KOJAK – SEASON 5: Getting Ready For Retirement, Baby

It’s a big deal for a television show to make it to its fifth season, mainly because that allows it to reach the number of episodes usually required for syndication.  However, getting that far is a double-edged sword.  It’s hard for any show to keep viewers hooked for that long while also maintaining a fresh, consistent level of story quality.  The fifth season of Kojak reveals the show was obviously grappling with these sorts of problems by that time.  Thankfully, the show’s professionalism and a handful of really strong episodes carry it through to the finish line.

As with prior seasons, Kojak focuses on the triumphs and travails of Lieutenant Theo Kojak of the NYPD.  Working under the command of Captain (Dan Frazer), he maintains a team of detectives as they tackle a series of cases that reflect the complexity and pressures of city life.  Often, episodes weave in a pertinent social theme of the time: “Cry For The Kids” explores how inadequate society is at multiple levels for dealing with troubled kids and “Justice For All” deals with how one’s place in society often determines how much justice they can get from the court system.

Unfortunately, the fifth season, while solid overall, isn’t as consistent as the prior seasons.  Though the dialogue is always sharp and the direction brisk, the plots of a few episodes fall flat: “Letters Of Death” blends the police procedural with the psycho thriller but suffers from an easy-to-predict final twist and “May The Horse Be With You” is a comedy-inclined episode that isn’t as funny as it would like to be.

There is also the occasional space-filler episode that aren’t bad so much as they are weird: for instance, “60 Miles To Hell” is basically an excuse to shoot an episode of the show in Las Vegas, complete with a  cameo from Liberace.  It’s not bad but it’s a sharp contrast to show’s naturally gritty style and almost feels like someone let Aaron Spelling produce the show for an episode.

However, despite the occasional misfire, the fifth season of Kojak mostly works.  As noted before, this show was driven by a level of professionalism that a lot of episodic t.v. from this era can only aspire to.  For instance, this season’s roster of writers included such soon-to-be notable television pros like episodic t.v. titan Donald Bellisario and Hill Street Blues creator Michael Kozoll.   The production values were also consistently strong: as always, the location shooting gave Kojak a real New York atmosphere and the lush, varied musical scores by Savalas pal John Cacavas added to the show’s oft-cinematic feel.  Even the story was on autopilot, the show’s inherent blend of class and skill gave it a naturally easy-to-watch quality.

This watchable quality was further aided by the casts, which always boasted a lot of great talent working on it.  The show always finding juicy roles for veterans like William Windom and Danny Thomas while also making room for rising talent like Armand Assante and Stephen McHattie (the latter delivers a stellar turn in “The Summer Of ’69,” the fifth season’s best episode).  Fans of character actors, particularly those of us who love b-movies will also enjoy seeing a lot of horror and exploitation stars pop up here and there: Zohra Lampert, known to horror buffs for her role in Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, gets a strong role in “The Halls Of Terror” and Julius Harris from Black Caesar turns up as a menacing crime boss in “Once More From Birdland.”

That said, the lynchpin here is the eternally charismatic leading turn from Telly Savalas in the title role.  From his beautifully tailored suits to the way he delivers his Rat Pack-style quips in a velvet growl, Savalas owns his role in this show and the glee he takes in fleshing it out is contagious.  However, it’s not purely a star performance: he’s able to dig into strong dramatic scenes when he gets the opportunity and the best episodes in season 5 give him plenty of chances.  Highlights include his scenes with ex-flame Diane Baker in “The Summer Of ’69,” in which he moodily reevaluates his romantic history, and his cautiously played but intense battle of wills with senior officer Danny Thomas in “In Full Command.”  Savalas also directed the latter episode and it’s one of the best in the show’s history.

In short, Kojak: Season 5 has the occasional less-than-inspired moment but remains watchable throughout.  It also boasts a few classic episodes in its ranks and thus is worth the time investment for fans of the show.

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