of manners so that only young schoolchildren and, perhaps, a retarded lab monkey might be confused by the complexities of the show's plot.

And that's bad enough to make me long for the halcyon days of Matt Helm.

"That's the Dellaventura philosophy," Aiello informs the audience in, mercifully, the last voice-over of the evening. "Every ending is a new beginning."

And hopefully, in Dellaventura's case, it's the beginning of the end.


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