Book Review: Thirty Years of The Rockford Files by Ed Robertson

Thirty Years of The Rockford Files: An Inside Look at America’s Greatest Detective Series could just as well have been subtitled “Everything you wanted to know about The Rockford Files – and some things you really didn’t.”

The book benefits greatly from the participation of the series creators, Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell, as well as star James Garner and others who contributed to the show’s success, such as writer/producer David Chase (Sopranos).

Author Ed Robertson draws on interviews, archive material, candid photographs from the set, and an exhaustive look at each episode to create the more-than-definitive guide to the show that aired on NBC from 1974-1980, winning five Emmys and spawning a series of TV movies on CBS in the 1990s.

All the episode information is presented in a skimmable format, with a comprehensive table of contents guiding readers through the book. So it remains accessible to the most casual Rockford fan and to those interested in a slice of television history, while aiming to satisfy even the rabidest of rabid fans.

Robertson includes minutia that only those die-hard Rockford fanatics would care about. For example, the episode descriptions contain a Rockford Fun heading that presents information that is far from fun, but is instead a fairly tedious account of all the insider names that were used on the series. It seems every writer, producer, actor’s assistant, and possibly director’s mailman’s sister-in-law was used as inspiration for naming background characters. And Robertson lists every last one. More fun is the inclusion of every answering machine message that began the episodes.

The skimmable format makes it easy to bypass that kind of detail, and also means there’s some repetition in the facts presented from section to section. It works best as a reference book rather than a cover-to-cover read, though the season analyses do offer the behind-the-scenes story of the series.

A top 20 show in its first season, the ratings plummeted when, Robertson argues, the show lost its footing. While he maintains it regained that creative footing, it never managed to regain the ratings ground. The Rockford Files aired in a far different television landscape than we have today, when a 19.9 rating – a number American Idol doesn’t reach now – meant falling in the middle of the heap.

Robertson is an unabashed fan of the show, and sometimes comes across as an apologist for it and for Garner, who was reported to have clashed with creator Huggins, causing him to leave the series after its first year, and who was later embroiled in lawsuits with the network after being unable to complete the sixth season.

But Robertson never completely loses the critical perspective, though it’s supplemented with a fair amount of admitted assumptions and guess work about what actually happened in some of the behind-the-scenes maneuverings. Most rewardingly, he makes a solid case for The Rockford Files influential place in television history, with roots in the anti-hero of Maverick – also created by Roy Huggins, and played by James Garner – and inspiring the anti-heroes we see on television today, including Rockford writer David Chase’s Tony Soprano.

Robertson grasps the key to the series’ fresh take: “At a time when network TV was saturated with flatfoots and gumshoes, Rockford took all the cliches and turned them inside out.” His book provides an entertaining and exhaustive look at that process.

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