Over the past year since starting this blog, I had attempted to fill in some gaps in my familiarity with the mystery/detective TV show genre. I started by watching shows produced in the 70s, before moving on to shows produced in the 80s. But once I reached the 90s, I got stuck. Whereas there were so many shows to choose from when it came to the 70s and 80s, I found that there weren’t very many 90s American detective shows.
And yet, the detective genre was nonetheless everywhere on TV at the time. I’ve already written a post about how children’s cartoons in the 90s featured detectives, and I do intend to write a post on the plethora of British detective series that abounded during that time.
Aside from a small handful of new series, American adults wanting to watch mysteries and detective dramas in the 1990s were instead treated to TV specials that brought old detectives back on screen.
Below is a brief highlight of those series that enjoyed a bit of a revival in the 90s.
Perry Mason, a show about a defense attorney solving crimes in order to help his clients, had its original run from 1957 to 1966. After close to 20 years, Raymond Burr was back on screen as the titular character. Starting in 1985, 30 Perry Mason TV movies were made, with the last one being aired in 1995.
This wasn’t the first time the show had attempted a revival. In 1973, a short-lived series called The New Perry Mason was produced, with Monte Markham in the starring role. However, it is clear that there is no Perry Mason without Raymond Burr. Just as The New Perry Mason couldn’t survive without him, so too the TV Movies had to end production soon after Raymond Burr’s death in 1993.
Reboots of classics: The New Dragnet and The New Adam-12
Dragnet started off as a radio show that moved to television in 1951 and had its original run until 1959. Subsequently, it had an even more popular three-year revival in the late 60s (1967-1970), with show creator Jack Webb reprising his role as the star of the show.
In 1989, the show was rebooted as The New Dragnet, with a whole new cast of characters. Around the same time, another reboot of a classic cop show premiered in 1990. The New Adam-12 was based on Adam-12, which had its original run from 1968 to 1975.
Just as was the case with The New Perry Mason in the 1970s, these reboots were short-lived and only lasted about a year.
Perhaps the most famous TV detective to be brought back on screen is Columbo. Columbo’s original run was from 1971 until 1978 (with one pilot movie having aired earlier, in 1968). The show was revived in 1989, and a number of TV movies were made that year and in 1990. The revival proved to be very popular, and further TV specials were filmed, with about one movie per year, until 2003.
Other revivals and reunions from the 1970s
It is at this point pretty obvious that a successful revival in the 1990s should as much as possible maintain a show’s original cast. For instance, a reunion movie for the 70s show, The Streets of San Francisco, aired in 1992. While Karl Malden reprised his role in the reunion special, his original on-screen sidekick (played by Michael Douglas) did not. Thus it could be said this was a major reason for only one such movie having been produced.
By contrast, James Garner reprised his role as Jim Rockford in a revival of The Rockford Files. The show, which originally ran from 1974 to 1980, spawned 8 further TV movies which aired from 1994 until 1999.
TV movies and a long drawn-out death
Several other shows from the 1980s were also revived within a decade of them ending. For instance, Hart to Hart had its original run from 1979 until 1984, and was brought back less than ten years for a series of eight TV movies starting in 1993 until 1998. Cagney & Lacey, which had its original run from 1982 until 1988, was also brought back for a series of four TV movies starting in 1994 until 1996.
Continuing to produce TV movies became a way for shows to end their usual run but still give fans something to look forward to. This trend became perhaps most apparent when Murder, She Wrote was cancelled in 1996, only to be brought back shortly thereafter for several TV movies (in 1997, 2000, 2001, and 2003).
It is interesting to look back at what 90s American TV had to offer fans of the mystery/detective genre. Nowadays, there is a lot of criticism regarding sequels, reboots, and remakes in the movies — with some viewers lamenting the lack of new stories/characters/settings to choose from. But looking back, we can see that this type of phenomenon isn’t new.