The Avengers (no, not those Avengers)

 

One of my favorite television shows is called the Avengers. No, it has nothing to do with Thor and Black Widow and the Hulk. My favorite television show is a British show from the 1960s, a sort of crime drama that succeeds because of the wit of its writers and its principle actors.

John Steed is a government agent, working for a peculiar agency that deals both in international relations (especially combatting spies from other countries) and in locally-produced criminals. Most of the bad guys are creating mischief on a massive level, threatening to overturn all the forces of good and replace them with selfishness and evil. Steed is always accompanied by an attractive female companion, the best of whom was Emma Peel. In the fifty-two episodes that feature Steed and Mrs. Peel, the pair tackle Russian spies, terrorists armed with a nuclear bomb, mad scientists and their powerful robots, corrupt businessmen, and even a vicious plant from outer space. In the course of an hour, the Avengers identify the enemy, confront the enemy, and overcome the enemy, generally at great risk to their own lives and safety.

The premise is undeniably common, but the shows are far from common. Patrick Macnee plays a stunningly suave British gentleman, a bit of a playboy and a drinker, and yet an accomplished crime-fighter of the highest caliber. Diana Rigg is not merely beautiful, but also keenly intelligent, athletic, resourceful, and every bit as talented as Steed. Whether they are investigating crime in a boarding school, a cross-country motor race, an underground cabal seeking to overthrow the government, the elaborate mansion and grounds of a train-loving eccentric, or some mysterious house out in the country, Steed and Mrs. Peel always know how to approach the situation. She can disguise herself as a nurse one week, a store clerk another week, and a dance instructor yet another week. Steed can pose as a military officer, a model for men’s clothing, and a rich idle man seeking love with equal aplomb. The writers always manage to add a few odd and amusing characters to the drama. The show is filled with humor, but not without the tension of “how are they going to get themselves out of this dilemma?”

Television has had many spectacular crime-fighters, but few of them have had the charm of John Steed and Emma Peel. Their quirky show had many stringent rules, almost all of which were broken. At least one victim dies in nearly every episode, often in the opening scenes, but blood is never shown—well, almost never. A woman is never murdered—well, almost never. Steed never fires a gun—well, almost never. No uniformed police officer is ever seen—well, almost never.

Steed is always the perfect gentleman, a model British citizen, polite and unruffled even in danger, generally with a quip to suit the current crisis. Mrs. Peel is always the perfect lady, able to defend herself and often Steed as well, but always able to take part in any ruse that will nab the villains. The Avengers Christmas special is especially remarkable in its approach to the characters and their opposition, but if I were to start listing favorite episodes, I probably would end up including thirty-five or forty of the fifty-two. If you have not yet had the pleasure of watching this show, I heartily recommend it to you. Though it is fifty years old, the show has lost none of its charm.

J.

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