Running for a mere thirteen episodes, dismissed when it first appeared (1976) as a Chinatown knock-off, “City of Angels” is a handsomely mounted period piece that showcases the writing and producing talents of two masters of the TV detective show: Roy Huggins and his protege Stephen Cannell. Its centerpiece is one of the medium’s best and most unusual depictions of a private eye, thanks to the inspired casting of comic actor Wayne Rogers.
Jake Axminster, portrayed with easy wry grace by Rogers in his first post-“M*A*S*H” role, is a tough private eye looking out mostly for himself in the corrupt Los Angeles of the mid-1930s. He works out of the Bradbury Building—a real-life L.A. landmark frequently used in private-eye films and TV series (including the one previous period-piece P.I. series, “Banyon“). There he shares space with his flaky blonde receptionist, Marsha (Elaine Joyce in a charming screwball comedy turn), who runs a switchboard service in the outer office for call girls. Jake plays all the angles for him- self and (on occasion) his clients, invariably running afoul of Lt. Quint, memorably portrayed by Clifton James.
Quint is not the stereotypical P.I.’s police contact; not hardly. Quint is a stocky, sweaty, thoroughly corrupt cop who frequently beats Jake with a rubber hose, keeping him alive only because Jake occasionally pays him off; ultimately Quint swears to kill the slippery detective. Jake’s only real ally in his efforts to stay out of jail and alive, in this corrupt cesspool of a city, is attorney Michael Brimm. Warmly depicted by Philip Sterling (later to appear as a psychiatrist on “St. Elsewhere“), Brimm encourages Jake not to take so many chances. But at the same time he conspires with Jake to get the best of Quint and the other corrupt cops, politicos, and power brokers they encounter.
Even more than Jim Rockford, Jake Axminster seems a P.I. version of Roy Huggins’s classic Bret Maverick character. Like Maverick, Jake is a self- proclaimed, self-interested coward; just as Maverick scorned the “code of the West,” Jake ignores the private detective’s code, those knightly virtues Raymond Chandler insisted a private eye must follow. At some point in every case, Jake realizes he’s in over his head and quits, abandoning his client. He lies, bribes, cheats, steals, breaks and enters. He even fights dirty. But, as was the case with Bret Maverick, he ultimately shows courage; also, intelligence and even a sense of responsibility for his clients. And he is obsessively loyal to Marsha and Brimm.
Though set in the thirties, “City of Angels” is very much a child of the post-Watergate seventies. Its recurring theme (and here it did draw from Chinatown) is conspiracy in high places. Lone P.I. Axminster, as imperfect as he is, represents the common man, the blue-collar guy, up against a big corrupt system. In the brilliant three-part opener, “The November Plan,” written by Cannell, the disappearance of a liberal reporter leads Jake to uncover a right-wing plot by powerful, respected citizens to support a military overthrow of the United States government. Far-fetched’ No. It was one of several “Angels” episodes that had an historical basis.
Another of the historically inspired episodes, “Castle of Dreams,” also written by Cannell, reveals just how uncowardly Jake can be in defense of his friends. When Marsha inadvertently knows too much about the murder of a call girl client, she is kidnapped by Lt. Quint, who shuttles her from station house to station house. Jake’s frantic search for Marsha has him terrorizing a Hollywood bigwig (Jack Kruschen as recurring character Harry Cohn) and luring Quint to a quiet spot where he beats hell out of the lieutenant. This is not played for laughs: Jake at one point jumps on the fallen Quint’s stomach with both feet.
Jake often pretends to go “apeshit” (as a Cannell script describes it) to scare information out of suspects. But in “Castle of Dreams”—as fine an hour of detective TV as you’re likely to see—he is not pretending. It’s no surprise that Wayne Rogers could bring humor to Jake; but Rogers is just as convincing in scenes of rage and sorrow, bringing rare depth and com- plexity to the character.
Sadly, in addition to being a ratings failure, “Angels” was viewed as an artistic failure by Huggins — who felt Rogers was miscast! — and by Rogers, who complained about the quality of the scripts (mostly written by Huggins!).
USA / NBC / 13×50 minute episodes / Broadcast 3 February – 10 August 1976
Wayne Rogers as Jake Axminster
Elaine Joyce as Marsha
Clifton James as Lt. Murray Quint
Timmie Rogers as Lester
Philip Sterling as Michael Brimm
Janice Heiden as Darla
Veronica Hamel as Thelma