It's the Disco Strike Force, ready to boogie with bullets!
Ah, the middle '70s…what a wonderfully confused time it truly was. Elton John had just finished flushing his universal fan base down the toilet by announcing a startling bisexual sensibility. Vietnam ended in a kind of course credit incomplete, where nothing was really achieved and everyone felt guilty as hell about it. Women were trying to get a Constitutional amendment passed that would guarantee civil rights protections regardless of sex. Mostly male State legislatures misunderstood the wording, taking the gender specification for a verb instead of a noun. And on television screens across the nation, viewers were inundated with shows revolving around a new breed of police officer, so-called Super Cops, able to circumvent Miranda, spit all over search and seizure limitations, and kill perps with an unbelievable disregard for due process. With names like Starsky, Hutch, Freebie, Bean, Barretta, Pepper, Mitchell, Serpico, Alias Smith, Jones, Eischied, Pusser, Reed, Malloy, Danko, Webster, Holmes, and Yo-Yo, Americans concerned that, post Watergate and flower power, the nation was going to Hades in a hat box could sit in the comfort of their deadbolted domicile and watch macho men of law enforcement shoot the dissention out of the disgruntled and discontented. The vicarious thrill of teaching the reprobate or rapscallion a thing or two fueled a new the public love affair with the deadly detective, best exampled by S.W.A.T. This exercise in excess was a new kind of television cop show, one that upped the violence while dispensing with procedural protections. Now released on DVD as part of some mass conspiracy to doom the format once and for all, we can all travel back to the days of platform shoes and hollow point bullets to witness the foundation for racial profiling and savage in-custody beatings firsthand.
Facts of the Case
S.W.A.T. was a show about cops, police cops, an elite force of fighting men who specialized in wearing flack jackets and carrying big-ass assault rifles. They lived to repel down abandoned buildings and repulse the criminals with their highly tactical maneuvers and overheated musky machismo. As a relatively new division of the Los Angeles Police Department, the studs of S.W.A.T. got their own super cool unattractive basement cellar headquarters and a beaten up old steel gray delivery van for a mobile strategy base. From this super groovy ground zero, our stalwart sharpshooters dispatched homespun bloodshed and yakked like hyperactive macaws. The members of this specialized assault squad were:
Lieutenant Dan "Hondo" Harrelson—With a face chiseled out of dried beef suet and a physique that only a truss and support hose could love, Hondo runs S.W.A.T. with an iron fist and an equally sturdy prostate. It's his irritable personality (and bowel) that has everyone worried.
Sergeant David "Deacon" Kay—Once he had studied to be a preacher, but gave up on a career preparing people for the afterlife to send the larcenous and the misdemeanor-ish to their great reward in the hereafter. Basically, he substituted a communion wafer for the sub-machine gun
Officer Jim Street—Dark, moody, cuddly, and studly, Jim Street found himself a part of the elite S.W.A.T. team when he won the policeman's equivalent of the lottery—his partner was brutally killed in action. Now he stands around and waits for the right time to look dreamy.
Officer Dominic Luca—Once he was a Serpico style undercover narcotics cop, complete with a bushy beard and Pacino street person fashion sense. Now he spends his days affecting a Brooklyn accent and complaining to his momma about the lack of a really good NY pizza parlor in Tinseltown.
Officer T.J. McCabe—The marksman of the bunch, usually poised on a perch somewhere high above the action, so as to protect him from ground fire while he lines up the perfect shot. Also keeps him from having too many lines, so as to protect the budget from SAG/Equity scale requirements.
"Sam" The Driver—Somebody had to mobilize the mobile strategy vehicle. Yet never once did Hondo or Street volunteer to pull a little cop chauffer duty and steer this metal box behemoth down the byways and side streets of Compton. But thanks to "Sam" (name has been changed/created to protect artistic license), S.W.A.T. usually arrived on time and within a short walk of the deadly skirmish.
There are 13 episodes of S.W.A.T. on this DVD collection. They represent the entire first season of the show when it aired on ABC in the fall of 1975. The titles are profoundly volatile: "The Killing Grounds," "Coven of Killers," "Death Carrier," "Pressure Cooker," "Hit Men," "Jungle War," "Death Score," "Time Bomb," "The Bravo Enigma," "The Steel-Plated Security Blanket," "Omega One," "Blind Man's Bluff," and "Sole Survivor."
Oddly, not one of these episodes was penned by Jane Austen or Nora Ephron.
Before we go any further, let's define exactly what the acronym S.W.A.T. actually stands for. In the context of this 1975-76 flash in the pan television tantrum, it stands for Special Weapons and Tactics unit (and so it's not called S.W.A.T.-U why? Makes perfect sense. If you commit a crime and you decide to really raise a ruckus, beware: we will call in our special tactical unit and S.W.A.T.-U!). However, after experiencing 13 rivetless episodic wonders filled with overripe exposition and scenes of people sitting on desks discussing matters, a better translation would be "Show Was All Talk" or "Sure Wasted Alot of Time." From the look on the actors' faces, you could argue that the initials stood for "Stars Were Always Tired." The use of guest stars like Sal Mineo and Cameron Mitchell could best be categorized as "Storylines Wasted Available Talent." And the crimes committed, filled with every psychopath and sinister exaggerator known to 1975 scriptwriters could propose still another interpretation: "Sickos Written into All Teleplays." Frankly, these anachronistic ethics were not unusual to S.W.A.T.; they represented the trend in the days before Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and Sledge Hammer. Cop shows back then were about the worst elements within felonious fellowship brought to swift and non-sloppy justice by actors in really cool looking uniforms and/or Botany 500 street clothes. Yes, there was to be action, but since this was '70s broadcast television (cable was just starting to pollute the populace with R-rated home fare), standards and practices were preserved to make sure little Johnny Gullible would not be blinded by violence. Tee-wee cops, therefore, spent a great deal of time spewing unsophisticated understanding from their mouths and not their AK-47s.
So the question then becomes, who on earth was pining away for a digital re-release of a show that was less than successful (it only ran two seasons), that was so derivative that pre-natal breach babies were predicting plotlines in utero, and is nowadays best remembered as having a Top 40 title hit sound (the horn and bass boogie of "Theme from S.W.A.T.")? Is there some manner of S.W.A.T. fan club that patiently waits for Robert Urich to rise from the grave to participate in a very special reunion episode where Street and Deacon marry…each other? Does Steve Forrest owe some manner of gambling or pyramid scheme debts? Do people really want to see Mark Shera talk this much? When it hit the airways mid Me Decade, it was lauded for its intensity and criticized for its hyper-brutality. Little kids and teenyboppers (yours truly, the latter) begged their parents for the privilege of watching mean men get the snot shot out of them by high powered rifles. And then this schoolyard phenomenon quickly faded as the kiddies discovered heavy metal and pot. In many ways, S.W.A.T. beckoned the death knell for the standard issue police show. It was all bluster and no subtly. The writing was of the alarmist mentality of crime and punishment. One sentence, a line of dialogue from the second episode of the S.W.A.T. series, cements the lasting legacy and lack of realism that surrounded the show. When Hondo claims that an escaped cult killer named Hopper is a mad miscreant taking his followers into "a mind-bending netherworld of group acid trips, witchcraft, psychedelic Satanism, and reverse exorcism," two things happen simultaneously. You laugh uncontrollably at the gross, groovy over-generalization, and you shudder to think that this is what passed as an accurate reflection of society back in the day.
Indeed, there is a lot to shudder over in S.W.A.T.: the kill first and forget about questioning later procedural techniques; the guilty until proven resuscitatable concept of law enforcement; the pervert as standard villain fodder mentality; the completely idealistic notion that police officers are constantly on the vigil, just waiting for your phone call to mete out some manner of high tech justice. It all rings so madcap—and neo-facist. But there it is, over the course of thirteen episodes—moment after nape drenching moment of civil, human, procedural, and moral rights violations, all gussied up in the guise of the force of last resort. And since this was a pre-cable look at violence, there was far more conversations than the taking of lives. Looking at each episode individually, we can see just where the pattern developed, where a focus on crocked criminals deteriorated into jingoism not seen since Jack Webb's weirding ways and days.
"The Killing Grounds"
Our initial foray into the world of S.W.A.T. spends way too much time establishing the characters and unfolding the dynamics between the team members to be very interesting as an action piece. In general, aside from Robert Urich's outrageously camp crying scene and Juliette Lewis' dad Geoffrey as one of the rogue rowdies, this is a tedious exercise in arrangement, preparations, and connections.
"Coven of Killers"
For a moment, it appears S.W.A.T. may take a page out of the latter day Dragnet and freshen up the foul stench of sameness with some outrageously over the top writing and action. Bringing Sal Mineo in to essay the Charles Manson in training role of Hopper is a stroke of mini-genius. Moving between fey/gay and in/unsane, our almost rebel without much of a cause brightens a script that seems about eight years (and a rewrite or two) too late. Underground newspapers? Hippie communes? Not in the time of "Fly Robin Fly" and "The Hustle," my brother.
Episode number two in a promised redirection of this too much by-the-book talkfest sees an incredibly goofy premise matched with larger-than-life acting (the maternal madman has a classic crying jag staring up into the curtained window of his runway Rapunzel) to offer one of the few truly intriguing and entertaining episodes of the first series. Unlike "Coven" that seems to fall apart around the middle of act two, this tale of a twisted dress cutter in love with a model he works with has everything: killing, murder, madness, overripe dialogue, raging insanity, and romance. Too bad this would be the last time (sans a Cameron Mitchell fit pitch-a-thon) we'd see this manner of mania in the show.
Here is the point where S.W.A.T. went completely wrong. Instead of one single setup per show, detailing how S.W.A.T. handled high stress criminal situations, we are now starting to get several limp, curt action scenes. The introduction of Hondo's home life seems like an obvious ploy to humanize this seemingly single-minded murder machine. And the reporter turns out to be a McGuffin, a possible problem that never manifests itself. Only the creepy pedophile protecting his "child bride" in an incredibly sinister fashion saves this show from being a completely dead bit of dullness.
This episode is proof that allowing the action to stay put in one static location (in this case, a hospital) is a sure fire catalyst for an audience coma. Nothing happens here, except that Luca and some wench bitch at each other for forty minutes about whether or not a guy who hocks heroin to sixth graders can be considered "decent." Not even a young Robert Loggia, required to do little else but say "Yes Mr. Traynor" can save this stupidity. The mafia men are so incompetent you wonder how they ever got so much power and the "twist" ending is just dumb.
Cameron Mitchell, an actor who never met a scene he could chew or a man-girdle he couldn't over stress, is the only good thing about this installment. Putting on a fake "far out" attitude and trying his best to look young and fit, the reality was that Mitchell was a puffy, pushing sixty character actor who was so out of shape he couldn't shuffle without collapsing his lungs. His presence is the sad saving grace in an otherwise rote episode where we are back to multi-S.W.A.T. sightings and a similar level of tedium.
"Death Score" starts out weird and gets even stranger as the show goes on. First we have a Hispanic sniper trying to shoot an ambassador from South America to protest problems in the Middle East (?!?). Then we are introduced to fundamentalist radicals who look like producers for Cinemax softcore porn pictures. Then there is the basketball game, using footage lifted from local LA college games. Somehow, we are supposed to read USC as OWLS (?!?) and buy this whole hostage crisis crapola. Maybe in the days of Munich, the Ayatollah, and the start of Nightline, but today it reeks of a setup for John McClane. Or worse—Jean-Claude Van Damme.
The tinkering continues with the S.W.A.T. formula. This episode introduces comic relief—or what at least it thinks is comic relief—in the form of old hat hag Rose Marie as Hilda the lunch lady. Arriving at chow time with a tray of tainted meat sandwiches and a backlog of crappy insult humor, she and the uniformed eunuchs of the S.W.A.T. team trade ersatz witty remarks for a few show-stopping and plot-killing minutes. It doesn't help. Even the Hollywood backlot setting doesn't improve the show at all. It's still one location and there is never a doubt S.W.A.T. will win. So what's the point again exactly?
"The Bravo Enigma"
And now we have S.W.A.T. Plot Permutation #34.76-A: The team battles several emergencies, handles a political threat, and undermines a deadly disease, along with their usual plate of felonious threats and Rose Marie. To say this show is all over the map would be an understatement, since we start out in Malibu, go to India (???), head back to the USA and downtown LA, and then end up in some goofy canyon in the middle of nowhere. All the while, guest star Christopher George looks for women to abuse and emotes like an alcoholic rhesus monkey in need of a belt of Scotch. Frankly, this episode was too scattered and this approach is never taken again in the first season.
"The Steel-Plated Security Blanket"
The only other decent episode in this box set of the series, and not just because of the Farrah Fawcett Majors/Loni Anderson/Laura Parker eye candy coursing through it. S.W.A.T. finally gets the '70s ideal of a cop show down pat: a little set up, some crocked criminals about to commit a really weird act of larceny, lots of buxom guest stars to ogle, and a final act full of surprises (the jewels switcheroo was a dozy). We even get the human-interest angle of T.J.'s fiancée being a detainee to add a certain panache to the whole enterprise.
This episode has the honor of being right behind "Blind Man's Bluff" as one of the worst outings in the series. The whole Earth radical angle is acceptable to some extent, but when the hostage crisis (again with the hostage crisis) commences, the show is barely a third of the way over. Then it's just one painfully long and drawn out game of cat and louse. The action is dull, the suspense nonexistent, and the overall effect is similar to an airplane in a holding pattern before landing. You know eventually this whole rotten mess will touch down and end, you just don't know when.
"Blind Man's Bluff"
There are several things an episode of S.W.A.T. should never do: let Rose Marie within 100 yards of the set, allow Mark Shera to talk about pizza, and undermine Robert Urich's animal magnetism. But this fiasco commits the cardinal sin of trying to turn tough as turkey jerky Hondo into a fragile character of sympathy. Steve Forrest just doesn't have the chops to be pathetic. He can grimace okay, and when required to he can fall about like he has palsy, but his face is one continuous piece of rock hard roast mutton. We never once see any internal struggle in his physically compromised position. This is the worst episode of the first season.
"Sole Survivor" had potential, even beyond the cornball crud of poor little pseudo-homeless Timmy. Simon Oakland—having just finished driving Carl Kolchak nuts in The Night Stalker—is always a welcome onscreen presence and his corrupt parole officer is a decent, interesting villain. Their planned coin heist could have been fascinating had it been the center of the show, but it arrives ten minutes before final credits and you know some of that time has gotten to be taken up in closing out the whole little boy lost storyline. So once again, the attempt to humanize the S.W.A.T. officers (in this case, Street and Hondo—yes again!) works to fumble the show's potential appeal.
Basically, S.W.A.T. was a dumb illustration of a then new principle in police work. Nowadays you can't envision a law enforcement circumstance, either on television, movies, or real life that doesn't involve officers dressed like the marines in Aliens. It's not usual for most stand up fair fights to devolve into criminal bug hunts thanks to these über-officers. Every current cop concept now requires high tech, high strategy units casing the perimeter and poised for the kill shot. S.W.A.T. was just the first, and now it seems as lame as a big fat dude solving mysteries or a guy in a wheelchair privately investigating things. On occasion the show hinted at a demented promise it never fulfilled. It could have really dug deep into a whole depraved underworld of crime that, up until that time, the normal television public had not witnessed. This was before Something About Amelia, I Know My Name Is Steven, and Sarah: Plain and Tall. The fact that some S.W.A.T.s centered on perverts, pedophiles, and stalkers was rather novel for 1975, but apparently the wacko histrionics were too much for Jane and John Q. Public and they demanded (and got) a routine set 'em up and knock 'em down one-dimensional drama with larger than usual guns. While the acting was uniformly good (you can tell Steve Forrest loved to bark out those "by the book" speeches regarding crime and punishment), the direction was always pedestrian and the set locations very sound stagy.
Columbia TriStar takes a similarly cheapskate position with the release of this DVD box set. From an image standpoint, the full screen filmed episodes look almost as good as they did 28 years ago, but still suffer from dirt and scratches. The colors are muted, not as vibrant as other shows from the '70s and, while this may be an artistic choice on the part of the creators, it was probably just a bad day at the digital color correctors. Sonically, this is Dolby Digital Mono all the way baby, so don't expect any of the channels to rock and roll in a big screen action movie fashion. As for extras, we get trailers for Tears Behind the Sun, Bad Boys II, and a DVD presentation called The Best of the '70s Cop Shows. No new big-screen S.W.A.T. teaser. No other direct promotional tie in or contextual material. Heck, not even a list of guest stars or a measly main actor filmography. There is a handy pamphlet enclosed that lists all the episodes and all those involved in their creation, but the writing is so small and the information so incomplete (no mention of Farrah or Oakland) that it really doesn't add much insight. For what it is, which is a setup to a late summer blockbuster push for a new movie (and possible franchise), S.W.A.T. does what it's supposed to: tell people what the heck the original show was all about. But for those walking precariously down memory lane, S.W.A.T. is a reminder that some '70s TV should stay an over-romanticized memory. All this dim, dull show has left going for it is a 'let's all chant," waa-waa pedal opening anthem.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Can you say cross promotion and shameless comsumer tie-in plug? Seems that some brainchild got the less than stellar idea of returning to the retro television vault for a little more idea raiding and stumbled upon this 1975 elite police force cop show as a good idea for a bad movie. So they hired Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Farrell, and L.L. Cool J., cranked out a script and slapped on the S.W.A.T. title in hopes that those nostalgic for a cheesy disco theme song and a half-remembered ideal of super-Fuzz rapid firing the bejesus out of people would line up to take a look. Unfortunately, in order to have nostalgia, one would have to remember this show and in the long pantheon of classic televisual moments, not many people were clamoring for Hondo, Street, T.J., Luca, and Deacon. So Columbia once again made a trip to the rerun reserve and the original S.W.A.T. in all its dull ordinariness was tramped out onto DVD so that people who wanted to experience the movie properly could watch the show that probably didn't inspire much of film to begin with. There is a wealth of better, more timeless shows sitting in cans waiting to be transferred over to the digital medium, so there is no other reason for S.W.A.T.: The Complete First Season to exist other than obvious studio marketing manipulation. Heck, you're probably only reading this review because you stumbled across it on a Google search of the new theatrical film. Who else in their right mind would be looking for information on a long dead TV cop show?
Like the transitional year that it was, 1976 also marked the end of the line for S.W.A.T.. Cancelled because it couldn't get its novelty to play beyond a couple dozen inert shows, Hondo and his hopped up hit men were sent their separate ways. One went on to irritate Buddy Ebsen and another stained the city of Las Vegas fairly regularly. Others vanished off the cultural radar completely. And while dance music and Studio 54 continued to grip the nation by its shaken booties, the notion of an elite fighting force of police officers was scuttled in favor of a brand new turn of the decade Hill Street Blues sense of realism. Cops regressed from super to regular to almost subhuman. They had problems. They had needs. They occasionally made mistakes. They looked crappy. It took Don Johnson and some pastel pant suits to reintroduce the notion of police officer as fashionable hero to the boob tube. But by then, the police were a living joke, the punch line to a thousand donut jokes and a grafting, bribe taking tarnish on the notion of civil service. Is any of this S.W.A.T. and S.W.A.T.: The Complete First Season DVD's fault? No. But did this dumb action show set the benchmark so incredibly high, creating characters so concrete and granite that people thought police were immortal man gods who never missed a shot and always got their man? Well…perhaps. And perhaps the thin blue line needed a little thinning around 1981. Just pray that the big screen S.W.A.T. is not some mega-hit. The world is just not ready for Cannon: The Movie…or worse, a hard R-rated Barnaby Jones. Ugh!
S.W.A.T. is found guilty of being a dull, derivative, desperate dose of mid '70s cop drivel. It is sentenced to ten years hard labor in the Underwhelming Action Drama division of Television Prison. Columbia TriStar is also found guilty of the lesser included charge of plopping pointless DVD releases of hack boob tube reruns onto an unsuspecting public. They are sentenced to two years to a Bonus and Extra Content Halfway House for proper box set preparation.
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