Thank goodness for Netflix, then, to help me catch up now. I just finished the first disc, which has the first three regular-series episodes (and not, apparently, the 90-minute TV-movie pilot — rights issues, I’m sure), but even at this early point I find the show tremendously endearing. Most of this is due to James Garner’s charm. While private eye Jim Rockford is world-weary and pragmatic, he takes life in stride and with a good deal of humor — even suffering frequent beatings from a steady stream of goon squads. Having served prison time for a crime he didn’t commit, Rockford is cautious and keeps an eye out for himself, but this doesn’t stop him from being good-hearted.
Equally as important to my enjoyment of the show, though, is its evocation of the Southern California of the early ’70s. “The Rockford Files” doesn’t dwell on the glamorous aspects of its setting (especially since our hero is perpetually broke and lives in a mobile home on the beach), but it makes its workaday scenery look almost as rugged as the Old West. The show seems shot like a Western, in fact, with long tracking shots of desert highways framed by distant mountains. (Either a Western or an independent film.)
The music is another highlight. Mike Post and Pete Carpenter wrote the unmistakable main theme, a funky blend of synthesizer and harmonica, and regular series composers Dick DeBenedictis and Artie Kane kept the same mellow feel going. Post and Carpenter guided the musical fortunes of a lot of other shows, from “Magnum, p.i.” to “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue” (and some others without initials in their titles), but here the music matched the visuals perfectly. (The opening titles begin with Rockford’s answering machine recording some funny message, so naturally I have used the theme for my own machine.)
Everything seemed to come together well in this show. Co-creator Stephen J. Cannell went on to be an extremely prolific producer, creating “The Greatest American Hero,” “The A-Team,” “Hunter,” and “Wiseguy,” among many others. I’m much more familiar with them, but so far “The Rockford Files” has a verve which seems to say that all those later efforts came just short of recapturing this show’s special appeal. It’s not really “quirky” in a self-conscious “Northern Exposure” or “Monk” kind of way (and I liked both of those, don’t get me wrong) — it’s just affable and laid-back. If it were a cowboy it would mosey.
I was only in Rockford country briefly, if at all, driving up the Pacific Coast Highway in the summer of 2000 during the week between the San Diego Comic-Con and a poverty-law conference in Berkeley. I don’t know whether my affection for “The Rockford Files” comes from nostalgia for those bucolic few days in the country, or whether I enjoyed the drive out of subconscious memories from an old TV show. Regardless, while I’m not sure I’m ready to live in 2006 California, Rockford’s California of 1974 remains eternal.