Combat!, a one-hour WWII drama series on television, followed a frontline American infantry squad as they battled their way across Europe. With mud-splattered realism, the show offered character studies of men striving to maintain their own humanity in the midst of a world torn by war.
By the time Combat! gets into its third season, the episodes are familiar (though not repetitive) and comfortable and, for the most part, excellent. Billy is gone from the picture, which was a mistake on the part of the producers, in my opinion, but that’s really the only thing I have against Season 3. (Besides the few mediocre episodes.) There’s a whole slew of new, famous guest stars to watch and fangirl over, great squad-focus episodes, and good, steady characterization throughout. All the regulars do well in their respective roles and for this season and the next there won’t be any new additions to the squad to shake things up a bit (McCall joins up with them briefly in Season 5). Unlike quite a few TV shows I could name, Combat! doesn’t go into a slump in its third year – Season 3 is solid throughout.
Main characters: Saunders ‘dies’ in this season. At least that’s what everyone thinks for about three-fourths of an episode (“The Hard Way Back”), and it’s very interesting to see how everyone reacts and handles the news (or doesn’t handle it). You really get a sense of how much everyone depends on Saunders to always be there, and how devastating it would be if he ever wasn’t (but, really, I don’t think he’s going anywhere – he’s been burned, beaten, shot multiple times…). From Kirby almost shouting at Sal Mineo’s character (what’s his name?) to Caje’s stares/glares to Doc’s “After all this time…Sarge is dead?”, it’s a tremendously insightful moment in the show’s history. Saunders goes through the wringer again in “The Little Carousel” (which has become a rather infamous episode among fans) – I won’t give spoilers, but it’s a pretty intense plot line.
Kirby and Caje both have noteworthy moments as well, in the character development department. First, there’s Kirby in “Brother, Brother” when one of his friend’s brothers (from back home) shows up and joins the squad. We seem to run across Kirby’s friends (be it from back home or Love Company) more often than the friends of any other squad member, which is interesting – I guess it just shows that Kirby gets around a lot. Anyway, it’s a great Kirby focus episode and you really get to understand some more facets of his character and how he sticks up for Saunders and finally works up the courage to tell Cane the truth about his brother. And then there’s Caje in “Losers Cry Deal”, which I’ve already talked about in this post.
Doc gets wounded badly in “Operation Fly Trap”, although that wasn’t much focused on since the story went all over the place. But there are several episodes where he has a major (or major-ish) part, like “The Long Walk” or “The Long Wait”, so I’m not complaining. Hanley (really, the whole squad) got some great moments in “A Cry In The Ruins”, with Hanley having to first negotiate and then uphold a truce with a German squad. I think that episode shows Hanley’s strength and depth of character exceptionally well. It’s nice to see him working with the squad, as opposed to doing solo spy missions (although I enjoy those too). Season 3 has some great defining moments for each characters, in one episode or another, and that’s really all I ask.
Minor characters: As I mentioned before, Season 3 has a superb selection of guest stars – Telly Savalas, Roddy McDowall, Rip Torn, Andrew Prine, Mickey Rooney, Sal Mineo, Robert Duvall, and Charles Bronson. And, wow, when I look back at that list (and that’s just for one season!), I can’t help feel proud of Combat! for attracting so many great actors. Unfortunately, they didn’t always get the best of roles (in my opinion, “Heritage” – Charles Bronson’s episode – was one of the worst of the series, and he was dreadfully miscast), but there are still a few Guest Star Characters that I’ve taken a great liking to.
To be frank, I thought Roddy McDowall/Murfree/Klepner was just plain weird the first time I watched “The Long Walk”, but after I re-watched it one or two times, my opinions changed for the better (I still don’t know exactly how it happened), and I now quite like him as an actor. Sal Mineo played quite a good character in “The Hard Way Back” – I went in the episode expecting to not like him at all (and I didn’t for the first half or so), but by the end, I felt a lot of sympathy for him. I haven’t seen “The Brothers” yet (Mineo’s third C! appearance), but I thiiiink that Kogan will always be my favorite C! role for Mineo. Then there’s Lt. Benton (“Billy The Kid”) played by Andrew Prine, who’s one of my favorite minor characters in the entire show. A bit unsure at first, but his plan is brilliant, and seeing him gradually mature through the course of the episode was great. Last, but certainly not least, is Rip Torn as Avery. I wrote a whole post devoted to his awesomeness, so I’ll just direct you there.
Favorite/Least Favorite episodes: I wouldn’t say that Season 3 stands out much, in terms of amazing episodes, but there are plenty of good solid ones throughout. Still, you have to take the misses with the hits, and I’d say they’re pretty frequent (more than in Season 1 or 2 – but definitely less than Season 5) – “The Silver Service” and “Mountain Man” are both ‘snow episodes’, and I really don’t care for them. “Vendetta” was ridiculous, I didn’t much enjoy “Birthday Cake”, or “The Convict”, or “The Steeple”. And, as I mentioned, “Heritage” is one of the worst episodes in the whole show, which is a shame, since Charles Bronson is such a good actor. I’ll admit that I haven’t seen any of these episodes more than once (and my opinions have changed before upon re-watchs), so I may very well end up sighing over this paragraph later on, but…probably not.
Now for my favorite part: gushing about all the episodes I do love. Well, first there’s “Losers Cry Deal”. Duh. I really need to watch that one again sometime soon. “The Hard Way Back” is one of my favorites because of the squad and all their emotional tension and worry through the whole episode. It’s always wonderful seeing how close knit they all are – like a family. I can’t say “The Little Carousel” is one of my favorite favorites, but it’s such a well-done episode, I can’t help but mention it (and there’s plenty of squad interaction, which always bumps an episode up in my esteem). “The Enemy” is an excellent Hanley focus. One of the best, in my opinion. “A Gift Of Hope” is in my top five. “The Town That Went Away” is a lovely, light holiday episode (with Doc, for once). “A Cry In The Ruins” and “Billy The Kid” I’ve already mentioned – they’re both amazing.
Overall: I just read a couple of Christmas C! fics today, and it suddenly hit me just how much I wish there’d been an honest-to-goodness Christmas episode. Wouldn’t that have been amazing? (I know that was unrelated, but it came to me while I was in the middle of writing this, and I had to put it in somewhere.) Anyway. Season 3 isn’t my favorite season, but there are plenty of great episodes – enough hours of awesomeness to fill any C! fan’s heart with joy, right? (And as every fan has different ideas about what makes a good episode, it’s even better.) It’s SUCH a great show.