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Saturday, September 15, 2018

Television Review: CRAZY LIKE A FOX: "Fox in Wonderland" (1985)

CRAZY LIKE A FOX: "Fox in Wonderland" (CBS-TV/Sony 1985) Original Air Date: March 17, 1985.  Starring Jack Warden as Harry Fox, John Rubenstein as Harrison Fox, Penny Peyser as Gail Fox, Robby Kiger as Josh Fox, Floyd Levine as Cecil, Robert Hanley as Lt. Walker.  Guest Stars: Tracy Scoggins as Joy, Tom Hallick as Renner, Paul Mantee as Bailey, Joe Maross as Herb Spencer, Stephanie Blackmore as Vivian St. John, John Mahon as Lt. Doyle, Don Maxwell as Chauffeur, and Paul Krasny as the Director.  Written by John Baskin, Frank Cardea, George Schenck and Roger Shulman.  Directed by Paul Krasny.

Introduction to the 1984-86 CBS series CRAZY LIKE A FOX is at this link.

After five long years, Harry Fox's old pal and fellow P.I. Herb Spencer has just wrapped up a case for client Bob Renner of Pacific Security: the recovery of $2 million from an armored truck robbery for a finder's fee of ten percent.  Unfortunately, Spencer's partner Bailey thinks a higher cut is warranted, and revealing the location of the loot (at the "Hollywood Y" in a fuse box) to his untrustworthy business associate costs Spencer his life.

Concerned when Herb is late to his birthday party, Harry Fox calls the hotel and learns of Spencer's murder.  Lt. Walker is certain the crime scene is a "simple hotel robbery" but the Senior Fox isn't, surreptitiously taking Spencer's diary as he exits.  The final entries send Harry to L.A., determined to wrap up Spencer's final case--with Bailey supporting him outwardly while undermining the investigation.

"He'd have done the same for me!"

Fox in Wonderland is on very solid ground comedically, loosing Harry's bad driving and improvisational investigation on the City of Angels.  Conveniently, son Harrison has a seminar there, and wouldn't you know it--Harry is soon booked for the same flight!  The junior Fox isn't subjected to quite as many impositions as usual: those are limited to lengthy waits for his father and elbow grease for the necessary shovel.  Harrison is even the quick thinker at the end when a distraction is needed.

"Can I help it if he jumps to conclusions?"

As always, it's Jack Warden carrying the bulk of the laugh load and succeeding admirably.  Effortlessly scaring Herb's rarely rattled secretary when she's in the passenger's seat, procuring a limo for himself and his son during a taxi strike (thankfully avoiding the complications that Jerry and George would years later) and chomping his cigar throughout, Warden is a delight.  He carries the teleplay past its wobblier elements, and director Krasny stages the finest setpiece (Harry loses control of his brakeless car in the Hollywood hills after Bailey's sabotage) with just the right amount of tension.  With Harry Fox at the wheel, you're not that much more worried than usual!

(Predictably, Joy would handle the driving in subsequent scenes!

So the comedy is consistently strong, but the case itself is on shakier ground.  The final revelation seems far-fetched, existing solely to give us a humorous climactic chase that takes us through an aerobics class and eventually, a movie set (with director Krasny casting himself as the same).  The ensuing humor is much more forced that the laughs preceding the final act, largely because this denouement makes little sense.

For five years, Renner was hoping to recoup $1.8 million of the losses if Herb succeeded, then apparently cut a deal with Bailey once he had eliminated his old partner from the picture, which would reduce his recovery to an even million.  Okay, Bailey's eventual murder (by Renner, we eventually learn) seems very plausible under those circumstances.  But Renner pulling a gun on Harry after the money is recovered, and revealing the entire scheme?


Renner used Fox to lead him to the money, knowing that Harry is trying to wrap things up for his old friend.  So presumably, the finder's fee would be Harry's for his work, and Renner would get the same $1.8 million he would have received under the old agreement.  Why expose yourself as a murderer in front of three people with little chance of escape for just $200K more?   Granted, Harry might then start poking around in Bailey's murder, but it still seems like a high risk/low reward proposition for Renner.  Your mileage may vary, but to these eyes it's too weak of a motivation.

The career of longtime guest star Joe Maross dated back to the early 1950's, and was nearing its end when he was offed in the opening minute of Fox in Wonderland; predictably, his swan song was a MURDER, SHE WROTE less than a year later.  Stephanie Blackmore (DALLAS) plays a successful movie star with a breathtaking home, but the brightest light in the guest cast is Tracy Scoggins as Spencer's loyal girl Friday.  The Galveston native was only a few months away from prime time stardom on the DYNASTY spinoff THE COLBYS (and later, the parent series itself), with BABYLON 5 and LOIS AND CLARK in her future as well.  She also provides a number of misunderstandings for poor Harrison to bear the brunt of once Mrs. Fox jumps to some understandable conclusions.

And yes, you are getting a lot of Tracy Scoggins screencaps.  You're welcome.

The less than satisfying conclusion isn't fatal--as noted before, CRAZY LIKE A FOX was always much more of a comedy (the category in which Jack Warden received both of his Emmy nominations) than a mystery, so the cases were often of secondary importance.  Still, the best installments managed a more perfect balance than this between the two elements.  Fox in Wonderland nevertheless bludgeoned the competition on March 17, 1985 (THE BURNING BED and BRUBAKER), scoring a 20.5 Nielsen rating and finishing in 8th place for the week.  (**1/2 out of four)

getTV occasionally airs CRAZY LIKE A FOX.  Check the listings here!


Mike Doran said...

Was I the only one to note that the private eye partnership here was "Bailey and Spencer" - as in the apparently forgotten classic 77 Sunset Strip?
I guess so …

It was during this period that Paul Mantee (Bailey) was writing some very funny articles for TV Guide about what it was like to perform in filmed TV in Hollywood.
This in its turn led to Mantee writing and publishing a couple of amusing novels; he might still be doing this but for his early death.

Hal said...

Mike: nice catch! I completely missed that almost certain 77 SUNSET STRIP in-joke. I shouldn't have, since I've been watching it on MeTV and Warner Archive Instant in recent years.

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