It’s a baffling mystery: this DVD is called The Greatest ‘70s Cop Shows,
and yet Columbo is nowhere to be found here. What we do get is the
‘70s sloppy seconds: Starsky and Hutch, Charlie’s Angels,
SWAT, The Rookies and Police Woman.
Don’t bother looking for the quality you think you remember: good writing
and believable situations take a backseat in an oversized Ford LTD.
Convincing acting is suffocated within skin-tight T-shirts and credible
characters are stuffed like a sock into the crotch of faded bell-bottomed
The stories, all taking place in Los Angeles at its most boring, are slow
and meandering. It’s a world of pay phones, land phones and CB radios,
studio backlot mean streets, and lazy hints at female flesh. There is an
infuriating lack of common sense and logic at every screeching turn.
Reliability slams into dead ends harder than a low-speed car chase.
Yet, at the time, these were wildly popular series, known and appreciated
more for their teasing quality of street glamour, sex appeal and their
high-octane, gas guzzling, manly action. The world of the cop show has
accelerated since then, and these are five examples of proof of that.
However, there was something in these programs that struck a chord and kept
audiences masochistically coming back for more. Watching these series in
retro will take you back, but you won’t want to stay.
The first episodes of each of these series are featured here, and they have
that beginner’s luck feel, as if the creators and actors truly believe that
they are really are on to something. With the exception of Police Woman,
all of these programs are produced by Aaron Spelling, who gives the crowd
what it wants: an eighth grader’s idea of “sexy,” and just enough violence
to rock your world without offending grandma.
However, the one mystery you won’t be able to solve is why suckers by the
millions were tuned in, week after week, year after year. The programming
choices were more limited then – that’s true – and the idea of “urban grit”
on television was still being fleshed out. Solid citizens were curious at
how the other half lived, but it’s hard to believe that these concepts were
satisfying viewers’ curiosity – or even their midnight-snack-style
course, the peek into the underworld that middle America thought it was
getting paled in comparison to what was really going down in the streets.
The real ‘70s were long and uneasy, like a hangover. In this way only, these
shows are a perfect reflection of that.
Punches are pulled constantly: bloodless shootouts, lack of police backup in
dangerous situations, and robotic dialogue that is begging to be laughed at.
The actors all try their best, but fast-drying formula and overly careful
censors hold them back. What seemed new and brash at the time got old and
tiresome fast. And it doesn’t age well.
Let’s take ‘em chronologically:
The Rookies (1972)
“Can you imagine anything more embarrassing than a cop getting lost?” asks
the naïve new policeman (Michael Ontkean) as he studies the inner-city
neighborhood map in the police squad room. That’s the understatement of the
‘70s, as this show sets out to prove. His partner, played by Georg (without
the e, thank you) Stanford Brown, grew up in this trouble spot (or as
they called it then, the ghetto, or as Brown calls it, the ghet-to). They
report to a crusty but lovable Archie-Bunker-like lieutenant, who pronounces
“work” like “woik,” so we know he is a woiking-class Joe. We
can relate to these brave men because they have quite a dedicated
responsibility to their anxious community, because they’re young and human,
and because they wear groovy shirts on their days off.
This premiere episode is about gangland violence, but in a way that West
Side Story realistically reflects the carefully choreographed singing
and dancing of bloodthirsty Manhattan thugs. Here, the young adolescent
punks look to be in their early thirties, and they are surprisingly racially
integrated (it’s okay, though: the white ones talk jive). The leader of the
pack is your typical teenage-gang director: an African-American man of about
forty, who seems to be highly educated and overly articulate. “I heard ya
turned pig,” he says to Brown (pig was a derogatory term for cop
then). It’s Brown who gets the last word, though, as he shakes his head and
lectures the ruffians by saying, “Jiving. That’s what you’re doing. Jiving
and killing each other.”
The neighborhood of The Rookies is a Hollywood studio set reminiscent
of Disney’s Main Street USA, but strewn with trash to make it look
dangerous. It doesn’t work: you half-expect to see the cast of Hello,
Dolly high-stepping it around the corner. And a longhaired Kate Jackson
(later of Charlie’s Angels) is on hand as a rookie’s wife and
compassionate nurse (we know she’s a nurse because she wears a now-extinct
starched white nurse’s uniform and is extremely caring).
The rookies try, in their own TV formulaic way, to relate to the gang: they
challenge the reluctant, snotty delinquents to a game of basketball (to the
tune of the Harlem Globetrotters’ “Sweet Georgia Brown”) and they plead with
them to “sit down and rap a bit.” Brown registers a protest with his
lieutenant that he doesn’t want to handle things the straight way; he’s
gonna put The Man up against the wall: “no progress reports in triplicate
and no de-part-men-tal in-ter-fer-ence!”
The violence prepares itself to escalate when we hear the bongos. That’s a
given in any ‘70s cop show about to get in your face. Everybody talks in
that slow, cool jive to raise the tension, and baseball bats, knives, chains
and switchblades are carried but are never used. They’re just shiny, pretty
You can just guess the outcome, and you have already learned the social
commentary that the streetwise TV writers feel they must teach you.
“Survival, man,” one of the gang members accurately puts it, “that’s the
course, it’s the naïve Ontkean who lays not only his life but also his soul
on the line by saying, “in a way, you guys kind of fascinate me.”
Police Woman (1974)
Former Rat Pack doll Angie Dickenson tries her man hands at series
television in this early attempt to give the genre some estrogen. The theme
song is sad and girly, and her character, known as Pepper Anderson, is
charisma and personality free, even though the opening credits show her
versatility at displaying her gams, her breasts, her brass knuckles and her
are led to believe that she is versatile: she can slip undercover as a
prostitute or a homeless vagrant, but there is always one thing you must
always remember about Pepper: she is a LADY. She’ll coax the confession out
of a criminal, but she’ll do it like a lady. A cop will die in her arms, but
she’ll cradle him like a lady. And, in a personal moment that only we the
audience gets to share with her, she takes a belt of hard liquor to ease the
pain, from a bottle she keeps stashed in the back of her filing cabinet. She
gulps it down like a lady.
this first episode, an SLA-like “political” group (they never bother to tell
us what they’re protesting) pulls a bank heist, shoots a teller, and takes a
dopey hostage. They get away with the outrageously astronomical amount of
$100,000 (at least in inflationary 1974 dollars).
Thanks to a computer the size of a Hummer, Pepper learns that the group is
about to strike another bank. She goes undercover as a bank teller, but not
before she gives us a glimpse of her bad self in a denim rhinestone-studded
“Playing sitting duck for those shotgun freaks gives me the creeps,” Pepper
exclaims like a lady, but how creeped out are we by that pantsuit?
Her partner and alleged sexual interest, played in a virtual coma by Earl
Holliman, goes out of his way to show that there is absolutely no chemistry
between them; he exists only to move the plot along and to flirt with other,
less lady-like girls. Pepper, handling it like a lady, pretends it doesn’t
bother her when we know damn well that it does.
Meanwhile, the political group kidnaps a bank executive, taking him by
surprise in his garage. “For the sake of the neighbors, we’re gonna act like
old buddies,” they warn him, as they put their arms around him and walk him
into the house. Apparently, the neighbors don’t notice (or care) that the
bankers’ “old buddies” wear stockings on their heads. LADY stockings.
Happily, all works out in the end, and Pepper resumes her ladylike status.
You almost expect to see her character description on doll packaging: “she
shoots, kills and cries!”
we all know by now, S.W.A.T. stands for – all together now – well, we don’t
exactly know what it stands for, but we know it’s about a special unit of
cops who are called out for special occasions and for heavy acting and
deep-reaching melodrama. They schlep heavy weapons and peer around
corners and dodge bullets and ride in a UPS truck.
Casting directors’ dream boy Robert Urich begins his long resume of about
1.5 million action-packed series, but here he is only a minor part of an
ensemble that is about as interesting and memorable as watching your
“There’s no room in this job for personal emotions,” the lieutenant
instructs them on Day One. The cast learns this lesson extremely well by
applying it to their acting technique.
feel for Urich only because his partner was gunned down in a shootout that
didn’t display a drop of blood (“they danced a jig around the dead bodies,”
we’re told about the lunatic snipers, but sadly we are never shown this
The widow, a young pretty with two kids (and one on the way, just to make
sure you’re cheering for the right side), shows us her acting chops when,
learning about her husband’s death, starts to baa like a lamb: “whyyyy-wh-wh-whyyyyy?”
Urich swears to get revenge on the lunatic snipers and joins the SWAT team.
We’re with him, at least in spirit. And so is classy actress Annette O’
Toole, who is illogically on hand here to play a concerned wife.
The bad guy, like in all TV shows, is ugly. Here, he sniffs a lot to signify
a coke habit to those more savvy ‘70s viewers in the know. Mom and Pop,
watching in Levittown, assume that he suffers from bad allergies.
are also treated to our ‘70s requirement of a “counter-culture” cop, who was
a Serpico-like undercover agent before shaving his beard, chopping off his
hair and boogying on down to join the SWAT team. Prior to this
transformation, the lieutenant sniffs at his hippie clothes and mutters,
“You narcs are all starting to look like a bunch of weirdoes.” Later, the
newly conservative-looking cop says, “Sorry I’m late, lieutenant, but I
stopped to get my hair done.” This brief bit of hilarity thankfully breaks
the tension that the SWAT team experiences on a minute-to-minute basis.
SWAT’s lumbering, unmelodic theme song actually became a #1 record in
1976, contributing to the theory that nothing in the ‘70s ever made sense.
Within the show, the theme song is used until it is used up. There is a sad
SWAT theme for when the dying cop is on the operating table, and a
peppy SWAT theme for when the fellas are working out so that they can
more effectively beat up the bad guys.
the lieutenant explains to the recruits, “A lot of time, reason has nothing
to do with it. Nothing at all.”
Don’t we know it.
Starsky and Hutch
Starsky and Hutch
immediately breaks the promise it gives us in its opening credits. Although
we are shown gas-guzzling Fords in hot pursuit of each other, skidding
tires, and wild-eyed screaming, the episode itself moves at the pace of a
constipated slug. As mellow as LA itself, Starsky and Hutch take their slow,
sweet time trying to track down a homemade bomb that is set to go off in
less than an hour. All of this, of course, with absolutely no police backup.
This lazy fact-finding mission takes the boys through the leisurely streets
of the underworld, escorted by their shady but lovable pal, Huggy Bear.
Huggy, all pimped out on purpose, is like a benign tumor, “making calls” (on
a land phone) to the “right people” who are, of course, the “wrong” people,
who help lead S&H to their culprit.
There are also a few wrong turns in that Gran Torino: they get to meet
Suzanne Somers, playing a perky stripper in a sleazy strip joint (but they
refer to it as a “disco”). Somers complains that her husband (the possible
mad bomber in question) “likes sports more than he likes sex,” and we are
left dumbfounded, right along with the boys. We are also misled to a pair of
pre-hip-hop African American teens (all Afros and bell bottoms), who get
into a pickup basketball game with our heroes (again, to the theme of “Sweet
Georgia Brown.” Aaron Spelling must own the rights to this song.).
Police brutality is naturally taken for granted in the ‘70s, as we can
barely bring ourselves to watch S&H violently manhandle the patrons of a
bookie joint. This signals to us that the boys can be tough when they have
to be, but in a casual, laid-back way.
Meanwhile, a young mechanic hears the bad guys (named Wilbur and Greg)
reveal their diabolical plans and he responds with, “and I work my tail off
for three bucks an hour? I wish I had the guts.” Later, though, he repents
by thinking out loud, “Just the thought of me going to jail gives me the
Paul Michael Glaser, who plays Starsky, must have won the coin toss that
week, because it’s his turn to be the hero. All by himself, he drives the
bomb-toting car into a conveniently located empty field and lets it detonate
on its own. No bomb squad -- no worries. And big props (literally) to the
Ford Motor Company for allowing one of its precious ‘70s models to explode
as part of a TV show plot, instead of on its own and in real life, like
their Pinto. Hutch, played by David Soul, occupies himself with the required
parking-garage shootout, but those humongous Fords provide adequate
protection from bullets.
The episode contains a weary surprise: The bomb is actually planted by two
churchgoing old folks (from the Eastside Home for the Aged) who are
protesting the bad conditions of their decrepit habitat (which we never
really see). S&H go into their slow-movin’ action, convincing a councilman
who looks like Frank Sinatra to put the old coots on probation by forcing
him to eat the “garbage” that they are forced to eat. It’s understandable
how bad food merits a “get out of jail free” card for attempting to blow up
a third of LA.
Huggy Bear, wearing an ascot that makes his pimp wardrobe look like that of
a Wall Street banker, charitably cooks up some soul food for the old folks.
This is to showcase Huggy’s huggable side. The rapidly aging white lady asks
for “some black-eyed peas and some ham hocks,” and everybody breaks up in
hysterics over the cultural awkwardness.
All’s well that ends clumsily.
Charlie’s Angels (1976)
Plot: Sabrina wears an extra tight T-shirt that says “Sabrina.” Kelly wears
an extra-tight T- shirt that says “Grand Prix Monaco.” Jill begins work on
growing the hairdo that ends up on the head of every female in every ’70s
yearbook picture in America.
Subplot: something to do with the average, ordinary, everyday, completely
understandable world of the female demolition derby.
The derby’s frustrated owner (we immediately know he’s a bad guy because
he’s stone ugly) mumbles, “These broads could be driving naked and I still
couldn’t fill these stands.” As difficult as this is to swallow, we are
involuntarily exposed to the “less than kosher track exploits” of the
derby’s best racer and #1 bad girl, nicknamed Bloody Mary, who says, “Ya
don’t win by bein’ good. Ya win by bein’ first.”
Needless to say, the dialogue of Charlie’s Angels has all the
intensity of a Close-Up toothpaste commercial. And, as we all know, the
girls work for the profitable, business-savvy Charles Townsend Detective
Agency (with exactly three Ford Pintos parked outside!).
The too-cute-for-words gimmick is that Charlie’s face is never seen. He
communicates to the young lovelies through a relevant slide show and a
crystal-clear land-phone intercom; and through his Guy Friday, Bosley
(played by David Doyle, who we are lead to believe is an amazingly versatile
actor, but he never seems to be anybody but David Doyle in various costumes
and accents). The girls obey Charlie’s commands by flipping their hair and
sitting seductively on the overstuffed couches, asking questions about the
case that somewhat move the messy plot along.
Coincidentally, Sabrina used to drive in the demolition derby (!), which
comes in handy when the girls investigate why somebody tampered with a
racer named Suzy’s car and she was MURDERED! Sabrina gets her hammy
Southern accent out of mothballs so she can keep an eye on Bloody Mary and
“lock bumpers” with her.
course, we don’t care about any of this. We care about Farrah! And to our
bitter disappointment, the creators are careful not to give Farrah too much
to do, except to chirp cheerfully, “I heard a girl was KILLED on the track
this week!” and to “play dumb” in a card game, which she does with expert
skill. And when asked by one of the mechanics, “what denomination are you?”
she replies, “34-25-35, brother!” Amen.
The plot continues its slow slide into incoherency, involving everything
from murder to a jewel heist to cracking a safe. Somebody shoots at Jill,
and she doesn’t know enough to hide behind the mega-large Ford right next to
her; Kelly charms her way out of a speeding ticket; Bosley disguises himself
as a preacher named Brother John, who offers prayers and safety for the
drivers. Yet who’s looking out for us?
It’s a world of damsels and dudes in distress, with rides provided by the
Ford Motor Company, without a drop of blood ever being spilled or a coherent
moment ever being shared. Yet we the people shouted out for more, and you
know the rest: happy endings only happen on TV!
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All
January 16, 2005.