Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Case of Constant Doyle: The first of the fill-in guest-stars

One of the strangest things about television series is when the main star has to bow out, for whatever reason, for a few episodes. A temporary replacement is needed, but whom? How? Why when and where?

I am generally not fond of such episodes. It feels too different without the main character. And their absence can cause other characters to have reduced screentime as well.

Season 6, of course, is the season where they needed four such episodes when Raymond Burr discovered he would need an operation. Interestingly, they decided to have the characters’ lives parallel real-life. Perry was hospitalized for an operation. They filmed a few scenes for the episodes where Perry called characters from his hospital room. That rare move kept the four episodes from being completely devoid of Perry.

They also decided to have a different guest-star in every one of the episodes. The most impressive to me is Bette Davis. To me she’s the absolute big-time. Her episode is the only one of the four I know I’ve seen. My local station skipped those four episodes when it was running season 6 on Saturdays. I believe they used to show at least that one, as the second courtroom scene seemed very familiar to me. What makes the entire episode familiar to me now is that I saw it a few weeks ago when I purchased the 50th Anniversary DVD set from

My feelings on the episode are mixed. Most opinions I see of it are downright negative, but I don’t feel that hostile, nor do I have many complaints. I will readily admit that the plight of the guest-stars did not always interest me; I was restless and wanted to fast-forward some parts. The kid whom Bette’s character decides to help particularly irritated me. He’s a real punk, always seeming to be blowing his stack for one reason or another and often acting ungrateful. That character type is not one that generally appeals to me.

Bette’s character, Constant Doyle (and that really is Constant—not Constance, as I’ve seen some fans report), also receives a great many of the fans’ complaints. She’s too distant, too far removed. We don’t get to know her enough to know why we should care about her.

She’s aloof, I’ll certainly give you that. But I had no problem with her character at all. I love aloof characters. Perry himself is often quite aloof, really. Not as much so as Constant, but still.

Also like Perry, Constant is very headstrong and determined. When she sets her mind to something, she does it. She becomes determined to help this punk kid, even moreso after he becomes entangled in a murder case. He doesn’t often seem that grateful for her efforts and is often instead exploding at being asked questions. But she is insistent.

She also wants to know the truth about her deceased husband. They ran a law firm together, and now after his death, skeletons are starting to fall out of his closet. It’s starting to look like he was involved in something crooked. Constant can’t believe it’s true, but she has to know for certain.

Della and Paul appear in reduced roles. Constant is a friend of Perry’s, and when she finds him hospitalized and unable to assist much with the case other than a phone call or two, she recruits Paul to help her.

The episode has a bit of an unusual feel until these characters come into it. Once they are present, and especially when Paul starts investigating, it feels more like a regular Perry episode.

The main character who appears the most is, interestingly enough, Hamilton Burger. He is going to be prosecuting the case himself, which Paul finds odd for some reason.

I wondered exactly how they would be depicting Hamilton in this episode. How would he interact with a female attorney? It is, I believe, the only time a female attorney ever appeared on the show. Would he be as antagonistic as he can sometimes be with Perry? Would he be more reserved but still argumentative? Of course, as the prosecutor, he would have to oppose Constant’s case. That goes without saying. But his mood can vary depending on the case, or sometimes the season.

In season 5, I’ve noticed, he is usually quite unfriendly. I only counted a handful of times when he showed a bit of congeniality. Della even takes issue with one admittedly cringe-worthy remark he makes in the final episode of the season, The Lonely Eloper. Since she rarely comments on what he says, it seems significant. All in all, this element of season 5 was a surprise to me, after Hamilton was very often friendly in seasons 2, 3, and 4. I’m planning an overview of season 5 to explore this in more detail, but for now I’ll tentatively say that perhaps the writers were worried that he was too friendly and decided to cut back on such scenes. I also think that, in the latter half of season 5, he was probably smarting from his defeat in The Shapely Shadow. That was without a doubt one of his worst days in court ever.

Season 6, however, as I’ve said many a time, shows a very friendly Hamilton again. Maybe the writers realized that the viewers liked it better that way? Season 6 is a treasure-trove of moments showing Hamilton’s softer side and his friendship with Perry. And just because they’re friendlier doesn’t mean they don’t clash in court. One of my favorite clashes ever, The Elusive Element, is from season 6.

The Case of Constant Doyle is not an exception to this. If I had any concerns or curious doubts about how Hamilton would be portrayed, they were immediately refuted. Hamilton is wonderful here. He is very thoughtful and kind (dare I say even sweet?), always respectful of Constant, and eventually says that the reason he is handling this case himself is because he wants to get to the bottom of the mystery concerning her husband and be able to put her fears at rest. (They eventually prove him innocent of any wrongdoing.) If there’s one element of this episode I would like to watch repeatedly, it would be the courtroom scenes.

Constant also puts on a bit of a courtroom show, as Perry is famous for doing. She dons a trenchcoat, as the victim wore, and wants Hamilton to button it and tie the belt. In confused disbelief Hamilton exclaims, “I most certainly object to this!” But he sounds more puzzled than anything else. He doesn’t seem to consider Constant a sparring partner, as he does Perry, and doesn’t sound antagonistic or challenging in the least. The judge thinks he should go along with the demonstration, so, bewildered, he does. Her purpose, if I remember correctly, was to show how a man would button the coat as opposed to a woman.

The epilogue is nice. Her client is grateful to her and ends up inviting her to dinner. I’m still trying to figure out if he has some sort of romantic interest in her despite their rather large age gap. I think he probably has a little crush on her, at least. As she gets up to turn off the lights and leave her office, she bids her departed husband goodnight.

The epilogue also includes another phone call from Perry. And within that call is the one thing I object to in the episode. Perry tells her that Hamilton has called him ten times, telling him to get better and get back in court so he’ll have someone easier to go up against.

I honestly can’t imagine Hamilton ever saying that. At least, certainly not ten times! He has too much pride. I could imagine him maybe saying it once, jokingly, but no more. Furthermore, I didn’t think Constant was harder to beat than Perry. It seemed that the writers might have just thrown that in because they wanted her to seem so absolutely amazing. I believe fans in some of my recent fandoms would call that trying to make a “Mary Sue” out of the character. A “Mary Sue” is generally defined as a supposedly flawless character written by a fan who shows up in fanfiction stories and outshines all of the characters in her level of awesomeness, even the main character. Of course, I could be wrong on the writers' intentions. But coming at it from my perspective, that is the impression I received.

My conclusion was that it was a good episode overall. Not necessarily a great episode, but one that’s satisfying, particularly for Bette Davis fans. My mom certainly enjoyed it. And as for me, well, those courtroom scenes are a paradise for an admitted Hamilton Burger fangirl. They give me even more reason to love him and praise his three-dimensional characterization on the series. And any episode that can do that is one I'll always have a soft spot for.

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