When TV GUIDE first announced "Matt Houston" it referred to it as a "comedy." Really. And in its first season "Matt Houston" was a lighthearted romp through tired detective stories.
Possibly inspired by James Garner, who did "Maverick" (a spoof western with serious overtones) and a "The Rockford Files" (a serious detective show with comedic overtones), in the pilot and first season "Matt Houston" star Lee Horsley seems to be channeling James Garner.
Houston was a private eye with a difference. He was funny. He was also a rich Texan transplanted to California, commuting by helicopter from his ranch (populated with characters like Paul Brinegar, the cook from "Rawhide") to swank offices in Los Angeles filled with beautiful secretaries, a beautiful woman looking after his cars, and a beautiful legal advisor who was his equal in everything (Pamela Hensley, who also provided early episodes with enjoyable, tongue-in-cheek narration). Oh, and while Houston played detective on wild-goose-chases, his business affairs were handled by bald, comedic, constantly put-upon Murray (George Wyner, who had co-starred with Horsley previously in the short-lived "Nero Wolfe" series).
Most interestingly, Houston had a computer called "Baby" that, while predating the Internet by a decade, could call up almost anything at will. So much for Al Gore. Matt Houston invented the Internet.
The pilot episode enforced the show's comedic elements by having two theme songs for Matt: one, a typically loud, exciting QM piece; the other an amusing song that might have been written for the great silent comics (the funny theme was background music and is sometimes played over early closing credits).
"Matt Houston" also originally fell into the 1980's "all-star" theme, a la "The Love Boat" or "Murder She Wrote." The first season is packed with big names. Some, like James Coco and Misty Rowe (from "Hee Haw") in "Recipe for Murder" played up the comedy. Others, like one big name in "The Good Doctor", appeared just long enough to spout a few lines before getting killed off. In one early episode ("Stop the Presses") you didn't know, going in, who was the murderer or who the victim (Bradford Dillman? Stuart Whitman? Murray Hamilton? Heather Locklear? Herb Edelman? Malcolm Jamal-Warner?)
The funny music, Hensley's enjoyable narration, guest stars who ranged from familiar television faces to washed up movie queens and Horsley's lighter-than-Garner performance highlight's the show's original comedy emphasis.
But along the way something happened to "Matt Houston." The funny music and Hensley's fun narration gradually fell away. Even during the first season storylines became more serious and comedy was relegated to peripheral characters like George Wyner's Murray and the ranch's Brinegar.
By the second season changes were implemented. Houston's pal in the police force (John Aprea) and his mother, who ran an Italian restaurant, were replaced by Lincoln Kilpatrick, playing a policeman with a love/hate relationship with Houston. The folksy ranch hands were left at the ranch and never seen again. Horsley's and Hensley's performances grew more serious.
By the third season, where television stalwart Buddy Ebsen was hauled in as Houston's never-before-mentioned CIA connected Uncle Roy, the stories were growing bitter. "Vanished" has Houston chasing a creep who murders children. "Caged" has C.J. (Hensley) cooped up in a detention center by a redneck sheriff who uses his inmates for prostitution. The big-name guest stars disappear, replaced by up-and-coming actors who never upped or came (though the old spirit might have returned, but didn't, in an episode where Ebsen is reunited with former "Beverly Hillbillies" costar Max Baer, Jr.)
I'm not sure why the "Matt Houston", starting as a lighter-than-"Rockford" detective show packed with guest stars, gradually descended to grimmer-than-"Mannix" routine cop show; but the changes did not serve the show, nor Horsley and Hensley, well. Especially as they the kept the computer "Baby" which, in 1982, was the show's most unbelievable element. "Baby" belonged to the more freewheeling Matt who preferred detecting on the side.
The network that originally announced "Matt Houston" as a comedy let the show limp on through its third season's unsavory morass and then mercifully gave it the axe. Still, "Matt Houston", in playing Houston an C.J. as comrades in its original tongue-in-cheek style, paved the way for later 80's romantic-comedy/detective hits like "Moonlighting", "Remington Steele" and "Scarecrow and Mrs. King."
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