More blow-dried hair and polyester than you can shake a nightstick at!
In its ongoing quest to completely cannibalize itself, Hollywood has, in recent years, developed a penchant for resurrecting musty old television series and turning them into feature films. Three of the five programs represented on this DVD are cases in point: we're already on our second Charlie's Angels movie, and both Starsky and Hutch (starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as the dynamic, ambiguously-oriented duo, with Snoop Dogg as the redoubtable Huggy Bear) and S.W.A.T. (with Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell stepping into the roles originated by Steve Forrest and Robert Urich, respectively) are, at this writing, waiting in the wings. No word yet on adaptations of The Rookies or Police Woman (although the latter would be a tailor-made vehicle for Sharon Stone at this stage of her career), but anything can happen.
So return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when skintight Angels Flight slacks and Qiana shirts open to the navel ruled the fashion sense of a nation—a time when every American girl wanted to be an Angel, and every American boy had one Scotch-taped to his bedroom wall.
Facts of the Case
Presented for your approval are the inaugural episodes of five TV action series that premiered during the 1970s.
The Premise: If you were an adolescent male in the 1970s, you know the opening spiel by rote: "Once upon a time, there were three little girls who went to the Police Academy. They were all assigned very hazardous duties. But I took them away from all that. Now, they work for me. My name…is Charlie."
The Stars: Charlie's original Angels remain the best configuration of the show's tenure: Sabrina, the smart one with the sexiest voice on television (Kate Jackson, also on view here in an earlier supporting role in The Rookies); Kelly, the brunette most likely to be kidnapped, or seen in a bikini, or both (newcomer Jaclyn Smith, in the days before she became a Kmart pitchster), and Jill, the flirtatious blonde with the impossibly big hair and teeth (Farrah Fawcett-Majors, fresh off her starmaking cameo in the cult sci-fi film Logan's Run). Cherubic David Doyle plays Bosley, right-hand man to the mysterious, and only obliquely seen, master detective Charlie Townsend (voiced by TV stalwart John Forsythe, later of Dynasty).
The Episode: "Hellride." The Angels infiltrate an all-female dirt track racing circuit to break up a ring of smugglers. Sabrina plays race driver. Bosley plays itinerant Bible-thumping evangelist. Jill plays his fetching daughter in charge of passing the collection plate. Kelly models snug-fitting T-shirts and halter tops, and stands around a lot. The villains are stock cardboard characters who practically apprehend themselves.
Grade: B. All the essential elements of the series are pretty much in place. The plot contains more holes than a carload of Krispy Kremes, and is just about as fluffy and syrupy. On the positive side, it moves right along and delivers innocuous, off-with-the-thinking-cap entertainment featuring three beautiful, confident women.
Starsky and Hutch
The Premise: Two good-looking young plainclothes detectives speed through the streets of Los Angeles (or, more accurately, an unnamed Big American City, played here by Los Angeles) in a fire-engine-red Ford Torino with a pre-Nike white swoosh down the side, exasperating their blowhard captain. All their inside street dope comes from a flamboyant restaurateur known only as Huggy Bear. (Huggy's true occupation, as any fool can deduce, is "managing" ladies of compromising virtue, but on 1970s network TV, "restaurateur" was as close as you could get, euphemistically speaking.)
The Stars: Whatever charm the show possesses lies in the unforced and engaging camaraderie between Dave Starsky, the short, dark one who eats all the time (Paul Michael Glaser, who went on to a successful career as a television director), and Ken "Hutch" Hutchinson, the tall, blond, moody one (David Soul, who went on to a career of formula trash even worse than this). Antonio Fargas, however, steals every scene in which he appears as the outré Huggy Bear. Bernie Hamilton yells a lot as Captain Dobey.
The Episode: "Savage Sunday." Car thieves hijack a Chevy from an elderly couple. Unbeknownst to the thieves, Grandma and Grandpa have packed the trunk with fifty sticks of dynamite, which are set to explode at 5:00PM as a public protest against the miserable conditions in city-operated retirement homes. Starsky, Hutch, and Zebra Three (the Torino's radio call sign) have to track down the baddies before the Chevy goes kablooey. And hey—isn't that Suzanne Somers in the straight-out-of-Laugh-In go-go dancing outfit?
Grade: C+. An average episode of a series that was dimwitted, lightweight, and formulaic even at its best. The whole idea of Ma and Pa Kettle tooling around town in a time bomb is simply ridiculous, especially given the way the script resolves the situation. Needed more Huggy Bear. Penalized a half-grade for gratuitous Suzanne Somers.
The Premise: A paramilitary police unit (for the uninitiated, the initials stand for Special Weapons and Tactics) storms into crime scenes in a rolling arsenal called the War Wagon (a concept swiped from Don Pendleton's The Executioner novels) and proceeds to shoot everything in sight.
The Stars: Granite-visaged B-movie actor Steve Forrest spans the emotional range from 0 to 0.5 as humorless S.W.A.T. commander Dan "Hondo" Harrelson. The omnipresent Robert Urich, who starred in roughly half the series in television history prior to his untimely demise, and Mark Shera, best remembered as Buddy Ebsen's nephew on Barnaby Jones, are two of Hondo's sidekicks.
The Episode: "The Killing Ground." When the partner of Officer Jim Street (Urich) is gunned down during a wave of anti-police sniper attacks, the young cop joins a newly constituted S.W.A.T. team to help bring the serial murderers to justice.
Grade: D. None of the regulars can act a lick. Way too much exposition about the formation of the S.W.A.T. team. Most of the minuscule entertainment value comes from watching the familiar character actors guest starring as the cop killers: Geoffrey Lewis, a regular member of Clint Eastwood's repertory company; William Lucking—Renny from Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze; and the lovely and underutilized Annette O'Toole (Superboy's mom on TV's Smallville). Take away the (in)famous theme music, and this bomb is disposable.
The Premise: An all-male Mod Squad, only with uniforms. Three young police officers—one black, one white, one married—try to resolve the problems of the big city, in that moralistic, utopian, socially relevant way typical of the early 1970s.
The Stars: Future TV series director Georg Stanford Brown, married at the time to actress Tyne Daly (Cagney and Lacey, Judging Amy), is the cast's standout as impassioned and ultra-serious African-American rookie, Terry Webster. Michael Ontkean, better known as Sheriff Harry Truman in David Lynch's unforgettable Twin Peaks, is Terry's naïve white-bread partner and roommate, Willie Gillis. Sam Melville, as married Mike Danko, doesn't make much of an impression, but his wife Jill certainly does—she's played by future Charlie's Angel Kate Jackson. Gerald S. O'Loughlin is the requisite veteran cop.
The Episode: "Concrete Valley, Neon Sky." Terry and Willie attempt to defuse simmering gang violence in Terry's old neighborhood. They hope to accomplish this masterwork of diplomacy by shooting hoops with the gangbangers while the Harlem Globetrotters whistle "Sweet Georgia Brown" in the background. (Oddly enough, an almost identical sequence appears in the Starsky and Hutch episode on this same disc.) Not surprisingly, not everything that's wrong with the ghetto can be patched up with a game of three-on-three.
Grade: B-. Like the gang members in most films and TV shows of the period, the ones shown here are far too clean-cut, egalitarian (interracial gangs? in the inner city? in the early '70s?), and articulate to be convincing—this is the kind of crew to which Fonzie from Happy Days might have belonged. All the overwrought soapbox political science wears thin pretty quickly. But Brown and Ontkean are solid, compelling actors, and their earnest intensity feels genuine.
The Premise: Undercover detective Suzanne "Pepper" Anderson makes her mark in the masculine world of law enforcement by playing tough and—in the opening credits sequence, at least—displaying an astonishing amount of leg and décolletage in fashions that seem to have come off the clearance rack at Ho's R Us. (How does she afford all those clothes on a cop's salary?)
The Stars: Larry King's former flame, Angie Dickinson, is the meal ticket here. Little more than window dressing in many of her film roles (Rio Bravo, the original Ocean's 11), Dickinson wrings this spotlight for everything it's worth, and then some. She gets capable backup from Earl Holliman as her boss, Lt. Crowley, and from character players Ed Bernard and Charles Dierkop (perhaps the ugliest man in the history of network drama) as the other members of her team.
The Episode: "The End Game." After a vicious bank robbery, during which one bank employee is killed and another taken hostage and raped, Pepper and her not-so-merry men bring all their resources to bear to corral the robbers. The trail leads Pepper and Crowley to Las Vegas and back. Ultimately, the team faces off against the criminals as the hoodlums try to haul in one last big score.
Grade: A. The only show in this quintet not produced by Aaron Spelling's cheese factory, Police Woman comes closer to serious crime drama than any of the others. With quality actors in the main supporting roles, and the undeniably charismatic Ms. Dickinson at the center of the action, it's the clear winner in this beauty pageant.
Let's get one thing straight right off the bat. Calling this quintet of TV series "the greatest cop shows of the 1970s" is like calling Britney Spears "the greatest pop singer of the new millennium." Representative of the category, sure. Greatest? Not by a long stretch. One of the programs featured here, Charlie's Angels, isn't even a cop show—the Angels (or "Townsend's Tarts," as we used to call them back in the day) are private investigators, not police officers. A more apropos umbrella title might have been "More Bucks in the Wallet of Aaron Spelling, With a Ringer Pitched In to Throw the Dogs Off the Scent."
Whatever you label it, Greatest '70s Cop Shows offers a nostalgic romp through the decade before Hill Street Blues, the seminal police drama of the 1980s, redefined television crimefighting with a liberal slather of gritty realism. The five shows sampled in this collection all make token stabs at a genuine, street-level urban feel, but those attempts are mostly smothered with Vietnam-era "relevance" (The Rookies), faux post-Woodstock hipness (Starsky and Hutch), imitation Dirty Harry neofascism (S.W.A.T.), or thinly disguised sex farce (Charlie's Angels). The only one that succeeds at all at being what it strives to be is Police Woman—untainted as it is by the mindlessness of Spelling/Goldberg Productions—but even it can't completely keep itself from pandering to the lowest common denominator, as the gam-and-cleavage shots in the opening credits will attest.
It's worth pointing out that these first broadcast episodes were not, in most cases, the original incarnations of these series. All except S.W.A.T. were preceded by pilots that featured somewhat different casts and concepts, and that set up the premise more effectively than the ones found here. These episodes, however, display the shows as we remember them best (assuming, of course, that the reader is of sufficient age to remember them at all). It's also interesting that the two most intellectually insubstantial shows, Starsky and Hutch and Charlie's Angels, are the ones that hold up the best over time, while the series that strove for a little higher purchase on the quality register, Police Woman and The Rookies, are the two that seem the most painfully dated. S.W.A.T. was simply a lousy show when it was new, and it gains nothing with age.
For time-capsule enthusiasts, however, Greatest '70s Cop Shows provides harmless shoot-'em-up fun (and boy howdy, is there ever a lot of gunplay in these programs!), in an attractive package from Columbia TriStar. The quality of the digital transfers here is uniformly good, especially considering the age of the source material. All five episodes have been cleaned up nicely, and the pictures evidence less wear and tear than one might expect. Colors appear bright, warm, and natural, all the better to show off those yummy Day-Glo and plaid fashions we categorically deny ever having worn ourselves. (Ahem.) Contrast is reasonably sharp, though accomplished with a hefty dose of edge enhancement. The audio presentation is, to be charitable, average—brassy and raucous, with a strident edge—but serves up easily discernible dialogue, plus more pseudo-funky proto-disco ersatz jazz than a Lalo Schifrin retrospective.
The primary extras are text biographies, collectively titled After the Show, for each of the key performers featured in the five series. These are not terribly detailed (and in at least one instance, fail to note that the actor has shuffled off this mortal coil), but give the newcomer a quick glimpse of who these people are. (Cute visual humor: the photo on John Forsythe's bio is not a picture of the actor, but of the speakerphone through which Charlie Townsend's voice is heard.) We're also treated to theatrical trailers for the movies Bad Boys II and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (but not the upcoming S.W.A.T. movie, even though it's a Columbia release), as well as a sales pitch for several Columbia TV series DVD sets. A full-color keep case insert offers plot synopses, episode credits, and cast photos.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
All right, Judge—if these aren't the greatest cop shows of the 1970s, what would you put on the list?
Glad you asked. For my money, the discussion begins with the standard by which all police teledramas continue to be measured even today: Hawaii Five-O, which ran throughout the decade of the '70s. (Only this past season was Five-O surpassed by Law and Order as TV's longest-airing cop show.) Purists will argue that Five-O actually started its twelve-season run in the fall of 1968, and that it was coasting on its laurels by the mid-'70s. Both are true. Still, anyone who wants to see the state of the police drama in the Watergate Decade has to check out the helmet-coiffed Steve McGarrett and his straight-arrow Honolulu henchmen.
That brings us to Police Story, the David Gerber-produced anthology series created by cop-turned-bestselling novelist Joseph Wambaugh. Showcasing consistently tight storytelling (Wambaugh wrote a number of scripts himself) and high production values, Police Story pioneered a true-to-life approach to law enforcement drama that left other network shows in the dust for nearly a decade. The original pilot of Police Woman aired as an episode of Police Story, which also spawned the vastly inferior Joe Forrester, starring a decrepit Lloyd Bridges as an aging beat cop. To date, not a single episode of Police Story has found its way to DVD, and it's high time.
If we limit our list to recurring-character series, the Judge nominates Columbo, featuring the incomparable Peter Falk as everyone's favorite seedy Sherlock Holmes, and Kojak, with Telly Savalas butting his gleaming pate against the system, all while flashing bespoke tailoring and downing lollipops like there's no tomorrow. Who loves ya, baby? Future tabloid poster boy Robert Blake's Baretta, loosely based on the real-life Frank Serpico, had its moments too, especially in its first half-season.
If an evening of That '70s Show has whetted your appetite for all things wide-collared and medallioned, then slip on your platform shoes, plump up your Afro, and dive into this set. If you long ago burned your disco LPs and sold your Pinto for scrap iron, you'll want to take a pass.
The Judge finds these episodes guilty of being only marginally great. The Court further indicts Charlie's Angels on an additional count of impersonating a cop show, though the Judge would like to discuss this latter charge in detail with Kate Jackson in chambers. Aaron Spelling stands convicted of lowering the collective intelligence of TV viewers everywhere. After 30 years of time served, however, all parties are free to go. We're adjourned.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
• Cast Biographies
Review content copyright © 2003 Michael Rankins; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.