The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Pop Art Affair”

Napoleon and Mr. Waverly, resplendent in their finest athleisure wear, play a few holes on a golf course while Illya, clad in his usual cheap black suit, grimly caddies for them. They’re killing time while waiting to meet with a beatnik artist-cum-THRUSH scientist named Coplin (Tommy Farrell), who wants to sell his latest fiendish device to U.N.C.L.E.

Coplin arrives and shows off his invention: It’s an aerosolized gas that causes lethal hiccups. THRUSH is ready to begin mass-producing the gas, but Coplin, who has yet to be paid for his work, is willing to double-cross his employers if U.N.C.L.E. ponies up enough cash. As negotiations begin, an explosives-laced golf ball lands nearby, which sends everyone diving for cover. Two shaggy-haired counterculture THRUSH agents (who are unconvincingly costumed as beatniks in newsboy caps and brightly patterned shirts; the costume department has nothing to feel especially proud about here) zip up in a golf cart and open fire; Illya whips out his golf bag, which doubles as a cannon, and kills them both. In the melee, a bullet punctures the aerosol can containing the gas; Coplin accidentally inhales the contents and hiccups himself to death.

Hmm. Murderous beatniks, fatal hiccups, exploding golf balls, a golf bag that can be used as a cannon... Hey, just for fun, can you guess which season this episode hails from? Did you guess season three? You did, didn’t you?

Yes. It’s from season three. Yippee. I don’t hate season three, not in the way I hate the lazy, dour, half-assed mess that is season four, but the nonstop trying-too-hard zaniness can sure get exhausting.

Waverly gives Napoleon and Illya their new assignment: Stop THRUSH from manufacturing the hiccup gas. Coplin originally contacted Waverly from the payphone at a beatnik-friendly coffeehouse in Greenwich Village called the Golden Spike, so Waverly asks Illya, U.N.C.L.E.’s resident longhaired Beat Generation ambassador, to head over there and blend in with the locals.

So Illya dons one of his turtlenecks, which he pairs with some truly unfortunate flip-flops and a garish pendant looted from Coplin’s body, and hangs out at the coffeehouse. He flashes photos of Coplin’s corpse around while spewing out weird quasi-beatnik phrases (“You look like you know what’s shaking.  I’m after this cat. He chuffed me on a deal”) and acting twitchy and stoned off his gourd. It’s the hardest-hitting small-screen depiction of Beat culture this side of The Monkees.

While searching for information about Coplin, Illya encounters a peppy young beatnik/struggling artist named Sylvia (former Mouseketeer Sherry Alberoni). Instantly smitten, she gushes about his “Dostoyevsky eyes” while sketching a hilariously unflattering portrait of him.

The coffeehouse owner calls up Mark Olé (Robert H. Harris), a THRUSH honcho who runs an art gallery across the street from the Golden Spike, to tell him Illya is wearing Coplin’s pendant, which contains a catalyzer crucial to the production of the hiccup gas. Despite being an uncharismatic, unpleasant, unappealing wretch of a human being, Olé has a beautiful and devoted young girlfriend, Mari (Sabrina Scharf), who, we are told repeatedly, is the world’s leading model, whom he constantly insults and berates. The gender politics in this episode are something less than fabulous. I expect more from THRUSH, frankly.

Those guys hanging out in the background around Olé? Yeah, those are THRUSH beatniks. I know! My snotty comment about The Monkees was more apropos than you thought, right? Here are some more THRUSH beatniks:

Oh, for crying out loud. I’m cringing from secondhand embarrassment. Try harder, wardrobe department! And it must be asked: Why would beatniks—counterculture, anti-materialistic, often pro-communist—be working for a global terrorist organization with no political ideals beyond the relentless amassing of money and power? What’s the appeal there?

…I’m overthinking this episode, aren’t I?

Lured in by a painting of an aerosol can resembling the one that contained the hiccup gas, Illya detours into the gallery. He contacts Napoleon, who, in the absence of anything substantive to do on this current assignment, is hanging out at headquarters, putting the moves on the cute agent manning the switchboard. While filling Napoleon in on his findings, Illya is attacked by a gaggle of THRUSH beatniks. He bolts out of the gallery and dashes back into the coffeehouse.

And the episode stops dead in its tracks for a while as Illya performs a little improvised slam poetry.

Illya manages to slip the pendant to Sylvia before the goons club him over the head and carry him out of the coffeehouse. Sylvia calls U.N.C.L.E. headquarters looking for Illya; Napoleon fields her call and agrees to meet her at the Golden Spike, where she fills him in on the attack on his partner.

In a back room of the gallery, THRUSH goons tie up Illya and slap him around a while. The usual, in other words. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Acting on a tip from Sylvia, Napoleon heads to the gallery in search of his missing partner. When Sylvia drops by, Olé notices she’s wearing Coplin’s pendant.  As soon as Napoleon and Sylvia leave, a pair of beatniks attempt to murder them by hurling skateboards with razor-sharp blades embedded in the tips in their general direction. Napoleon is unfazed by this nitwittery.

With the pendant in Sylvia’s possession, THRUSH has no more use for Illya. Olé attempts to kill him by, ahem, flooding the back room of the gallery with soap bubbles. Napoleon breaks into the gallery and saves Illya before he’s smothered to death by bubbles.

I’m trying with this episode, but the unrelenting deluge of zaniness is breaking my spirit.

Aha! We then have a scene delightful enough to give my flagging spirits a much-needed bounce: Illya and Napoleon hang out in Napoleon’s car, where they discuss the need to find Sylvia before Olé and his goons get to her. Napoleon offhandedly mentions that he knows where Sylvia lives. “I took her home,” he says smugly, dripping with maximum eyebrow-waggling innuendo. “You would,” Illya replies, his tone filled with blistering contempt. Also, just FYI, Illya is changing out of his wet clothes while this little exchange takes place. So basically it’s a scene where Illya gets naked while Napoleon callously implies that he shagged a naïve young woman just to get a rise out of his partner. This is the sort of thing I watch U.N.C.L.E. for. Not for unconvincing beatniks. Not for exploding golf balls. This.

Illya and Napoleon arrive at Sylvia’s apartment, where they find her spacey roommate Heidi (Lynn Carey) bound to a chair: Olé  and his goons got there first and ransacked the place in search of the pendant. Heidi recognizes Illya on sight—“Sylvia told me about your Dostoyevsky eyes”—but has no idea where to find her roommate. She figures Sylvia is either visiting her parents in Great Neck, or hanging out with her beatnik chums at Harmonica Lake. Heidi offers to fix Illya and Napoleon breakfast before they leave; Napoleon turns her down by saying, “We’ll graze in your pasture later,” which sounds flat-out pornographic. I’m not at all sure it wasn’t intended that way.

Really, I don’t mean to insult this very attractive actress (I say immediately before insulting this very attractive actress), but damn, Heidi is the spitting image of Andy Samberg.

Napoleon stops by Sylvia’s childhood home and hangs out with her overly-eager mother and her creepy, beatnik-loathing dad. He pickpockets the pendant, which Sylvia left behind during her visit, then gets kidnapped outside the house by Olé’s beatnik goons.

Meanwhile, Illya heads up to Harmonica Lake and witnesses beatniks doing beatnikky stuff. You know, like groping each other, and smelling grass, and eating wheat germ, and… I dunno, doing headstands? Do beatniks do headstands? With one finger on the pulse of America’s youth, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. bravely blazes a path into the future.

At the lake, Illya discovers Sylvia has been making copies of the pendant and selling them on the cheap. Which isn’t really so much being an artist as it is committing blatant idea theft and copyright infringement, but hey, a girl’s got to make a living. While searching for Sylvia, Illya dangles upside-down a from a tree and harasses beatniks. That particular beatnik there is played by writer Stanley Ralph Ross, who contributed scripts for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. throughout season three. Ross was also a staff writer on the uber-campy 1960s Batman series and wrote episodes of, yes, The Monkees, so if you’ve been looking for a reason for the weird tonal shift this series took in season three, you may have your answer.

Back at the gallery, Olé learns that the pendant Napoleon swiped from Sylvia’s parents is a copy. He flies into a rage and hurls insults at Mari for showing the first signs of aging (“Remember, I keep only flawless works of art!”), then orders her to kill Napoleon. Napoleon goes with the flow and hurls more insults at poor beleaguered Mari (“He never regarded you as anything more than a life-sized Kewpie doll!”), then wrestles the gun away from her and escapes.

THRUSH beatniks attack Sylvia and try to steal the pendant, Illya comes to her rescue, and… well, long story short, Illya and Sylvia end up escaping in a hot-air balloon.  Oh, why not?

While piloting the balloon, Illya gets shot in the neck. This barely slows him down, but the bullet also punctures the balloon, so they’re forced to land.

Illya and Sylvia are taken to Olé’s lair. Now that Sylvia’s pendant is in his possession, Olé can manufacture hiccup gas to his heart’s content. He cackles and promises to have both Illya and Sylvia killed as soon as he perfects the gas. Illya, by the way, is really holding up quite well for a man who just got shot in the neck. “We Kuryakins have an amazing aptitude for recovery,” he tells Sylvia gravely.

Left alone with Illya, Sylvia harbors fond hopes of a quick makeout session before dying. Illya, naturally, looks utterly baffled by this concept.

Yep. He took a bullet in that very side of his neck one scene ago. “An amazing aptitude for recovery” is one thing, but this is downright magical. Maybe Illya is a supernatural creature, or a self-healing cyborg. Either would explain a lot, actually.

Oh, and then Olé murders Mari with the hiccup gas, because she’s starting to develop crow’s feet. Nope. This scene flat-out doesn’t work. There’s too much tonal disconnect with the rest of the episode. In an episode this goofy and campy, you can have Illya slaughter a couple of THRUSH goons with a golf-bag cannon; that’s fine. You can’t have a villain murder his harmless girlfriend for being insufficiently hot. It’s jarring.

Napoleon arrives and rescues Illya and Sylvia. Illya and Napoleon destroy the hiccup gas contraption, then kill Olé by crushing him with a giant piece of pop art. They celebrate the successful completion of their mission by browbeating Mr. Waverly into paying too much for Sylvia’s mediocre sculpture.

Speaking of mediocre… Clever readers will have read between the lines and deduced that this is maybe not my favorite episode (and yet it is one of my favorite season-three episodes. Scary, huh?). It’s not without its selling points: Sylvia is bubbly and adorable, and Vaughn and McCallum have their usual outstanding chemistry together. But it’s the usual problem with season three: The script is no good.  Whether by accident or design, all of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s powerhouse writers were sidelined during this season: Alan Caillou left after the first year, Dean Hargrove wrote no third-season scripts, and the great Peter Allan Fields contributed a single episode, the epic and decidedly non-goofy “Concrete Overcoat Affair”, which is the sparkling jewel in season three’s battered crown. “The Pop Art Affair” can’t measure up.


M'lady said…
I suspect illya is actually a timelord. It's the only way to explain the miraculous healing.

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