Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Fugitive

(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

Number 6 in our countdown of The Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen, is The Fugitive. Without a doubt, the best American weekly TV drama was The Fugitive, which ran from 1963 to 1967. David Janssen played Dr. Richard Kimble, who returns home to find his wife murdered and a one-armed man slipping out the back door. The series was based on the infamous Sam Sheppard murder trial.  The jury believed Kimble murdered his wife, Helen, and he was sentenced to death. Enroute to the state prison by train in the custody of Detective Lt. Gerard (Barry Morse), Kimble escapes after a train wreck. For the next four years, viewers tuned in as the fugitive Kimble took odd jobs across the country, becoming embroiled in the lives and dramas of strangers, always one step ahead of his pursuer, Gerard.

Like Jalvert hounding Jean Valjean, Gerard is relentless in his pursuit of Kimble in this modern day Les Miserable. Occasionally, Kimble gets leads on the one-armed man, whose name we later learn is Fred Johnson (Bill Raisch). Most TV series of that era ended their run without any closure. This was a purposeful move, as producers wished to be able to resell the series in syndication and it was thought if viewers knew the final fate of the characters they would not watch the series. This was absurd, of course; never more so than in the case of The Fugitive, where every episode was a dramatic gem that stood on its own.

Perhaps recognizing this, the decision was made to end the series with a two-part finale that would resolve the dangling threads and bring closure to the fates of Kimble, Johnson, and Gerard. I was nine years old when I sat glued to TV on a Tuesday night in August when part one aired. I gasped when I saw Lt. Gerard finally catch up with and arrest Richard Kimble. “I'm sorry,” Gerard tells him, “you just ran out of time.” The episode ended with a handcuffed Kimble escorted by Gerard once again on a train, as narrator William Conrad announced the fugitive was on his way back home to Indiana… to an appointment with death! No! I thought. It wasn’t supposed to end this way!

Wednesday morning, all anyone could talk about in Mrs. Wilensky’s second grade class was the previous night’s episode of The Fugitive. Everyone had a theory on what would happen in the final episode and none of us could bear to wait a week to find out. When the second part aired the following Tuesday night, it became the most-watched television series episode in history, up to that point: 45.9 percent of American households with a television set (78 million viewers) cancelled their plans and stayed home to watch The Fugitive.

[Spoiler] With Gerard’s assistance, Kimble tracks down the one-armed man, cornering him in an amusement park. Johnson shoots Gerard in the leg and, realizing Kimble is innocent, Gerard hands Kimble his gun. Kimble fights Johnson atop a tower, and the one-armed man confesses to killing Helen Kimble. But Johnson takes the gun from Kimble and is about to shoot him when Gerard fires a shotgun at Johnson. The one-armed man falls to his death and no one but Kimble heard his confession. A reluctant Gerard prepares to take Kimble back to prison, but a new witness to the murder appears to exonerate the fugitive.

As iconic as the finale may be, every episode of The Fugitive is worth seeing. In the clip below, you can watch the opening act of Part One of the finale.

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