Season 5’s The Shapely Shadow is an episode that I’ve been both apprehensive and curious about. It’s highly praised, but is also, as is told, one of the episodes where Mr. Burger flips out more than usual.
Now, let it be made clear from the start that whether or not I like that depends entirely on the way it is presented. I absolutely love him losing his patience in The Curious Bride and The Elusive Element. Those episodes, to me, are classic, and I have giggled in amusement over the lawyers’ clashes in them.
On the other hand, I absolutely detest how the clashes were handled in The Final Fade-Out (as I’ve complained about more than once) and The 12th Wildcat. The latter episode repulses me far more than even the scenario in the series finale. In The Final Fade-Out, it seemed more that poor Mr. Burger was humiliated and taking out his feelings on Perry without fully thinking or really believing Perry guilty, since he later calmed down so inexplicably. But in The 12th Wildcat he absolutely without a doubt has a serious chip on his shoulder. He behaves during court in icy, unprofessional ways that are not like him and seems to have something personally against Perry’s client, who is a friend of Perry’s. The judge reprimands Mr. Burger at least half a dozen times. I have never seen him be chastised so often in one episode. Usually it’s once or twice at the most. And Perry was more frustrated in court than I have ever seen him, with the possible runner-up of The Sun-Bather’s Diary. And even that is no comparison for this.
There was a scene missing from the version I saw, a scene that may or may not have explained Mr. Burger’s behavior. So far I haven’t been able to find either confirmation or denial of that. But what I can say is that throughout the series Perry has had many clients who are personal friends of his. I have never seen Mr. Burger behave towards any of them as he behaved towards the client in The 12th Wildcat. As far as I’m concerned, if there was no specific reason given for such outrageous conduct, then it is a clear case of out-of-character behavior and the writers were just being very lax.
And I can fully believe it, as lo and behold, I actually have a problem with that episode that has nothing to do with Mr. Burger. And this is a doosy, folks: The crime is not explained. We are finally shown at the end that the man supposedly killed is not dead at all. We are left to assume that the dead man is someone else who has been missing. But nothing is ever said about that, or about who murdered him! Most likely it was the fellow who is alive but was thought dead. Still, there is no excuse for not explaining it. The way it’s left, there’s no visible reason why it could not be argued that Perry’s client killed the person who really was dead (perhaps by conspiring with the man who wasn’t dead, who is her husband). Instead, in the epilogue, everything is apparently hunky-dory after showing that he is really alive. Everyone is toasting the end of the case and Perry is proclaimed the 12th Wildcat. It’s a cute ending, but it is highly unsatisfactory.
Anyway, after smarting from that trainwreck of an episode, I have been more suspicious of The Shapely Shadow than ever. I wondered if it would be anything like The 12th Wildcat and I was not looking forward to another episode like that.
Well, it aired on my station last night and I finally was able to see for myself.
The plot is amazing. The episode’s status as an above-average venture is well earned. It reminds me of some of the incredible twists in season 1’s episodes, which is not unusual since this one, also, was based upon one of Gardner’s books, as most (if not all) season 1 episodes are.
Mr. Burger’s outbursts and behavior were neither of the Curious Bride variety nor of the 12th Wildcat variety. Instead, it was another category altogether—the category that makes me feel plum sorry for the guy.
This episode is a rare jury trial venture, rather than a preliminary hearing. Mr. Burger presents a very solid-seeming case and then rests. Perry, due to lack of evidence for the defense, rests his own case and moves to go directly to the arguments. Mr. Burger is taken aback. But he consents, and allows Perry to go first (presumably because the prosecution is not ready). Perry’s argument seems very logical. Then he comes to a possibility that had not been considered before. Mr. Burger is not impressed by it. When his turn comes, he repeatedly tries to tear down Perry’s argument, Perry objects, and the judge sustains. Mr. Burger pleads that if the judge will give him an hour, he will bring in evidence to counter Perry’s questions. It’s granted, but in the end Perry’s theory is proven true. Mr. Burger’s reaction to this is not shown.
Was it professional for him to fumble and stammer and end up presenting his own argument to the jury by trying to attack Perry’s argument, rather than to simply present his own, unbiased argument? It was very unprofessional. He had been thrown for a complete loop by Perry’s passing on presenting a case for the defense and determining to move directly to the arguments, but he should always be prepared for anything, especially in his position.
However, he is only human. And oh, how I can relate to his befuddled feelings. Many is the time that I have had something thrown at me that I completely did not expect at all and I reacted by fumbling and stammering and reaching in desperation for an appropriate response. When he was pleading for the judge to hear him out and to allow him time to put together a proper response to Perry’s questions, I didn’t feel the slightest urge to laugh. Nor was I outraged by the writing. I did not proclaim it out-of-character; I felt it was in-character. And I just felt pity.
Without a doubt it was not one of Mr. Burger’s best or most noble days in court, but it was certainly better than the one he had in The 12th Wildcat. The Shapely Shadow, at its heart, showed a sympathetic, endearing flail. He was neither sympathetic nor endearing in The 12th Wildcat. And while he has behaved similar to his desperate behavior in The Shapely Shadow on multiple occasions (just not to the same extent), as far as I can tell there is no precedent for his cold misconduct in The 12th Wildcat.
I wonder if he was still on a high from his third narcotics bust and was feeling a bit prideful when he tried the case in The 12th Wildcat. That would be human behavior, but most unprofessional and unlike him, and I don’t appreciate there not appearing to be an explanation for his actions. Plus, I’m not sure prideful would translate into cold for him. Any way I look at the problem, it does not translate into in-character behavior for me.
I think that Mr. Burger became a better, more open-minded prosecutor over the many seasons of the show because of how Perry was a challenge to him. Perry, although likely not deliberately trying to do so, pushed him to go further. I realize that with the formulaic nature of the show character development opportunities were more limited, but they were there, and they were taken as often as they could be. Mr. Burger changed so much over the seasons that to see something like The 12th Wildcat just makes me cringe. Even in season 1 it would have made me cringe, but to see it in the final season was so much worse.
To me, season 9 is starting to feel like a reboot of the series. It’s common knowledge that the producers were worried that Andy was too friendly and too permissive, so they brought in Lieutenant Drumm (who, honestly enough, is very friendly too, and perhaps the only thing I really like about the final season). After seeing The 12th Wildcat, I started to have the feeling that maybe they felt Mr. Burger had become too friendly as well and that they had to return to season 1’s roots—only they dug a bit too deep and went too far the other direction. I am hoping I am wrong and that The 12th Wildcat is just one terrible flub, instead of one of many flubs.
I have mentioned that William Talman came to have fun with the scenes where Mr. Burger loses it. I’m sure he enjoyed filming scenes in all three of the episodes I’ve been discussing. And I don’t blame him for that one bit. Heck, after nine years of apparently almost always losing to one person, I think just about anyone would be frustrated. I think I myself would have had fun filming a scene similar to the one where Mr. Burger blows his stack in The Final Fade-Out. It would feel wonderful to finally release all of the frustrations the character would likely have by that point.
However! Although William basically implied that he felt Mr. Burger’s behavior in The Final Fade-Out was in-character, and said that Hamilton may have even wanted to hit Perry, I can’t help but feel that he was basing that interpretation of the character on how Mr. Burger would react to the trappings of the formulaic nature of the series. If they had been allowed to branch out a bit more, even show Mr. Burger winning now and then (and to that end, be more realistic), I believe that William might have had a bit of a different view on the character. He admitted that having fun with the losing streak we saw on the show was something that was learned over time, indicating that he was not happy with it when he realized it would always be that way.
Of course, I don’t and would never claim to be able to speak for William or to ever know what he was actually thinking. And I can only base my thoughts on how I myself have felt in similar situations (such as the role-play issues I mentioned in an earlier post).
But I like to hope that he would like what I have done with the character and the series in my stories. I am not restrained by any formula. I am free to branch out, to allow Mr. Burger to win sometimes, and to further develop angles that were introduced in the series—his friendship with Perry, his interest in justice, and his interaction with other characters. I hope that William would understand why I reject an episode such as The 12th Wildcat because of how glaringly it goes against character development and yet how at the same time I can agree that something such as The Final Fade-Out makes sense when considering the formula (even if I personally don’t care for the demonstration).
As for season 5's The Shapely Shadow, I hope it stands as further proof that Mr. Burger did not display drastically out-of-character behavior until season 9. Then there would be a very small amount of such episodes to face. Not to mention that it would further my case that season 9 is different, often unflatteringly so.
(Of course, even season 9 isn’t all bad. I am developing a fondness for the one color episode, The Twice-Told Twist, and I thoroughly enjoyed The Positive Negative. I also seem to remember I enjoyed The Sausalito Sunrise, although I prefer its original, The Moth-Eaten Mink.)