Garner brings new depth to '70s 'Rockford' character

November 26, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

One of the classiest television series ever has one of the classiest reunions in a long time at 9 tomorrow night on WBAL (Channel 11).

"The Rockford Files: I Still Love L.A." is probably the best TV you'll see this November, although that might be damning it with faint praise.

The 1970s private eye, Jim Rockford (James Garner), is still living in a house trailer on the beach, still beset by a friendship with Angel Martin (Stuart Margolin) and still driving Lieutenant Becker (Joe Santos) crazy. Everyone from the original is back, except Jim's dad, Rocky, who was played by the late Noah Beery.

Jimbo now has an ex-wife (Joanna Cassidy), though, and is thinking of leaving Los Angeles. But those aren't the biggest changes. Sometime between 1980, when the final "Rockford Files" aired on NBC, and now, Jim Rockford has developed more depth, layers, shadings.

Since "Rockford," there's been "Murphy's Romance," "Barbarians at the Gate," "Maverick" and "Breathing Lessons" to name just a few noteworthy performances for Garner. He appears to have brought something from each of those marvelous roles to this performance. This Jim Rockford may be older and slower, but he's infinitely more interesting to watch.

The case Rockford is on in "I Still Love L.A." won't be nominated for any Edgar Awards when it comes to cleverness, however. An aging movie star is murdered, and her adult children hired Rockford's ex-wife, an attorney, to find out who killed her. The ex-wife, of course, hires Rockford to do the dirty work of actually finding the killer. All in all, it's a mystery that could have been figured out by a smart French poodle -- maybe even a dumb French poodle.

But it's the style not the substance of the show that's so rewarding. When the former husband of the murdered movie star apparently commits suicide, there is some actual detective work to do, but it takes a distant second place to the topical dialogue between Rockford and his ex-wife.

The best part of "I Still Love L.A." is its texture. It has the richness of those delicious British imports on A&E, like "Inspector Frost" and "Cracker." It has visual moments that match the atmosphere of a big-screen theatrical movie. It has perfect little exchanges between Rockford and his friends and enemies. But most of all, it has wonderful timing -- a rhythm that most prime-time network shows don't seem to have the time, talent or writing to deliver.

Rockford's scenes with Angel Martin, who is still whining and conniving, are not to be missed. They belong in the highlight reel of Television '94. There is also a wonderful scene in the trunk of a car between Rockford and his ex. It's what you don't see in the scene that's so marvelous. To divulge more would be criminal.

The good news is that, like those British imports and ABC's "Columbo," there are going to be more new "Rockford" movies from CBS in coming months.

In terms of overall programming strategy, the network has taken a wrong turn with its over-emphasis on baby-boomer bites of nostalgia programming. But it looks like CBS is onto something very good with its "Cagney & Lacey" and "The Rockford Files" redux movies. Two or three films of this texture starring these characters every year is a promising antidote to the diseases of slap-- and mediocrity eating away at the soul of prime-time network TV.

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