If Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger knew that police women wore skimpy outfits and got physical with the perps, he'd misbehave more often.
Our review of Police Woman: Second Season, published February 22nd, 2012, is also available.
Pep: "Any idea why he hired you and not somebody else?"
Let's say you're jonesing for some funky Seventies TV-cop action but you want something deeper than glam-infused, fantasy-tinged shows like Charlie's Angels: The Complete First Season or Starsky And Hutch: The Complete First Season. In that case, Police Woman: First Season might fit the bill. It's grittier than Charlie's Angels but lighter than the realistic police fare that would follow in the wake of Hill Street Blues. One thing is for sure: Police Woman is all '70s.
Facts of the Case
Sgt. Suzanne "Pepper" Anderson (Angie Dickinson, Pay It Forward) joins a jaded L.A. vice unit led by Lt. Bill Crowley (Earl Holliman, Sharky's Machine). Along with her cohorts Det. Joe Styles (Ed Bernard, Bare Witness) and Det. Pete Royster (Charles Dierkop, Texas Lightning), Sergeant Pepper takes down drug pushers, racketeers, pimps, and other scum in these episodes:
• "The End Game"
Police Woman was a top-twenty show its first season, which isn't bad for the first prime time drama starring a woman. Nestled in that no-woman's land between Emma Peel and Diana Prince, Angie Dickinson's Pepper Anderson carried the torch of female heroism. She was sexy and tough, and combined the two with remarkable grace.
Make no mistake, Angie Dickinson is Reason 1 and Reason 1-A to watch Police Woman. The Angels were bigger stars, and arguably for good reason. They were sunny and sleek; the epitome of Seventies glamour. But Angie's Pepper Anderson comes close, and she does it with more dignity. Her character has at least a veneer of realism and equality in the male-dominated world of Los Angeles Vice. Pepper confronts her fair share of misogyny, and lets much of it slide. But she also exudes an approachable, down-to-earth sensibility inside of her parade of chic '70s apparel.
It's a good thing too, because Police Woman has the hallmarks of 1970s prime time. Clunky dialogue vies with stiff acting to obscure the decent stories beneath. Angie and Earl aren't bad, but everyone else is suspect or downright melodramatic. Every time her co-workers force out a jolly "Hey, Pep" (as if to suggest they've been pals for years and even have cute nicknames for each other), I cringe and wonder if there's a cardboard factory missing a pallet or two.
The guest stars are a hoot. "Anatomy of Two Rapes" represents the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good is Angel Tompkins, who plays a town tart named Wanda. Angel earns her name. She is absolutely stunning in a racy photo shoot, and later in her drunken bar posturings. Angel makes up for a lot both in her looks and acting. She needs to. Pat Morita fully sheds Mister Miyagi as Mike Matsuto, the hip arthouse photographer with an unhealthy obsession with Wanda. Watching him click away and act cool while snubbing the cops is a riot. But there's a whole level of badness that belongs to Rhonda Fleming, who plays rape victim number two, Carol Grainger. Rhonda gives an overblown, teary, mascara-running confession that would make Tammy Faye Baker beam with pride.
Even the sure thing himself, Mr. William Shatner, is not immune. Taking a sharp detour from his "capture the universe on sheer bravado alone" approach, Shatner plays a nervous schoolteacher who is mixed up in crime. When Shatner blubbers into his own hands about saving the poor kids, I could practically sense his barely contained smile around the edges of his fingers. I wish I could say that the guest acting improves, but it continues its inexorable, hammy march through to the end. The capper is Don Meredith in "The Loner" (yes, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback who would become the bumpkin to Cosell's intellectual on Monday Night Football). He relies on sheer physical presence, and reads his unbearably cheesy lines without a hint of irony.
Earl Holliman takes up much of the slack. He doesn't pull off his cheesiest lines with the almost acceptable delivery that Dickinson was able to muster. Yet Holliman forges a believable chemistry with his female teammate that suggests equality while staying true to the machismo that ruled the day. His plaid sportcoat is almost a character in itself.
The uneven acting and forced dialogue are mediated somewhat by the stories. Police Woman (at least, Season One) has a raw energy that stems from its permissive narrative. Crooks are shot and killed in cold blood, rapes and other atrocities occur, people drink, and even wear tacky clothes. It's all here in the open. Though the stories tend to be linear and often result in "let's barge in and save Pep from a psychopath" finales, the story has texture missing from some of its cohorts.
Sony presents this series with a sparkling transfer that confirms their recent focus of high-definition video. The faded '70s film stock still betrays unstable color shifts and patches of aggressive grain, but the transfer is surprisingly detailed and clean. The audio is a second citizen by comparison: The 2.0 mono is flat, hollow, and hard to hear. Volume fluctuations seal the deal, making Police Woman a distinctly average audio experience. Even so, the polished video makes the viewing experience pleasant.
We're joined in that experience by Angie Dickinson on two episodes and Angie and Earl on a few. To be completely forthcoming, I only listened to the first four commentaries. Once Angie provided the interesting backstory and she and Earl get early reminiscings out of the way, the commentaries have lots of dead air, inaccuracies, and the overwhelming refrain of "I don't really remember"—people, scenes, clothes, the social mores of the day, whatever. It is fantastic that Sony obtained commentaries directly from the most important people, which is exactly the kind of extras I like to see on a TV boxed set. The unfortunate truth is that these commentaries are not absorbing, and actually detract from the episodes in some cases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My Police Woman experience was spoiled by something both simple and profound: I watched the pilot episode first. Television pilots are fascinating paradoxes. The producers throw everything they've got into that first show because it is the proving ground. Yet the show's actors, or even its basic premise, have yet to gel.
The pilot for Police Woman wasn't a typical pilot. "The Gamble" was an episode of the polished, firing-on-all-cylinders Police Story, based off the real life experience of ex-cop Joseph Wambaugh. Angie Dickinson makes her police woman debut, but it isn't as the brassy series lead Sgt. Pepper. "The Gamble" is much more real, with Angie portraying a nervous, inexperienced desk jockey named Lisa who wants to break into vice. Her smooth-talking superior, played by game show host Bert Convy, is as dazzling as he is pragmatic. His attitude is: "Bust this prostitution ring or you're going back to the desk." As Lisa uses every ounce of resource and emotional reserve she has to get through the day, we see the toll police work takes on a vice squad. It is a crime that Police Story isn't on DVD (in fact, "The Gamble" might be the only Police Story episode on the format). "The Gamble" is a palm-clamming, jaw-clenching, wholly absorbing story. With all due respect to the effort that Holliman, Dickinson, and the rest put in over four seasons, it eclipses everything that comes after.
Had I seen the show first and then watched the pilot, I might have formed a better opinion. (Of course, the Firefly fiasco has made it forever clear that you watch the pilot first.) For its time (in other words, the time between when '60s cop shows skated by without irony and when Hill Street Blues: The Complete First Season blew former police show realism off the map), Police Woman was daring. Cops got shot and perished in pools of blood on the sidewalk. Women were raped and killed—in their brassieres. Perps didn't always floss, or even brush much. Pepper swills booze in the station after a hard day, or beats herself up for sending a rookie into her death. In other words, the depth of theme is there to grant Police Woman realism and true grit.
Sgt. Pepper Anderson carried the banner for feminism and Angie and Earl worked up some decent chemistry. But their efforts can't hide that Police Woman's contemporaries aren't shows like Hill Street Blues, Law & Order, or even Police Story. No, Police Woman's contemporaries are shows like Charlie's Angels and Starsky And Hutch. It may be grittier and more convincing a vehicle for police drama than those fluff fests, but it doesn't hold up to the true police dramas we're accustomed to. That's okay, though. You can enjoy Police Woman as a flashback to the funky seventies and revel in the beauty of Angie Dickinson and her flair for '70s fashion.
Pep, you've earned your gold watch. Now go grab a pina colada and watch some Fantasy Island reruns.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentaries with Angie Dickinson and/or Earl Holliman
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