What I actually love best about ‘The Avengers’ (the Emma Peel years)
It’s so playful.
The playfulness is reflected in the plots themselves, which in their free-ranging subject matter and level of silliness could easily have been transcribed from the playground adventures of seven-year-old me if not for the level of Britishness and sexual innuendo. Time and again, storylines unfold themselves with a rampant disregard for establishing a baseline level of reality in favor of just plain having a good time.
What I mean by a baseline level of reality is that most shows have a fairly concrete answer to the question: if Mulder and Scully were investigating this mystery, who would be right? In Gravity Falls, it’s Mulder, because the paranormal is real. In Scooby Doo, it’s Scully, because the paranormal is some jerk in a mask. The Avengers has no such easy answer, because the answer is always ‘what would be more fun?’ Steed has a perfect body double? Ahaha don’t be ridiculous; how could you have been fooled for a second! Telepathic space plants taking over the world? Well, of course those are real. Time travel? Nah, just an elaborate mechanized fake. The telepathic invasion of dreams to plant suggestions via creepy Santas? Well, that happens all the time.
The playfulness reaches its heights with Steed and Mrs. Peel, whose relationship is introduced with a novelty doorbell and a fencing match. In their first season together, their episodes end with a tag scene of them relaxing and having fun together; if I remember correctly, that scene is often comically sped up at the end.It’s no accident that each episode in the next season begins with ‘dress-up’ and a mock fight sequence. Not to mentions Steed’s obsession with ever more elaborate ways to deliver the message “Mrs. Peel, we’re needed.”
And from there they never let up. Throughout the series they play with model trains, guns, trampolines, umbrellas, cameras, puppets, dolls, and more. In the middle of a fight scene, Mrs. Peel takes advantage of the bars of a chair to pretend to be a zoo animal and growl at Steed. Another time, Steed sees the need to rescue Mrs. Peel–but why choose any old rescue method when the villains’ jungle-in-England theme means you can grab a goddamn vine and launch yourself at them, yodeling like Tarzan? And Mrs. Peel just runs with it, like any good player following another’s lead, with her response. It’s great.
AND! This attitude stands in marked contrast to that of many of the villains, whose potentially playful obsessions with shopping centers or roleplay or cats or whatever have turned harmful because they’ve selfishly prioritized them over actual living people. (Steed may have strong opinions how to be a proper gentleman and wear a proper bowler, but he still defends the humanity and lives of those who don’t fall into that model. Mrs. Peel revels in activites ranging from modern art to medicine to judo to nuclear physics, but she rejects all philosophies that prioritize one thing to the extent that it leads to a dehumanizing mechanization of life.) And it’s in contrast to the victims, whose tunnel vision about honey or Arabian nights or what-have-you mean they never see the bad guys coming.
The Avengers seems to suggest that it’s all very well and good to have a consuming interest in sword-canes or leather catsuits or the Hellfire Club or cinema or golf or botany or being the perfect butler, but that things come and things go, and happiness requires a flexible, improvisational, irreverent, and above all playful attitude where the only attachments are to other people.
Steed and Mrs. Peel put each other first, and have fun.
tl;dr: Steed and Mrs. Peel are suave, sexy secret agents who are the epitome of cool, and they are such because they are joyously and unashamedly huge fucking dorks about the things they love.