Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger would like to see your license and registration...and maybe take you out for a drink later. Come on, doll, whaddya say?
Attention all units: Seven Mary Three and Four now in pursuit.
CHiPs was a staple in the television diet of many a Seventies child. Though not a diehard fan, I spent many an afternoon curled up on the couch thrilling to the adventures of Ponch and Jon. The staccato beat of the drum machine and interdimensional synthesizer riffs of the theme song still echo in the back of my mind. CHiPs wasn't part of the Seventies, it was the Seventies—and helped usher in the Eighties, too. Like it or loathe it, there was no avoiding CHiPs back in the day. Ponch's enormous smile and Jon's golden coif were plastered on lunchboxes, T-shirts, and notebook covers. CHiPs was red-hot, and now it has set its sights on the 2000s. Will the show play as well on shiny DVDs and glossy HD monitors as it did on wood-grain television sets?
Facts of the Case
California Highway Patrol officers Jon (Larry Wilcox) and Ponch (Erik Estrada) are polar opposites. Jon is a clean-cut, baby-faced golden child. His uniform is always spotless and his face is always set in a mask of polite concern. He writes out his reports in neat script and knows "The Book" cold. Ponch, on the other hand, is a reckless hothead who uses his bike and his dazzling smile as weapons of mass destruction. His uniform is usually soiled with glue, champagne, or spoiled baby food. His bike is usually in the shop. And he is usually on probation for provoking the constant ire of Sergeant Getraer (Robert Pine). Nonetheless, these unlikely partners get to the bottom of a lot of crime as they pursue every hot woman on the highway. Season One includes the following fine episodes:
No matter what else happens, this DVD set from Warner Brothers should put a huge grin on the face of any CHiPs fan. With a palette of buff, teal, and fluorescent orange, the cover features the prominent figures of Ponch and Jon decked out in full Highway Patrol regalia. Inner artwork goes with this theme, recalling the lunchbox and T-shirt blitz from three decades ago. You'll see every one of Erik Estrada's dazzling white teeth and every one of Jon's dazzling golden hairs as you work your way through the set. For sheer vibe alone, this set is a winner.
How is CHiPs after all these years? I was dying to find out. The theme song was boring a hole through the back of my brain and the anticipation wasn't going to end until I popped that disc in and freed the boogey. If you're in the same boat, do yourself a favor and load up "Undertow" or another episode first because "Pilot" has different theme music. Not dramatically different, just different enough to take the wind out of your sails as you try to hum along.
Otherwise, "Pilot" proves that CHiPs was birthed fully formed from the womb. It's all there, from Ponch's antics to Jon's disapproving head shakes and Sergeant Getraer's scowling face. Great-looking aerial footage of endless highways vies with claustrophobic, tense motorcycle chase action. You can spot the bad guy immediately and can predict within plus or minus ten seconds the moment when some outrageous coincidence will drop the crime-solving clue into their laps. There's not a beat or a subplot that wasn't conceived, implemented, and honed in the pilot. The rest of the episodes follow that blueprint to a T, and that's about all there is to say.
Even by today's standards, this is one glossy looking show. The footage has faded to be sure, and print damage intrudes on every frame, but I'm talking about the look. Peppy cuts and fast zooms in the opening credits are but one aspect of the show's pizazz. Los Angeles and her gleaming, sinuous loops of highway are captured with glee by carefully synched aerial footage; the camera is usually looping around a cloverleaf just as our heroes roar into view, lights blazing. When the camera moves into a chase, it is usually a first-person view that allows every kid to ride shotgun on the pursuit.
Another cool aspect of CHiPs is the bad guy—traffic stop—chase formula. Ponch will be regaling Jon with some buffoonery or another as the two ride side-by-side, just minding their own business. Cut to a seedy-looking hippie or an obviously drunk lawyer or what have you. "Busted," you say to yourself as you nod wisely. The poor sap barrels right past our pretty pair, knocking aside construction cones or swerving all over the yellow line. Jon looks at Ponch and they nod wisely in unspoken agreement. The lights come on, the sirens wail, and before you know it Seven Mary Three and Four are on the job. The chase might be over quickly or it might go on awhile, depending on how much run time was left to consume around the "plot." If the baddie was basically a nice guy who made a mistake, then there's a clean traffic stop peppered with lots of banter, flashing smiles, maybe an "aww, shucks" or a stern lecture thrown in for good measure. If the baddie was the ringleader of a car theft ring or a really nasty cat, then the stop usually featured a brief chase next to a convenient pool of mud or stack of cardboard boxes.
Ahh, CHiPs, there will never be another show like you.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
CHiPs episodes were never intended to be watched back-to-back, but I forged ahead anyway. The truth is, CHiPs is a very slow show. Sure, the chases are cool and the '70s chic is good for many a laugh. But the writers had serious problems with pacing. The nadir for me was "Surf's Up" which on paper can't lose: Ponch and Jon are transferred to Malibu. The path is clear: bikinis, and lots of them. But no. Instead we get lengthy sequences of kids walking down dusty roads, or the partners driving down palm-lined lanes or executing the lamest Jet Ski exhibition in television history. A pair of shapely stewardesses infuses the show with some life, but their screen time is far too brief to make any impact on the dull plot arc. A couple of preteen Latino lads hop into Ponch's lap when he offers to take them to Disneyland; I wondered if I'd wandered into the Hispanic answer to Michael Jackson and Neverland Ranch. Though I spot-checked the rest of the discs for mastering errors, I'd reached my saturation point and was burnt out on CHiPs.
Erik Estrada is largely to blame for this malaise. I know he's the "cool" part of the duo and emphasizes the character's larger-than-life qualities. Erik Estrada is at least halfway responsible for the CHiPs mania that gripped a small part of the nation in the late Seventies. The luminescence of his smile may never be matched. I know all of that, but Ponch is a cornball. A ham. A deep-fried cheese stick with cheese sauce and a dusting of parmesean. Even now, with Ponch's Police Tips that introduce key episodes, I can conjure up all of his cheesy moments making it impossible to focus on what Estrada is saying. Don't get me wrong; he's a likable ham and I dig his shtick, but in small doses. I guess what I'm saying is a CHiPs marathon is a bad idea. Compared with Ponch's bravado, Sergeant Getraer's channeling of Han Solo is positively restrained on the machismo meter. Next to Estrada, Larry Wilcox could be accused of under-acting.
Speaking of Wilcox, he's part of the show too, right? There was a falling out way back, and probably deserved. How many years can two buddy cops ride together without some conflict behind the scenes? But Wilcox showed up for CHiPs '99, so presumably he hasn't completely sworn off the show. Yet Estrada is doing the episode intros and the featurette. It imbalances the set even further.
Speaking of imbalance, women have come a long way on television. Every woman on CHiPs is a whistle target or deserves of a long, lecherous look. When one bleeding and frightened girl is pinned when her VW bug goes up an embankment, Ponch is on her like a fly on honey. He offers encouragement like "The paramedics will be here before I have time to get fresh with you" or "Here they come, let's get you pretty" as he strokes her hair.
CHiPs: The Complete First Season set fully understands the glee that is CHiPs and emphasizes it with great artwork. The pace is not nearly as exciting as I remember and the formula and forced smiles quickly grate. But when sirens kick in and the funky chase is on, all ire melts away. CHiPs is an attitude, my friend, and that attitude will never die.
Probation is over. Now get out there!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Ponch's Police Tips
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