In this review, Judge Diane Wild finally admits that she has a warped mind.
"Trust me, I know what I'm doing."
The wacky and wonderful world of Sledge Hammer debuted on ABC in 1986 to both acclaim and puzzlement. The spoof of Dirty Harry and his ilk didn't fit the normal sitcom mold, and maybe because of that, was bounced from bad timeslot to worse timeslot, always teetering on the brink of cancellation. Creator Alan Spencer was so sure the first season would be the last that he came up with the ultimate of endings: while trying to diffuse a nuclear bomb, and of course uttering his trademark "Trust me, I know what I'm doing" line, crazy cop Sledge Hammer sets off the warhead and destroys the city.
After a surprise renewal for a second season, Spencer vowed not to pretend the cataclysmic ending never happened. So this second season of Sledge Hammer begins with the explanation that these events take place five years before the explosion. Part of the fun of this "resolution" was ignoring the continuity and logic that might have hampered the prequel's storylines. Since continuity and logic were never hallmarks of the series, fans generally accepted the silliness as being true to the show's spirit.
Sadly, Sledge Hammer continued to lose the battle of the timeslots, going up against The Cosby Show, and the second season was to be its last.
Facts of the Case
Sledge Hammer (David Rasche, Delirious) and his long-suffering partner Dori Doreau (Anne-Marie Martin, co writer of Twister) are police officers in an unnamed city, under the watchful eye of dyspeptic Captain Trunk (Harrison Page, JAG). In the words of Doreau, Hammer is "irresponsible, undependable, egotistical, insensitive, chauvinistic, sadistic, and cruel, but other than that, he's a terrific guy." Hammer revels in his reputation as a crazy, gun-loving, woman-hating maverick, and would take that description as a supreme compliment.
In "A Clockwork Hammer," the first episode of the second season, a formerly solid cop disintegrates on the witness stand, resulting in this exchange:
Random cop to Hammer: "How does it feel to be the second craziest cop on the force?"
Hammer: "[angry:] WHAT?…[relieved:] Oh, I thought you said laziest."
Replace a fixation on the paranormal with a fixation on violence, and Hammer and Doreau were the '80s sitcom version of Mulder and Scully. She is the serious, by-the-book stickler for logic and rules, tasked with keeping an eye on her partner and his unconventional and instinct-driven ways ("Don't try to dazzle me with the facts, Doreau"), which usually save the day.
Sledge Hammer is gleefully politically incorrect, both in humor and in content, appealing to people with a skewed sense of humor (hello, fellow warped minds) and to those who like to write angry letters to networks and DVD distributors about glorifying police brutality, violence, misogyny, and gun worship in the media. But it's all in goofy, subversive fun.
David Rasche is marvelous at the physical humor required for the role, such as when Hammer battles a dismembered robotic arm in the background of a scene. But mostly, Sledge Hammer is cleverly stupid comedy delivered via some very thin plots. In the commentary for "Icebreaker," where Doreau falls for a fake secret agent, creator Spencer is joined by Anne-Marie Martin, and appears to be taken aback by her comment that the show was "stupid." But it was stupid, deliciously so, and stupid only in ways an intelligent show could get away with.
"Death of a Few Salesmen," for example, opens with Hammer wishing death on an annoying car salesman as he watches his ad on TV. When said salesman dies on-camera seconds later, Hammer is convinced that his thoughts did the deed. "What if my mind is a Cerebral 45 and I just shot a mind bullet?" he wonders, and states: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste people with." Stupid, but clever. He later goes undercover as "Crocodile Bruce," Australian car lot owner, to trap the widow who poisons her husbands through their toupee glue. Stupid, but funny.
While there are worthy targets of satire embedded in the stupidity of Sledge Hammer, the humor is not particularly hard-hitting. In his commentary for "The Last of the Red Hot Vampires," Spencer calls the episode an indictment of ageism in Hollywood. The ageism he refers to is subtle, with a Bela Lugosi-like actor getting fired, and only getting the respect he deserved for his long career after his death. (Because the network would not allow Spencer to dedicate the episode to Lugosi, it ends with the words "In Memory of Mr. Blasko." Spencer counted on the fact that the network would not recognize that as Lugosi's real name.)
Along with tributes to a few of his favorite things, Spencer throws in some slams against some of his pet peeves, especially other, then-current television shows he (and many others) considered dreck: Mr. Belvedere and Designing Women are two that take hits this season. There are also self-referential in-jokes, such as the many "nuclear" references, and slights against William Morris agents, for one, and the television industry in general. "Of course I'm mad," says the insane TV programmer in the first episode. "Would a sane man work in television?"
Sledge Hammer is also full of 80s pop culture references. "If I leave now, I can still see something bad on the fourth network," Hammer says when he believes a case has been solved, placing the show firmly in the time when four networks seemed like a lot, and when it would have been science fiction to think of Fox as home to some of the most critically acclaimed shows. Max Headroom, Blue Velvet, Oliver North, Robocop (in the hilarious parody episode "Hammeroid") and many other 80s icons are referenced.
Some are nostalgically funny, while some sailed right over my forgetful head. There are likely many I didn't pick up on at all, but Spencer mentions one in the commentary for "Wild About Hammer." When Hammer and Doreau pass a line of parking meters, they have a conversation about the idea of "people meters," which stood out as a stupider than average humorous exchange. But it's a direct reference to a concept being floated around at the time to get rid of the Nielsen ratings and replace them with people meters, so not quite as stupid as it first appeared.
However, the show isn't mired in its 80s setting, and though it relishes the opportunity to poke fun at its own time, it transcends it beautifully to poke fun at—and pay homage to—a dazzling range of times and topics. Most episode titles and often their scripts and directorial styles reflect classic Hollywood fare. For example, "Play it Again, Sledge" has Hammer hallucinating a Humphrey Bogart character in a combination spoof of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. Other episode titles include "It Happened What Night?," "Dressed to Call," and "The Secret of My Excess." I can't stop saying it: Sledge Hammer was undeniably intelligent in its idiocy.
The relationship between Doreau and Hammer was emphasized this season at the network's behest, and it's an example of network meddling that works. Even though Martin's staid Doreau pales in comparison to Rasche's vivid Hammer, she is a key to the success of the show. As Spencer says, though not quite in this context, she's a lot of the reason the viewer can accept Hammer as likable—if she likes him, they like him. This is no Moonlighting, and the romantic tension between Doreau and Hammer will not go down in the annals of great pairings in TV history, but it does progress throughout the second season to the point where the poignant finale, "Here's To You, Mrs. Hammer" is more believable than you might expect from the seriously silly show. Confronted with his long-derided but never-seen ex-wife, Hammer reveals his loneliness to Doreau and takes tentative steps to move beyond thinking of his gun as the only friend he needs.
The finale has its Hammeresque moments of quotable humor, but it is not a typical episode. When it was shot, Spencer and his colleagues knew there would be no second reprieve, and wanted to end with a focus on character rather than gags or plot. It works because we care about these people who could have so easily been cartoonish, and we care about them, in part, because they care about each other.
Spencer's fingerprints are all over this release, and he's thankfully spared us the original laugh track on the DVD release of this unconventional sitcom, whose puns, sight gags and sly humor don't usually provide the traditional setup-punchline hit.
Anchor Bay has done Sledge proud with the slate of extras. Four commentaries, three with Spencer alone and one combined with Anne-Marie Martin, are almost enough in themselves. Revealing and witty, Spencer is the rare, ideal commentator who understands that if we wanted to just sit back and watch the episode, we would not be watching it with the commentary on.
Spencer is by turns very critical and understanding of clueless network execs, who often interfered with jokes out of fear of litigation, but just as often let potentially litigious jokes go because they didn't get them. But he admits that while it's easy to blame the network for the bad scheduling that may have killed Sledge Hammer, they had reasons not to even put the controversial show on the air. He also talks about his contentious relationship with the production company, who imposed a drastic budget cut for the second season, forcing the show to spend more time in the precinct and use fewer stunts. But he also points out that they had little choice, as they were trying to make money despite the series' reduced circumstances: "Imagine that."
In addition to the commentaries, we have a recent featurette with Rasche and Martin talking about their onset experiences, another that is a tribute to Bill Bixby, a regular director for the second series, and a variety of fun bonus features. A couple of the best include "Top 10 Questions About Sledge Hammer," which feature clips of Alan Spencer answering those frequently asked questions, and a trivia game that rewards correct answers with clips of the scenes, including from Season One, that provide the clues. Two Spencer-penned scripts are available in PDF format as a DVD-ROM feature, for "Wild About Hammer" and "Last of the Red Hot Vampires."
Even the hardcover book-like DVD case is fun, with images and quotes from the series and invented for this purpose, including Hammer's Words to Remember ("Every move you make, every breath you take…I'll be watching you. That's police talk.") and Top 10 Pickup Lines ("#6 When I saw you across a crowded room, I decided not to shoot"), along with the episode list.
I can't count it as an extra, but check out the official site for more goodies and a complete episode list, including lots of episode-specific trivia.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the cheap production values are often part of the show's charm, this DVD transfer is, to put it kindly, showing the source material's age and production values. But that's not for any lack of trying to improve it on Anchor Bay's part, so they get something of a reprieve. In fact, the video gets higher marks than it deserves for being the impetus for a hilarious introduction that plays before the menu screen shows up on the first disc. It has Alan Spencer explaining that the second season was shot in 16 mm to save money, resulting in "let's just say a slightly softer picture." As he continues to explain the limitations of the source material and the efforts to clean it up, the picture gets (deliberately) fuzzier and fuzzier, ending with a nearly indecipherable shot of him saying "I can't tell the difference…it's just sharp and clear." In addition to the extreme softness and occasional flaw in the print, the color balance doesn't quite reach perfection. Colors can be unnaturally vibrant, with reddish flesh tones, or slightly washed out, mercifully fading the (deliberately) unnaturally vibrant 80s wardrobe and makeup fashion disasters.
The sound level is uneven and often tinny. No subtitles or closed captions are offered, which makes the quality an annoyance to all and a detriment to those with any level of hearing loss. The Dolby Digital 2.0 really doesn't do much for the audio experience, but again, the source quality and age was not on their side.
There are no chapter stops, which is a minor oversight for a half-hour show, but an oversight nonetheless.
Packed with extras, Sledge Hammer: Season Two is a must for fans of the show. In a glut of television releases on DVD, this is one that had a multitude of diehards anxiously awaiting its release, and should find a home with those who may have missed its original run, but love the offbeat humor of shows like Family Guy or Get Smart.
Sledge Hammer definitely didn't know what he was doing, but Alan Spencer did. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio commentary on four episodes
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