The inmates of a German World War II Prisoners of War camp conduct espionage and sabotage campaign right under the noses of their warders. While the enemy is often gullible, easily fooled or downright incompetent - the real strength of Hogan's men are the elaborate ruses and sometimes dangerous lengths they will go to complete their mission. Probably the most successful bad idea in television history, Hogan's Heroes
took an appalling premise--the suffering of World War II prisoners-of-war played for laughs--and turned it into a hugely popular series that ran for six seasons. Wily Colonel Hogan (Bob Crane, previously a regular on The Donna Reed Show
) and his merry multicultural band of P.O.W.s--including cocky cockney Newkirk (Richard Dawson, pre-Family Feud
), softhearted Frenchman LeBeau (Robert Clary, later to appear on Days of Our Lives
), clumsy explosives expert Carter (Larry Hovis), and steadfast radio operator Kinch (Ivan Dixon), one of the first black characters on television to be treated as an equal by his peers without any self-congratulatory comment--carried out spying and sabotage against the Third Reich, always back in the cozy confines of Stalag 13 by the end of the episode. But the good guys were not the show's real draw; Hogan (charming to some, smarmy to others) may have been the titular hero, but audiences loved high-strung Nazi commandant Col. Klink (Werner Klemperer, who won two Emmys for the role) and the adorably bumbling Sgt. Schultz (John Banner), whose cries of "I see nozzink, I know nozzink!" became the show's biggest catchphrase.
The fourth season finds the snappy one-liners, preposterous plots, oversexed atmosphere, and Nazi buffoonery all firmly entrenched. Brief bits of suspense help to balance the clownish antics. The missions change a little from episode to episode (instead of a bridge, they have to blow up an ammo dump; instead of a beautiful lady spy, they have to help...no, it's always a beautiful lady spy), but a reassuring sameness is what guarantees the success of any sitcom. It's interesting to speculate about why audiences embraced these goofball Nazis only a couple of decades after the revelation of the decidedly unfunny concentration camps. Perhaps, as the Cold War wore on and the threat of atomic annihilation felt increasingly likely, mocking the previous threat to the world made the Soviet Union less terrifying; or maybe Klink and Schultz are hapless 1950s parent figures, outwitted by their more worldly hipster children. Regardless, even contemporary viewers with a taste for daffy pranks may find Hogan's Heroes a bit of sweet comfort food. --Bret Fetzer