Part cop show, part courtroom drama, "Jake and the Fatman" overcomes its unfortunate title and turns out to be a pretty good mystery show.
What drew me to the series was the titular Fatman - William Conrad. Though he looks like he's been sleeping at death's door, Conrad still infuses the character of J.L. McCabe with a ton (no pun intended!) of humor and tenacity. In some respects, he's a more colorful character than Conrad's standard-issue, but heavyset, PI Frank Cannon. McCabe is crafty and shrewd - there's more than a shade of Columbo in his rumpled appearance and seemingly befuddled courtroom persona. Like fellow TV sleuth Andy Griffith, Conrad shines in the courtroom scenes when McCabe cuts a defendant to pieces on the stand. Conrad's having a ball, and his enthusiasm elevates the series as a whole.
Though not as strong as Conrad, Joe Penny is well cast as Jake Styles, the Fatman's go-to investigator. Their relationship is a good one, following in the footsteps of other TV old/young odd couple partnerships. Styles' footwork and way with the ladies also conjures up images of Archie Goodwin, erstwhile legman of Nero Wolfe. Penny's got some better acting chops than a lot of his 80s TV star contemporaries, and while the show doesn't give him much of a chance to flex them, he acquits himself well.
The show is cut from almost the same cloth as "Matlock," "Diagnosis Murder" and the other whodunits of the era. Basically, they bring the sensibilities of Hollywood B-movie mysteries into the 80s and 90s. The crimes here are usually solved not by forensics or procedure, but by an errant clue or deduction - the suspect smokes the same French cigarettes that were found at the scene, etc. They're the kind of clues Charlie Chan or Perry Mason would hang a conviction on, but since "Jake and the Fatman" is such a throwback itself, these never hurt the plot.
It's definitely worth a look for fans of Conrad and/or light mystery fare. It's no classic, but it's damn entertaining with a good leading duo.