One of the great mysteries of the modern era is how pop culture icons are made. Out of the many Saturday Night Live alumni turned movie stars, why was Bill Murray the one elevated to near mythical status? Like Dan Aykroyd, he seems to do a lot of movies strictly for the paycheck. Like Chevy Chase, he has a reputation for being a jerk both on and off-set. So why him instead of them? Out of all the lovable elderly actresses in Hollywood, why have we chosen Betty White as a Buzzfeed spirit animal? Why is everything that Neil Patrick Harris does worthy of adoration and multiple heart-eye emojis? How is it that one of the best selling items on a popular women’s clothing website is a t-shirt with pictures of Jeff Goldblum all over it?
Mind you, I’m not saying these folks don’t deserve the bountiful love they receive, but it is still puzzling. After a steady career starring mostly in mediocre comedies (and one really great horror movie), Jeff Goldblum’s train finally came in when he was cast as Ian Malcolm, the “rock star” mathematician in Jurassic Park. In addition to making a grillion dollars at the box office, Jurassic Park turned Goldblum into an unlikely heartthrob, a pioneer of the “sexy nerd” archetype, and an eternal pop culture legend. Though it can be argued that his career peaked with that and Independence Day a few years later, it doesn’t really matter, Goldblum merely just has to show up unannounced in the middle of a comedy sketch on late night television, and the audience acts like Ed Sullivan just introduced The Beatles. He could never appear in another movie again, and still be just as beloved as he was twenty years ago.
Before all that though, he was just a regular struggling actor trying for his first real big break, which should have come by way of Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, a comedy-drama which aired for just six months in 1980. After appearing as a Jughead hat wearing rapist in Death Wish, a pod person in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and “Party Guest” in Annie Hall, he finally landed a lead role, playing Lionel Whitney, a well-meaning but largely out of his depth private detective.
Now, only true Hollywood insiders know this, but during the 70s and 80s the FCC required that fully one-third of all television programs airing at any given time must prominently feature at least one private detective. Preferably two, but if two were not present then they had to least have a secretary, assistant, or police contact whose primary purpose is to spar with said detective. This “Common TV Character Job That 1% of 1% of Actual People Have” clause would eventually be updated in the 90s with “full-time magazine writer” and has not yet been changed again.
Lionel, who’s obsessed with the seedy misadventures of fictitious private eye Mark Savage, starts his own detective agency, with the help of E.L. Turner (Ben Vereen), a con man fresh out of prison. In the third episode, Lionel gets his first official assignment, which is to track down a missing woman. Considering that his client refuses to identify himself, and even insists that Lionel wear a blindfold when they meet, it seems a bit fishy, but, desperate for money (for such a popular job with TV characters, being a P.I. doesn’t seem terribly profitable), he takes the case anyway.
It’s clear early on (and would be a running gag throughout the show’s brief run) that Lionel, while well-meaning, is woefully out of his depth, and would probably be brutally murdered several times over if it weren’t for the slick, savvy E.L. He crumbles when threatened with violence (despite being nearly a foot taller than everyone he encounters). He immediately turns to mush in the presence of the woman he’s been assigned to find, a taxi dancer who’s pregnant by her rich, sleazy lover–the man who paid Lionel to find her. He looks and acts more like a nebbishy bank clerk than a hardboiled private dick, and occasionally trying to do flying kicks at bad guys while shrieking doesn’t improve that image.
The plot gets a little needlessly complicated, particularly after the third act introduction of a double-crossing hitman with a soft spot for broads in trouble, and a Winston Wolfe-like character who works for Lionel’s client’s family. But you know what? For a show that came and went without leaving the barest trace on the TV history landscape, this was perfectly fine. I, too, carry a torch for Jeff Goldblum, and even here he has that familiar quirky, nervous charm. To be fair, though, Ben Vereen is pretty great too, and they’re great together, exchanging a lot of witty, engaging dialogue.
Of course, much of the humor relies upon the already stale even by 1980 trope of the uptight white guy keeping the streetwise black guy honest, while the streetwise black guy helps the uptight white guy learn to loosen up a bit. It comes off as a sort of light beer version of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder (tastes great, less cursing), and while that works well for a ninety minute movie, it probably wouldn’t have been able to sustain itself for several seasons. No matter–Tenspeed and Brown Shoe would prove to be a but a mere bump in Jeff Goldblum’s career, as just two years later he’d be cast in The Big Chill, working almost non-stop ever since, and ushering in a glorious era of weird fan fiction and internet memes.