I Spy a Progressive Racial Fantasy …
The original black-and-white buddy comedy, reconsidered.
I Spy, the snazzy espionage show just out on DVD, ran on NBC between the fall of 1965 and the spring of 1968, roughly between the time when Sean Connery's James Bond bedded Domino in Thunderball and when George Lazenby's found true love with Tracy Di Vincenzo in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The Cold War entertainment complex was chugging along at full thrust then, with everything from the dry ice of John Le Carré novels to the fluorescent buffoonery of James Coburn's Our Man Flint delightfully exploiting anxieties about the Soviet threat. But the singular brilliancy of I Spy was its way of deepening escapist fantasy by sketching both the red star of communism and the color line in America.
To date the show more exactly, it aired between the Watts riots and the signing of the Fair Housing Act. Starring Robert Culp (boyish, playboyish, and pale) as Kelly Robinson and Bill Cosby (two decades before his revolutionary prime-time turn as white America's preferred interpreter of the black experience) as Alexander Scott, I Spy represented pop culture's first (or, at the very least, boldest) attempt at entertaining a notion of racial equality on screen. Which is to state what should be obvious—that pioneering Sidney Poitier was hamstrung as usual in The Defiant Ones (1958) by the need to play the Noble Negro, and that Dean Martin's onscreen relationship with Sammy Davis Jr. was not notably different from Jack Benny's with his valet Rochester. "Cosby proffered the idea of an America that transcended race," as Ta-Nehisi Coates * wrote in a recent Atlantic profile that traced Cosby's arc from the sly and playful hep cat of this series to the fuming black conservative of today. Without I Spy, there is no Will Smith and maybe no Barack Obama, and the cultural roles for fuming black conservatives would certainly be fewer.
Unless you count Huck Finn—and you could—I Spy is the ur-text of black-and-white buddy comedies. It's a mark of the show's sophistication—and also of its New Society values and of a commercial consciousness that dictated a certain reserve—that Robinson and Scott don't go in for the bristling cross-racial one-upmanship that characterizes Eddie Murphy's Beverly Hills Cop movies (or even, to a lesser extent, the perfectly average 2002 I Spy remake with Murphy and Owen Wilson). Like the Ian Fleming heroes that made their existence possible—not just Bond but also Napoleon Solo, the man from The Man from U.N.C.L.E.—Robinson and Scott would no sooner submit to broad comic jousting than they'd leave the hotel suite in wrinkled dinner jackets. As spies working for the Pentagon and globetrotting undercover as tennis pros, they are as slick as an ad in Harold Hayes' Esquire, and their laid-back world-weariness is too perfect to be disturbed by anything less than matters of national security or a pretty Russian defector in a lovely sun hat. Their racial harmony, though so perfect as to constitute a progressive fantasy itself, was depicted as a core American value, a condition of patriotism.
The brief was clear from the first episode of the first season, titled "So Long, Patrick Henry," which opens with Robinson and Scott watching a show within the show, as they often do. It's new footage of a black American Olympian who has decamped for the People's Republic of China, which is planning to launch "The Afro-Asian Games" as part of a plan to seize African resources and has paid the athlete to be its shill. The Olympian is crude, describing Africa as "a nice zoo" at a press conference and elsewhere lobbing at Robinson an epithet of the day, "ofay." Cosby, showing a hint of his mean streak, snarls at the jock, and Culp eyes him icily. They're united in being affronted, and their disgust with his self-loathing and race-baiting is indistinguishable from their revulsion at the Olympian's eagerness to sell out his country for a Dr. Evil-esque quarter-million dollars.
I Spy managed to get away with looking hard at politics partly by looking indelibly sharp. The series is a generous gift to fashion editors who find inspiration in its glen-plaid sangfroid, an unwitting taunt at contemporary cinematographers who don't have the budget or leisure to emulate its patient long shots and luscious location shoots, a welcome time capsule for us new sentimentalists who think that America was as her best in the mid-'60s and that it's all been downhill since the Summer of Love and the goddamn hippies. It is detached to the point of whimsy and yet politically engaged in surprising ways—was any other show venturing to Vietnam in 1966? The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was tenser, and Mission: Impossible more tightly constructed, but I Spy has a claim to being the great American spy show, an ideal integration of cool in the Marshall McLuhan, Arthur Fonzarelli, and Miles Davis senses of the word.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.