Bond_age_TV Snoopathon Special – Mission: Impossible
American television in the 1960s was a pop culture goldmine. The James Bond films had brought a new level of excitement to the spy film, and to TV. Networks clamoured to put all the spy shows they could on screen. The viewing public ate them up. And yet, for the most part, the majority of them burned out fairly quickly. Most of them never even managed to make it half a decade. One program bucked this trend, however, and stayed on the air for 7 seasons. That show was Mission: Impossible. It’s a show that, even 50 years later, still manages to thrill audiences. There are a number of reasons why M:I manages to stay so entertaining, and this essay will take a look at few of them. But first, a brief history of how the show came to be.
Mission: Impossible was the brainchild of TV writer and producer Bruce Geller. His approach to a TV spy show was different than others, and made itself unique amongst the other programs of the time. His basic concept was to take a group of talented people who, while they lived regular lives, would occasionally be called on by the government to perform missions. Each team member had their own specific set of skills, and they would apply them during the course of the mission. His concept found its way to Desilu studies, the production company run by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez. The show appealed to the studio’s key demand for being low cost, and a pilot was greenlit. With the show up and running, casting became the next key component.
The central character of the show was the team’s leader, the person who appeared to work directly for the IMF. In season 1, actor Steven Hill played this role. In the subsequent 6 seasons, Peter Graves took over the role. The remainder of the team usually consisted of the same actors, who were occasionally joined by guest stars. The roles usually required minimal characterisation from the actors, as the main focal point of the series was the missions. The cast the show developed, though, was a strong one. Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Greg Morris and Peter Lupus made up the first group of members. Over the course of 7 seasons, only Morris and Lupus remained for the entire run. As actors left the series, characters with similar skill sets were introduced as replacements. This helped the show maintain its core structure, a development which other spy shows of the time didn’t have. It helped the show remain resilient. Similarly, the show had a sense of style unmatched by other shows.
Few TV shows can be considered iconic, but Mission: Impossible certainly fits that description. Its opening is instantly memorable and recognizable. A match lights a spark on the screen, and we go through a fast edit of scenes from that evening’s show, all under the massively infectious theme, created by legendary screen composer Lalo Schifrin. The show proper opened with the team leader getting his orders via tape recorder (or record, in some episodes), in some unassuming part of LA. The assignment being given, the recording would then self destruct. The rest of the episode would proceed like clockwork: the plan laid out, then implemented. Even though it was a TV show, the script made it sound like they were playing for keeps. When the voice on the tape says “if any of your IMF force are caught or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions,” you know they’re playing highstakes action. The show knew how to hook you, and keep you hooked.
The pilot episode for the show aired September 17, 1966. It was, by all accounts, a success. Viewers tuned in every week to find out what the mission was, and to see how they would make it succeed. Even the change of lead from Steven Hill to Peter Graves failed to dampen audience enthusiasm. Eventually, though, even the best of shows face problems it needs to solve. In M:I’s case, the problem was a changing American society. Anger over the Vietnam War was gaining amongst the demographics that most TV networks aim for: the 18-35 year olds. Protests over US interference in foreign affairs were commonplace. The networks were also looking for the show to cut costs. Responding to both pressures, the producers of M:I started moving the show away from the international intrigue stories, and more towards fighting organized crime in the US. This adjustment allowed the show to maintain its audience, and to survive longer than most other spy shows of the era. However, even the best shows have to end sometime. Eventually, they began losing their audience, and despite all their best efforts, weren’t able to get them back. The show’s final episode was broadcast on March 3, 1973.
It’s not hard to understand how it was that Mission: Impossible managed to stay on the air for as long as it did. The premise was unique, and the show had a style and format which caught the viewer’s attention right away. The music also had a huge impact on the show, as Lalo Schifrin’s vibrant jazzy score added to the action. The cast had great chemistry, especially in the early seasons. The show also had a strong producer behind it, keeping the show’s format intact, but allowing it to adapt to change. As a result, it managed to buck the trend of most other 60s spy shows, and continues to be an enduring pop culture icon.