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!
This week, Rocky gets involved with a case that’s all about obsession!
Episode 1.6 “Nose Job”
(Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman, originally aired on April 19th, 1985)
Way back in March, when I watched the pilot for Half Nelson, one thing that I immediately noticed was the chemistry between Joe Pesci and Victoria Jackson. In the pilot, it was pretty clear that Annie O’Hara (played by Jackson) had a crush on Rocky (played, of course, by Pesci) and it was actually kind of cute. The streetwise Rocky and the spacey Annie seemed like they could be an interesting couple and I was actually looking forward to seeing how that storyline developed.
Unfortunately, it didn’t develop. In the episodes immediately following the pilot, both Annie and Rocky’s boss, Chester (Fred Williamson), were sidelined so that the show could focus on Rocky interacting with Beau (Dick Butkus) and Kurt (Bubba Smith). Annie was relegated to staying at the office and answering the phone while Rocky flirted with each week’s guest star. That was definitely a missed opportunity. While Smith and Butkus both provided adequate comedy relief, it’s still hard not to feel that the show often focused so much on them that performers like Dean Martin, Fred Williamson, and Victoria Jackson were pushed to the side.
In this week’s episode, Detective Hamill (Gary Grubbs) asks Annie to go on a date with him and Rocky encourages her to accept, so I guess the potential Rocky/Annie romance is officially dead. At first, Annie doesn’t want to date Hamill because she thinks he’s “a jerk.” (Gary Grubbs, who is one of those actors that most people will immediately recognize even if they don’t know his name, has such an amiable presence that it’s hard to understand where Annie got that idea from.) However, in return for Hamill helping him out with this week’s case, Rocky convinces Annie to give Hamill a shot. Annie and Hamill are a couple by the end of the episode. Yay! Who doesn’t love a romantic ending?
As for this episode itself, it opens with Rocky, Beau, and Kurt providing security on the set of a film. The film appears to be about a revolution in Latin America. April Gray (Mary-Margaret Humes) is playing the lead role, a revolutionary who wears a red beret. (Seriously, it looks like a great film.) When April is nearly run over by an out-of-control truck, Rocky becomes convinced that someone is stalking her. When he discovers that the truck’s accelerator was rigged with surgical string, he decides that a plastic surgeon, Dr. Jonathan Gaines (Jon Cypher), is trying to kill her.
However, before he can accuse Dr. Gaines, he has to find out if April has actually had plastic surgery. As opposed to just asking her, Rocky takes her out on a date. (Beau and Kurt come along as well, so that they can check out the other actresses in the cast and see if any of them had plastic surgery as well.) The only way that Rocky can convince her to go out with him is to take her to an exclusive club. But how can Rocky get reservations!? Fear not, it’s Dean Martin to the rescue! It turns out that Dean is co-owner of the club so he puts down his martini glass for a few minutes and makes a phone call. It’s kind of nice that Dean actually got to be involved in the case this week. Dean’s appearances on this show never last for more than a minute or two and it’s obvious that he wasn’t in the best shape when he filmed them but still, it’s fun to watch him and Pesci act opposite of each other. Pesci always seem to be in awe of Dean.
Before the date, Rocky has to teach Beau and Kurt how to discreetly look for surgery scars. This leads to him showing them how to peak behind someone ears while dancing with them. With the help of Annie, he shows how pretending to lose a contact lens can provide a chance to get on the floor check out someone’s legs for scars. (Unfortunately, the scene is rather awkwardly blocked and framed and, in a few shots, it appears as if Rocky is basically looking straight up Annie’s skirt.) Beau and Kurt are impressed. Chester is less impressed, especially when he catches Rocky crawling around Annie’s legs. Chester yells at Rocky and then goes in his office. And that concludes Fred Williamson’s role in this episode.
During the date, Rocky spots the surgical scars behind April’s ears, indicating that she’s had plastic surgery. It turns out that April not only got a nose job from Dr. Gaines but she also briefly dated him. Rocky realizes that Gaines is now trying to kill her but, as always, everyone tells Rocky that he doesn’t have enough evidence to prove anything. Let’s see. Gaines was on the set when the truck went out of control. The truck’s accelerator was tied down with surgical string. Gaines was the only person on the set with a job that would give him easy access to surgical string. It’s hard not to feel that everyone’s being too quick to dismiss Rocky’s suspicions here.
In fact, Dr. Gaines is so obviously guilty that it’s also pretty obvious that there has to be someone else involved as well. About halfway through the episode, we learn that the film’s director (played by Timothy Bottoms) also used to date April! In fact, he’s the one who paid for her nose job!
Half Nelson really has not turned out to be the lost classic that I was hoping it would be. The pilot was strong but the episodes after that have struggled to really establish a consistent identity for the show. Watching this show, one gets the feeling that the show’s producers couldn’t decide if they wanted to do a comedy or a drama. As I already mentioned, the focus on the antics of Dick Butkus and Bubba Smith pretty much left the rest of the talented cast with little to do. It’s easy to see why Half Nelson did not last longer than two months.
That said, this was actually a pretty good episode. Yes, there were plenty of detective show clichés but both Jon Cypher and Timothy Bottoms were convincing as the show’s two villains and Joe Pesci’s New York persona provided a nice contrast to the sleek phoniness of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. There was even an exciting car chase, which was entertaining even if it was ultimately a bit superfluous to the plot. Plus, the episode featured Rocky throwing a bomb more seconds before it exploded. This is what the explosion looked like:
Seriously, did Rocky just nuke L.A.!?
This was an entertainingly melodramatic episode. You could see hints of the show that Half Nelson could have been if only it could have maintained a consistent tone.
Next week, Rocky meets Marjoe Gortner!
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