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Featured TV on DVD Review: Barnaby Jones: Season One

February 13th, 2010

Barnaby Jones: The First Season - Buy from Amazon

For nearly a decade, Buddy Ebsen played Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies. Shortly after that show ended, he starred in Barnaby Jones, which lasted eight seasons. That's amazing longevity in television. Since the show lasted eight season, it obviously found an audience, but did it start out strong, or did it take a while to find its legs?

Barnaby Jones started in 1973 as a mid-season replacement and pseudo-spin-off from Cannon with William Conrad guest starring as Frank Cannon in the pilot. At the time the pilot begins, Barnaby Jones had been retired as a Private Eye for four years and his son, Hal, had taken over the business. Hal had gotten over is head in something and called Barnaby Jones' old friend, Frank Cannon, for advice but is killed before they can meet. This spurs Jones back into being a private eye to catch his son's killer, but afterward he realizes that retirement is not for him, so he goes back to work full time. Assisting him is his son's widow, Betty Jones.

As a Private Eye show, Barnaby Jones has a lot of competition, which means it needs a hook to help it stand out. In this case that hook comes from the fact that Buddy Ebsen is older than your typical P.I. In fact, he was nearly 65 when the show first aired. His old-timer / folksy charm is what helped carry the show. Additionally, it is an early example of the "Howdunit" format of murder mysteries. That is to say, the viewing audience knows who committed the crime, because they see it take place, but follow Barnaby Jones has he tangles with the bad guy trying to prove he did it. (It's the same format as Columbo, which debuted on TV a few years earlier.) This makes it a little more unusual in the genre.

Because the show was a midseason replacement, there are only 13 episodes on this four-disc set, but there is a surprising variety of cases. Barnaby Jones tackles an unfaithful husband who fakes his own death, an unknown psychopath threatening to kill him, pre-school kids stealing test scores, drug dealers, missing authors, blind piano players, and drunken rock stars. Crimes from blackmail to murder to drug-running are covered and while Barnaby has a couple of tricks that he reuses, like stating a theory of his as fact to get someone to confirm it (he does this with suspects, and with the cops when he's digging for information), he has a wide variety of forensic skills to rely on. There are some weaknesses, including some of the action scenes. This is partly because of the age of the show, and partly because of the age of the star. In the early 1970s, I don't think there were "fight choreographers" like we have today, so the action is quite tame and not as realistic as we would see now. Also, I don't think people would buy Buddy Ebsen smacking people around, so a lot of fights begin, and end, with him taking a blow to the back of the head.

Star spotting is always fun in shows like this, and we have guest shots by William Shatner, Roddy McDowall, Bill Bixby, and others.

The only extras on the four-disc set are episodic promos, which I hate. "Coming up next is Barnaby Jones. But first, spoilers!" There are also no subtitles or play-all buttons, but there are proper chapter placements. Bare bones is the best way to describe it.

The Verdict

I'm of two minds when it comes to Barnaby Jones: The First Season. On the one hand, it is consistently engaging throughout the first season and Buddy Ebsen has the charm needed to carry the show. On the other hand, there are no extras and the price per minute is too high for this type of release. It's worth checking out, but many will want to wait for a deal before picking up this four-disc set.

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