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Nov 20 2012

Review: The Rockford Files

Over the weekend, I stumbled upon the fact that Netflix streams episodes of The Rockford Files, the TV show starring James Garner that ran from 1974 through 1980. That time period coincided with my first stint in the US while in graduate school and I recall the show fondly and so I spent several enjoyable hours watching episodes.

For you young ‘uns out there, the show features Garner as Jim Rockford, a private investigator in California who served five years in jail for an armed robbery that he did not commit. He was later pardoned but his reputation as an ex-con makes him highly disliked by the local police except for his one friend there whom he leans on repeatedly to get information to help him solve cases.

A running gag in the show is that Rockford’s clients are either broke or find ways to stiff him of his fee so he is perennially hard-up, pursued by creditors, and lives in a shabby trailer by the ocean which also serves as his office. He is by no means a do-gooding crusader trying to seek to right society’s wrongs, but he often ends up being reluctantly persuaded to do so against his better judgment. He is also a loner, the only person close to him being his cranky retired trucker father who keeps trying to convince him to take up the safer and steadier life of a trucker.

Rockford’s work takes him close to the edges of the law, and he is not above doing shady things, but he has his own sense of integrity and honor. He is big-made but unlike the stereotypical hard-boiled detectives, he tries to avoid fights, almost never carries a gun, avoids shooting people, and often gets beaten up. I don’t recall him ever deliberately killing anyone on the show.

My admiration for Garner goes back even farther than this show, to the Maverick cowboy series that featured him from 1957 to 1960 and coincided with my stay in England as a little boy. Bret Maverick was a gambler in the old west, but going against the clich├ęs by not being fast on the draw and avoiding fights when he could, not incidentally because it would mess up his natty gambler’s clothes. While not a coward, he avoided trouble but it kept finding him and he would reluctantly deal with it, depending mostly on his wits to get him out of sticky situations.

Jim Rockford is an evolution of his Bret Maverick character, similar to him in many ways, especially in how he reluctantly ends up being sucked in to solve other people’s problems.

It is an excellent TV series. The stories are well written and produced but the main reason for its success is Garner. His easy-going charm draws you to the character and he has such good comic timing that he makes even fairly banal dialogue sound amusing.

If you have not see The Rockford Files, you are missing a treat. It holds up pretty well with time, the main signs of age being minor ones, such as the cars and clothes, and the absence of computers and cell phones.

As a true Rockfordphile myself, I encourage you to watch it if you get the chance.

14 comments

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  1. 1
    slc1

    Actually, all the episodes can be downloaded from the internet. I don’t know about the Netflix live streams but the reruns of the episodes that ran on several cable channels in the 1990s had pieces cut out of them to accommodate the greater amount of time allocated to commercials in that time period then was allocated in the 1970s. The files I downloaded are all uncut and have no commercials. However, I have to confess that I downloaded them before the file sharing services like Megaupload were shut down so perhaps the availability is less then previously (Google indicates that at least some of the seasons are available from BTtorrent).

  2. 2
    Chiroptera

    Heh. Every time I visit my mother, who has cable, I’m always excited when I see that one of the channels has The Rockford Files. Of all the shows from my childhood, that is the one that, for me, holds up the best.

  3. 3
    TGAP Dad

    My favorite is throne with Tom Selleck, I think it was “White on White and Nearly Perfect.”

  4. 4
    hexidecima

    always loved Rockford’s insta business card printer in his car.

  5. 5
    Shawn Mann

    Yeah, in the words of Issac Hayes:
    Rockfish, you OK in my books!

  6. 6
    thebobs

    It was my favorite show of that time period. I have watched some of my old favorites on Netflix as you did.

    I wanted to add that what made it a great show was the quality of the writing. Lots of humor and ingenious plots that weren’t full of holes.

  7. 7
    bbgunn

    Garner also carried that persona into light comedic movies like Support Your Local Sheriff where the character used his wits instead of brute force.

  8. 8
    maxdwolf

    This is one of the few non-pbs shows I watched as a kid that I am not embarrassed about.

  9. 9
    Argle Bargle

    The Rockford Files was one of the few shows my father watched with any regularity.

  10. 10
    Synfandel

    Stuart Margolin won a prime time Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series for his role as Rockford’s friend Angel, who was anything but. Angel’s heart was in the right place, but he just couldn’t resist pulling a con at every opportunity.

    One thing I remember about the series from its first season is the theme music. It was (gasp in horror) rock music. With guitars and synthesizers! That was pretty novel on prime time TV in 1974. And it was really catchy.

  11. 11
    Mano Singham

    You’re right, it is great theme music, up there with that of Hawaii Five-O in quality. What is more, it lasted a whole minute accompanied by a still photo montage. Nowadays, opening theme music is all but extinct, to be replaced with more commercials.

  12. 12
    lorn

    Garner raced cars as a hobby and did almost all of his own stunt driving in the Rockford files. This was highly unusual. He also did most of the fight scenes in a time when most other actors depended on stuntmen, cut scenes, and editing to make it look right.

    He was in the merchant marine near the end of WW2 and army in Korea where he was wounded twice. He had seen his share of violence. I suspect that this shows in his character’s reluctance to use deadly violence and the way it is depicted. Fights are shown as short, sharp, and ending in unpredictable results. Rockford was one of the few media characters that was knocked out, and beat up regularly. He also well depicted the physical results of fighting with the winner often suffering as much pain and disability as the loser.

  13. 13
    thewhollynone

    Didn’t hurt that Garner was a hunk! A big man with a little boy grin is irresistable to most women. You are right, those were great shows, very popular, and with worthwhile technical and philosophical values, and well-developed characters. It was interesting to see Garner again in that Space Cowboys movie.

  14. 14
    Mano Singham

    Thanks for the tip. I watched that episode and it was great. Selleck and Rockford made a good duo. They could have made a good buddy comedy-adventure film together.

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