It’s easy to write off The Mod Squad as a counterculture-era cliché deserving of the truly awful big screen adaption the series got in the late 1990s. The paisley-heavy wardrobe feels dated. The dialogue, peppered with words like “groovy,” “solid” and “pad” (as in house), is good for a laugh but not much more.
The Mod Squad manages to rise above a flimsy exterior, however, as an occasionally thought-provoking relic of a turbulent time.
The series premiered in September 1968, a month after youthful hippies faced off with Chicago police and the National Guard at that year’s Democratic National Convention.
Although The Mod Squad would seem to be out to be out to appeal to a youthful demographic with its trio attractive hippie protagonists, the opposite appears to be true as the premise plays out.
Linc (Clarence Williams III), Julie (Peggy Lipton) and Pete (Michael Cole) are former teenage hoodlums recruited to the side of law and order by kindly cop Adam Greer (Tige Andrews). Even into the first half of the second season, barely half an episode goes by without a reference to the Three Musketeers’ collective criminal pasts.
But Linc, Julie and Pete have none of the attitude or edge you would expect from juvenile delinquents, reformed or not. Instead, they’re the establishment’s dream: hippie counterculture types who not only decided that the Man had it right all along, but also decided to use their groovy powers for good and help him uphold the status quo.
Our heroes are vanilla wolves in Day-Glo sheep’s clothing. They possess none of the anger you would expect from young people who were abandoned by their families and left to survive alone in the world. The trio is serious and a little sad, with a kind of puppy-dog neediness that makes it easy to see why Capt. Greer wanted take them in and mentor them into respectability.
Placed in the context of the times for which it was made, The Mod Squad is fascinating to watch. The edge lacking in the lead characters is more than made up for by the plots, which manage to stay just this side of unpredictable.
The premiere of the second season starts out hokey, as a clairvoyant pays a visit to Julie’s night school class and displays every stereotypical characteristic in the book as he woodenly declares that a missing classmate has been kidnapped. But the episode rises above the inauspicious beginning. As it turns out, the missing girl was trying to obtain an illegal abortion. To find her, Julie and Pete go undercover as a couple seeking the same service.
While modern series still occasionally pussyfoot around the topic of abortion, The Mod Squad is refreshingly matter-of-fact. Toss in a few dead bodies and a sociopathic perpetrator, and the script for this episode easily holds its own against a modern procedural.
By the same token, Williams has more charisma than at least half of the actors who have shuffled in and out of Law and Order’s squad room over the years. His magnetism easily outshines Cole and Lipton, although Andrews maintains a strong presence as father-figure Greer.
In addition to abortion, Season 2 also tackles one of television’s most contrived plot devices: the addition of a young child as sidekick. In this case, it’s just for an episode in which the trio bond with a runaway who turns out to be key to Greer’s investigation of a string of burglaries.
All of the prerequisite heart-warming scenes are included: the gang buys little Manolette a pair of shoes, take him to a park and, eventually, break his heart by turning him over first to Greer and then to a foster family. At the end of the episode, Linc, Julie and Pete pay the boy a visit and once again The Mod Squad turns potential cliché into a pleasant surprise. Instead of ending on the heartwarming note of our heroes flying a kite with the little boy, the episode concludes with Manolette effectively abandoning his surrogate family.
As the trio walks away, there are hints of the isolation and melancholy that hides behind those fashionably bell-bottomed exteriors. It’s just enough of a tease to keep viewers hanging on and hoping for more.