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The Greatest ’70s Cop Shows (A TV on DVD Review)

The Greatest '70s Cop Shows

The Greatest ’70s Cop Shows

The Greatest ’70s Cop Shows

(Columbia Tri-Star-2004)

It’s a baffling mystery: this DVD is called The Greatest ‘70s Cop Shows, and yet Columbo is nowhere to be found here. What we do get is the ‘70s sloppy seconds: Starsky and HutchCharlie’s AngelsSWATThe Rookies and Police Woman.

Don’t bother looking for the quality you think you remember: good writing and believable situations take a backseat in an oversized Ford LTD.  Convincing acting is suffocated within skin-tight T-shirts and credible characters are stuffed like a sock into the crotch of faded bell-bottomed blue jeans.

The stories, all taking place in Los Angeles at its most boring, are slow and meandering. It’s a world of pay phones, land phones and CB radios, studio backlot mean streets, and lazy hints at female flesh. There is an infuriating lack of common sense and logic at every screeching turn. Reliability slams into dead ends harder than a low-speed car chase.

Yet, at the time, these were wildly popular series, known and appreciated more for their teasing quality of street glamour, sex appeal and their high-octane, gas guzzling, manly action. The world of the cop show has accelerated since then, and these are five examples of proof of that. However, there was something in these programs that struck a chord and kept audiences masochistically coming back for more. Watching these series in retro will take you back, but you won’t want to stay.

The first episodes of each of these series are featured here, and they have that beginner’s luck feel, as if the creators and actors truly believe that they are really are on to something. With the exception of Police Woman, all of these programs are produced by Aaron Spelling, who gives the crowd what it wants: an eighth grader’s idea of “sexy,” and just enough violence to rock your world without offending grandma.

However, the one mystery you won’t be able to solve is why suckers by the millions were tuned in, week after week, year after year. The programming choices were more limited then – that’s true – and the idea of “urban grit” on television was still being fleshed out. Solid citizens were curious at how the other half lived, but it’s hard to believe that these concepts were satisfying viewers’ curiosity – or even their midnight-snack-style hunger for escapism.

Of course, the peek into the underworld that middle America thought it was getting paled in comparison to what was really going down in the streets. The real ‘70s were long and uneasy, like a hangover. In this way only, these shows are a perfect reflection of that.

Punches are pulled constantly: bloodless shootouts, lack of police backup in dangerous situations, and robotic dialogue that is begging to be laughed at. The actors all try their best, but fast-drying formula and overly careful censors hold them back. What seemed new and brash at the time got old and tiresome fast. And it doesn’t age well.

Let’s take ‘em chronologically:

The Rookies (1972)

“Can you imagine anything more embarrassing than a cop getting lost?” asks the naïve new policeman (Michael Ontkean) as he studies the inner-city neighborhood map in the police squad room. That’s the understatement of the ‘70s, as this show sets out to prove. His partner, played by Georg (without the e, thank you) Stanford Brown, grew up in this trouble spot (or as they called it then, the ghetto, or as Brown calls it, the ghet-to). They report to a crusty but lovable Archie-Bunker-like lieutenant, who pronounces “work” like “woik,” so we know he is a woiking-class Joe. We can relate to these brave men because they have quite a dedicated responsibility to their anxious community, because they’re young and human, and because they wear groovy shirts on their days off.

This premiere episode is about gangland violence, but in a way that West Side Story realistically reflects the carefully choreographed singing and dancing of bloodthirsty Manhattan thugs. Here, the young adolescent punks look to be in their early thirties, and they are surprisingly racially integrated (it’s okay, though: the white ones talk jive). The leader of the pack is your typical teenage-gang director: an African-American man of about forty, who seems to be highly educated and overly articulate. “I heard ya turned pig,” he says to Brown (pig was a derogatory term for cop then). It’s Brown who gets the last word, though, as he shakes his head and lectures the ruffians by saying, “Jiving. That’s what you’re doing. Jiving and killing each other.”

The neighborhood of The Rookies is a Hollywood studio set reminiscent of Disney’s Main Street USA, but strewn with trash to make it look dangerous. It doesn’t work: you half-expect to see the cast of Hello, Dolly high-stepping it around the corner. And a longhaired Kate Jackson (later of Charlie’s Angels) is on hand as a rookie’s wife and compassionate nurse (we know she’s a nurse because she wears a now-extinct starched white nurse’s uniform and is extremely caring).

The rookies try, in their own TV formulaic way, to relate to the gang: they challenge the reluctant, snotty delinquents to a game of basketball (to the tune of the Harlem Globetrotters’ “Sweet Georgia Brown”) and they plead with them to “sit down and rap a bit.”  Brown registers a protest with his lieutenant that he doesn’t want to handle things the straight way; he’s gonna put The Man up against the wall: “no progress reports in triplicate and no de-part-men-tal in-ter-fer-ence!”

The violence prepares itself to escalate when we hear the bongos. That’s a given in any ‘70s cop show about to get in your face. Everybody talks in that slow, cool jive to raise the tension, and baseball bats, knives, chains and switchblades are carried but are never used. They’re just shiny, pretty props.

You can just guess the outcome, and you have already learned the social commentary that the streetwise TV writers feel they must teach you. “Survival, man,” one of the gang members accurately puts it, “that’s the whole scene.”

Of course, it’s the naïve Ontkean who lays not only his life but also his soul on the line by saying, “in a way, you guys kind of fascinate me.”

Police Woman (1974)

Former Rat Pack doll Angie Dickenson tries her man hands at series television in this early attempt to give the genre some estrogen. The theme song is sad and girly, and her character, known as Pepper Anderson, is charisma and personality free, even though the opening credits show her versatility at displaying her gams, her breasts, her brass knuckles and her head-to-toe polyester.

We are led to believe that she is versatile: she can slip undercover as a prostitute or a homeless vagrant, but there is always one thing you must always remember about Pepper: she is a LADY. She’ll coax the confession out of a criminal, but she’ll do it like a lady. A cop will die in her arms, but she’ll cradle him like a lady. And, in a personal moment that only we the audience gets to share with her, she takes a belt of hard liquor to ease the pain, from a bottle she keeps stashed in the back of her filing cabinet. She gulps it down like a lady.

In this first episode, an SLA-like “political” group (they never bother to tell us what they’re protesting) pulls a bank heist, shoots a teller, and takes a dopey hostage. They get away with the outrageously astronomical amount of $100,000 (at least in inflationary 1974 dollars).

Thanks to a computer the size of a Hummer, Pepper learns that the group is about to strike another bank. She goes undercover as a bank teller, but not before she gives us a glimpse of her bad self in a denim rhinestone-studded pantsuit.

“Playing sitting duck for those shotgun freaks gives me the creeps,” Pepper exclaims like a lady, but how creeped out are we by that pantsuit?

Her partner and alleged sexual interest, played in a virtual coma by Earl Holliman, goes out of his way to show that there is absolutely no chemistry between them; he exists only to move the plot along and to flirt with other, less lady-like girls. Pepper, handling it like a lady, pretends it doesn’t bother her when we know damn well that it does.

Meanwhile, the political group kidnaps a bank executive, taking him by surprise in his garage. “For the sake of the neighbors, we’re gonna act like old buddies,” they warn him, as they put their arms around him and walk him into the house. Apparently, the neighbors don’t notice (or care) that the bankers’ “old buddies” wear stockings on their heads. LADY stockings.

Happily, all works out in the end, and Pepper resumes her ladylike status. You almost expect to see her character description on doll packaging: “she shoots, kills and cries!”

SWAT (1975)

As we all know by now, S.W.A.T. stands for – all together now – well, we don’t exactly know what it stands for, but we know it’s about a special unit of cops who are called out for special occasions and for heavy acting and deep-reaching melodrama. They schlep heavy weapons and peer around corners and dodge bullets and ride in a UPS truck.

Casting directors’ dream boy Robert Urich begins his long resume of about 1.5 million action-packed series, but here he is only a minor part of an ensemble that is about as interesting and memorable as watching your toenails grow.

“There’s no room in this job for personal emotions,” the lieutenant instructs them on Day One. The cast learns this lesson extremely well by applying it to their acting technique.

We feel for Urich only because his partner was gunned down in a shootout that didn’t display a drop of blood (“they danced a jig around the dead bodies,” we’re told about the lunatic snipers, but sadly we are never shown this dance).

The widow, a young pretty with two kids (and one on the way, just to make sure you’re cheering for the right side), shows us her acting chops when, learning about her husband’s death, starts to baa like a lamb: “whyyyy-wh-wh-whyyyyy?”

Urich swears to get revenge on the lunatic snipers and joins the SWAT team. We’re with him, at least in spirit. And so is classy actress Annette O’ Toole, who is illogically on hand here to play a concerned wife.

The bad guy, like in all TV shows, is ugly. Here, he sniffs a lot to signify a coke habit to those more savvy ‘70s viewers in the know. Mom and Pop, watching in Levittown, assume that he suffers from bad allergies.

We are also treated to our ‘70s requirement of a “counter-culture” cop, who was a Serpico-like undercover agent before shaving his beard, chopping off his hair and boogying on down to join the SWAT team.  Prior to this transformation, the lieutenant sniffs at his hippie clothes and mutters, “You narcs are all starting to look like a bunch of weirdoes.” Later, the newly conservative-looking cop says, “Sorry I’m late, lieutenant, but I stopped to get my hair done.” This brief bit of hilarity thankfully breaks the tension that the SWAT team experiences on a minute-to-minute basis.

SWAT’s lumbering, unmelodic theme song actually became a #1 record in 1976, contributing to the theory that nothing in the ‘70s ever made sense. Within the show, the theme song is used until it is used up. There is a sad SWAT theme for when the dying cop is on the operating table, and a peppy SWAT theme for when the fellas are working out so that they can more effectively beat up the bad guys.

As the lieutenant explains to the recruits, “A lot of time, reason has nothing to do with it. Nothing at all.”

Don’t we know it.

Starsky and Hutch (1975)

Starsky and Hutch immediately breaks the promise it gives us in its opening credits. Although we are shown gas-guzzling Fords in hot pursuit of each other, skidding tires, and wild-eyed screaming, the episode itself moves at the pace of a constipated slug. As mellow as LA itself, Starsky and Hutch take their slow, sweet time trying to track down a homemade bomb that is set to go off in less than an hour. All of this, of course, with absolutely no police backup.

This lazy fact-finding mission takes the boys through the leisurely streets of the underworld, escorted by their shady but lovable pal, Huggy Bear. Huggy, all pimped out on purpose, is like a benign tumor, “making calls” (on a land phone) to the “right people” who are, of course, the “wrong” people, who help lead S&H to their culprit.

There are also a few wrong turns in that Gran Torino: they get to meet Suzanne Somers, playing a perky stripper in a sleazy strip joint (but they refer to it as a “disco”). Somers complains that her husband (the possible mad bomber in question) “likes sports more than he likes sex,” and we are left dumbfounded, right along with the boys. We are also misled to a pair of pre-hip-hop African American teens (all Afros and bell bottoms), who get into a pickup basketball game with our heroes (again, to the theme of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Aaron Spelling must own the rights to this song.).

Police brutality is naturally taken for granted in the ‘70s, as we can barely bring ourselves to watch S&H violently manhandle the patrons of a bookie joint. This signals to us that the boys can be tough when they have to be, but in a casual, laid-back way.

Meanwhile, a young mechanic hears the bad guys (named Wilbur and Greg) reveal their diabolical plans and he responds with, “and I work my tail off for three bucks an hour? I wish I had the guts.” Later, though, he repents by thinking out loud, “Just the thought of me going to jail gives me the screaming Mimi’s.”

Paul Michael Glaser, who plays Starsky, must have won the coin toss that week, because it’s his turn to be the hero. All by himself, he drives the bomb-toting car into a conveniently located empty field and lets it detonate on its own. No bomb squad — no worries. And big props (literally) to the Ford Motor Company for allowing one of its precious ‘70s models to explode as part of a TV show plot, instead of on its own and in real life, like their Pinto. Hutch, played by David Soul, occupies himself with the required parking-garage shootout, but those humongous Fords provide adequate protection from bullets.

The episode contains a weary surprise: The bomb is actually planted by two churchgoing old folks (from the Eastside Home for the Aged) who are protesting the bad conditions of their decrepit habitat (which we never really see). S&H go into their slow-movin’ action, convincing a councilman who looks like Frank Sinatra to put the old coots on probation by forcing him to eat the “garbage” that they are forced to eat. It’s understandable how bad food merits a “get out of jail free” card for attempting to blow up a third of LA.

Huggy Bear, wearing an ascot that makes his pimp wardrobe look like that of a Wall Street banker, charitably cooks up some soul food for the old folks. This is to showcase Huggy’s huggable side. The rapidly aging white lady asks for “some black-eyed peas and some ham hocks,” and everybody breaks up in hysterics over the cultural awkwardness.

All’s well that ends clumsily.

Charlie’s Angels (1976)

Plot: Sabrina wears an extra tight T-shirt that says “Sabrina.” Kelly wears an extra-tight T- shirt that says “Grand Prix Monaco.” Jill begins work on growing the hairdo that ends up on the head of every female in every ’70s yearbook picture in America.

Subplot: something to do with the average, ordinary, everyday, completely understandable world of the female demolition derby.

The derby’s frustrated owner (we immediately know he’s a bad guy because he’s stone ugly) mumbles, “These broads could be driving naked and I still couldn’t fill these stands.” As difficult as this is to swallow, we are involuntarily exposed to the “less than kosher track exploits” of the derby’s best racer and #1 bad girl, nicknamed Bloody Mary, who says, “Ya don’t win by bein’ good. Ya win by bein’ first.”

Needless to say, the dialogue of Charlie’s Angels has all the intensity of a Close-Up toothpaste commercial. And, as we all know, the girls work for the profitable, business-savvy Charles Townsend Detective Agency (with exactly three Ford Pintos parked outside!).

The too-cute-for-words gimmick is that Charlie’s face is never seen. He communicates to the young lovelies through a relevant slide show and a crystal-clear land-phone intercom; and through his Guy Friday, Bosley (played by David Doyle, who we are lead to believe is an amazingly versatile actor, but he never seems to be anybody but David Doyle in various costumes and accents). The girls obey Charlie’s commands by flipping their hair and sitting seductively on the overstuffed couches, asking questions about the case that somewhat move the messy plot along.

Coincidentally, Sabrina used to drive in the demolition derby (!), which comes in handy when the girls investigate why somebody tampered with a racer named Suzy’s car and she was MURDERED! Sabrina gets her hammy Southern accent out of mothballs so she can keep an eye on Bloody Mary and “lock bumpers” with her.

Of course, we don’t care about any of this. We care about Farrah! And to our bitter disappointment, the creators are careful not to give Farrah too much to do, except to chirp cheerfully, “I heard a girl was KILLED on the track this week!” and to “play dumb” in a card game, which she does with expert skill. And when asked by one of the mechanics, “what denomination are you?” she replies, “34-25-35, brother!” Amen.

The plot continues its slow slide into incoherency, involving everything from murder to a jewel heist to cracking a safe. Somebody shoots at Jill, and she doesn’t know enough to hide behind the mega-large Ford right next to her; Kelly charms her way out of a speeding ticket; Bosley disguises himself as a preacher named Brother John, who offers prayers and safety for the drivers. Yet who’s looking out for us?

It’s a world of damsels and dudes in distress, with rides provided by the Ford Motor Company, without a drop of blood ever being spilled or a coherent moment ever being shared. Yet we the people shouted out for more, and you know the rest: happy endings only happen on TV!

 Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2005  All rights reserved.  Posted: January 16, 2005.

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