TV TIME: To Be Continued - Two-Part Episodes

Before serialized drama became the norm in prime time television, it was a big deal to come across a two-part episode. You'd enjoy the program right up until some gripping cliffhanger unfolded, and then those momentous words 'TO BE CONTINUED...' would appear on screen.

Of course, some classic programs regularly feature continuing stories; for example, every episode of Batman was a multi-parter. Perhaps the most famous two-part episode in television history is 'The Judgment,' the series finale of The Fugitive. It delivers a satisfying conclusion to one of the best dramas of all time, and given the scope of the series, an extra-long finale is certainly appropriate to wrap up a saga viewers enjoyed for years. In many ways, The Fugitive sets the standard for epic finales we expect nowadays.

Two-parters can be effective at the beginning or middle of a series run or a season, though, in the DVD era, we don't have to wait a week or even a night to see Part Two. Most companies are considerate enough to put both chapters of a story on the same disc, meaning we don't need to get off the couch to see the denouement. With this in mind, let's examine some notable two-parters from the classic era of television. Are they worthy of the distinction, or are they just run-of-the-mill episodes padded to fill time?

One series that makes frequent use of the two-part episode is the densely plotted Mission: Impossible. It took me years to appreciate this show. Watching reruns growing up, I was unimpressed by the methodical execution of the IMF team's plans, and I often found the pace too deliberate. Now, I respect the way the series delivers entertaining variations on its formula, but I'm skeptical of the necessity for a THREE-parter. Paddy Chayefsky could have adapted War and Peace with an all-star cast, and I'd have said, 'Do they really need three episodes to do this?' MI goes for the trifecta with season 4's 'The Falcon.'

I don't suppose I need to tell you this story is built around a convoluted scheme in an unnamed country. It seems like the foreign nations in Mission Impossible are always unnamed, but in this episode, even the country's allies are anonymous. 'Our Asian friends' is as specific as the script gets. A conniving General Sabbatini has faked the death of Prince Stephan, installing the simple, childlike Nicolai (Noel Harrison) as the ruler of the country. Now Sabbatini plans to marry Stephan's fiancee Franceska (Diane Baker), putting himself in line for the throne. IMF's goal is to prevent the forced marriage and free Stephan from captivity.

There's a great touch at the beginning when team leader Jim Phelps browses through 8x10 photos to select the mission's participants. The last picture he examines is that of the titular falcon, Lucifer, and the way Peter Graves handles it, as though he considers the bird a genuine agent on par with Leonard Nimoy's Paris, Barney, Willy, Tracey, and...some expendable guy named Sebastian (also played by Nimoy, 'in disguise' as Paris' stand-in). It's like Phelps is thinking, 'Lucifer, you're one of the best, but you're a loose cannon. You'd better not try to play cowboy on me again.'

The falcon does have a vital role in the plot, causing a key distraction in Part One, then making a triumphant return to save Paris and Tracey in Part Three. He has a certain undeniable screen presence that draws your attention, especially when you wonder if he'll be tempted to nest in whatever it is Nimoy is wearing on his head.

There are cool bits involving magic (Nicolai delights in it and allows Paris, as 'Zastro the Great,' into the palace to perform) and deceitful film projection, and as usual the hardest-working member of the team is Barney. The team's resident whiz not only rigs up the gadgets, but he spends the better part of three episodes sweating in cramped spaces drilling, digging, and laying the groundwork for jewel thefts and prison breaks. The real star of 'The Falcon' is neither Lucifer nor Barney, though, but John Vernon as Sabbatini. Look, I know Vernon's accent in this part is sketchy, and I don't know what country he's supposed to be from, but he can do haughty and arrogant without blinking. There may even be a few scenes where he literally doesn't blink as he stares down his enemies. Vernon's formidable villainy makes the character memorable even with so much else going on around him.

'The Falcon' is a highly entertaining episode throughout all three installments, but I don't know if it necessarily needs three parts. Interestingly, some of the most suspenseful moments come not from the cliffhangers at the ends of Parts One and Two, but within the episodes themselves leading into what were originally commercial breaks. There is enough action and excitement to make this a worthy multi-parter. I won't give away the whole thing since I urge you to check it out, but while not all elements of the IMF's strategy go according to plan, we do get the patented 'Let's get the heck out of Dodge' getaway at the end. Our heroes would survive for more adventures in season four and beyond. As for the volatile Lucifer, after drifting through bit parts in 1970s crime dramas, he finally succumbed to his demons and left Hollywood after losing out to Fred the Cockatoo as the avian sidekick on Baretta.

Route 66 entered the two-parter game in its first season with 'Fly Away Home.' Tod and Buz are looking for crop-dusting work in Phoenix. Well, Tod is the one hoping to use some old connections to get the gig; Buz is content to just hang around and find any job with the company. You know, considering someone wants to pay the firm to spray sulfur all over the place, I don't blame Buz for being willing to settle for the role he's offered as 'swamper'--anything to stay out of those airplanes.

The guys walk right into a complex family drama involving the business owner, widow Dora (Cathy Lewis), whose husband died doing a dangerous assignment that current lead pilot Summers (Michael Rennie) wants to execute. Summers' ex-wife, nightclub singer Christina (Dorothy Malone), pines for him, but he is wracked with guilt for surviving wartime missions. Buz falls in love with Christina, while Tod romances Dora's daughter, who resents Summers for her father's death, a death which Dora refuses to acknowledge.

Whew! Meanwhile, the company is failing harder than the participants' love lives. This isn't one of the more stable work environments the boys have encountered on the road, and that's saying something.

'Fly Away Home' isn't perfect. At the risk of enraging ClassicFlix readers, Dorothy Malone does nothing for me, and her romance with Buzz is not at all convincing. And Stirling Silliphant's stylized dialogue doesn't always work in this storyline. Take this exchange when Buzz woos Christina after 'charmingly' following her home after her set at 2:00 in the morning:

'I'm afraid it's been one of those days, Mr...?'


'Mr. Buz?'

'Oh, no, no, just Buz. I mean, it's...the original monosyllable. Heh!'

Hey, my name's one syllable, too! Boy, if I had seen this episode when I was younger, what a hit I could have been in college.

In all fairness, Buz is supposed to be smitten and awkward, but his mooning over Christina is the episode's weakest aspect. The story could almost be told in a single hour if not for the three -- count 'em, three -- songs Malone performs. The musical numbers help give the episode a somewhat wistful aura, but we get the point from the first one, a rather on-the-nose rendition of 'September Song:' Buz likes sitting in the audience and staring at Christina. At times 'Fly Away Home' seems to be straining for a poignancy it isn't quite achieving.

And yet sometimes it does achieve it, or at least come pretty close, and I think you have to give it credit for trying. What stands out to me about 'Fly Away Home' is what stands out about Route 66 as a whole: its essential earnestness. There's nothing ironic about any of the drama playing out before (and often without) Tod and Buz. The characters grapple with feelings and emotional problems in a way we don't always see nowadays on the tube, and for that I consider it a solid two-parter.

Sitcoms can have two-part episodes, but I don't remember The Dick Van Dyke Show's season four entry in this field. I'm sure it'll be a treat, though, since it's one of my favorite shows. It's time to sit back and enjoy something called...uh-oh, 'Stacey Petrie.' The star's real-life brother Jerry appeared as Rob Petrie's brother Stacey in a two-parter in the first season. I've never been a fan, but for some reason or another, the show's creative team never consulted me, so they brought the character back a few seasons later. This time Stacey is fresh out of the Army and preparing to open a nightclub, headlining it with a banjo act. Well, there's always the G.I. Bill after he goes bankrupt.

If your tolerance for Jerry Van Dyke is greater than mine, and odds are it is, there is a lot to enjoy in 'Stacey Petrie,' including a funny bit part for veteran Herbie Faye and a brief but note-perfect appearance by a certain comic performer who is, let's just say, quite familiar with the series. Part One features a goofy faux date with Stacey and Sally that is enlivened by her jealous boyfriend Herman. Part Two focuses more on Stacey's would-be girlfriend and Rob's attempt to get him to focus on the nightclub opening.

It's not what I would consider one of the show's best efforts, but the transitions between the two parts gives more evidence of why I enjoy vintage television so much. This show doesn't do something as pedestrian as put a few words like 'To Be Continued' on the screen. No, it has Rob Petrie, affable as ever in his living room, address the camera directly, asking us to tune in next week to see what happens. In the next episode, the aptly named neighbor Millie Helper drops by and gives Rob and Laura a convenient excuse to recap for her (and us) what happened last time out. I can think of plenty of other guest stars I'd rather see in a two-part episode, but I still like 'Stacey Petrie.'

I've saved my favorite for the end -- a program so good that after Part One, you can't wait to see Part Two, not just to see what happens, but because you don't really want to see it end.

Have Gun Will Travel presents a great one in the middle of season 4, 'A Quiet Night in Town.' Paladin settles in at the Hotel Carlton for two episodes' worth of backgammon in the lobby and a sedate evening of warm milk and reading Shakespeare.

I'm kidding, of course, but one of the fantastic things about Richard Boone's Paladin character is you really can picture him doing those things, just not necessarily over two nights on the CBS television network. In fact, the story begins with Paladin saying goodbye to a lady while wearing some kind of ridiculous (and hardly 'quiet') smoking jacket. You wouldn't see James Arness getting away with that.

Paladin soon captures suspected killer Kincaid in pursuit of a bounty, but he quickly finds trouble when he takes the fugitive to Jory, Texas. What follows is a gripping tale of racism and retribution, one that poses some pointed questions to not only the shady locals, but to Paladin himself.

Bringing Kincaid, a notorious sheepherder, to town arouses the interest of some of the local cowboys, including Deputy Sheriff/saloonkeeper Ray Remy (a perfect Robert Emhardt) and Dot, the girlfriend of a young gunman (James Best). We even get to watch Paladin break the fourth wall and give us a 'Can you believe her?' look after Dot presses him for details. Ok, so maybe he's only about 90% looking at us, but it's close enough for me.

Paladin asks Remy where he can jail Kincaid for the night, and he's told he can cuff him to a pole in the general store in the saloon. Eventually, the thirsty prisoner asks to stretch his legs, so Paladin frees him and walks him into the bar for a drink because what could possibly go wrong in this scenario?

Sure enough, some of the local roughnecks start making derogatory comments. Besides Best, the crew includes Kevin Hagen and Sydney Pollack as belligerent ringleader Joe Culp. Now, I know Pollack was in more than his share of Westerns before making his mark as a film director, but I never quite 'buy' him as a cowboy. I have no problem buying him as a jerk, though.

Culp incites his crew to lynch Kincaid, and Paladin resists, having promised his quarry justice. Part One ends with a violent confrontation in the street in which a man is killed. Paladin has many reasons to head back to San Francisco and get back to his smoking jacket, but he decides to stick around and pursue his vision of justice. Remy astutely asks whether it's justice or revenge he seeks, and Paladin doesn't have a convincing answer.

Part Two unfolds with more action and top-notch suspense. Paladin's shooting hand is injured, we hear about how good a shot Best's character is and we wonder if local man Remy will support Paladin or his foes. All of it creates enough uncertainty to make us somehow think the hero is in jeopardy despite knowing there's no show without him. There aren't easy answers in 'A Quiet Night in Town,' and at times you may find yourself questioning the man in black's moral code. This one absolutely warrants a two-parter, and it's actually so good you wonder why HGWT never did it before or afterwards.

There are many different ways to create a successful two-part episode. This is just a small sampling of the many multi-part episodes of classic TV shows available on DVD. If I didn't cover your favorite, consider this Part One, and maybe in a future installment, I can discuss it in the thrilling conclusion of 'TV Time!'

Rick Brooks is the proprietor of Cultureshark, a blog in which he uses an often irreverent approach to express his reverence for the classics and the un-classics.