In the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, Americans gravitated towards escapist movies that took them away from their troubles for a few hours. Romantic comedies, like those that starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, were a particularly good antidote to the pain of unemployment and worry. America couldn’t skirt their problems at home, but for a short period of time at the movie theaters, that famous screen duo showed the citizenry some very good steps on just how to escape the harsh reality of everyday living. Worrying about Fred and Ginger’s frivolous Park Avenue problems in silly comedies made for welcome relief for a nation sick and tired of the broken economy and its many hardships.
Today, during the worldwide Coronavirus crisis, it’s not quite so easy. For starters, movie theaters are closed. Furthermore, it’s difficult to escape all the harsh realities of what’s going on when we have 24/7 access online and cable. Still, if one can make it past all the alerts, statistics, news shows, and those insufferable White House press conferences, there is plenty of prime escapist entertainment crossing our paths that we can take advantage of to calm the daily storm.
At present, binging all kinds of TV shows is easier than it’s ever been with so much time on our hands while being quarantined at home. Additionally, movie studios are starting to release some of their films that were slated for the cineplex onto the smaller screens now that they realize people aren’t going to be going out for a while. Plus, the networks are rallying, pulling out the stops they can to deliver fresh products, including specials like the recent TOGETHER AT HOME, a star-studded concert that raised money for Coronavirus relief. (It proved to be a big ratings hit too, so expect more of that ilk.)
Tik Tok videos are earning a ton of eyeballs too as thousands of everyday Americans are making witty little shorts for cell phone users to consume. The stair shuffles and lip-sync challenges may get repetitious after a few days, but damn, if they’re not their own form of contagion themselves. (I’m a particular sucker for all the cat vids, as well as the cosplay ones.)
For me, the majority of my escape has been relying on reruns of a very old TV show from the 60s that I was simply too young to watch or appreciate back then. It’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, the spy series created by Bruce Geller that ran on CBS from 1966-1973. Everyone knows the Tom Cruise movie franchise that the show inspired, but to watch the original episodes, currently available on CBS All-Access, has been quite a treat during these weeks stuck indoors.
It is escapist fare, for sure, and yet the show was never exactly frothy fluff. It was a series keenly aware of the world’s multitude of problems in that turbulent era what with the Cold War, Communist overreach, civil unrest, Latin American turmoil, dictators popping up in all sorts of smaller countries, the burgeoning influence of organized crime, and yes, even the specter of the neo-Nazi movement and the use of germ warfare in the battle for world domination. The show was even prescient enough to deal with pandemics in a couple of episodes.
Each week, the Impossible Mission Force (IMF), a small and elite intelligence agency closely resembling the kind of black ops run by the CIA, would tackle a problem facing the world, albeit secretly and incognito. They performed their missions to overthrow various threats to society way under the radar, working a scheme more closely resembling a long con than any sort of militaristic intervention. The agents of the IMF essentially thwarted the bad guys through costumed capers. That’s what made the show so fun – at the end of the day, these spies functioned more like an acting troupe rather than Cold Warriors.
The formula was almost always the same. Agent Jim Phelps (Peter Graves, taking over for original series lead Steven Hill in the second season) would get an assignment via a special tape recording at the beginning of each episode. He’d receive that ‘briefing’ in all sorts of secret settings, from an old record store to a kids’ playground. And at every out-of-the-way rendezvous, he’d find a mini-tape recorder and a manila envelope waiting for him, filled with photos of the mission’s intended targets.
The mission would be explained in what was essentially an elevator pitch type description. (“Your mission, Jim, should you choose to accept it, is to topple the regime and make sure the general never takes power.”) Then, after dispensing such terse info, the tape would self-destruct. It was all too cool for words, and that was just the first minute of the show. Before that, equally cool credits played onscreen showcasing highlights of that week’s show, cut to the familiar tempo of Lalo Schifrin’s famous syncopated theme song. (Ah, those bongos!)
From there, Phelps would pick his team for the mission and then plan out the scheme to restore order in the world. Phelps’ cohorts usually consisted of impressionist/stage illusionist Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), unflappable electronics expert Barney Collier (Greg Morris), amiable muscle Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus), and the comely fashion model Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain). Cinnamon was the only regular female character for the first few seasons, often tasked with playing a femme fatale to help entice some macho mark, and to say she added spice to it all is an understatement. Cinnamon was easily the best ingredient of the show.
In later seasons, Leonard Nimoy, Sam Elliott, Lesley Ann Warren, and Lynda Day George would join the cast after Bain and Landau left for other projects. And from what I’ve seen of the replacements in action, they’re terrific too, particularly Warren. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s CINDERELLA from 1965 was very effective during her fifth season appearances using her ingenue innocence to counter the steely requirements of the intricate missions.
No matter what team was assembled, they’d always create an elaborate fake-out to nail their target, with each team member assigned a certain ‘character’ to play helping coerce a foreign villain into making a fatal mistake or botching his plan for world domination. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE proudly wore its ‘American might makes right’ on its dapper sleeve, even though in the time of the Viet Nam War and international meddling, that offended younger audiences. Still, this was a show that unabashedly believed in truth, justice, and the American way.
One could argue that the show was too jingoistic in its endorsement of our national overreach, our propensity to interfere with foreign countries, determining their destiny, but it managed to seem positive on the show. At least all the baddies in the series were despicable sorts, not exactly nuanced portrayals, the types of SOB’s that deserved to be hoisted upon their own petards.
Fortunately, it wasn’t always dictators or arms dealers the IMF would take down. Sometimes, the missions were lighter fare, like heists or robberies, the kind of capers that bordered more on the comedic. The show never was tongue-in-cheek, but it could serve up sillier fare with the same gusto as the tenser dramas. One such case was the second season entry entitled “The Seal,” easily one of its most inspired episodes. The scheme there involved a cat burglary that literally involved a cat doing the stealing. That clever storyline helped the series win one of its multiple Emmy Awards for Best Dramatic Series.
In the plot of “The Seal”, Cinnamon played a reporter tasked with distracting a rich businessman while the other IMFers robbed him of an Asian trinket he acquired illegally through a black market broker. The mini-statue made of jade holds the key to peace between China and a country on its border, so its return was paramount to restoring balance in that part of the globe. The IMF team tasks Rollin with impersonating an Asian mystic to distract the mark as well, though it’s that cat named Rusty who is the key to the mission’s success. He has to sneak into the mogul’s showroom and steal the bauble out of its glass case. Barney not only trains the orange tabby to do so, but he patiently guides him in and out with gentle cajoling. The scene was brilliantly edited for both maximum tension and hilarity.
Such imagination made MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE cool then and the show still plays that way today. It was a hugely visual show too, ahead of its time for that, often going on for many minutes with nary any dialogue. It’s easy to see its influence on our more modern entertainments too in the likes of not only its six features and counting but in Steven Soderbergh’s OCEAN’S ELEVEN films and countless TV shows over the past decades. Series like Britain’s HUSTLE and America’s LEVERAGE both were clearly created with the IMF in mind.
The original series is startling too in how edgy and topical it was, tackling hot-button topics of its time like racism, sexism, genocide, authoritarianism, fascism, and syndicated crime, all in a crisp 51 minutes each week. Graves made for a stoic, yet sly and charming lead. Landau got to exercise his Actors Studio training week in and week out superbly rendering different ruses. Morris was the coolest of the cool, always keeping calm no matter how tense the mission and the actor was a maverick too, becoming one of the first African-American regulars on a TV series. Lupus may have had few lines, but he was always a grounding presence and a sharp, physical actor. And Bain made her spy one of the best female characters ever to appear on weekly television. Her Cinnamon could be one of the boys, but she also knew just how to exploit her feminine wiles to destroy a chauvinist pig. No wonder Bain won three consecutive Emmys for Best Actress.
The show also suggested an America confident in its competence to handle all sorts of matters. One cannot watch it today without comparing it to our current administration seen floundering so badly in its handling of the Coronavirus crisis. If such a force as the IMF was on the case, we’d likely have never heard of the virus. COVID-19 would have been vanquished, quietly and discreetly by the team, mission accomplished.
It’s all fantasy, of course, but it provides quite the relief from the current angst bombarding our lives. And if one has to be quarantined, you could do a lot worse than be holed up with Jim Phelps and crew. They not only fix the unfathomable on the show, but they’ve given me hope that our global mission to defeat the Coronavirus may not be all that impossible either.