24 August 2004 | erikpsmith
A mystery show that actually played fair
Ellery Queen was one of the greatest television programs of the seventies, and given the short history of the medium, that makes it one of the greatest of all time. Splendid atmosphere, above-average acting and writing, and a wonderful gimmick -- the way Ellery (Jim Hutton) would turn to the camera and tell viewers that they'd already seen all the clues that were necessary to solve the mystery. What separated Ellery Queen from shows like Perry Mason was the fact that it played fair -- everything you needed to know was presented during the first 45 minutes, and if you were smart enough you could figure it out yourself.
Perhaps my view is colored by nostalgia -- I was 13 years old when the show aired. The show is rarely repeated -- the last time I caught a rerun was more than 20 years ago. It's hard to know whether my viewpoint would be different today, though I certainly wish I had the opportunity to find out. (Universal Studios, take note: Here's one guy who would buy the DVD box set.)
Let me add a story here. I remember going door to door one night in 1976, collecting payments for my newspaper route, and I noticed that a family was gathered in the living room, watching "Ellery Queen."
"Heck," I said. "I started watching that show, but it was so easy to figure out, I decided I might as well go around banging on doors instead."
They looked at me, a little dumbfounded. "You figured it out?"
"Sure," I said. "The killer had to be someone who had a copy of the updated movie script. There was only one person who had the copy, and that was..."
Well, I can't remember the actual name of the villain, not all these years later. But I remember these people looking at each other, and saying it made sense, and darned if I might be right, and they'd have to stay tuned to see if I really did figure it out. And of course I was right. For weeks, every time I saw these people, it was all they could talk about. How on earth could I have figured it out? Of all people, their 13-year-old paperboy?
I never did tell them the episode was a repeat.