Theme Song: Just a few bassy French horns and a timpani to let you know this is a detective show and someone is going to get arrested.
Interesting Dated References: People being concerned with street-level con artists in the era before identity theft and credit card scams.
Best Line: Lots of 70s lingo makes for an enjoyable viewing. Referring to your approval of lesbians thusly — “Hey, girl-girl is cool.” Referring to your will to commit crimes as wanting to, “get in on the swindle.”
Social Context: In the late 70s there were no email scams nor was there online identity theft and most scamming and swindling had to be done in person in the form of Pigeon Drops, Check Kiting, and games like Three Card Monty. A lot of these scams were labeled Confidence Tricks, because the victims (usually through their own greed) felt confident they were doing the right thing and were in control of the situation.
What does that have to do with anything?
Well, someone thought these scams were a big enough deal that they should make a television show pilot about two detectives who are solely focused on busting scam-artist thugs.
Summary: We meet detectives Walker (Robert Urich) and Gordean (Tom Selleck) as they are standing around on Highland Avenue in Hollywood. The two detectives are part of a bunco squad, which is a law enforcement outfit that is established to bust up confidence scams. Bunco, however, is a dice game for drunken, depressed housewives and bar-goers in bumblefuck, Wisconsin.
So, the detectives have planted an old lady to fall victim to a Pigeon Drop scam. The drop goes down, and they bust the perpetrator, Nickey (played by Marlene Clark of Ganja & Hess fame). They take her downtown, where she is immediately bailed out by Sunny, who appears to be her pimp.
He’s dressed like a pimp, he talks jive like a pimp, and he drives a Rolls-Royce like a pimp. It’s pretty over-the-top how many clichés the writers are placing on Sunny so we understand he is a no-good, pimp-like character. Walker and Gordean intimidate and harass Sunny outside the courthouse, but can’t bust him for any wrongdoing.
Our two detectives then decide to recruit Frankie (Donna Mills) to go undercover and join Sunny’s weird, non-sex related stable of women. They seriously made Sunny fit every stereotype of a pimp, but just substituted scams for sex.
Sunny immediately spots Frankie (posing as a runaway) and invites her to come back to his place to hear how she can make some money. Frankie informs Sunny that she is a lesbian so as to avoid any sexual situations. I don’t understand why the writers felt the need to over-clarify there will be no sexual situations in this series. Perhaps they were going for a more family-oriented program and didn’t want the networks to get nervous about too much adult content.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, petty criminal Dixon makes his girlfriend drive him around town so he can rob $40 from a liquor store. Back at Sunny’s non-sex related women stable, he teaches the girls how to do a Pigeon Drop scam, going so far as to play them audio recordings of what to say.
There’s a lot going on here with Sunny’s apartment interior. First, a painting of the ocean on the wall. That’s pretty great on its own, but then said painting is made to look like you are viewing it through arched windows. Incredible. On top of that, add in green shag carpet, a mustard yellow couch, metallic wallpaper in the hallway, and a black lacquer sculpture. It’s fucking insane. Bunco as a whole has some pretty good interior and exterior shots of late-70s Hollywood, but Chateau de Sunny takes the cake. So after all this training, the girls hit the mall and try to run some scams.
Two other detectives are staked out, monitoring Frankie so she doesn’t get into trouble. Yes, the two detectives are played by Jonathan Goldsmith, who is The “Most Interesting Man In The World” from the Dos Equis commercials, and James Hampton, who played not only the dad in Teen Wolf, but also was the dad’s voice from Teen Wolf: The Animated Series, as well as the uncle from Teen Wolf Too. Should two men in suits really be hanging out in the children’s clothing section?
Okay, so our main detectives, Walker and Gordean, interview a bank manager about fake checks that keep getting passed around. While that’s going on, Dixon, the petty thief, winds up at a scam artist’s club. Yes, there were apparently scam artist clubs back in the 70s, where they sat around and discussed tricks.
He meets Sunny and they decide to go into business together. They go talk to a counterfeit printer (Arte Johnson of Laugh-In fame) about printing fake payroll checks. Once that’s done, Sunny sends Frankie and Dixon out to “hang paper.”
So, any old store at the mall used to cash your paycheck and give you the money if you bought something? That’s fucking insanity, but seems to be the gist of what “hanging paper” involves. After the pair attempts the scame at a third store, they get sent to customer service, so Dixon pulls a gun and proceeds to lose his shit.
Frankie reveals she’s a cop and is immediately taken hostage, at which time she is then run through the burnt umber-colored department store. Sunny sees him come running out and then speeding off in a getaway car, so Dixon carjacks the best possible car he could:
A fucking El Camino with a great paint job. He speeds off with Frankie. Walker and Gordean run to the mall to try to help but are too late. I know, you almost forgot about our heroic duo. They’ve spent the better part of the last 20 minutes interviewing people about various scams during interludes in the main action. There was a good effort by the writers to inform the public about real-world scams through the dialogue, but it doesn’t seem wise that your pilot would remove the two main characters from the primary story.
Eventually Frankie is thrown from the car, and Dixon escapes. Walker and Gordean bring Sunny in for questioning. He gives up the name of the printer, who in turn gives up the name of the bank he gave Dixon counterfeit checks for. They proceed to stake out that bank and wait.
Remember when banks had actual artwork hanging up instead of poorly designed posters featuring smiling people who are advertising services designed to sink you further into debt? I don’t either, but based upon this photo, that’s how it used to be.
Dixon leaves the bank and the guys bust him. It’s a pretty anti-climactic conclusion. Then the guys go to talk to the now-wheelchair bound (perhaps not permanently) Frankie about needing her help on the next big case.
But another case was not to be. Bunco really didn’t seem to have a lot to work with. There were only so many street scams they could have showcased before exhausting the premise. The cast did not share the same doomed fate. The following year, Urich scored a hit when he landed the television series Vega$, which lasted for 69 episodes. Tom Selleck would go on to a land Magnum P.I. for a whopping 158 episodes. Lastly, Donna Mills went on to Knots Landing for 236 episodes.
Poster and Box Art: Bunco was released on home video in 1985, right as the country was struck with Magnum P.I.-fever. They even make mention on the Betamax sleeve that you can see Selleck “before the mustache.” Because of the 80s release, it gets a much more action-oriented 80s illustration than if it had been released in the 70s. There’s excellent rendering on the faces of both Sellek and Urich.
And the Donna Mills character gets a totally 80s makeover, from outfit to hairstyle. All in all, an excellent illustration signed by “Hile.”
Availability: Used VHS can be purchased on Amazon.