Shout! Factory // 1973 // 1170 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // September 1st, 2011
A collection of realistic and gritty accounts of what it meant to be a cop in 1970s Los Angeles.
Police Story is a rarity: an anthology series that has nothing to do with sci-fi or the supernatural. Instead, Police Story, which aired on NBC for some five seasons, was a collection of stories centering on police officers in the LAPD. These are varied in quality, as you might expect, and there are some that are somewhat dated. Still, if you're looking for a cop series that doesn't have to pull its punches to accommodate regular actors and storylines, Police Story is hard to beat.
Police Story is an anthology series, similar to The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, in which every episode tells a story of an LAPD officer on the job. There are episodes about undercover cops fighting drug rings ("The Ho Chi Minh Trail"), how a cop handles a drug-addicted informer ("Requiem for an Informer"), an organized-crime family that orders a hit on a cop ("Countdown"), and a pair of detectives who become increasingly estranged when one begins to act self-destructively ("The Ten Year Honeymoon"). This set compiles all twenty-one episodes of Police Story: Season One on six discs.
The episodes of Police Story encompass all aspects of police work, from cops on the beat to undercover operatives, from homicide detectives to the chief of police himself. What they all have in common is that they all address the life of a police officer from the inside. This isn't a procedural where the audience is asked to solve a mystery; in fact, most of these episodes aren't mysteries at all. Instead, these are stories about just what cops go through every day: how they handle the stress, the quirks, the aggravations, and the rewards of their unique jobs. It's also about humanizing them and letting them sometimes make mistakes, bad choices, and show poor judgment. It's even, at times, about how they don't win their battles.
The reason for the show's frankness is that author Joseph Wambaugh, who created and was a regular consultant for the series, was himself a cop for over two decades when he created the show. It was he who insisted on two nonnegotiable conditions: that the show be as realistic and down-to-earth as possible, and that the show be an anthology series so that it would be possible to show protagonists who are imperfect, unlikable, and even doomed. Without having to worry about recurring characters and storylines, Police Story is free to show police work graphically and honestly (well, for 1970s primetime TV, at least). Sometimes the protagonists aren't likable, sometimes they lose, and sometimes they die. Such unflinching honesty is what Wambaugh was aiming for, and Police Story delivers.
The episodes can veer all over the map. "The Ten Year Honeymoon" starts off as a typical mismatched buddy cop story, then veers into truly brutal emotional territory when one of the cops reveals (though not to his partner) why he's been acting the way he has. "The Ho Chi Minh Trail" is a gripping thriller in which a rookie fresh out of the academy is sent undercover with one of the most dangerous drug kingpins in L.A. and is forced to think on his feet fast. "The Violent Homecoming" is a somber story of a Chicano cop who discovers just how much pull his old neighborhood has on him. It's this kind of variety that makes Police Story intriguing; though all of the episodes address similar themes and stories, the differences in tone and style are such that they never seem predictable. Even if you've seen one episode, you won't be able to guess what another with a similar story will necessarily be like. The variety is such that the episodes that served as pilots for other police shows, such as Joe Forrester, David Cassidy: Man Undercover, and Police Woman (this season's "The Gamble") all aired on this series.
Even more significant is that the anthology format allows for more creative freedom. In some episodes, the bad guys get away, just like in real life. In some episodes, the protagonist dies, just like in real life. In some episodes, the cop makes a crucial mistake or bad judgment and ends up losing badly, just like in real life. That's what police work is about, as Wambaugh himself has said, and it helps ground the show in realism. In other shows (especially at the time), cops were depicted as flawless noble warriors. Here, they can make mistakes, lose their tempers, and fall prey to temptation. Since there are no recurring storylines, characters can be as flawed and complex as they need to be. It's another way that Police Story distinguishes itself from other and lesser cop dramas of the era.
"Requiem for an Informer" is an example of just how gritty Police Story can be. In the episode, Tony Lo Bianco (The French Connection) plays a robbery detective who discovers that a young junkie was involved a violent and dangerous crew that robs banks. At first, Lo Bianco's character is content to string the junkie along for information, but as he sees just how pathetic the informer's existence is, he becomes more concerned and eventually allows his cynical exterior to crack just a little. Sadly, the episode's resolution does technically "solve" the case, but at such a high price that the cop realizes that the only way to truly continue his work is to become even more hardened and cynical. It's the sort of episode you wouldn't have seen on something like CHiPs and it proves that Police Story is trying for something more ambitious than most cop shows.
The full-screen transfer and stereo sound mix are both pretty good. The show is nearly forty years old but Shout! Factory clearly did the best they could to make it look and sound as well as it can. There are moments of damage and dirt here and there, but that's to be expected. The extras include "Slow Boy," a 96-minute (or two hours with commercials) TV film that served as the pilot for the series and "Cop Talk: Joseph Wambaugh" (22:00), an interview with Wambaugh in which he explains his concept for the series and how he made it work.
Police Story is gritty and hard-hitting, by the standards of 1970s TV. By today's standards, it seems a bit slow and timid. In many ways, the ground this series broke was superseded by decades of followers, particularly shows like Miami Vice, Homicide: Life on the Street, and The Shield. The language is still hamstrung by 1970s TV restrictions, making it sometimes unnatural or clichéd. Even the violence, so shocking in its day, seems rather tame today. The depiction of street gangs in "The Violent Homecoming," for instance, seems only slightly more realistic than the one in West Side Story. These flaws may make Police Story hard to watch for viewers accustomed to the raw edginess of more modern TV, but if you can accept the dated parts, there are more than enough well-written and acted parts that are worth seeing.
There are parts of Police Story that haven't aged so well, and the pacing and writing make it very much of a product of its time. Still, it remains a groundbreaking series that takes police work more seriously than any other series could have, and seeing an anthology series that isn't built on sci-fi or fantasy conceits is such a rarity that it remains fascinating. Compared to some of the more whitewashed cop dramas of the era, Police Story is worthy of respect; viewers looking for a classic gritty cop show should give it a look.
Review content copyright © 2011 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 1170 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Episode