With Maxwell Smart’s marriage proposal to Agent 99 hitting the 50 year mark, it’s worth a look back at “The Impossible Mission.”
Airing Sept. 21, 1968, “The Impossible Mission” served as the fourth season opener. This was the final season Get Smart would air on NBC. The network, hoping that an engagement and wedding would bump up the show’s ratings, had Max and 99 tie the knot during sweeps week. It wasn’t enough.
Despite Don Adams netting a third Emmy and the show winning its own Emmy, NBC canceled it. CBS would pick up the show for a fifth and final season.
There’s something of a love/hate relationship with this episode. Some fans loved the idea of Max finally confessing his love to 99. Others weren’t buying it. I find it to be one of my favorites, but I won’t deny that it has some problems.
Structurally this episode is clunky. Most Get Smart episodes are tight little units. All parts equal the whole. The Impossible Mission, however, is all over the place. It is something of a patchwork of three different parodies. Thankfully, it’s still very funny.
Parody Number One: Mission Impossible
Mission Impossible, which ran from 1966 to 1973, was a hot property and was ripe for
being spoofed. If you judged this episode by title alone and assumed it was an MI parody, you would be wrong and perhaps disappointed. The episode’s tag starts off as a parody of MI’s tag. Like Jim Phelps, Max seeks out his taped instructions, which are supposed to self-destruct. In classic Get Smart fashion, however, they don’t.
Following the opening credits, the episode continues to mirror MI as Max goes through a file of photos and selects his “team.” His offerings for this mission are Larabee; Alfred E. Neuman; the Mona Lisa; Tiny Tim, which Max tears up; and 99, who Max would rather not have on the mission. 99 isn’t pleased to find herself in the reject pile.
99: You’re not taking me on this assignment, are you, Max?
Max: Eh… no, I’m not.
99: You can’t leave me out of this one, Max! This is the most important case that’s ever been given to Control, this could mean the end of the world.
Max: That’s exactly why I’m not letting you go on this mission. If it’s going to mean the end of the world, I want to make sure that you’re all right.
Thus ends any resemblance to Mission Impossible. A start to finish MI parody at some point in this series would have been fantastic, however, we were not going to get one. At least in season five we were offered a Martin Landau cameo.
Parody Number Two: Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
Now we get to the plot of this episode: Max must prevent Kaos’ top agent, known as
The Leader (played by Aron Kincaid), from transmitting Dr. Albert Hellman’s Theory of Hellmanivity out of the U.S. If the theory gets in the hands of Kaos’ headquarters in Europe, the human race will be faced with extinction through Hellmanitis. And the Chief doesn’t have to tell us what that is.
Much time is spent with Max and the Chief exchanging top secret information in a jet at 30,000 feet. The clunky Cone of Silence may have been less time consuming. At least TWA got some product placement.
After meeting with an informer (played by Jamie Farr) in a record shop and infiltrating pop brass band The Tijuana Tin, Max learns that the band’s leader, Herb Talbot, is The Leader. This came as bad news for Max as he owned all of the Tijuana Tin’s albums.
Would you believe this band is a parody of Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass? Well, it’s certainly not a parody of Glen Campbell. The TJB hit its peak in the late 60s at the same time Get Smart was on the air. Bill Dana, who we have to thank for The Voice and the Would You Believe routine, was one of Alpert’s early backers and wrote comic routines that were part of the band’s performances.
Parody Number Three: Charlie Chaplin
Once upon a time Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass did a Whipped Cream video with a
bunch of Charlie Chaplins. Alpert also worked out of the old Chaplin Studios.
That fun trivia, however, still doesn’t justify whatever was going on in this part of the episode.
Max and 99 attempt to evade The Leader and his sidekick (who was played by Adams’ stunt double Eddie Hice) by engaging in some sort of take-off on a Little Tramp/Keystone Cops routine — complete with the piano music. Unfortunately this bit doesn’t even rise to the level of camp. It’s possible this scene may have made sense as a direct parody of the TJB’s TV special, but 50 years down the line it’s kind of over-the-top. The only thing that helps it along is that Adams and Feldon are so darn cute.
We know how this part works. Max and 99 are holed up in the back of the TV studio with no way out. Max says he’d marry 99 if they could get out. 99 hatches an escape plan.
Cue the wedding bells.
Now insert the sound of a needle ripping across a record.
I need to get something out of the way first before I talk about this scene and why I love it. There have been viewers who have pointed out that Max didn’t actually propose — 99 just interpreted the following exchange that way:
Max: 99, there’s something I have to tell you.
99: What is it, Max?
Max: Well, we’ve known each other for a long time and well, we’ve been through a lot of things together.
99: Go on, Max.
Max: Well, It’s just that I… well I have to tell you how I really feel about you. I wanted to tell you for a long, long time but I just… well I’ve never been able to find the right words. You see 99, it’s not easy to say… well, it’s not easy to say…
99: To say I love you, Max?
99: Well why don’t you let me say it for you: I love you, Max.
Max: No, no, 99, that’s not want I want to say, I wanted to say I love you 99.
99: I’m saying I love you too, Max.
Max: You do?
99: I always have.
Max: You know, 99, if we could get out of this trap I’d marry you.
99: You would?
Max: Of course I would.
Technically Max can’t be quoted as asking “Will you marry me?” Semantics. But even 99 had a few seconds of doubt and asked if he meant what he said. Max’s response was to produce the nearest ring he could find — by tearing apart a microphone. Actions speak louder than words.
Aside from the nit picky detail mentioned above, some fans found the scene to be contrived and out of place. It’s as if someone said, “Quick, edit in that proposal.” Others did not feel it belonged in Get Smart. The thought was that Smart was too obtuse to be attracted to 99. Series creator Buck Henry didn’t like the idea either.
“I would have fought it like a tiger. What conceivable sex life could Max and 99 really have?” said Henry in a 2001 documentary, Inside TV Land: Get Smart. Henry left the series in season three.
Get Smart, though, was just as much a parody of romance as it was a parody of
espionage. 86 and 99 would have their flirtations and go as far as to attempt to kiss — only to have those moments interrupted. This was followed by rounds of jealousy. Much of that came from 99, as displayed in Washington 4, Indians 3 and Too Many Chiefs.
But Max also had his turn at playing the green eyed monster — notably in Kisses for Kaos. He’s also not too thrilled she’s assigned to babysit playboy Antonio Carlos Carioca in “The Only Way to Die.” In “Double Agent” they were supposed to go on a date — until the Chief assigned Max to become a derelict. In some episodes the two even held hands.
These patterns repeat themselves — and then we get to the third season episode, “99 Loses Control.” 99 leaves Control and Max behind to marry a casino owner that would turn out to be a Kaos agent. Max follows after her — with a framed picture of the both of them in his suitcase. The photo in question, from the season one episode “Our Man in Toyland,” shows Max kissing 99 on the check.
It would appear that Mr. Smart kept his feelings close to the vest.
“He loved her, but he treated her like a guy – his partner,” said Don Adams in Inside TV Land: Get Smart.
The proposal scene alone is really a sweet one and I find it to be the best in the series. It’s all schmaltz, goo and warm fuzzies. It’s probably the single scene in the series that allowed Don Adams to give more depth to Maxwell Smart.
Throughout the series – even after 86 and 99 tied the knot – Adams kept the character walking down a narrow path of laughable buffoonery. Smart fell into the trope or archetype known as the “fool.” That characterization doesn’t vary until this scene. In a matter of a few lines the veil is dropped and we’re presented with a human – and a fairly sensitive one at that.