If you were a fan of action shows in the 80s, you remember "Hardcastle and McCormick" as the gritty adventures of an ex-con race car driver and a by-the-book curmudgeonly judge. If you're a couch potato and you're about my age, you remember "Hardcastle & McCormick" as the show that came on before reruns of "Super Bloopers and New Practical Jokes" on The Family Channel. But who knew Tom Kennedy would turn up on this show to take a turn stretching his acting chops (or whatever it is one does with acting chops)? It happened, and it went something like this...

The show starts in the office of J. Walter Ruxton, manager of Los Angeles independent TV station KCED. There's a tense meeting going on between Ruxton and the producer/creators of "Trivia Master," Art Healy (played by Bill Macy) and Harry Baxter (played by Bill Edelman). Now if you're like me, two thoughts race toward your head during this scene: #1. "Wow, both of the guys playing game show producers have played characters married to Bea Arthur in popular sitcoms! What are the odds?" #2. "Man, I sure would like a glazed donut." So we pause the show, head to the kitchen, grab a donut, dash back, and start the show again...

The gist of the meeting is as such: The station, being independent, is essentially competing with network programming, which means they need REALLY good shows to thrive, and nobody is watching "Trivia Master" which is now "the lowest-rated game show in the country," according to Ruxton. Healy and Baxter argue that the show just needs more time to find an audience. Baxter reminds them that the production company's first series, "Celebrity Quest" didn't have legs until the third week. Healy points out that their second series, "Auction America" took months to take off after "ironing out the kinks with Daly and with Ludden," a line specially formulated to make game show fans like me squeal with delight and think the episode was written specifically for us.

 

Ruxton is so non-sympathetic that nobody will mistake him for the robotic teddy bear his name sort of sounds like. He tells the guys that while they may have been great at one time, they haven't changed with the times. Baxter comes up with a desperate idea to "take the game show where it's never been before." Healy doesn't know what he's talking about. It's a big cash prize. Bigger than a $100,000 cash prize...it's a million-dollar grand prize!

Healy flips out, refusing to offer cash prizes that the production company obviously can't afford (proving conclusively that the original version of "Lingo" was NOT a Healy-Baxter Television Production). Baxter suggests that "creative financing" will help them out, and more importantly the contestants have to be inspirational, for example, "A Rocky-Rambo sort of guy brought up through the school of hard knocks; somebody down for the count who could pick himself up."

Healy & Baxter argue in the hallway after the meeting. Baxter admits that he hates his own idea, but he's embarrassed about working for a boss young enough to be his grandson and has something to prove. This is their last chance, and it's going to work if they find the right contestant...

Cut immediately to Mark "Skid" McCormick, watching an episode of "Trivia Master" in disdain. He turns to his roommate, Judge Milton "Hardcase" Hardcastle and grouses about having to watch it. (Okay, quick primer on the series premise: Skid is a race car driver wrongfully convicted of a crime involving an experimental car and the mob. Judge Hardcastle releases him after two years in San Quentin, but only on the condition that they work together to round up and rightfully convict 200 criminals who got off on technicalities. Skid, being an ex-con who will be too preoccupied for a normal job anyway, moves in with Hardcastle and works as a live-in handyman to avoid paying any kind of rent or bills. Unfortunately, he can't play the guitar like Handyman Negri, so he probably wouldn't get my business.)

Hardcastle argues that the show is intellectual. At the moment, he's watching Agnes O'Toole of East Chicago, Indiana (incredibly, a real town) a grandmother of four, retired NASA scientist, and cellist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, compete on "Trivia Masters." At this point I'm now wondering, #1. "What is a woman from Indiana doing on a local game show in Los Angeles?" and #2. Which of the four credited writers for this episode wrote THAT part?"

Hardcastle and McCormick get into a debate about the quality of the show, McCormick griping that the show is a push-over since the contestant gets to select their own category for gameplay. Hardcastle says he could never get past the interview because he's not a good contestant type. The pair makes a bet about whether or not McCormick can get on the show.

We cut to the contestant pre-interview where McCormick proceeds to charm the figurative pants of Diane the contestant coordinator (Molly Cheek of "It's Garry Shandling's Show"). McCormick asks her out for a date and keeps persisting his case to get on the show. Unbeknownst to him, Healy & Baxter are watching his interview on hidden camera. Healy is convinced that an ex-con who has paid his debt to society and is now helping the judge who sentenced him round up criminals is the perfect contestant. (It should be noted history backs him up. A decade earlier, Frank Abignale, Jr., telling a rather similar story, was a contestant on "To Tell the Truth" and an convict on parole was a contestant on "Name That Tune" hosted by...somebody. Can't remember who at the moment.) Healy STILL hates the idea, convinced the show will bomb and going so far as to say he wants out of the show.

Hardcastle pays off the bet, still shocked that McCormick got on the show. Diane said, apparently, that he has the "Three Ps: Poise, proficiency, and personality." I think I read something about that in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Buddy-Crimesolving Shows. Either that or Kurt Angle ghostwrote this episode.

Cut back to Healy & Baxter, now in a strangely-dim room, giving away something evil afoot. Healy thinks too many things can go wrong. Baxter is convinced that there's a perfect solution. Simply find a question that's too obscure when McCormick reaches the million-dollar level. Healy thinks of a new problem: he will tank the ratings if he's an idiot. Baxter's solution: Only ask what he knows. 

And with that, a shady man breaks into The H&M mansion and loads it with bugging devices.

The big day arrives and McCormick is brimming with confidence. H&M get into a conversation with Diane, and Hardcastle discovers that most of McCormick's charm came from lying to Diane, who thinks Hardcastle, in addition to being a retired judge, is a senile man whom McCormick pulled from a burning car. (Why is it women on TV shows are always charmed by gruesome stories of pain? I was accidentally dropped on my head and knocked loopy as part of a wrestling show here in Huntington and I have yet to find a date with that story. And that one is TRUE, for heaven's sake.)

Turns out Healy is worried about Diane too, because she's involved in all facets of production and seems like an honest woman, in other words, an ideal squeal. Baxter says she won't be a problem.

Now it's time for the premiere of "The New Million-Dollar Trivia Masters" with host Bryce Benson (an ideal name for a bootleg comic book character who turns into "The Halk" when irritated). At first I thought it was odd that they didn't just have Tom going by his real name, since he was playing a game show host anyway, but it'll make more sense soon enough...

Our first contestant is Mark McCormick, ex-con handyman and expert in the field of auto-racing. We go over the rules rather quickly; to paraphrase Jackie Rogers, Jr., "It's played just like $64,000 Question, except different."

The game begins. Mark is asked to name the first Indianapolis 500 winner. In what's actually a cute joke, McCormick hits his buzzer, then looks down and realizes there isn't one there, then looks up and says "Ray Harroun." Correct answer; he's off and running... Hardcastle wants him to quit while he's ahead, but McCormick is on a roll, as indicated by the light-up money thermometer behind Bryce (they actually designed a pretty spiffy set for this episode, and the props onstage actually serve functions toward the rules Bryce explained earlier).

His winning ways blitz by in a montage with some snazzy game show music composed by Mike Post. It sounds a LITTLE like his music for the "Finders Keepers" pilot as heard on the JM Productions website. The show ends with Mark, $10,000 richer being asked if he wants to come back and risk his winnings. Hardcastle has come around and actively cheers for McCormick to continue...

And now, weeks later, with $40,000 to his name, McCormick is getting press articles written about him and Las Vegas oddsmakers are making bets on his chances of winning the top prize, and he even has a t-shirt with his picture on it, just like every game show contestant, you know? He emphatically proclaims that he will go all the way to the end and risk losing his shirt (HA! I kill me.) Hardcastle begins quizzing him while Healy & Baxter, miles away, listen to the study session via their evil bugging devices and tape recorders.

We find out that Baxter has fired the research company that prepares questions for the show, which gives Healy fits because that's going to make it obvious to SOMEBODY at the station that the game is rigged (if nobody is writing the questions, then where are they coming from?) And further, WHAT ABOUT DIANE? Baxter ominously says "I will take care of Diane."

And in an "overhearing things" plot twist that's considerably scarier than the hit show "Three's Company," Diane overhears their plans but doesn't understand quite what they're talking about....Wait, I take that back, NOTHING is scarier than "Three's Company" being a hit show. She topples a trophy on her way out, panicking Baxter and Healy when they hear the noise.

Meanwhile, McCormick now has $80,000 and is going for more. In a plot twist taken straight from the real quiz show scandals of the 1950s, Hardcastle, in the audience, suspects something as he thumbs through his homemade auto-trivia notebook and realizes that every question on the show so far has been a question from that notebook. (For those not in the know, the smoking gun for the quiz show scandals was when basically the same thing happened with a contestant on "Dotto," ironically, a show hosted by Tom's brother Jack Narz.). Hardcastle and Diane The Innocent both look concerned as McCormick goes up to $90,000. Hardcastle starts to explain the problem for McCormick in the parking lot after the taping...

While Diane pours her heart out to Bryce in Bryce's dressing room. She talks about overhearing the tape recording in the office, and Bryce dismisses it as a recording from an old episode. Bryce doesn't believe two game show producers would tarnish the image of game shows delibrately.

Diane glosses over the F.C.C. regulations concerning game shows (which Bryce should already know; obviously she's explaining it for Ted in Oklahoma watching the episode) and thinks her career will be ruined if the show ends up being rigged.

Bryce calmly tells her, "I think you've been watching too many cop shows...Cop shows, detective shows, soap operas, the news...have you ever noticed how the bad guys outnumber the good guys?...As a matter of fact, I firmly believe that the more you watch those shows, you start to become a little suspicious...the guy next to you in the elevator, the guy behind you in the check-out line...Most people do, Diane. And that's why I love our show. We're the good guys. There's not a bad apple in the whole barrel. You don't have to fill the television with sitcoms and detective shows to keep the viewers entertained."

Diane replies, "Wow. I guess I know where I can find you when the eleven o'clock news is on. Watching tapes of old game shows, huh?"

Bryce tells her, "You bet!"

So NOW I'm thinking these two things: #1. "Michael Moore must have come up with that one part of 'Bowling for Columbine' from this scene." #2. "Bryce and I are a lot alike, really."

Bryce stands up and promises to talk to Healy & Baxter if Diane wants him to. He stands up to leave, giving us a better view of his dressing room and revealing he has photos of himself hanging on the wall. I guess he was an anchorman for WJM in Minneapolis before hosting game shows. Healy overhears Diane expressing a final thought of worry and runs off...

Later that night, Diane sneaks into the Healy & Baxter offices, finds the tape from the bugging device, and listens to it. She sees a pair of feet outside the door and tries to escape, but the feet disappear. She relaxes and calmly places the tape in an envelope, labels it, stashes it in her desk, and leaves.

She hears more movements on her way out, walks through the empty studio, and suddenly the "Trivia Masters" set lights up.

She backs away slowly when suddenly a bucket of water topples over.

Diane slips and falls in  the puddle, knocking herself unconscious. a mysterious gloved hand pulls out a huge electrical cord, drops it into the puddle, and throws a switch, electrocuting and killing Diane. It's watching a murder like this that leaves me wondering if there's something complicated about knives that I don't realize.

Baxter and Healy argue in the office the next day, and Healy is officially getting out of the situation because a dead woman is more than he can handle. Healy quits the company, convinced his partner is a murderer. Before leaving, he reveals that he has gone to the trouble of writing the $100,000 question, and he's leaving town as soon as they tape the episode where McCormick has to answer it.

Hardcastle sneaks out of a taping to head to an employees-only area of the studio. He gets into what is now Diane's former office, and if he's anything like me, he's in there looking for free furniture. While examining a lovely desk, he stumbles upon the tape Diane thoughtfully stole and labeled before being murdered.

Back at the studio, McCormick wins $100,000 and Healy & Baxter are backstage arguing about the fact that he seems to know EVERYTHING and that they might not be able to get out of this one. Healy reveals that he thinks Baxter killed her and uses the "I'll take care of her" line as his proof. Baxter says he meant he'd simply fire Diane if she got too close, indicating that in California law, there's no such thing as "wrongful termination." For a theoretically smart guy, his can't-miss solutions sure have a lot of loopholes.

Baxter assures Healy that he had nothing to do with murdering Diane, but if he didn't, who did?

NOOOOOOO! SAY IT AIN'T SO!

Bryce explains his actions in a fantastic "evil voice," telling his bosses, "You know, you two are lucky Diane came to me first. You know she was on to you. She knew you had McCormick's house bugged. She had one of the tapes. What she DIDN'T know was that you and I are on the same team. I know how important our job is. I know how we have to hold out against the sitcoms and the soap operas and the cop shows...Crazy? I'll tell you what's crazy. All the darkness and suspicion on television, that's crazy. That's why we can't let the station cancel us. That's why we need more game shows. More game shows means less cop shows and less detective shows. Do you know Diane was going to go to the station? She was going to have them take us off the air. I watched her. I watched her go into your office. I watched her play the tape. And then...I stopped her."

BEST LINE OF THE EPISODE...

Baxter: "Bryce, are you crazy?"

Bryce: "Crazy? I'm not crazy. I'm a game show host!"

McCormick listens to the bugging tapes, while Hardcastle shows off all the bugging devices he found looking through the house. They head to the station with a little help...

Baxter and Healy, their offices packed into a single box, head for the airport, but find their exit blocked by Hardcastle, a pair of cops, and the guy from "Me and Maxx." They admit that Bryce is the murderer.

Bryce heads to the stage and confidently asks McCormick if he wants to keep going. McCormick surprises him by refusing and walking off stage. Bryce tries to bring him back onstage with audience applause, but the audience is largely distracted by cops circling the stage. Bryce pleads his desperate case to the audience...

"Come on folks, we're the good guys! The Mark McCormicks going for the brass ring...I mean, doesn't that stand for anything?...Hey, now wait a minute folks, I need your help! Get up on your feet and shout out that you don't need cop shows and you don't need those news programs on television. Tell 'em about it! You don't want the cop shows and detective shows and soap operas. You want GOOD shows! You want game shows! More game shows than ever before, huh? Listen folks...they'll listen to you. They HAVE to listen to you because you are the viewers. You're the people who make all those ratings. And you can turn that little television set right off. You people can turn off every TV set in AMERICA!!!...(Close to tears now)...Don't you understand?....Doesn't ANYBODY understand?"

 

Michael "P.S." Hayes had a point...The most effective villains are the ones who are right.

Seeing his speech isn't working, Bryce makes a break for it but Mark goes after him. Bryce, now slightly thinner with no glasses and darker hair, tries to escape but McCormick meets him on the catwalk high above the Bryce Benson Studio and proceeds to punch the bejeezus out of a character who is at least 20 years older than him. How courageous.

Bryce goes for a concealed gun, fires a shot that misses by a mile, and is on the receiving end of one final McCormick roundhouse that sends him through the scaffolding and plummeting to his grizzly death. Now, in real life, we'd have a HUGE problem here because there hasn't been a trial yet, so technically Mark has just killed an innocent man who exhibited signs of mental illness. And he's the hero of this episode, remember.

The show ends with Mark assessing his consolation prizes, and it's a weird moment because Mark did win $100,00 and never lost, but he mentions being made a fool of and specifically calls them consolation prizes. I guess he didn't meet those famous "Eligibility requirements to receive announced prizes." But then would they even give him the consolation prizes?...Now I have a headache.

Anyway, among his prizes are camping equipment, a year's supply of fabric softener, a home video camera, blank videos, a barbecue, a year's supply of dog food, and a puppy. End of show.
 

And as we recap the action through the closing credits, we find out that Agnes O'Toole, the Indiana woman from earlier in the episode, was played by Jean Vander Pyl, a.k.a. the voice of Wilma Flintstone.
 

As a footnote, it should be declared that Bryce Benson got his final wish about getting rid of cop shows and detective shows. Seven months later "Hardcastle and McCormick" was cancelled. It probably would have lasted if Tom was added as a regular cast member. I mean, geez, evil game show host, how easy a character is that for viewers to get into?

Generally speaking, broadcasters are not great actors and actors are not great broadcasters, but Tom shone as an exception to the rules with this one. He came across as truly evil and psychotic, particularly in the scene where he reveals his crime (the little smile he keeps shooting to his bosses makes it great). Whether you like action shows or not, this episode is a must-see for game show fanatics or actors who need to brush up on how to play "crazy." Thumbs WAY up for this episode.


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