‘Scarecrow and Mrs. King’ (Season 1): Fun, Romantic, Reagan-era spy adventure

A few years ago, Warner Bros. released Scarecrow and Mrs. King: The Complete First Season, a 5-disc, 21-episode collection of the 1983-1984 premier season of the light, charming action/adventure comedy/romance series starring Kate Jackson and Bruce Boxleitner.


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By Paul Mavis

I must confess I didn’t catch too many episodes of Scarecrow and Mrs. King during its original four-year run (plainly put: it seemed like a chick show to me…confirmed by my wife, who never missed it). Watching it now, though, it’s agreeable entertainment, with solid production values, good performances by the easy-on-the-eyes stars, and some flashes (at least at the beginning of the series) of genuine wit and satire concerning the show’s mix of Reagan-era spying and suburban romance/sitcoms.

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Newly-divorced suburban mom Amanda King (Kate Jackson) has her hands full caring for her two young sons, Phillip and Jamie (Paul Stout and Greg Morton), while bantering with her spunky live-in mother, Dotty West (Beverly Garland), in their cozy little colonial in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Georgetown. Dating hapless Weather Bureau meteorologist Dean (who is never shown on camera—except once, with his face obscured—until the character is dropped mid-season), Amanda may not realize it, but her “comfortable,” predictable domestic and romantic situations may be ripe for a little excitement and adventure.

And she sure gets those—on both fronts—from handsome, slightly arrogant government operative “Scarecrow”: Lee Stetson (Bruce Boxleitner). Finding herself at the D.C. Amtrak station one morning (in her nightgown and overcoat), rushing to see Dean off, Amanda suddenly finds herself holding a package thrust into her arms by Stetson, who, out of breath and wearing a waiter’s uniform, pleads for her help and then runs off. Not being able to resist the handsome, scared stranger, Amanda agrees to help him, and so begins her adventures in global espionage for the “International Federal Film Company,” the business front for the covert organization, “The Agency”—a situation to which her family is totally oblivious.

Patriotic and looking for a job to support her family, she welcomes the chance to work with the reluctant Lee (who likes Mrs. King, but who doesn’t want to work with a civilian), pushing for more assignments from Lee’s boss, Billy Melrose (Mel Stewart). That’s a move initially looked down upon by Lee’s sniffy fellow agent, Francine Desmond (Martha Smith). Will Amanda’s family find out about her covert activities…and will both Amanda and Lee eventually admit their attraction to each other?

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Certainly borrowing a bit of the plotting conventions and comedic/romantic atmosphere of Hitchcock’s “innocents-drawn-into-spying” movies, such as The 39 Steps or more specifically, North by Northwest, Scarecrow and Mrs. King starts off as quite an amusing satire of the collision of 1980s suburban cocooning and Reagan-era Cold War global espionage. The pilot episode, The First Time, scripted by the series’ creators and executive producers (for the first half of the season) Eugenie Ross-Leming and Bruce Buckner, is extremely clever and well-written, setting up the show’s basic (and lightly subversive) premise: despite Amanda’s assertion that nothing bad ever happens in the suburbs, apparently everything bad is happening in the ‘burbs, including gun-running, espionage rings, and murder rackets, all executed by battling U.S. and Soviet-bloc organizations that lurk in every seemingly innocuous corner of American life (hello Mr. and Mrs. Smith and The Americans).

In the pilot and the first three episodes, Ross-Leming and Buckner, a writing team that also worked on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Forever Fernwood, and Lois & Clark, work in quite a few funny jabs at suburbs and spying, creating a TV world where the blandness of suburban life is merely a cover for deadly government hijinks. In The First Time, the popular Colonial Cookery TV show that Dotty follows religiously, is discovered to be a front for a vicious Soviet spy ring, with the kindly, wholesome chef giving out her mission cues for assassination via some cleverly coded recipes. In There Goes the Neighborhood, the Avon™/Mary Kay™-like cosmetic firm that relies on housewives as door-to-door saleswomen, actually utilizes those happy homemakers as unwitting gun-runners, loading their packages of hair dryers and lipsticks with stripped-down weapons for shipment to Central America (there’s a wonderful scene where the head of the firm, leading her cheering corps of saleswomen in an enthusiastic sales meeting, talks sweetly of grinding the competition into the dust, a la Khrushchev). We even get to see two agents dueling each other with that classic suburban lawn accoutrement: the plastic pink flamingo.

And in Magic Bus, a relatively innocent-looking RV—one of the crown jewel suburban acquisitions for family good-times seekers in the ’80s—is really just a framework for the TWU: Total Weapons Unit (Stripes, anyone?), capable of destroying anything in its path, from loaded-up suburban station wagons that cut you off on the interstate, to Soviet tanks (there’s a marvelous little throwaway bit involving a government promotional video shot for the TWU, where a chirpy ’80s power-suited woman, demonstrating the capabilities of this RV-from-Hell, brightly intones, “Is that a bazooka ahead? Nooooooo problem!” Ka-BANG! Hilarious).

Creating the series’ comedic tension from the reliable plot device of having Amanda hide her spying activities from her nosy mother—as well as the impending calamity that always seems near whenever those activities spill over to her safe, secure home—Ross-Leming and Buckner certainly know their spy motifs. Amusing little touches include Amanda, in the pilot, told by stranger Lee to give the package to “the man in the red hat,” coming upon a train car-load of Shriners (that could have come right out of a Hitchcock film). In If Thoughts Could Kill, The Manchurian Candidate and The Parallax View are nicely referenced in the brainwashing plot. And throughout the season, the mechanics of spying make up a good portion of the episodes’ frequent action scenes.

Watching the series, though, it was fascinating to the see the political context into which these espionage conventions were woven. From Amanda’s clear, unequivocal declaration, in Always Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth, that she is proud to work for the shadowy “Agency” (can you imagine that positive viewpoint of an American intelligence agency today?), we realize we’re back in Reagan’s America (I’m gently weeping with nostalgia…), when the country had finally shaken off the debacles of Johnson, Nixon, Ford and particularly Carter (who thanks god every morning for Obama coming along…), and allowed itself to be patriotic again. The enemies in Scarecrow and Mrs. King‘s first season are explicitly named: the Russians and other Eastern bloc countries. No politicized, pusillanimous hedging like today’s Democrats and China (couldn’t resist). They’re the enemy, and we hold the high moral ground. Émigrés speak with authority of the horrors of socialism and communism (see how far we’ve devolved?), while even the average American housewife is hotly eager to engage the Rooskies in a global death match (god the 80s were so great).

Interestingly, though, the series is careful to keep its viewpoint feminine—not the norm at all for the espionage genre. If the violence isn’t already portrayed as cartoonish (and thus, safe for the 8:00pm “family hour”), it’s made clear that deadly force will not be a hallmark of Amanda’s eventual immersion into the covert world of dirty tricks and wet jobs. She states firmly she doesn’t want anything to do with guns (Amanda ain’t Rambo here), and like a good mother, she’s more committed to helping “the boys” (i.e.: Lee and the “Agency” agents and their Soviet counterparts) solve their problems through talking rather than through violence (the The Long Christmas Eve episode is a fairly ridiculous example of this, where Amanda introduces glasnost to the warring sides, demanding a cozy Christmas Eve truce between the gun-toting Americans and Russians, while melting their hearts with the wafting sounds of Christmas carols…Jeeeeeeeee-suz!).

Boxleitner’s character may get top-billing in the title, but Jackson gets top-billing where it counts, and the series is craftily geared for her loyal TV audience of women. Amanda may enthusiastically work against those Commie bastards, but she’ll do it inbetween PTA meetings and baking cookies at her warmly-appointed, cozy little house. And with that feminine viewpoint comes of course, romance, with Scarecrow and Mrs. King being quite adept at teasing the audience into wishing the two handsome stars together. Since Amanda can’t have Scarecrow revealed to her family, he always meets her at her garden window (I’m not kidding)—a romantic Romeo and Juliet move of “stolen moments” if there ever was one (didn’t Beauty and the Beast swipe that mechanism, too?). Boxleitner’s preppy, clean-scrubbed good looks would melt any Middle American housefrau’s heart, but when you put him in a tux and have him squire Amanda around to embassy parties, Scarecrow and Mrs. King might as well be called From Cinderella with Love.

Unfortunately, with the loss of the original creative team that developed the series and wrote the first, best episodes, Scarecrow and Mrs. King rather quickly devolves into a standard 80s light comedy actioner. The remaining episodes of the season, while entertaining in their own right, don’t quite hold up to the genuine wit and satire of the first few outings. The production is top-notch for 1983 (it looks expensive by that year’s TV production criteria), with high-gloss cinematography, nicely-appointed sets, and plenty of expensive stunts…even though the series’ obvious return to Southern California location shooting early on, is distressing (I particularly like the light, patriotic, military-sounding theme incorporating fife and drums; it’s the only element that remains “D.C.” here amid the Hollywood hills).

Satire is replaced by almost-slapstick and almost-sitcom romantic complications, and lots of cars and trucks begin to pile up in the end-of- the-episode chases (when I saw Yakov Smirnov show up, getting off one of his, “America, what a country!” lines, I almost bailed). It’s too bad the show couldn’t have maintained more of an edge, but it’s pretty enough to look at, and the performers are just right for this sort of thing. Boxleitner has an easy charm, and he looks believable in the action scenes, and Jackson in particular is adorable (what’s with the Charlie’s Angels crazies giving me a bad rap about her?). Watch her in Filming Raul, where she tries, in that sexy Alabam rasp, to say the name, “Hadj,” over and over again. Delightful.

It’s really a shame her big-screen career didn’t materialize after (or more correctly: because of) Charlie’s Angels. Audiences, although not in overwhelming numbers, seemed to agree: according to the Nielsen’s, Scarecrow and Mrs. King was a pleasant, upper mid-level performer (it garnered a more-than-respectable 20th for its opening year), perfect for whiling away the 8:00pm hour on Monday nights. Up against tough competition once ABC’s Monday Night Football started (21st for the year, after season opener That’s Incredible fell off the chart), Scarecrow and Mrs. King proved to be a viable alternative for women sick to death of football (along with CBS lead-outs AfterM*A*S*H, which was, astoundingly, 15th for the year, and Newhart, which dropped from the previous year’s 13th to 23rd). Over on NBC, Scarecrow and Mrs. King didn’t have much competition from the short-lived freshman Elvis knock-off drama, Boone, but the network held steady with lead-out The NBC Monday Night Movie, with finished in a tie with ABC’s Monday Night Football for 21st). Scarecrow and Mrs. King would stay steady in the mid-to-lower 20s for the next two seasons—an indication that it found its specific audience, and kept it.

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. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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