Mysterious Orientations, Circa 1974

April 11, 2011

The state of Japanese nightly television is, let’s say, about on a par with daytime TV in the US (in other words, heinous): game shows, talk shows, infomercials, news and weather, and weepy soap operas. They are uniform in their unwatchability. Fortunately for the expat community, there are movie channels, and the English-language films tend to be subtitled rather than dubbed, so at least I don’t have to listen to Robert DeNiro go “Anata wa watakushi e hanasemasuka?,” which somehow just doesn’t feature the same charged delivery as “You talkin’ to me?” Every now and then, though, I have a hankering for some good old US television drama, something with detectives, car chases, flying bullets, and snappy dialog. These are not generally available in Japan, or if they are, they have thus far eluded me.

Then, at Christmastime last year, my brother Thane came to the rescue, and sent me DVDs of the entire two seasons of Harry O, a seventies’ drama starring David Janssen (better known for his long-running starring role as Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive). I quite liked Harry O when it was new, and after watching the pilot film, I was delighted to see that it had held up quite well despite its age (the pilot, incidentally, features a very young Jodie Foster, foreshadowing in no uncertain terms what a powerhouse of an actress she would become). The basic premise of the series is that Harry Orwell, a cop shot in the line of duty, has retired from the San Diego police force, and started a private investigation business from his beach house in Coronado. Harry O takes on cases that resonate with him in some form or fashion, and does a running narrative voiceover throughout each episode, in a world-weary yet cautiously optimistic tone. He often works for free, and it shows nowhere more strongly than in his personal transportation: a primer-grey and liberally rusty Austin Healey Sprite of indeterminate age. As is the case with Sprites in real life, it doesn’t run all that well (or all that often, for that matter), and Harry is regularly relegated to public transportation, never a good option in car-centric Southern California.

A bunch of folks recognizable even today had regular or guest roles on the show: Jim Backus (Thurston Howell from Gilligan’s Island), Stephanie Powers, Loni Anderson, Diana Hyland, and jazz legend Cab Calloway, among others. Anthony Zerbe and Farrah Fawcett were regulars; Fawcett played neighbor and occasional girlfriend Sue Ingram, and Zerbe won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Harry O’s friend and nemesis, Lt. Trench of the Santa Monica Police Department.

I have rationed myself to two episodes a week, which I have to watch on my American computer, as they will not play on my Japanese DVD player. Thus, I see them on a 17” screen, more or less as the original producers intended, rather than on a 32” screen, which would have seemed huge in the 1970s. I still have another six or eight months to go, unless I cheat…

PS, I had thought that the series was available only as a bootleg, but it turns out that a company called Ultra TV Shows is offering DVDs of the entire two seasons, including both pilot films “for a limited time” (whatever that may mean).