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‘Master Ninja’ (Blu-ray Review)

Just a few months prior to the debut of The Cosby Show, which allowed NBC to crawl out from under their ratings rock in the fall of 1984, there was another run for viewership gold held during the 1983-84 season. Well, it was more of a jog, or even a power walk (with breaks) as most of the new programs, including Jennifer Slept Here and We Got it Made failed to make a blip on the radar (confession: I watched both and adored them). Worried about their last place in the lineup, NBC got a little edgy around mid-season, cancelling five shows, and bringing in a crop of new series they hoped would change the languid landscape of the Peacock Network. Part of the new programming introduced a Friday night schedule that disconnected them from television’s main demographic, as the network took a bet on two manly men’s series.

To clarify, since the early days of TV, female viewers aged 18-49 were considered the most desirable audience because they were the chief consumers in the household (in the early days of television, this group was made up largely by housewives who bought most of the products used in the home; but even today that demographic still remains one of the most sought after). That’s not to say that there weren’t shows targeting the testosterone, but most were savvy enough to either add a beefcake factor (Magnum P.I., Simon and Simon), or include a likeable female character, even if she resided on the margins (240-Robert, T.J. Hooker, Matt Houston), or in the best case scenario made the female lead just as important as her male counterpart (Remington Steele and Hart to Hart, I’m looking at you). Or sometimes they just forgot the guy and let women do it for themselves (Murder, She Wrote, and Cagney and Lacey I salute you!). Of course, there were always male-centric action shows (the 70s is brimming with Starsky and Hutches and Kojaks) but the idea of exploiting our preoccupation with Reagan-era white male action heroes was brought to new small screen heights in January 1984, when NBC added Legmen and The Master to their lineup.

To be fair, NBC had recently picked up Riptide, which was one of the more underrated and utterly delightful detective shows of that decade. The formula was simple, get a couple of good-looking guys to solve crimes and romance the ladies. The balance of comedy and action was charming and garnered decent ratings, so even if it wasn’t busting up the charts the way its main inspiration Magnum P.I. was, it may have seemed like a natural progression to keep creating these types of diverting male-driven series. Legmen was about two college students who made money as bail bondsmen. And like Riptide, the tone was kept light and fun. While it was met with gentle, if ambivalent, criticism, the series was very short-lived and cancelled in March. And, despite the fact that it featured the charismatic and soon-to-be-famous Bruce Greenwood in one of his earliest roles, the series hasn’t really reared its head since cancellation.

Fortunately, the same cannot be said for the wild ride that The Master has taken over the last 30+ years. Following Legmen on the schedule, The Master featured the stalwart Lee Van Cleef as John McAllister, the only American to master the art of ninja (before American Ninja, obviously). But, he abandoned that occupation, choosing instead to search for the adult daughter he only recently discovered existed. The ninjas are pretty upset about his resignation, and send an assassin named Okasa (Sho Kosugi!) to hunt him down. Along the way, McAllister hooks up with Max Keller (Timothy Van Patten), a fun-loving and agile ladies man whose only real friend is his pet hamster (I’m not kidding). After a bar fight the two form a quick friendship, with McAllister begrudgingly offering to teach Keller the way of the ninja. Action ensues.

The series only lasted slightly longer than Legmen, running for thirteen episodes before disappearing into what everyone figured would be merely a footnote in the world of eighties television.

How wrong we were.

The first few episodes of The Master included actresses who were poised for stardom. The pilot, Max, featured Demi Moore; State of the Union, which was the third episode, starred Crystal Bernard; and in the fifth episode, titled Hostage, Jennifer Runyon appeared in a thankless but spirited role.

Those newly famous faces may have encouraged the makers of The Master to release most of the series on home video. It was retitled Master Ninja and episodes were mashed together into a synthetic feature length format (essentially, two episodes were edited together by cutting out the opening of the second episode), and the first release hit video store shelves in April 1985. Almost every episode was released this way with Rogues falling by the wayside to accommodate an even twelve episodes – or six films – in the home video market.

Mashing up a TV series into a film isn’t that uncommon. Dan August, starring Burt Reynolds was repackaged to capitalize on his fame, and Battlestar Galactica did the same thing because the short-lived series’ bonafide cult classic status had audiences begging for more. Most of these compilations came and went, but The Master was dealt another fortuitous hand of fate when Mystery Science Theater 3000 aired two of the VHS releases in the 1990s. This managed to infuse belated but enthusiastic interest in the series, which now finds itself at the center of a really nice Blu Ray release in 2018, 34 years after its initial airing. Not bad for a series that never got past the first season, and which, honestly, no one took seriously.

There’s plenty to admire about The Master though. It’s certainly flawed, and admittedly, Van Cleef often looks like he’d rather be somewhere else. But, there’s an undeniable energy afoot, and one that makes it more than something only worth a kitsch viewing. Yeah, it’s a time capsule of what lesser television looked like in the mid-eighties, but it is also an artifact of how TV embraced character actors. Aside from soon-to-be-big-name faces like Moore and Bernard, the overall casting of supporting characters in The Master was pretty extraordinary. George Lazenby, David McCallum and Monte Markham were all given some love in Hostages; Tara Buckman, William Smith and the ridiculously elegant Diana Muldaur picked up a paycheck in Juggernaut; and Buckman reappears with George Maharis and Janine Turner in The Good, The Bad and The Priceless.

Even the behind the camera staff was intriguing. Directors like Michael Caffey (Streets of San Francisco, Cannon) and even the underrated Gordon Hessler (Scream, Pretty Peggy), who’d go on to direct Kosugi in the future releases Pray for Death (1985), Rage of Honor (1987), and Journey of Honor (1991), gave The Master his due. There were even female writers on staff. Alison Hock (Cagney and Lacey, Hunter) and Susan Woollen (Quincy M.E., Remington Steele) injected dynamic and independent women into what otherwise looked like a sea of machismo.

It’s easy to brush off shows like this because when a series only sets out to entertain, it somehow becomes worthy of disdain. But don’t discard The Master just yet. It’s one big comfort blanket of bliss, and a good introduction into Kosugi if you aren’t familiar with his work. Also, whenever Van Cleef gets into the part, it’s joyous. And who doesn’t need a little of that in their life?

About Amanda Reyes

Amanda Reyes is an archivist, author, film and television historian and academic. She edited and co-wrote Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964-1999 (Headpress, 2017) which celebrates the made for television film, and was featured on Barnes and Noble’s Best of Horror list for 2017. The book is an expansion of her TV movie-centric blog, Made for TV Mayhem and its companion podcast. She's had essays published in several books including Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television, and When Animals Attack. She's been a guest speaker at international film festivals, TV movie screenings, and conferences in such places as England, Australia, and stateside in Texas, where she currently resides. She also contributed the commentary tracks for the Blu Ray release of the 1977 telefilm The Spell (Shout Factory, 2017) and the upcoming release of Last House on the Left (Arrow, 2018). And, she is the curator and co-presenter of the Alamo Drafthouse’s Made for Television Mystery Movie series, which runs quarterly as part of Terror Tuesday. Amanda also loves slashers, soap operas, and Michael Mancini on Melrose Place.

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