Get Smart: "The Impossible Mission"

Last March, I made a random decision: to buy the first season of Get Smart, a clever sitcom that ran from 1965 to 1970, winning two Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series along the way. After re-watching the seasons I own of Moonlighting, Remington Steele, and I Love Lucy, I figured it was time to introduce myself to a new classic TV show. Created by Buck Henry and Mel Brooks, Get Smart seemed perfect -- and it was. The show is like a compilation of some of my favorite things, starting with its role as a parody of the 1960's spy craze. Get Smart is about Maxwell Smart, a secret agent for the government organization CONTROL. With the lovely and resourceful Agent 99 by his side, Max frequently goes up against the evil spy network KAOS (pronounced "chaos").


While this sounds heroic, GS has a lot of fun playing with the genre. CONTROL is like any other mundane bureaucracy -- even spies can't escape budget cuts and the occasional downsizing. There are zany touches as well, such as Agent 13, whose job is to hide in obscure places to pass along messages. Agent 13's been everywhere, from inside lockers to underneath couch cushions to the inside of a running washing machine. GS may be most famous, though, for the Cone of Silence (which never works) and the shoe phone. The show has so many gags, but
I think my favorite has to be the random items they choose to be phones for agents to call CONTROL. Test tubes, a compact mirror, and a fire hydrant are just a tiny fraction of what they've used. To get a better understanding of what GS is like, I highly recommend watching this video, which is a variety of clips from the first season. The black-and-white scenes are from the first episode, which was the only time the show wasn't in vibrant color.

Overseeing the madness at CONTROL is the Chief, played to stern perfection by Edward Platt. The Chief remains the calm center of the show, although he is forever exasperated by the shenanigans of Max. By all accounts, Platt was an enormously kind and sweet man. Before becoming an actor, he had been a classically trained opera singer and sometimes GS would let him show off his impressive pipes.

Smart is brilliantly portrayed by Don Adams, who made the character so wonderfully distinctive. For three consecutive years, he won the Emmy for Best Continued Performance by an Actor in a Comedy. Like Lucille Ball did for Lucy Ricardo, Adams gave Max a voice different than his own -- nasally and clipped, Adams had based it on William Powell! Max fascinates me because he was given such an interesting mixture of traits. He often makes silly mistakes while out in the field; he is clumsy; he can be pretty arrogant, often taking credit for 99's ideas
(which fools no one); he isn't always the brightest (he frequently repeats a phrase like he knows it and then asks 99 or the Chief what it means). However, he is also an amazing agent who is able to think on his feet, usually besting the villain with a hidden weapon that is hilariously ridiculous, such as a wall scone in his apartment that bends to hit people in the head.

As 99, Barbara Feldon is delightful, although the show limits her character. Buck Henry recalls in the DVD commentary for a season 3 episode that he tried to write funny lines for 99, but the network wanted her to be strictly "glamorous and interesting." We never see where 99 lives and we don't know what her real name is. A tall woman, Feldon constantly had to slouch or sit whenever she was next to Adams because he didn't want her to be taller than him. Despite that, they were great friends and worked very well together. 99 is a career gal who
loves her job -- even when she gets married and has twins in seasons 4 and 5, she keeps her job, making her possibly the first woman to ever do so on an American sitcom.

Like so many shows, GS employed a "will they or won't they" tactic when it came to Max and 99. What's intriguing, though, is that 99 is the more aggressive of the two, or rather the more suggestive. Max can be utterly clueless, so 99's flirtations and jealousies often go over his head.

That isn't to say that he doesn't feel the same way. In season 2's "Kisses for KAOS" and season 3's "99 Loses CONTROL," the plots directly revolve around their relationship, forcing Max to demonstrate that he cares for 99 more than we think. However, it always stays platonic... until season 4's "The Impossible Mission."

It wasn't exactly fan service that brought the show to this decision. With falling ratings, it was thought that the marriage would boost viewership. If creators Buck Henry and Mel Brooks had still been around, they probably would have fought against it. Brooks stayed for the first season, but his burgeoning career as a film director took precedence. Henry lasted until the third season before moving on to other projects. The marriage idea only worked temporarily; after the wedding in "With Love and Twitches" (the season's
ninth episode), ratings went back to declining and GS moved from NBC to CBS for what turned out to be its final season. Some blame the cancellation on Max and 99's marriage, but it seems more likely that the growing disinterest in espionage material was at fault. GS was never a ratings juggernaut and people were fatigued, thanks to James Bond, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible, It Takes a Thief, and more occurring on screens big and small.

The title "The Impossible Mission" is actually a riff on Mission: Impossible, as is the episode's opening scene. At a bus depot, Max goes to the empty locker area and opens three compartments -- one for a playback machine and two for the speakers. M:I always had its agents getting messages from recording devices, with the tape self-destructing as soon as the message was done. Max, however, can't get the tape to explode like it's supposed to, even when he jumps on it, so he's forced to walk out with the bulky machine under his jacket.

Tasked with stopping a KAOS operative known as the Leader from smuggling a scientific theory, Max has to put together a team. When 99 finds out she's not included, she isn't too pleased. Max's reasoning isn't very convincing either: "If it's gonna mean the end of the world, I want to make sure that you're alright." Sweet, but 99 is no delicate flower and Max relents. To inform the Chief of his choice, Max goes to use his garter phone, only to find a second garter. "How do you like that? They tapped my garter phone!" Max is forced to use his jacket phone
instead and is told by the Chief that due to a security leak, the safest place for them to talk is on a jet 30,000 feet in the air.

The gag here is that every time they start to land, Max realizes he has another question and the jet has to go back up. This scene doesn't quite jive with the rest of the episode -- it's filmed rather awkwardly. Rather than use a set of the inside of a plane, they just show generic shots of a plane taking off, flying, and landing with the actors' voices laid over it. The laugh track disappears, too. Something was going on with the production, I just can't seem to figure out what. I wonder if they didn't finish building the set of a plane's interior in time, because the next two episodes use such a set quite frequently. Curiouser and curiouser.

Anyway, in the next scene, Max and 99 meet with an informer at a record store. He blasts a record so they can have a covert conversation, yet the volume forces them to shout and attracts the attention of everyone. They finally turn it off, but when Max asks who the Leader is, the informer dies from scratching his finger on the poisoned needle of the record player. 99 catches sight of a mysterious man watching them and Max gives chase, following him to an empty soundstage with a very colorful set that includes multiple doors. Choosing a door at random, Max runs smack into a brick wall and loses the killer.

To fill the Chief in about this latest development, Max has to go back up in the jet. The Chief tells him that for the next phase, they must meet at the secret CONTROL lab, which is located in a burlesque club and can only be accessed through a doorway that looks like a giant trunk. Once there, Max finds Dr. Simon and a trumpet-playing Chief. He isn't really playing, though -- Dr. Simon invented a trumpet with a computer inside it that can play any song you tell it to. This will come in handy because Max has to infiltrate the band Herb Talbot's Tijuana Tin.
Intel says that the scientific theory is going to be sent out of the country during a TV broadcast between 9 and 10 pm. Conveniently, the band will be doing a TV special during this exact time. CONTROL thinks that the theory has been transposed into music so it can be smuggled without detection. With Max as the new trumpeter and 99 as a chorus girl, they have to figure out which song it is and stop it from being played.

We cut to our favorite spies playing their parts at a rehearsal right before the broadcast. There is the weirdest juxtaposition between the band's Mexican garb and the chorus girls masquerading as Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp. Instead of dancing or singing, the women are just walking around in the Tramp's signature style. What makes it funnier is that no one even tries to explain it.

When Max goes for a smoke break, 99 pulls him aside to see if he's learned anything, but he's a little preoccupied: "Know something, 99? I like you with a mustache. Don't shave it." Although neither of them have discovered anything, they soon get lucky when they see Herb Talbot and one of his musicians practicing the hand motions Talbot will do while conducting -- each motion conveys part of the theory! Their luck turns, though, when Talbot tells his accomplice "I'll be seeing you," cuing Max's
trumpet to play the famous Sammy Fain-Irving Kahal tune. Talbot surmises who Max really is, forcing Agents 86 and 99 to go on the run as the two men try to catch them. Hoping to throw them off the track, Max changes into the Chaplin costume, but it only works for a few seconds. The foursome runs all over the soundstage, with Max and 99 moving like the Little Tramp would with nose twitches, splayed feet, and raising their hats.

Locked in the station, Max and 99 become trapped in the control room when they have to bar the doors on each side of the room to keep Talbot and his henchman out. Max states that he should have never let his partner in on the assignment, but 99 says she wouldn't have had it any other way. And so begins one of the rare moments of sincere vulnerability on the show:
"99, there's something I have to tell you."
"Yes, Max?"
"We've known each other for a long time and, well, we've been through a lot of things together."
"Go on, Max."
"It's just that I, well, I have to tell you how I really feel about you. I've wanted to tell you for a long, long time, but, well, I just haven't been able to find the right words. You see, 99, it's not easy...well, it's not easy to say..."
"'I love you,' Max?"
"Yes."
"Well, why don't you let me say it for you? I love you, Max."
"No, no, 99! That's not what I wanted to say! I wanted to say 'I love you, 99!'"
"No, I'm saying I love you too, Max!"
"You do?"
"I always have!"


After a long-anticipated kiss, Max laments that "it's kind of a shame we had to discover each other when our lives are in danger." 99 agrees, saying "It would've been more romantic if we could have had a candlelit supper at your apartment, sipping champagne and saying how much we love each other while dancing on the terrace." "Oh no, that would be more dangerous than this. I don't have a terrace!" Oh, Max. As the villains start to bust in the doors, Max declares that they would be married if they
could make it out of there. 99 gets an idea -- they'll open the doors suddenly, causing each man to run in full force and hit the opposite wall. The trick works and CONTROL arrives to take the men away. Now that they're safe, 99 asks Max if he meant what he said. Without a word, he picks up the microphone in front of them and takes it apart until he gets a silver, circular piece to put on her finger as a makeshift ring.


"There's just one thing I'd like to know, 99. Why didn't you think of a way out of here before I asked you to marry me?"
"I didn't have as much to live for then!"


When it comes to the coupling of 99 and Max, I'm completely on board. (I'm fully aware that I'm a sucker for the "will-they-or-won't-they" idea.) I just find the two agents to be adorable together. I haven't seen the final season yet, but so far as I can tell, after they're married, 99 never loses her independence -- in fact, I think she gets more screen time than ever, and it's not tied to their marriage, it's tied to her job as a spy. I'm interested in seeing how the last season shakes out. The writers gave Max and 99 twins, but from what I've heard, those kids disappear pretty quickly.

If you haven't seen Get Smart, I couldn't recommend it enough. Maxwell Smart may be one of the funniest TV characters I've ever seen, thanks to the phenomenal Don Adams, and the writing is consistently sharp. There are also a ton of old movie references, from episode titles ("To Sire, With Love," "The Not-So-Great Escape," "Witness for the Persecution") to Adams doing great impressions of Ronald Colman and Humphrey Bogart during assignments. The cameos on the show are magnificent too, with Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett, and Don Rickles as just a few of the people to stop by. If you some more convincing, here's another clip video. You can see some of the scenes from "The Impossible Mission" that I wrote about, and around the 6 minute mark, you can catch Adams' Ronald Colman impression.

With love,
Michaela

P.S. If you've seen the 2008 film starring Steve Carrell and Anne Hathaway, you should know that it doesn't hold a candle to its source material. If you haven't seen the film, it's fine but seriously, watch the show.
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This post is my contribution to the always delightful Favorite TV Episode Blogathon. You should definitely check out the rest of the roster here. You can read my previous entries on I Love Lucy and Remington Steele here and here respectively.

Comments

  1. Hooray! You have written wonderfully about one of my all-time favourite sitcoms. When I was a kid I just enjoyed the silliness. Nowadays I enjoy the silliness and appreciate the brilliance.

    I think you'll enjoy the final season. Max and 99 have twins, but they don't even name them. Babies as props is definitely the way to go! And wait till you meet Simon the Likeable.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! It's become one of my favorites, too. I'm really excited for the last season, although it would mean no more new episodes for me to discover. "Silly and brilliant" is probably the best description for this show.

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  2. Wonderful retrospective on a great episode of a childhood favorite of mine! Thanks, Michaela! I really have to go back & watch some more of the episodes!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! I try to watch an episode or two every night before going to bed. It definitely helps me de-stress from the day.

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  3. I've loved Get Smart for over 10 years, and it's been a looong time since I last saw this episode. I lvoe the cone of silence and Max's "the old trick" lines. 99 was a style icon for me when I was a teen.
    I wrote about Moonlighting, and I'd like to ask: do you think Moonlighting jumped the shark by making Maddie pregnant (although hiding Cybyll's pregnancy would be an extra difficult task)?
    My next classic TV to discover will probably be The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
    Kisses!
    Le

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so glad you're a Get Smart fan! And that you wrote about one of my other favorites, Moonlighting! I haven't gotten around to seasons 4-5, mainly because Amazon prices haven't been cheap enough for me, but from what I've read, Maddie's pregnancy seemed like a good way to add more drama to the David/Maddie relationship. Having not seen the episodes, I'm not sure. Knowing the show, I think they would have put it in as a way to make Maddie and David grow up a little bit (David more so than her).

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  4. Thank you so much for participating in the blogathon! Get Smart has been one of my favourite shows since I childhood and I am convinced it was one of the most brilliant comedies ever on TV. I do have to agree that Max and 99's marriage was not what ultimately brought the show to its end. By 1967 the spy craze was pretty much over--by the middle of the 1967-1968 season The Man From U.N.C.L.E. would be off the air. It is really pretty remarkable that Get Smart lasted as long as it did! Anyway, I think you'll like the last season. It's not quite as good as the first few seasons, but it is still a lot of fun. And 99 gets to do quite a bit in it!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for doing this blogathon again! It really is one of my favorites.

      That's good to hear about 99 in the last season. I feel like although she always demonstrated what a good spy she is, it isn't until the fourth season that she comes more to forefront.

      I'm also surprised that it lasted five years. It's always a bummer when you discover a show you adore, only to find out that it has one or two seasons, like The Monkees.

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