I was a little too young for "The Avengers" in the 1960s and didn't really know about it. A friend turned me on to it recently, and - wow! Season 4 is where Diana Rigg joins the show as Mrs. Emma Peel, and you can see why she was the heartthrob of so many boys in that era. Yes, she's gorgeous, but it's not just that. She makes you watch her, and every twitch of her coolly beautiful English face is expressive.
I've been steadily watching this the last few months, and contemplating what makes this such a great show generally and for now in particular. It's a complete escape - taking place long ago and far away. It comes from the boom in spy-themed productions - James Bond, "The Man From UNCLE", "Mission Impossible" and so on. It's got a light, breezy tone that goes so well with all that English understatement.
Peel and partner John Steed (Patrick MacNee) never crack a sweat. Shot in the pre-"Bonnie and Clyde" era, it never features a gruesome killing. Bodies don't bleed. Peel and Steed may not do much more than arch an eyebrow if a body falls out of a closet in front of them. But - it's a clue!
The show is not at all burdened by realism. Peel and Steed - in MI5, I think, counterintelligence - track bad actors threatening the realm. Only occasionally does the plot have a foreign intelligence tie-in. British productions of the era, usually government funded in the socialist economy of the era, avoided Cold War themes or Soviet enemies. That's why James Bond was steered away from fighting the KGB (in the first couple of stories, he does) and against, instead, guys like Dr. No.
Peel and Steed fight baddies whose evil plots have the creative, outrageous flavors of "The Twilight Zone" or "The X Files". They hardly ever pull a gun. Steed may clobber a bad guy with his umbrella or whack him with the steel-reinforced bowler he often wears, while Peel invariably uses judo to neutralize and throw around male bad guys, usually by just turning their wrist over. It's delightfully hokey. The two never have to do paperwork, never have to clean up the mess left when the bad guys are found out. We hardly ever even see them arrested or led off - just Steed and Peel riding off into the sunset, often in a ridiculous vehicle suitable for that episode's theme.
Stylewise, it's stunning. Peel models the Mod and Op Art fashions so emblematic of mid-1960s Carnaby Street London, as well as originating the skintight cat suit which became de rigeur for gorgeous girl spies. She drives a Lotus Elain, one of the tiny but nifty British sportscars of the era. Steed is retro-Edwardian, perfectly dressed, ever with umbrella and bowler, his take on the mildly eccentric English gentleman - and the emphasis is on gentleman.
The two of them coolly banter and flirt, which is okay since Mrs. Peel is a widow. Nothing ever comes of it. As the season develops some of dialogue features subtly risque double entendres, just enough but not too much for that era. You wish TV were this restrained now.
Steed, who is technically the boss and whose character preceded Peel's on the show, treats her like an equal. She's skilled in science and technology and is the one with the insight into the technological plots they struggle to foil. Peel was a big leap, breaking a lot of ground for active women characters who know stuff and fight and aren't just there to be a wife or girlfriend.
Steed is a World War II veteran like most British men of his generation and can effortlessly infiltrate military units when he needs to. He knows the language and customs. He also excels at impersonating various eccentrics and hobbyists as needed to unravel criminal plots.
I have no idea why it's called "The Avengers", since they never avenge anything and vengeance seems way too overheated an emotion for them.