The bridge between macho Beat Generation holdovers like Mannix, Hawaii Five-0, and Ironside, with their initially hip but ultimately toxic efforts to bolster the white-male status quo, and the forensic exactitude and played-out moral certitude of the Law & Order and CSI franchises, Harry O offered viewers something few cop shows (or few series in any genre) could then or now: A jaded but recognizably human ex-civil servant who abhorred violence and generally kept to himself -- except when circumstances conspired to put some little guy under the wheels of some big guy and he was in a position to do something about it. Or, barring that, when he needed some quick cash.
A handful of brave people deserve credit for the show's matter-of-fact brilliance: Creator and frequent writer Howard Rodman; producers Jerry Thorpe and Buck Houghton; directors like Richard Lang, John Newland, and Thorpe; writers such as Stephen Kandel and Robert C. Dennis; composer Billy Goldenberg; casting director Eddie Foy; and especially star David Janssen, who seemed utterly delighted to be playing someone who wasn't running from the law, and who got to bed a shocking number of beautiful women without being a pig about it.
Janssen's slow-burning wit and prickly charm made the show gel (so much so that it's hard to believe Rodman had Telly Savalas in mind for the part), and his unself-conscious compassion and sentimentality -- he was far too earthy to be saccharine -- made Harry both unique to the format and indelible. (A diligently understated actor, Janssen didn't suffer hams gladly, either: His reactions to guest-star Stephanie Powers's scenery-snarfing outbursts in the first-season episode "Second Sight" are priceless.)
It was all too good to last, I suppose: ABC got cold feet (or turned cheap) halfway through the first season and moved Harry from his digs in novel, laid-back SoCal backwater San Diego to L.A., where he generally got in more dustups and dodged more bullets. (He also got more tail, as his new neighbors seemed to consist exclusively of young, eager airline stewardesses.) His SDPD nemesis-cum-best friend, Manny Quinlan (the subtle, under-appreciated Henry Darrow), didn't survive the transition -- literally -- and was replaced by virtual co-leading man Anthony Zerbe as Harry's LAPD frenemy, Lt. Trench. Zerbe was great, too, and appeared to be energized by Janssen's ease and delight in the role. They played off of each other beautifully, and it made the show's transition to an edgier daylight-noir milieu easier to adjust to.
Harry O remained great despite the network's lack of faith and tinkering, then, but it wasn't enough to ensure a third season. That's disappointing for sure, yet it's hard to picture the series going on indefinitely. Janssen famously checked out of The Fugitive long before that series ran its course, and its final two seasons can be hard to bear as a result. (Production changes didn't help.) I wouldn't have wanted to see Harry O go down that path, so in some sense I'm relieved it wrapped up relatively quickly. But one more season -- and ending on its own terms instead of the front office's -- would've been nice.
Either way, RIP, Harry Orwell. It was a beautiful ride no matter how short it was.