Binging My Life Away | McMillan & Wife

© Nancee E. Lewis / Nancee Lewis Photography.
Editor Note: Gini Koch brings us another installment of her column entitled Binging My Life Away.

Installments will be sporadic as Gini Has time to binge-watch olde series on DVD/Blu-Ray. This is Gini so we should expect a healthy dose of her own unique view of the world.

Let’s see what she has to say about her selection for this week. This was a very lengthy series for 1970’s TV.

Take it away Gini:


McMillan & Wife

By Gini Koch

NBC launched the “wheel show” or “umbrella program” format in the late 1960’s – several programs were slotted at the same day/time, and they rotated, so viewers never knew what was going to be on each week and had to tune in “just in case” to catch their favorites. TV Guide didn’t always know which movie was going to be on, making it kind of exciting (things were a lot simpler back then, particularly entertainment options).

The NBC Mystery Movie came on in 1971 and was a wheel show which initially aired on Wednesday nights, launching with Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan & Wife. It was so successful these shows were moved to Sunday nights, and Hec Ramsey was added in, lasting two years. The others lasted all the way into 1977. NBC added new shows to its Wednesday night wheel – Banacek, Cool Million, and Madigan. But only Banacek made it into the second year, with Faraday & Company, Tenafly, and The Snoop Sisters adding in. (In my perfect world, it would have been Columbo, McCloud, McMillan & Wife, and The Snoop Sisters together, but life only works that way now thanks to the magic of DVDs.)

The Wednesday night lineup kept on rotating what were essentially flops, other than Quincy, M.E., which was pulled out midway through the last season of the Mystery Movie format and made its own show because it was good and the rest of the Wednesday night lineup was…not so good.

I tell you all this because I was a young child during this time and I remember these shows, almost all fondly. My family tried to love all the Wednesday night shows, but, like the rest of America, mostly failed with this, though we were faithful to them during their short runs. We didn’t care for Hec Ramsey at all (my family was all women and Hec gave us no happy visuals at all, and this was decades before I became an Old West buff), so if that came on, we switched channels. But we adored Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan & Wife.

Let’s be honest – the best show out of all of these was Columbo (followed by Quincy). Columbo was also the most successful and it ran in reruns and syndication so much and so long (and is probably running on some channel somewhere right now) that I’ve seen the entire series multiple times. And even though it was made in the 1970’s, with additional made for TV movies going into the early ‘80’s, it still feels timeless. But this review is not about Columbo.

No, this review is about my second favorite, McMillan & Wife, which never had the reruns.
We were talking about this and the hubs found that McMillan & Wife was available on DVD, the entire 6-year run, for about $20. So we bought it and we binged it.

Was it worth it? And, more importantly, does it live up to my memories of it?
McMillan & Wife stars Rock Hudson as Stewart “Mac” McMillan, the newly appointed Commissioner of Police for San Francisco, Susan St. James as his younger wife, Sally, John Schuck as Mac’s police liaison/aide Sergeant Charles Enright, and Nancy Walker as the McMillan’s live-in maid, Mildred.

Mac is the most hands-on Commissioner of Police ever. As the hubs put it, he’s Commissioner Gordon AND Batman. Sally is the daughter of a well-respected and hugely successful deceased police detective, so she comes by her ability to spot clues and follow hunches honestly. Mildred was Sally’s mother’s maid, who joined the McMillan household when Mac and Sally got married (pretty much right before the series begins). And Enright is earnest, dedicated, a little naïve, and thrilled to be Mac’s right-hand man.
Everyone has great comedic timing, which, looking back on their careers, isn’t a shock. And this series owes a great deal to The Thin Man. Mac and Sally banter, drink, toss about the sexual innuendo, and generally act like the poster couple for Public Displays of Affection. Mildred is always ready with a quip. And Enright does his best with whatever gets thrown in his way, often getting dragged out of bed just as he’s falling asleep or away from a long-awaited meal just as he’s about to take a bite by Mac calling to share that, essentially, the game’s afoot.

The mysteries aren’t all that hard to solve, though they do get better in seasons 3-5. But the reason to watch is the characters, particularly Mac and Sally, Mac and Enright, and Sally and Mildred. The four play off each other extremely well. Not a surprise at all considering Hudson’s experience with romantic comedies like Pillow Talk and Send Me No Flowers. St. James would go on to star in a variety of things, most notably Kate & Allie, a wonderful comedy series. Walker was a stage actress who brought experience and crack comedic timing. And Schuck went on to have a successful career, doing comedies and dramas.

The pace of most of the shows is slower than we’re used to now. While Columbo’s pace still seems right on, McMillan & Wife definitely comes from an era where you got the time to do some building at the start, even though every show starts with the crime or murder happening right away. It’s not so slow as to put you to sleep, but it’s slow enough that you’ll rarely be tense.

Sally gets into a lot of trouble, some of it due to her trying to help Mac, some of it just because. As with The Thin Man series, at least half of the shows revolve around terrible things happening or being done to family or close friends of the McMillan’s, Enright, or Mildred. San Francisco is a big town, but Mac and Sally apparently know everyone, or everyone they know has some kind of criminal background or behavior.

The clothes and hairstyles will cause some wincing. While St. James fares the best in terms of both hairstyles and outfits – many of Sally’s outfits would still work today – Mac is a history lesson in what was considered “hip, hot, and cool” back in the day.

There are a few mysteries the show never really handles. St. James was pregnant in real life twice during the show’s run – once at the end of Season 1, and during pretty much all of Season 4. And yet, we never see a child or children. Supposedly there’s a line early in Season 2 where Sally looks at baby clothes and asks Mac if they’re going to keep trying to which he has a romantic/sexy reply, but if so, we missed it. So, fine, we assume she lost Baby 1. However, during Season 4, she’s pregnant in every show AND has the baby. How momentous is this? Mac’s mother (Mildred Natwick) comes to visit and…wait for it…has to ASK Mac if the baby is a boy or a girl. WTH? Mac shares it’s a boy. No name. We never see the kid. And Mother supposedly babysits, but never mentions the kid. And, in Season 5, the child is NEVER mentioned at all.

I mean, could they have not just hidden the pregnancy? They do it all the time. Have always done it all the time. I get that kids slow you down, but to go back to the Thin Man comparison, Nick and Nora had a kid and while we saw him a bit, he didn’t ruin the movies, and he wasn’t really all that present, but he was ACCOUNTED for. It wouldn’t have been that hard. “I got a sitter!” or “Little Mac’s loving being with my mom!” handles literally every issue. But the writers chose to “go another way” and just make it freaking surreal.

More on the kid later. Right now, I need to complain about any other female related to the four main characters. Enright has a vicious ex-wife, and though he dates a model and a few other nice girls, the show acts like he’s a virgin. Mildred’s sister, Agatha (Martha Raye) is horribly annoying. You either love Martha Raye or you do not, and, I must confess that I mostly do not. More on her later, too. And Mac’s mother is a heinous beeyotch who I literally wanted to be the next murder victim any time she was onscreen. I’m not wild about his sister, either. And while Sally’s mother is nice and apparently quite wealthy, she’s kind of a ditz.

Female guest stars who aren’t relatives fare better, and male guest stars usually don’t grate. There are exceptions, of course. My favorite guest star was probably Claude Akins, but if you liked someone who was “someone” in the 50’s or 60’s, they probably made an appearance on this show.

An oddity about the guest stars…apparently in the ‘70’s, or at least in this show, no one had any issue with using the same character actor multiple times in multiple roles. There are at least 5 actors, male and female, used at minimum two times as two completely different and unrelated people, and some three times or more. I lost count. Every one of these people interact with Mac and every one of them interact in a big way. One show, Guy A is the big bad, a few shows later he’s the victim, and so on. It’s weird. Made weirder by binging. So, if you watch, the drinking game I’d suggest is “spot the actor being re-used”.

Also, there are two episodes where Hudson plays Mac and his doppelganger, whose name I cannot remember – let’s call him Swinger Lowlife Mac. Hudson does a great job with the two characters, but apparently the show was trying to cut corners the second time they used the Mac’s Double idea, because there are scenes taken from the first episode (Terror Times Two) and slapped into the other (Cross & Double Cross) where Swinger Lowlife Mac is doing the exact same thing in the exact same clothes, etc. It’s unintentionally hilarious. Binging really brings the fun out.

This show is also dated. It’s interesting to watch the tiny steps towards inclusion (there are black actors who show up more than once, and Mac has had a torrid and meaningful love affair with a black singer, which was hugely earth-shaking back in the day), and also interesting to see how they show dealt with rising feminism (better than you’d think, but go in knowing some things will make you cringe). But the fact that Mac and Sally are totally in love with each other, that they’re devoted to Enright and Mildred, and vice versa, and that they’re always striving to do the right thing makes up for any dated elements.

Now, for that baby issue and Martha Raye. We only watched Seasons 1-5, not Season 6. We avoided Season 6 because it sucks. It sucked in 1977 and it’ll suck today. Why? Because St. James wanted out, Walker got another offer, and Schuck moved to another TV show. So, the first show of Season 6 has Sally and Mac, Jr. (oh, so that’s his name?) dying in a plane crash, Mildred leaves to run a diner or something, Enright is promoted to Lieutenant and so only shows up occasionally, and Mildred’s horrifically annoying sister, Agnes, moves in to care for Mac.

If the idea of completely changing the show from a fun, witty, romantic comedy-mystery into a strident look at Mac “batchin’ it” and hanging out with an idiotic and annoying female foghorn sounds bad on paper, trust me, it’s worse to watch it. I did that once. I was young, let’s recall, but I still remember how awful it was, and I refuse to do that to myself again. I looked at Amazon reviews of this series before I bought it and every one of them calls out how awful Season 6 was and remains. Call me a reviewer who just won’t go all the way, but I didn’t watch Season 6 and, if you’re smart, you won’t, either.

Which begs the question – should you watch it at all? I enjoyed it all, but the hubs could have stopped after the pilot. If you remember the show fondly, yes, absolutely, go for it, it’s $20 well spent. If you’re looking for a show with great chemistry between the leads, mysteries that engage but usually don’t tax you, enjoy spotting the “fading or rising stars of the day”, want to see the next iteration of the Thin Man premise (Hart to Hart absolutely follows in McMillan & Wife’s footsteps, for example), or you just want to see how many horrible hairstyles Rock Hudson sported during these years, go for it – again, the price is right. If you want to be challenged by your mysteries, though, Columbo is available and probably rerunning somewhere out there.

3.5 stars out of 5

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