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"Hannibal's On The Jazz:" A Stephen J. Cannell Retrospective

If you were born before, say, 1976 (the year of my little sister's birth and hence my arbitrary demarcation line for coolness), you probably spent a healthy chunk of your prime TV-watching years enjoying the programs of the late Stephen J. Cannell. The longtime writer/producer created some of the most iconic shows of the 70s and 80s, many of which linger on in our collective pop culture consciousness.

Being a formally* educated TV journalist, I was of course aware of Cannell's output, but it wasn't until his death last week that I was able to see the breadth of his influence. His creative resume, splayed across each of the man's obituaries, was like the syllabus of my youth: I learned personal finance from Jim Rockford, conflict resolution from B.A. Baracus, and business ethics from Jim Profit. The least I could do is repay the man with a rundown of some favorite (and not so favorite) SJC-created series, while still allowing for the man's tendency to reuse the same themes (like alliterative character names, wrongful imprisonment, and catchy aliases).

Because when you're responsible for creating a couple dozen TV series, you run the risk of repeating yourself.

* I watched all six seasons of The Larry Sanders Show in a row.

Renegade Abject Alliterative Abuses Reno Raines Wrongfully Accused? Framed for the murder of a cop named, wait for it, "Buzzy Burrell." Nifty Nicknames "Dutch" Dixon

The show about bounty hunter Lorenzo Lamas hunting bad guys ran for an unbelievable five seasons, which should put to rest any lingering doubts about the power of the mullet in law enforcement.

Hunter Abject Alliterative Abuses Dee Dee McCall Wrongfully Accused? One time someone mistakenly referred to Fred Dryer as an "actor." Nifty Nicknames "Sporty" James

Cannell's answer to the Dirty Harry franchise went through a number of mutations to soften the show's excessive violence (co-star Stepfanie Kramer had to fight to keep her character from being raped again in season 4, for example). And I'll bet not many of you knew Hunter and McCall solved the Black Dahlia murders in 1988. Fun Fact: This was my college ex-girlfriend's favorite show, and my chances of sex were greatly improved by my watching the nightly syndicated episodes with her.

Men really are idiots.

The Rockford Files Abject Alliterative Abuses None that I could find. Wrongfully Accused? Rockford was pardoned after serving five years for armed robbery...a crime he didn't commit. Nifty Nicknames "Jimmy" and "Rocky" Rockford, "Angel" Martin

James Garner's rumpled, violence-eschewing P.I. was an anomaly among other TV cop shows of the time, and one of the few programs not based on a comic book character that yours truly would make a point of catching every week. It still has one of the best theme songs and the greatest opening title bit of all time.

 

Wiseguy Abject Alliterative Abuses Sonny Steelgrave Wrongfully Accused? Not as such. Undercover cop Terranova had to do a stretch in prison to establish his street cred, which damaged his relationship with his family. Nifty Nicknames "Vinnie" Terranova, "Lifeguard" Burroughs

Wiseguy was one of those Cannell shows I've never seen. It ran from 1987 to 1990, a period of my life during which I had only sporadic access to a television. This is why I always miss She's the Sheriff-related trivia questions.

I couldn't tell if this was Kevin Spacey or Guido the Killer Pimp at first. And is that a unibrow? Jesus Jones, it is. God bless the 80s.

Tenspeed and Brown Shoe Abject Alliterative Abuses Tenspeed Turner. Wrongfully Accused? Tenspeed is on parole, but I'm pretty sure it was for something he actually did. A Cannell first. Nifty Nicknames Duh..."Brownshoe" Whitney, "Tenspeed" Turner.

I just realized I neglected to mention one of the other Cannell-isms that often popped up in his shows: martial arts expertise. Here, we're supposed to believe Jeff Goldblum's character is a black belt in karate. Okay. However he does join Reno Raines, Cobra's "Scandal" Jackson (Michael Dudikoff), Stingray's "Ray" (Nick Mancuso), and Grady Jameson (Bryan Genesee) from Street Justice as Cannell's own personal ninja squad.

All that aside, this looked bad. Like, Scrappy Doo bad.

The A-Team Abject Alliterative Abuses B.A. Baracus Wrongfully Accused? "In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit." Nifty Nicknames "Faceman" Peck, "Howlin' Mad" Murdock

No other TV series so perfectly embodied Reagan's America: automatic weapons were widely available and mostly harmless, women were relegated to secondary (or nonexistent) roles, and the mentally ill were often released early to go on entertaining missions with their mercenary pals.

Also, how much ass was Dirk Benedict getting in the 80s? So much, it can't be measured by 20th century science.

 

Profit Abject Alliterative Abuses Nope. Wrongfully Accused? Technically no, but only because the lead character had probably committed any crime that could be leveled against him. Nifty Nicknames "Chaz" Gracen

Cannell doesn't get a lot of credit for helping create the anti-hero driven prime-time drama that would help pave the way for character like Vic Mackey and Tony Soprano. The box-sleeping, blackmailing Profit wasn't around long enough to make much of a mark, as Fox -- exhibiting the programming cowardice that would come to be the network's trademark -- pulled the plug after eight episodes.

The Greatest American Hero Abject Alliterative Abuses Uh...Jim "J.J." Beck, I guess. Wrongfully Accused? No, but the main character's last name was changed from "Hinckley" to "Hanley" after the assassination attempt on President Reagan. The amusing thing is, the TV character probably would have been even less successful. Nifty Nicknames "Mr H"-- see above.

I was annoyed with this show by the end of the pilot episode. Not just because of the god-awful theme song (it made Christopher Cross sound like G.G. Allin), but because in three seasons the dumb bastard never figured out how to use The Suit. Would you blame the aliens for taking it back, and giving "Mr. H" a rigorous probing for good measure?

Riptide Abject Alliterative Abuses No, but aside from the main characters, I'm having a hard time confirming anyone else on the show had a last name. Wrongfully Accused? In truth, rightfully accused...of awesomeness. Nifty Nicknames "Boz" Bozinsky

Why nerds never championed this show like they did Star Trek is a mystery. "Boz" was one of the first TV computer jocks, sharing the opening credits with the mustachioed Perry King (Cody) and hirsute Joe Penny (Nick). And there was a robot (a waterproof one at that)! And a helicopter! And babes!

'Bots, babes, and boats...and they were probably watching Robotech reruns. The lack of priorities in the nerd community sickens me.

Hardcastle and McCormick Abject Alliterative Abuses Mark McCormick Wrongfully Accused? McCormick was one of those Cannell variants, like Tenspeed, who served time for what we assume was a non-violent, heat of the moment crime and then tried to make good. Who says rehabilitation doesn't work? Nifty Nicknames "Skid" McCormick

I knew a guy in college who watched nothing but H&C. Literally. The guy never said anything in class except for the day after the show aired, then he'd give you a rundown of the plot and what the best moments were.

Actually, now that I think about it, it was Jake and the Fatman. I guess they are kind of hard to tell apart.


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