If you’re reading this, and live in the United States, you know what the Peter Gunn theme is. You’ve heard it played by your High School Band (or played it yourself), you’ve heard it while playing Spy Hunter, or in a few movies. If say you haven’t heard the Peter Gunn theme before, then you’re probably lying. However, if you said you hadn’t watched Peter Gunn, I’d probably believe you. For a TV series with one of the memorable themes in the history of television, it’s surprisingly not well known outside of the Baby Boomer generation.
My decision to watch this series comes from my appreciation of hard-boiled detective stories. I got hooked on the genre when I was a kid, through the “Tracer Bullet” persona that Calvin would occasionally take on in Calvin and Hobbes strips. Those strips would later lead me to the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and other works of the hard-boiled detective genre (along with works which were a pastiche of the genre, like the Max Payne video games, and like Frank Miller’s Sin City). However, while the hard boiled detective often could be found on the printed page, I couldn’t find him often, necessarily, on the screen, big or otherwise. The film adaptations and homages were there – Blade Runner, Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Chinatown, not to mention TV series like the anime Cowboy Bebop, but considering the prolific amount of work in writing in this genre, the dearth seemed surprising.
Then I found out that Peter Gunn, the series that birthed the classic piece of music, was out on DVD. I knew the music pretty well. My parents owned the soundtrack record on vinyl, and it was one of the record I listened to heavily when I was a kid, along with Led Zeppelin IV, Horslips’ Man Who Built America and Book of Invasions, the Star Wars soundtrack, and The Moody Blues’ Days of Future’s Past. However, I knew nothing of the TV series. I came in with a blank slate. All I knew was that the music was good.
In short, this series impressed me immensely. I’d grown accustomed to episodic programming with classic television, and this was no exception. However, the writing of the series was very impressive, and the way the stories on the show were told felt like they would have fit in the present day just as well as in the past.
The show follows Peter Gunn, a private investigator in an un-named city, which has elements of Chicago, as well as a bit of Los Angeles and New York. Rather than waiting around in an office for his cases like Spade & Marlowe, Gunn operates out of Mother’s, a jazz club near the waterfront, run by the woman whose name is on the joint. The structure of each episode basically goes like this – a crime happens, usually a murder. Someone connected to the victim (or the current suspect), hires Gunn to find out who (really) did it. Gunn investigates, and he’s informed when he’s on the right track by some goons who work for the perpetrator who beat Gunn up in a vain attempt to persuade him to take up a hobby, like knitting. Gunn continues down the line of inquiry that he was warned off from, and catches the criminal.
Now, that all sounds pretty standard, but it’s how the story is executed that makes it great. First, this is a TV series of the 50s, and Gunn is a modern, hip person of that era. He doesn’t just operate out of Mother’s because he gets inexpensive drinks and the proprietor is a good source of information, he operates out of Mother’s because he listens to Jazz and his girlfriend sings there. Further, the character gets along well with musicians and beatniks. As a part of this, Jazz music is featured prominently in many episodes, being performed live, and often Jazz musicians are suspects, and informants. We also get some occasional Beat Poetry as well (nothing at the level of Howl of course, but some counter-cultural stuff nonetheless).
Gunn regularly interacts with minorities as well. Aside from ethnic minorities like Hispanics, Italian-Americans, Eastern Europeans, and Asians, there is also a particularly memorable one of Gunn’s informants, who had a recurring role, who is a Little Person who is also a pool shark. The role is particularly notable because the person’s stature has nothing to do with the script. The role could have just as easily been performed by an person of normal stature, which leads me to believe that it was the performance of the actor that made the role, instead of the necessities of the script.
The dialog in the script themselves is quick and snappy, with some of the witticisms that currently makes Joss Whedon’s work appeal to some people, but before Joss was ever born. It helps that the cast develops a lot of chemistry very quickly, particularly with the character of Gunn and his friend and contact on the police force, Lieutenant Jacobi. Also, the ways the cases are laid out is also solid and consistent, with the writers never cheating about the outcome (at least, not that I noticed).
This series is, frankly, one of the best detective series in the history of television, and especially one of the best hard boiled detective series. You owe it to yourself to watch this show.