Once upon a time, American TV was not merely a sumptuous land of bilk and money, but a Shangri-la of errant creativity, indulgent sponsors, real studio audiences, live variety, comedies shot on actual celluloid, one-hour "dramas" executed by fervent Actors Studio alumni and directors fresh from Broadway and the Yiddish theater, and, we pause nostalgically, the gag-concept sitcom. It was a network world—late '50s to early '70s—where prime-time hours were filled with talking horses, housewife witches, aging cowboys, comical Nazis, clairvoyant nannies, and where for every ordinary living-room sitcom there was a Jewish Indian settlement or a bumbling battleship crew.
It was here and only here you'd find a cultural splash the likes of Get Smart (1965–70), the Mel Brooks–Buck Henry–created satire that dared to apply vaudeville humor and Borscht Belt yuks to the template of the cold war espionage thriller. Long before Austin Powers reparodied the James Bond franchise by way of Woody Allen and the Our Man Flint series, there was Maxwell Smart, idiot superspy.
For veterans of the Johnson-Nixon years, the new, all-inclusive Get Smart DVD box might land like an endless acid-trip flashback—it's like a hunk of Belgian block, with 25 discs wrapped up behind a series of folding-door openings carefully aping the series' famous opening credits, in which Smart (Don Adams) makes his way into CONTROL headquarters through a litany of portals (cue music: "duh duh-duuuuuh dunh!") before disappearing into a telephone booth. There's no denying the show's impish wit and faux-techno surrealism, beginning with Smart's iconic shoe phone and graduating to Dick Gautier as the malfunctioning Hymie the Robot and Bernie Kopell as the proto-Nazi villain Siegfried. The show was cheaply made, and smartly incorporated its own dime-store resources into its jokes—CONTROL itself, sole defender of the free world against KAOS, seems to have as much of a budget problem as most television production studios.
Adams is 15 kinds of squinty-eyed deadpan, but a quarter century later, the revelations are Ed Platt, always on the verge of a frustrated seizure as Smart's beleaguered chief, and the luscious Barbara Feldon, who as Smart's partner/love interest, Agent 99, balanced sidekick duties and buoyant comedy so beautifully it's hard to believe she didn't become a star.
Of course, the show's context is outdated, standing today as a naively intended but smashingly eloquent dressing down of espionage culture in general—its self-aggrandizing philosophies, its tendency for cock-ups, its delusions of grandeur. I tend to think that Get Smart, in toto, says more accurate things about the state of the intelligence industry since WWII than The Good Shepherd, and explains more than a year's subscription to the National Review would about how and why the global situation has devolved into ideological mania since 9/11. But the more important question is: Why are today's sitcoms so dull and bankrupt? Why can't we do Get Smart or F Troop or Hogan's Heroes again?