Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Question of the Week: What is your favorite Stephen J. Cannell show?

If you’re an American man born between 1960 and 1980, you were probably a big fan of Stephen J. Cannell television shows when you were growing up. Heck, if you’re a non-American man or a woman, you might be a big fan of Stephen J. Cannell shows – I’m not narrowing the field! It’s just that Cannell, a prolific television presence, seemed to produce shows that appealed to a somewhat immature, action-oriented dude, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I myself was a huge Cannell fan, and I’m a somewhat immature, action-oriented dude. So my Question this Week is: What’s your favorite?

I’m going to restrict this to television and even more specifically to television shows that Cannell produced/created. He wrote some shows, sure, and directed a few things, and worked on some movies, but he made his bones on television, and that’s where he achieved his greatest fame. According to his IMDb page, these are the television shows that he produced (in alphabetical, not chronological, order):

The A-Team (1983-87)
Baretta (1975-78)
Black Sheep Squadron (1976-78)
Booker (1989-90)
Broken Badges (1990-91)
Chase (1973-74)
The Commish (1991-96)
The Duke (1979)
The Greatest American Hero (1981-83)
Hardcastle and McCormick (1983-86)
The Hat Squad (1992-93)
Hawkeye (1994-95)
Hunter (1984-91)
Hunter (2003)
J.J. Starbuck (1987-88)
The Last Precinct (1986)
Missing Persons (1993-95)
The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage (1991)
Palace Guard (1991)
Profit (1996-97)
The Quest (1982)
Renegade (1992-97)
Richie Brockelman, Private Eye (1978)
Riptide (1984-86)
The Rockford Files (1974-1980)
The Rousters (1983-84)
Sonny Spoon (1988)
Stingray (1985-87)
Stone (1979-80)
Street Justice (1991-93)
Tenspeed and Brown Shoe (1980)
Toma (1973-74)
Top of the Hill (1990)
21 Jump Street (1987-91)
Two (1996-97)
Unsub (1989)
Wiseguy (1987-90)

I don’t know how much input Cannell had on all of these shows, but those are the ones that are listed! Obviously, his Golden Age was the 1980s, but he worked very steadily for two decades before he kind of fell off the map in the mid-1990s. When I was growing up, I loved The A-Team and The Greatest American Hero, enjoyed the occasional episode of Hardcastle and McCormick, and had a soft spot for Riptide. I think my favorite Cannell show, though, is Wiseguy. The show did season-long arcs at a time when that was a wildly radical idea (I don’t know if it was the first to do it, but I remember people being blown away by the concept), and Ken Wahl – not the greatest actor – found his only great role as Vinnie Terranova, an undercover agent who investigates organized crime. The first season is absolutely brilliant, with two stunning stories splitting the season in two. Ray Sharkey is a mobster who takes Vinnie under his wing, and Vinnie gets in way too deep and almost can’t find his way out. Then, Kevin Spacey (in his best role?) and Joan Severance play extremely creepy siblings who Vinnie has to take down. The remaining seasons vary in quality, and Wahl isn’t in all the episodes (I think there was a contract dispute, which was dumb of Wahl given that he had found gold), but the first and second seasons are so very good.

What’s your favorite Stephen J. Cannell show? You know you have one!!!!


  1. tomfitz1

    BURGAS: I do remember the name, and I’m old enough to have seen some of these.

    I’m torn between THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO (with William Katt and Connie Selleca – loved her then) and BROKEN BADGES (Ernie Hudson and Miguel Ferrer – Twin Peaks made me a fan of him).

    Of all the series that you mentioned – THE ROCKFORD FILES with James Garner, was the series that lasted the longest.

  2. Tenspeed and Brownshoe, even more than GAH and Wiseguy. I particularly love the over-the-top hardboiled PI novels that Lionel (Jeff Goldblum) reads for inspiration.
    For those who don’t know it, it has Goldblum as an earnest stockbroker turned PI and Ben Vereen as his paroled conman partner. It’s a wonderful show but not as well remembered as it should be, due to playing opposite Dallas.

  3. fit2print

    I caught The Rockford Files in reruns as a kid and to steal a phrase from the late, great Mr Hatcher, it was my on ramp to a life-long passion for crime fiction, starting with the Travis McGee novels of John D. McDonald and soon extending to the work of genre luminaries like Richard Stark/Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Andrew Vachss, James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard.

    Beyond random episodes of a few of the other series on the list above, that’s about the extent of my familiarity with Mr Cannell’s work. Clearly he was one hell of a prolific TV creator though and what I think impresses me most about the man is that he somehow found time to pen more than a dozen novels of his own.

    I’ve read precisely none of them but for a guy who presumably spent just about every waking hour Monday to Friday overseeing the development of stories for TV to have the creativity and discipline to sit down at home (on weekends?) and bang out even more stories, it’s pretty damned remarkable.

    In an era of endless big-screen revivals of old TV shows, from Star Trek to Charlie’s Angels to 21 Jump Street, I’m somewhat surprised no one has ever tried to reboot The Rockford Files (have they?). Of Cannell’s series, it certainly seems to be the one that has best stood the test of time. Maybe it’s for that reason that no redo is required: the show holds up pretty well even 40-some years after its heyday…

  4. Eric van Schaik

    Not all of these show made it to Holland.
    The A-Team was quiet popular and the actors even came to Holland in ’84.
    I remember seeing Baretta (maybe 1 of the best theme songs ever?), 21 jump street and the one I liked the most: Tenspeed and Brown Shoe.

  5. John King

    I’m not American and have not heard of most of those
    Some, I’ve heard of but have never seen
    A couple I saw bits of episodes but never a full episode

    which leaves one that I have seen many episodes of
    “This is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and message. I’ll get back to you.”

  6. JHL

    I wanted to be a pilot as a kid so it was Black Sheep Squadron for me. My grandfather served on aircraft carrier during WWII and he had a bunch of photos and other mementos of the ship and the planes around his house that endlessly fascinated me as a child. As such, stories filled with F4U Corsairs couldn’t have been more perfectly targeted at me. That said, I haven’t seen an episode of the show in decades so I haven’t a clue if it holds up. Still, I loved it as a kid.

    I was 10 when the A-Team started, so of course I watched it, but it was never my favorite show and I drifted away from it long before it ran its course.

    I’ve liked what little Rockford files I’ve run across but I was too young appreciate its initial run, and as near as I can recall, it was never syndicated in the KC market during my youth when I was old enough to have gotten into the show.

  7. Darthratzinger

    Most of these shows weren´t broadcast here, notable exceptions being A-Team, Rockford Files and Riptide. Never watched Rockford but of the other two Riptide was this ten-year-olds clear favorite (or as it was called in Germany: Trio mit vier Fäusten = trio with four fists, ah…German “translations”).

  8. Born BEFORE 1960. I watched Rockford religiously. NONE of the others. Oh, I caught an episode or two of Baretta and Tenspeed.
    It was ALSO a show with theme music by the great Mike Post. I watched a LOT of shows he wrote the theme for.

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