Banacek: What Is Family Entertainment, Anyway?

Picture this... an American starlet is marrying a "shah." As a wedding present, the shah has given her a one-of-a-kind horse coach, studded with diamonds and other jewels, inlaid with gold, a fabulous treasure on wheels. The gift of the coach has been accepted and now must be sent aboard a cargo ship for its journey to their new home.

The coach is sealed inside a private cargo container, which is signed by a representative from the company insuring the carriage during its voyage. We see the container being hoisted by crane up, and over, and inside the bowels of the ship. But then a few minutes later, before the ship sails, a small hole, no larger than a silver dollar, is found in the container. When the locks are removed and the seal is broken, the container is empty.

This is the setup for an episode of Banacek, a mystery show with a twist. Most mysteries are whodunits--a crime is committed, usually a murder, and we, along with a fictional detective, try to determine who perpetrated the deed. But there are some variants. The beloved Columbo, for example, was a howcatchem. The audience saw the crime being committed at the start of the episode, and the fun was in watching Columbo figure out the crime for himself, and also figure out a way to get the proof or confession he needed.

Banacek was a third type, a howdunit. Although we don't know who committed the crime until the end, the more baffling question is how the crime was even committed. In the example I've given, there doesn't seem to be any way the coach could be removed through a tiny hole, but otherwise the container is still sealed, and even on a large cargo ship, you can't exactly hide a huge coach.

Enter Thomas Bancek, played by George Peppard.

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He's a freelance insurance investigator who works for a percentage of the value of the recovered item, which apparently allows him to live in high style. The character is of Polish descent, although I've read that the name Banacek is more Hungarian than Polish. Back in the days of my youth when the show was first aired, there was a stereotype about Polish people being stupid, and lots of jokes about this. It was an odd stereotype, not just because it had no basis in truth, but because you could hear people telling "Pollack" jokes even in cities like mine that didn't have much of a Polish population. Thankfully, that stereotype has died out as far as I can tell, but I suspect that at the time, having Banacek, who outsmarts everyone else in the cast, be Polish, was a way of refuting this bizarre notion.

These Banacek episodes are a lot of fun. The solutions to the "impossible" crimes are varied and ingenious. Some of the solutions require elaborate contraptions or a bit of technology, but in other cases, the perpetrators employed nothing more high-tech than careful planning and cleverness. The show plays fair, and when Banacek finally reveals who did what and how, there were always clues in plain sight, or plain hindsight, that tipped him off.

Really, I wish there were more episodes. The show was part of NBC's Wednesday Night Mystery series, a companion to the Saturday Night Mystery series that featured Columbo. So Banacek was essentially a series of movies that alternated with other titles on various weeks. Because of that, and the fact that it only ran two seasons, there are only about a dozen episodes. This isn't due to any lack of popularity of the show, but because George Peppard was embroiled in a divorce settlement at the time, and apparently leaving the show for other work meant he was stiffing his ex-wife.

I imagine some of you are saying: "Okay, sounds like an interesting show, but I thought this blog covered family entertainment." But what is family entertainment? It's something that the whole family can enjoy, and my whole family has enjoyed Banacek tremendously. My daughter even has us watching episodes we've already seen, just because they're so much fun. She likes trying to figure out the mysteries and finding out how they're done in the end. At the end of the stolen coach mystery, for example, she still wasn't clear on how the crime was committed, but I grabbed some of her toys to set up a demonstration of the concept and then she got it. She also enjoys watching what we might call the elegant fashions of the 1970s. For example, here's the starlet:

starlet

The show also has well-written character interactions. As a longer show (they ran in 90 minute slots), there's plenty of time both for mysteries and quieter character scenes.

Family entertainment used to mean quality entertainment that didn't contain anything that was unsuitable for impressionable young children. Somewhere along the way it came to mean something quite different, programs made for children. When parents objected to the lack of parental entertainment value of these new programs, pop-culture references were added, in the manner of adding candy sprinkles to broccoli.

It doesn't have to be this way. There's lots of family entertainment, under the original definition, out there waiting to be rediscovered. If you like a mystery, there's a good chance your children will, too. Give programs like Banacek a try. And feel free to offer your own suggestions of classic programs that were never intended for children, but work just fine for your family.

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