Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a new feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past! On Fridays, I will be reviewing Half Nelson, which ran on NBC from March to May of 1985. Almost all nine of the show’s episodes can be found on YouTube!
The adventures of Rocky Nelson continue!
Episode 1.4 “Uppers and Downers”
(Dir by James Sheldon, originally aired on April 5th, 1985)
When a burglar alarm goes off in Beverly Hills, it’s Rocky Nelson (Joe Pesci) of Beverly Hills Patrol to the rescue! Reaching the mansion of a local businessman (played by Cliff Gorman), Rocky discovers that the alarm was set off by a racoon.
(“A racoon is Beverly Hills!?” Gorman’s wife says, in a tone that suggests that racoons are unknown creatures in California.)
Rocky also happens to spot the next door neighbor (Nancy Stafford) leading her personal trainer into her house, whispering that she’s going to show him her bedroom. At first, Rocky is amused but, later that day, Rocky hears that the personal trainer has been found, floating in Stafford’s swimming pool. Stafford claims that the trainer had a heart attack while swimming but, upon arriving at the scene, Rocky immediately figures out that the trainer died in the house and was then dragged out to the pool. Stafford swears that she didn’t kill him and Rocky believes her. However, when the autopsy report reveals that the trainer was dead before he was put in the pool, Stafford is arrested and charged with murdering him by hitting him over the head.
Despite being told by his boss (Fred Williamson) to stay away from the case, Rocky feels that he has to prove Stafford’s innocence. Rocky’s first plan is to have his associates, Kurt (Bubba Smith) and Beau (Dick Butkus), disguise themselves as mortuary attendants and steal the trainer’s body from the crematorium. Rocky then takes the body to a coroner who does a second autopsy and discovers that not only did the trainer have a heart attack but that he was also poisoned! Someone slipped the trainer a pill that was specifically designed to cause a heart attack. Now, it’s up to Rocky to discover who that person was and clear Stafford’s name before Stafford’s husband (Brett Halsey, a veteran of Italian horror and spaghetti westerns) files for divorce.
Rocky deduces that the trainer was probably targeted by a jealous husband. Rocky decides to disguise himself as a physical trainer so that he can get close to all of the dead man’s former clients. How does Rocky prepare for this role? He does calisthenics with his landlord, Dean Martin. When Rocky mentions that he needs someone to determine whether or not his clients are lying to him, Dean Martin suggests that he steal a lie detector from the set of “Burt’s new film.” (I’m guessing that Burt was a reference to Burt Reynolds, Dean’s co-star in two Cannonball Run films.) Rocky promptly goes down to the studio backlot and steals a bunch of Burt Reynolds’s property.
(The backlot was a prominent and amusing part of the show’s pilot but it was ignored during last week’s episode. I was glad to see it back for this episode because Dean Martin instructing Joe Pesci to steal Burt Reynolds’s lie detector will never not be amusing.)
Rocky meets with all of the dead trainer’s clients and tricks them into hooking themselves up to the lie detector by telling them that it’s a instrument that will check their heart rate. Rocky discovers that any number of people could have wanted the trainer dead. However, those of us in the audience already knows that Cliff Gorman is the murderer because we witnessed Gorman gloating about it earlier in the episode. Rocky eventually figures it out as well and tricks Gorman into confessing by pretending to take one of the heart attack pills while driving Gorman around Beverly Hills.
Thanks to the visit to the studio lot and Dean Martin’s eccentric performance, this episode was an improvement on last week’s. That said, it still suffered from the fact that the murder itself wasn’t that interesting (with Gorman’s ruthless businessman not getting much characterization beyond being evil). Despite being second and third-billed in the opening credits, neither Victoria Jackson nor Fred Williamson got to do much in this episode and considering that both of those performers had their own unique and eccentric style, it feels like a bit of waste to just have them sitting in the office and uttering just a handful of lines per episode. The main appeal of the show continues to be Joe Pesci, who brings a lot of streetwise charm to Rocky. In the episodes that I’ve watched so far, Pesci is likable and engaging as Rocky and I think his performance would surprise a lot of people who are used to Pesci playing killers with hair-trigger tempers. Rocky is smart and tough but ultimately rather friendly. In his performance in Half Nelson, one can see hints of his later performance in The Irishman, I just wish the rest of this show was as consistently good.
Next week: Joe Pesci faces off against John Saxon! That sounds promising! We’ll see how it goes.
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