Case Study 82: Mission: Impossible (1966), Episode 106–“Flip Side”

Original Airdate: September 26th, 1970 on CBS

Those of you born after the turn of the century may be surprised to learn that before it was a series of action movies starring a closeted Scientologist, Mission: Impossible was a long-running crime procedural. Much like La Femme Nikita, it deals with the activities of a vaguely defined governmental crime-fighting agency. Our heroes work for the “Impossible Missions Force.” Before you ask, yes, the International Monetary Fund did exist in the sixties, but I guess globalization wasn’t on the radar of the nice people at Desilu. No, the geopolitical crisis of the moment was the Cold War, and while many episodes of Mission immerse themselves in that milieu, tonight’s episode is a treatise on the scourge of illegal drugs.

Strengths

  • The best title sequence of the 1960s.  Sure, Green Acres may have land spreadin’ out so far and wide, but you can’t deny that the Mission theme song is quintessentially exciting and suspenseful. Even if you’ve never seen the show, Lalo Schifrin’s iconic opener sounds perfect for espionage adventures. There’s a reason he had such a long and successful career. The score in general is everything you’d want in TV music and makes the show feel very crisp and modern. It gets out of the way when it’s not needed and it subtly raises the emotional stakes when things start to heat up. This is a solid ground game and it makes the viewer feel like they’re in good hands.
  • Compelling concept. As the title suggests, every week the IMF has to handle a seemingly impossible mission. When the rest of law enforcement has thrown up their hands, Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) gets a self-destructing audio tape giving him some Herculean assignment. It’s up to him and his operatives to figure out how to solve the problem, and inevitably this involves going undercover, sneaking around and scheming. And I love a good scheme.
  • Complex. Something like NCIS pads out the hour with incoherent plot twists and innumerable narrative blind alleys. Mission sets itself apart by presenting us with a scenario that is satisfying complex while still being a unified whole. Here, the IMF are trying to take down not one scuzzy drug dealer but three. C.W. Cameron (Dana Elcar, MacGyver) is a titan of industry legally manufacturing delicious, intoxicating pills in St. Louis. He exports his pills across the Mexican border to Diego Maximilian (the decidedly non-Mexican Robert Alda, Imitation of Life). Maximilian turns around and smuggles the drugs back across the border to kingpin/record producer Mel Bracken (Sal Mineo, Rebel Without a Cause.) Taking down all three of these jerks requires intricate, lovingly-designed skullduggery from our friends in the IMF. There’s plenty of room for a plot this byzantine to get weighed down by contrivance and bullshit, but miraculously it doesn’t happen.
  • Suspenseful. It’s always rewarding when a show pulls me out of my disinterested critical pose and gets me emotionally invested. I was genuinely fascinated by the question of whether or not the IMF could pull this off, even though I knew it was extremely unlikely that they’d totally fuck everything up and all the drug dealers would ride off into the sunset. That’s when you know you’re watching well-designed television. 99% of TV shows are deeply invested in maintaining their own status quo. For every Game of Thrones there’s 50 shows that definitely aren’t going to arbitrarily kill off main cast members. The genius happens when you know in the back of your mind that of course the Enterprise is going to get out of this one but you’re actually nervous anyway. Mission makes a hefty withdrawal from the Bank of Suspense by regularly using the time-honored classic of letting the viewer know there’s some big plan but not letting us hear the whispered plotting until it’s unfolding in front of us. It’s a cliche, but it’s naturally intriguing, and I was as surprised as anybody when Dana (Lesley Ann Warren, Victor/Victoria) faked an overdose. Of course, now you’ll be less surprised, but the statute of limitations on Mission: Impossible spoilers expired sometime around the Carter administration.

 
Weaknesses

  • Drug hysteria. We don’t need to look farther than America’s ever-widening Vicodin Belt to know that drugs can ruin lives, but we also don’t need primetime programming on CBS reinforcing tropes fresh out of Reefer Madness. The cold open is somewhat less than promising, as it features a drug-addled tricked out hippie girl overdosing on the floor of an overstated psychedelic dance club. Dana’s faux-verdose is intriguing from a narrative perspective but ridiculously over-the-top in the moment. And then there’s the oh-so-trenchant stinger at the end of the hour: it turns out the alter ego that Dana adopted in order to get into Cameron’s pants is an identity copped from some other lady that OD’d in a Summer-of-Love-induced revelry. You walk away with the distinct feeling that no one involved in the production of this program has ever taken anything stronger than a Benadryl. Even Leonard Nimoy won’t admit to it.
  • Lesley Ann Warren singing, for some reason. Yes, yes, she and Paris (Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek, doy) pose as a Marnie & Desi-esque singer/songwriter duo in order to infiltrate various shadowy underbellies. So there was going to be some singing. I’ll always have a spot in my heart for Warren thanks to Clue and her acting is credible if not award-worthy, but her singing leaves something to be desired, especially because it sounds like she’s improvising intentionally terrible songs. Random sample: “So take this flower that’s growing here/and always keep it very near/as proof this magic place is really real…”  Look, the time period offered fertile fields for self-important doggerel coming out of the mouths of earnest folk singers, but this makes “At Seventeen” look like Sonnet 17. I realize the people who made this decision are probably dead, but next time, license something. Yeesh.

 
Final Episode Judgment: 8/10. With a few cosmetic upgrades and a quick rewrite, this could easily serve as an installment of a high-end crime procedural on CBS today. Maybe that doesn’t speak well of the level of innovation happening at CBS, but Mission is surprisingly rewarding despite having aged about as well as Reaganomics.

NEXT TIME: I review the blissfully Channing-Tatum-free 21 Jump Street. Although it does have a young Johnny Depp, so you can’t win them all.

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Case Study 82: Mission: Impossible (1966), Episode 106–“Flip Side”