Sun
May 4 2014 10:00am

The Impossible Crimes of Thomas Banacek

Banacek came along just a bit before my time. When it began airing again on cable recently, the name rang a bell, but that's all. I'm pretty sure I didn't watch it back in the day—at about age 11—but I suspect that my parents might have.

I don't care much for cop shows and I'd always assumed Banacek was just that—another cop show. But as I skimmed those little one or two sentence show descriptions that are part and parcel of digital cable these days it occurred to me that there might be something more to it. There was.

Turns out that Thomas Banacek is not a cop at all, but an insurance investigator. Which sounds like a decidedly less than riveting premise for a TV show, but there's a little more it than that. Turns out that Banacek is a somewhat dashing and debonair insurance investigator who's called in to help when various high-ticket items (and occasionally people) go missing in a way that seems to defy logic or explanation.

As an on-again, off-again mystery fan, this is a premise that caught my attention, especially since it varies just a bit from the typical “impossible” crime, which mostly seem to be locked-room murders of various level of complexity (and absurdity).

In its original incarnation, Banacek aired 17 episodes from 1972-1974 and was part of the rotating cast of 90-minute TV movies that aired as the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie. Several of the other shows in this rotation have passed into complete obscurity (Cool Million, Faraday & Company, Tenafly), while a few are perhaps just a little bit less obscure (Madigan, The Snoop Sisters).

The role of Banacek was filled by George Peppard, who had some moderate successes in film up to that point but is arguably best known today for commanding Mr. T and the rest of The A-Team a  decade or so later.

Thomas Banacek is known to most merely as Banacek. His name is often mispronounced (Bananacek and so on). He is Polish. I mention this because it is mentioned in the show often, not the least in the mystifying Polish proverbs that our hero likes to dole out. Banacek does what he does quite well, charging at least ten percent of the value of whatever high-ticket item has been misplaced, and he lives quite well as a result. If you doubt it, consider that it's the early 1970s and he has a car phone—and the car's not so shabby either.

Banacek lives in Boston. Though his hair is graying, he is quite fit and is frequently seen exercising, including a rowing scene in the opening credits. Though he's rather a suave and sophisticated sort, he's not averse to tussling with a bad guy, if it comes right down to it. He is also a rather avid ladies' man and most of the ladies seem rather fond of him.

Aside from the lead character, there aren't many regulars in Banacek's cast. They are Jay Drury, Banacek's loyal and amiable chauffeur, who frequently offers his own ridiculous solutions to the crime du jour. Then there's Felix Mulholland, who deals in rare books. As the token smarty-pants, he's good for digging up arcane bits of knowledge that are sometimes related to the cases and sometimes not.

All of which holds up reasonably well some four decades later, with a few notable exceptions. Actually, just two exceptions. There's Banacek's personality, for starters. You could describe him as self-confident or self-assured and that's accurate but it would also be understating things considerably. The word “smug” is used to describe him in at least one episode and you probably couldn't come up with a better word.

Then there's that ladies' man stuff. I don't know if a late fortyish George Peppard was just the thing to make the opposite sex go weak in the knees, but the show would like us to believe that the ladies are kicking and clawing each other and stampeding over old ladies in wheelchairs in their haste to get to him. Of course a crime show that features a dashing, debonair Bond-type character is hardly an unusual concept, but it all starts to get a bit tedious as time goes on.

But if you're like me the primary appeal of Banacek will be the crimes. There's also the fact that it pretty much breaks the cop/crime/mystery show mold by having a low body count. There are some fisticuffs once in a while and occasionally a character gets knocked off to prevent them from spilling the beans but that's about the extent of it.

But how about those crimes? A good impossible crime, it should almost go without saying, is one that makes one scratch one's head in total bewilderment and keep clinging on to the bitter end to see how the author or screenwriter is going to sort it all out. Of the eight or nine episodes I've seen thus far I'd say that Banacek's writers had a fairly decent track record when it comes to tying it all up, which is typically done with an old school mystery-styled gathering of the suspects and recreating of the caper.

Recreating crimes like that one, in the very first episode, where a football player disappears in mid-tackle, even as a stadium full of people and the home viewing audience are watching. If that's not enough disappearing in plain sight for you then here's a sampling of things that Banacek goes seeking after in later episodes—an expensive car that disappears from a moving train; a three-ton statue; a large medical computer; a racehorse that disappears in the midst of  training run and a charter airliner.

Just to name a few, of course. And, of course, as with any such televisual endeavor, some of these episodes are carried out more skillfully than others. But if you like impossible crimes and you can get pass all the smugness and excessive womanizing, Banacek might be worth a look.


William I. Lengeman III  holds forth on Twitter @florilegium444.

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4 comments
Edward A. Grainger
1. EdwardAGrainger
I own a dvd collection of this fine series and enjoy everything about Banacek including his silly haircut. One of my favorite episodes is
"If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn't He Tell Us Where He Is?"
Laura K. Curtis
2. LauraKCurtis
I adored Banacek when I saw it. I am a few years younger than you -- in 1972, I was 8 -- so it must have run in reruns for a while because I think I was 12 or 13 when I was watching it. And, for the record, yes, I thought George Peppard was hot.
3. jlw
I saw them when they originally aired, I just loved his mysteries. Plus it was so funny how angry the lady insurance agent would get when she had to pay him, you could tell she just wanted to hit him for being right.
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