‘Petrocelli’ (Season 2): The final courtroom battle

A continuance has been granted, pursuant to improved ratings, for Petrocelli’s second season. Too bad about Starsky and Hutch, though….

By Paul Mavis

It may be more accurate to say that rather than winning some kind of notable ratings’ success, Petrocelli’s first season failed less rapidly than its weak competition, and thus a second season was granted. However, when this second season debuted for NBC’s 1975-1976 season, it got absolutely creamed by the competition over on ABC, and no third go-around of Petrocelli episodes were ordered.

RELATED | ‘The Lawyer’ (1970): Petrocelli on the big screen
RELATED | ‘Night Games’ (1974): Petrocelli returns…on TV
RELATED | ‘Petrocelli’ (Season 1): From big screen to weekly TV

It’s impossible to predict if Petrocelli would have survived for a third season if it hadn’t had heavy-weight competition on Wednesday nights this second season, but it’s fair to say producer Leonard Katzman didn’t help its chances, either way, by refusing to fine-tune Petrocelli’s format (getting preempted for a solid month in the winter certainly lost viewers, as well). First and foremost this second season: Petrocelli doesn’t seem to be fighting against anyone anymore. He’s friends with all the cops—David Huddleston’s Lt. Ponce in particular—and the D.A.s…so who, exactly, is he supposed to rail against in his previous quasi-counterculture style? How can he be a rebel…if there’s no one or nothing to rebel against?

Other elements don’t work, either. The whole “building their house brick by brick,” while amusing in the first season, seems gimmicky at this point. Granted, the production design allowed the building to get a bit bigger this go-around, the notion that Petrocelli couldn’t finish the house by this point—particularly after saving the asses of so many wealthy, influential clients—is frankly silly (particularly when he’s doing all the work himself. The labor costs are what kill you). Indeed, there’s really no reason for the Petrocellis to be out in the desert at this point. We don’t hear anymore about “escaping the rat race” or “getting back to nature.” They’re just stuck out there, seemingly, with that long ride out and back from the city convenient for only one thing: numerous vehicular assaults and sniper fire.

Other plot devices repeat too many times in this second Petrocelli season. We get more Petrocelli boyhood friends who turn out to be tragic losers, as well as a surprising number of kids who contract for Petrocelli’s services (TV is so marvelously unrealistic: would you ever have had the idea or the mental wherewithal, at 10 years old, to walk into a business office and calmly hire an attorney? At that age, I couldn’t even walk to school on time most days…). The narrative framework of the mysteries, while still competently written, are beginning to calcify, with the characters going through the same dramatic scenes and reaction shots over and over again, regardless of the mysteries’ particulars.

What still works quite well, though, is Newman’s and Howard’s believable, even touching at times, on-screen love affair. Someone must have looked at the market research and determined that Petrocelli primarily appealed to female viewers because not an episode goes by where we don’t get multiple scenes of Howard and Newman sincerely professing their love to each other, backed up with long, realistic, soulful looks, caresses and kisses (no harm, no foul…but are these highly skilled performers or did they have an affair during the production?). It’s a nice hook for the show; it’s just a pity they didn’t develop it more from Howard’s character’s angle (no doubt that market research also suggested more beefcake shots of Newman, which we get in abundance, along with an appeal to the men out there: lots more bikinis this season).

Change eventually does come to Petrocelli this second season, first as a one-off sidekick attempt (or perhaps a warning…), and then a last-minute Hail Mary format switch that was a too little too late attempt to catch its competition. The first was the introduction of young hotshot attorney Tim Matheson in Shadow of a Doubt, who takes over a case when Petrocelli is taken off it by a judge. The episode ends with Matheson telling a client he’ll see him at Petrocelli’s office in the morning…but we never see him again. Was this an attempt to goose the younger demographics and give Petrocelli a sidekick, such as earlier law shows The Defenders or Owen Marshall: Counselor-at-Law? Or was it one of those not-so-subtle warnings that TV producers like to pull when a series star gets to thinking they’re irreplaceable, or salary demands get out of hand? When Barry or Tim calls me, I’ll let you know….

Far more substantial change comes at the tail end of this last Petrocelli season, when the few remaining episodes ditch the trials and the trademark multiple flashback structure altogether, to turn Tony Petrocelli into some kind of action man private detective. Looking at the shows that were pounding Petrocelli in the ratings, it’s at least understandable to see this drastic realignment. While CBS newcomer Kate McShane, the series that inexplicably replaced cancelled Mannix (f*ck you, Kate McShane!), offered Petrocelli no trouble, ABC’s hard-core action line-up pulverized everything that Wednesday night. Once ABC had their mid-season plug-in The Bionic Woman ready for January, it shot up to an astounding 5th placed slot on the Nielsen’s year-end. Going into the 9 o’clock slot, Baretta continued to name that tune with a 22nd place finish, while Petrocelli’s direct 10 o’clock competition, newcomer Starsky and Hutch, roared onto the pop culture scene, snagging a 16th place finish in the Nielsen’s.

Petrocelli was doomed. While everybody started getting rich off Starsky and Hutch lunchboxes and puzzles and bedsheets, Petrocelli faded into the mists of time. It was cancelled in March (with a handful of unaired episodes still in the can), with NBC scrapping the bottom of the barrel to re-run old episodes of Hawk in its place, to try and glom on to some of rising movie star Burt Reynolds’ PR. Still, Petrocelli remains a series well-remembered by the fans who saw it during its original run; let’s not forget that a Big Three network show’s “failing” numbers back then would translate into a massive, Super Bowl-like ratings score today (that’s why everybody who watched TV back then remembers so many so-called “obscure” shows—shows that still attracted tens of millions of viewers every week back then).Here are the 22 episodes from the second season of Petrocelli:

DISC 1

Death Ride (September 10th, 1975)

Petrocelli’s latest client is a rodeo clown who confessed to killing a fellow rodeo riding champion.
Boy, nothing says “Must See TV” like Ned Beatty in your season opener! First episodes of the season are critical for keeping old fans and snagging new ones, and this particular episode from scripters Katharyn and Michael Michaelian, is weak enough without the non-draw of Beatty. A solid supporting cast of pros like Ford Rainey, John Crawford, Don “Red” Barry, and Don Starr, helps a lot, though. An unfortunately weak opening to the season.

Mark of Cain (September 17th, 1975)
Tony’s old friend, visiting from out of town, is arrested for murder.
Didn’t we see essentially the same story last season, with Don Stroud? Again, a good cast helps salvage the familiar premise from producer Katzman, with John Saxon and particularly Paul Koslo (a Vanishing Point reunion!) scoring, his patented brand of creepiness well used in his manhandling of Maggie. Nice, touching scene with Newman and Howard, when he admits his faults.

Five Yards of Trouble (September 24th, 1975)
A photographer is found dead after a photo shoot with another man’s wife.
Oh god no…not Oliver from The Brady Bunch. Is there a more obnoxious, nauseating child actor than Robbie Rist? William Keys penned this rather flat outing that has something to do with cement mixers and hookers (don’t ask). Barbara Luna plays a good girl thought to be bad (they should have switched that), while boring Glenn Corbett does what he always does: he put me to sleep (why did they hire him again? Did he live in Tuscon?). Can someone explain to me why, when little Oliver comes to visit his Uncle Glenn in the can, the guard locks up Oliver after Glenn goes back to his holding cell? Hilarious.

Shadow of Fear (October 1st, 1975)
Petrocelli tries to untangle a web when a woman claims she killed her ex-husband, but evidence shows the killer is her current spouse.
A potentially fun character—Tony’s bookie, Ziggy, played by funny Rusty Blitz—is introed and then dropped, never to be seen again. Shame (this show needed more reoccurring characters). And by the way: just how many Mafia hoods are there in little San Remo? This is a spiffy little noir outing with a suitably sultry, treacherous femme fatale (Anne Archer, looking…incredible), and a good turn from reliable pro William Windom as the dope she ropes. Warren J. Kemmerling, solid as always, is back as Lt. Wayne Carter, and he’s buddy-buddy with Petrocelli…which doesn’t help the show. Finally, a Petrocelli first: a check is actually handed to our lawyer!

DISC 2

Chain of Command (October 8th, 1975)
A mechanic whose wrench is found at a murder scene is accused of killing his former boss.
Jesus Christ not another horrible 70s child actor? Lee H. Montgomery? From Ben? Where’s the escape hatch? Another child hires Petrocelli in this fair offering from the Michaelians. A lot of vet performers in this one, including John “Helen, please, I just got home DON’T RUSH ME!” Lupton, Warren Stevens, Rosemary DeCamp (who has a wonderful short scene talking about her husband cheating on her with younger women), and fav Kenneth Tobey, also effective as a former executive who tried to commit suicide. The episode’s highlight is a hairy, pre-safety precautions helicopter assault on Petrocelli, with some truly scary close-in work (they would never get those blades that close to an actor today…unless it was John Landis directing).

To See No Evil (October 29th, 1975)
A blind woman fatally shoots her boyfriend, who she claims was an intruder.
Sorry: I just don’t buy Julie Kavner’s performance as a blind woman stalked by an unseen killer (she’s not terrified—she’s kvetching). I’ll tell you what I do buy, though: the return of Erica Hagen in a series of stunning bikinis (she gives me the whim whams). I’m not alone: Barry Newman can barely keep his eyeballs in his head whenever she’s in a shot. A solid story from producers Katzman and Miller has a nice twist at the end…but seriously: lay off the desert highway assaults on Petrocelli.

Terror on Wheels (November 5th, 1975)
A motorcycle gang member is found dead after flirting with another man’s daughter.
A sweet drive-in-worthy episode, marred only by the too-big, too-hammy, too-“70s Ethnic Clown” performance by normally excellent actor John Colicos. Petrocelli takes on the bikers…and kicks their collective asses. Great scene where Maggie is menaced on the road (I know, I know…) by the bikers. And you betcha that’s Annette O’Toole, looking insane in those white short shorts (a would-be writer once negatively commented on my penchant for detailing all the hot babes in the episodic TV reviews I wrote. Well, Anne Archer, Annette O’Toole, Erica Hagen, Julie Kavner and I often laugh about such petty jealousy when we’re hot-tubbing together…).

The Gamblers (November 12th, 1975)
Petrocelli becomes suspicious when a pizzeria owner is found dead and his employee is arrested for murder.
God another kid hires Petrocelli. Is this a dramatic series for adults or Ding Dong School? Just remember, when you hire Petrocelli but you don’t have the dough, his standard reply—never to be mentioned again—is: “We’ll talk about that later.” Actually, a good mystery plot for this one, from John Hudock. Watch for a pre-Star Wars, pre-car wreck Mark Hamill here.

DISC 3

Shadow of a Doubt (November 19th, 1975)
Petrocelli is accused of bribing a witness, putting his license to practice law in jeopardy.
A fun episode: let’s see Petrocelli on the other side of the law. Harold Gould is back as Foxy the D.A. (frankly he doesn’t seem all that thrilled). Potential new sidekick Tim Matheson doesn’t seem all that enthusiastic, either (it doesn’t help that they pretty much drop him during most of the story). An interesting outing, seeing Petrocelli working outside the legal structure.

Terror by the Book (December 10th, 1975)
A best-selling author is killed just before he was to publish damaging information about an old friend’s past.
Tepid mystery for this outing, with Anne Francis failing to register as Tony’s client. It’s sad to see the Honey West icon reduced to a nothing part like this…and then blow it (Dewey Martin doesn’t fare any better). Footballer Dick Butkus ain’t bad, though, considering, while it’s always fun to see Bing Russell lend his somewhat gamey appeal to a supporting role.

Face of Evil (December 17th, 1975)
Petrocelli is hired by a woman to defend her twin sister against a murder charge.
They should have cancelled Petrocelli for Newman’s Cagney imitation alone (yikes). This is one of the best outings this season (all the more noteworthy since there aren’t a lot of them), with an impressive performance from Kay Lenz as a disturbed young woman and her evil twin (?). Nice direction during the flashback murders from Irving J. Moore, with some funny bits from scripter/producer Thomas Miller. Lucille Benson is back with a humorous cameo, while Petrocelli gets hit in the ass by a goat (sounds dumb but it works)

Too Many Alibis (December 24, 1975)
A recently fired doctor is accused of killing the hospital chief of staff.
Robert Hooks is just right as a black doctor on the run from a frame-up (want to hear something you’ll never hear in a show today? Hooks’ character accuses the murder victim of being a racist…before he acknowledges that viewpoint might come from his own sensitivity). What starts out as a season best, soon turns ridiculously far-fetched by the end (scripter Fred Freiberger just can’t sell that silly denouement). Our sexiest D.A. arrives, stone cold fox Susan Sullivan (but again…she isn’t used particularly well here), while Oscar-nominee Sally Kirkland has about three minutes where she steals the show as a gun-toting hottie who doesn’t buy Petrocelli’s sh*t for one minute (too bad she threw away all that talent).

DISC 4

A Deadly Vow (December 31st, 1975)
Soon after asking Tony about the punishment for murder, a woman is arrested for killing her husband.
By this point in the series, routine episodes like this one were not helpful. There’s a perceptible pall, a drag on the proceedings that I can only guess came from the fact that the company knew the ratings were terrible, and they were all on a sinking ship. Sad to see the talented former big-screen actress Rosemary Forsyth with a nothing role like this.

Jubilee Jones (January 14th, 1976)
A night club singer is arrested for killing the club manager.
An old familiar plot is jazzed up a bit with some fun Conversation-like audio wizardry added to the plot, and a nice turn from Scatman Crothers and Beah Richards as a long-married couple who finally may face defeat. Unfortunately, the episode’s resolution—and this is becoming more and more common with the series—is quite amusing for all the wrong reasons. One of my all time favs, statuesque Barbara Rhoades, must have had a dental bill or a boat payment to make, taking this small, insignificant role.

The Falling Star (January 21st, 1976)
Petrocelli takes the case of a famed actor, accused of killing a Hollywood producer.
Much better. A tense mystery with a Hollywood-on-location backdrop, this outing features an excellent, low-key turn from talented Ken Curtis, as a former cowboy star on the skids. I don’t quite buy Susan Dey as his daughter, nor his predicament (it’s a crime to stab a movie producer?), but it moves swiftly under pro Russ Mayberry’s direction. A quibble: what’s with the stupid bump-and-grind Gigi the stripper character? Enough, especially when she teaches Maggie to do the same (a big failing of this series was not giving Susan Howard more to do than this embarrassing stuff).

Survival (January 28th, 1976)
Petrocelli and his client, a suspected burglar, are attacked and chased in the Mexican desert by men who want their loot back.
So long, old format! Tony is now a man of action! Ditch the three-piece suits—it’s time for denim on denim and fisticuffs out on the dunes as the producers try something different in a last ditch effort to stave off cancellation. The irony? It’s one of the better episodes because, although it’s painfully familiar territory, it’s genetically compelling. You can’t miss with this kind of action-flavored dramatics…although someone certainly tried when they briefly pulled out the Defiant Ones gag with the handcuffs.

The Night Visitor (February 4th, 1976)
A couple will stop at nothing to find a package that was mysteriously left in Petrocelli’s office.
The format goes even further afield as two-fisted private investigator attorney Tony Petrocelli becomes involved in an international jewelry heist. Yep. And nope, you’re not watching Mannix. They arrest Petrocelli in this one, but only for about two minutes. Dark Shadows legend Thayer David shows up, to usual good effect, while feisty Joan Van Ark is fun as a shady investigator (she should have had a big screen career: talented and beautiful and a distinct energy). Nice production values for the finale at the rock quarry.

DISC 5

Blood Money (February 11th, 1976)
A fraternity kidnapping prank becomes deadly.
Animal House’s Doug Neidermeyer and Brady Bunch B.M.O.C. Doug Simpson in the same episode! If you’re still looking for Petrocelli to show up in a courtroom, you’re wasting your time. A well-oiled little hard-boiled kidnap meller, this one benefits from some fine performers (Denver Pyle, James Gammon) and the return of David Huddleston as Lt. Ponce (even Petrocelli exclaims, “Haven’t seen you in awhile!”). Tight, tough direction from Irving J. Moore makes for one of this season’s best outings.

Any Number Can Die (February 15th, 1976)
When government secrets are stolen, those connected meet ghastly deaths.
Petrocelli Meets I Spy! Now Tony is involved with rogue government agents who beat the living sh*t out of his wife, and computer banks that fill up an entire office building floor (heehee!), and shady government spies like Paul Burke, whose wan, sallow complexion is more mystifying than the mystery here. And speaking of strange looks…was Newman hitting the bottle or something? Because there are a bunch of shots where his eyes are blasted and he’s almost slurring his words (maybe they knew about the cancellation by this point…). Not an unentertaining episode…but it’s not Petrocelli anymore.

Six Strings of Guilt (February 25th, 1976)
A woman who was being blackmailed is accused of murder.
Co-star Albert Salmi is finally given his own episode and subsequent booking and arrest (still nothing for Maggie…), so it’s time for Tony to go out and be the legman, chasing down clues and passing out fins and double sawbucks to get some info (too bad Huggy Bear ain’t around…for the ratings at the very least). Now, the producers have people telling what happened during the crime, but they don’t show a flashback. Huh? Whose brilliant idea was that? Probably to save money at this point. That last scene almost looks like a series finale, with everyone happy and paired off.

Deadly Journey (March 3rd, 1976)
An elderly woman is accused of murdering her son’s employer.
Lucille Benson is back for the third time in two seasons, and although I love that old broad…enough is enough. The flashbacks are back, but not for Marion Ross (she just has to read hers). A rather dull outing, with an easy-to-solve mystery from Donnell DiMaggio.

The Pay Off (April 4th, 1976)
Maggie’s visiting uncle is accused of murdering a prostitute.
Nothing says “Let’s Kiss Off This Series On a High Note!” than Victor French. Sorry, but I have a visceral revulsion for that actor (and yes, weirdly, I loved Highway to Heaven), so it’s difficult for me to judge this one fairly because of his stupid face being in the way all the time (Howard keeps looking for the exit door every time he comes pawing after her). God, what a crime to see the once breathtaking Joanna Moore so sadly aged by booze and dope. Kudos, though, for ending the series with that ultimate victim: weaselly little sh*t Whit Bissell.

Hey, Petrocelli: sa benedica, huh?

Read all the reviews in our 4-part Petrocelli series.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

3 thoughts on “‘Petrocelli’ (Season 2): The final courtroom battle”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s