I’m not sure “the greatest” is what I would call the new Columbia DVD collection, The Greatest ‘70s Cop Shows. That’s a pretty tall order considering that ‘70s TV was all about the cop shows, giving us Baretta and The Rockford Files, Kojak and Get Christie Love, Hawaii Five-0 and Adam-12, amongst many others. And so, I might call this selection The Pretty Good ‘70s Cop Shows, as it includes the pilot episodes of ‘70s staples Charlie’s Angels, Starsky & Hutch, The Rookies, Police Woman, and S.W.A.T.
The good news is that none of these series has lost cheese appeal. You’ve got the Angels (Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith) looking marvelous in a series of hip retro outfits, and Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) and Hutch (David Soul) tooling around town in the Torino with Huggy Bear (Antonio Fargas). You’ve got righteous heroes, nasty villains, police being called “pigs” or “the fuzz.” You’ve also got shameless overacting, stilted dialogue, and production values so cheap that some shots are almost totally out of focus. All this to the chucka-chicka fuzzbox backing of urgent, brassy soundtracks that, thanks to this DVD’s digital remastering, now sounds lean and muscular.
The Greatest '70s Cop Shows
US DVD: 9 May 2003
The late 1960s and early ‘70s saw films take a dramatic turn toward a profoundly gritty look and philosophy. Movies like Dirty Harry (1971), The French Connection (1971), and Mean Streets (1973) amped up the violence and brought a new realism to cinema. At the same time, significantly, the huge success of the Paul Newman/Robert Redford films, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1968) and The Sting (1973), gave rise to the “buddy” film, clever rather than raw.
The five pilots presented here show how TV in the 1970s attempted to capitalize on these movements. Each episode showcases the fluid camera work and taut character-driven storytelling that would become the trademark of ‘70s cop shows (along with the requisite bombastic theme song). S.W.A.T., Police Woman, and The Rookies have a tough, almost grim feel, as each explores what it means to be a cop in a violent, post-1968 society. In these pilots, police work is not pretty. It is a harsh, thankless business that takes a toll on the heart and souls of our heroes.
S.W.A.T. (Special Weapons and Tactics), in particular, had the unnerving premise of introducing an elite organization of ex-Vietnam War vets who were called on to handle violent situations too big for street cops. The S.W.A.T. team brought the concept of military-style warfare to big city police work. Based loosely on real life S.W.A.T. squads formed in big cities after the disturbances of the late ‘60s, the S.W.A.T. team, led by Captain Dan “Hondo” Harrelson (stone-faced Steve Forrest), shot first and asked questions later. The pilot, first shown in 1975, follows the team as they relentlessly pursue a group of snipers who are assassinating cops. This episode, which features a number of taut, exciting action sequences, offers a convincing look at this grim and uncompromising type of police work.
While the pilots of The Rookies and Police Woman were not as unflinching as S.W.A.T. ‘s dark vision, each had its own spin on the genre. Police Woman, which first aired in 1974 and ran for four seasons, featured Angie Dickinson as Pepper Anderson, the only woman on a team of undercover vice cops led by Lt. Bill Crowley (Earl Holliman). The pilot finds the team posing as bank employees in order to foil a ruthless gang of bank robbers and killers.
The Rookies introduces us to Officers Terry Webster (Georg Sanford Brown), Willie Gillis (Michael Ontkean), and Mike Danko (Sam Melville), rookie cops whose dedication to more compassionate policing often put them at odds with their tough-as-nails commander Lt. Eddie Riker (Gerald S. O’Laughlin). In the pilot episode, originally aired in 1976, Webster and Gillis try to clean up a dangerous neighborhood by persuading a gang to go straight. Brown’s performance as Terry Webster is one of the more interesting of this collection. Righteous, indignant, and seething with anger, Webster is a black cop who feels like an outsider on both the force and with his own people. Brown rarely smiles in the pilot episode and, like the cops of S.W.A.T., has a bleak view of the world. “Take a look around you, Willie,” he tells his impossibly milquetoast partner Gillis after breaking up a street fight. “Not much peace around. Only an occasional break in the war.”
While these three dramas presented characters who were intensely, almost obsessively dedicated to their jobs, Charlie’s Angels(1976) and Starsky & Hutch (1975) were both youth-oriented action shows that offered a lighter, almost cartoonish side of cop work by tapping into the buddy concept of Butch Cassidy and The Sting. The Angels, in a premise that was repeated week after week in the show’s intro, turned that concept on its ear by making the buddies three sexy women plucked from the police ranks by millionaire private investigator Charlie Townsend. Using brains, cunning and beauty, the Angels at least seemed to be having fun while fighting crime. Both of these series used humor and sexuality as their calling cards and were enormous hits.
The pilots of these shows didn’t dance around some of the more sensitive issues of the time, giving them a cutting edge feel. The S.W.A.T. pilot, “The Killing Ground,” deals with ruthless cop killers and one cop’s quest for revenge. The Rookies episode, “Concrete Valley, Neon Sky,” takes on race relations and gang warfare, while “Savage Sunday,” the Starsky & Hutch episode included here, attempts to say something about the living conditions in nursing homes.
Still, in appearance and philosophy, most of these shows have become seriously dated, no surprise when compared to the gritty “reality” of today’s cop fare. If anything, this collection serves as a time capsule to reveal just how far cop shows have progressed in 30 years.
For one thing, it was a man’s world in’70s TV copland: men and their guns, men and their cars, men and other men. With the obvious exception of the Angels, who, in a sense, were indentured to a man named Charlie, each of these shows is a lesson in male bonding. Even Police Woman¹s Pepper Anderson (Angie Dickinson) was an oddity: the lone woman in a team of male cops, striving to make it in a man’s world.
The Angels themselves are, now quite famously, a curious lot. Strong and resourceful, they’re nevertheless at Charlie’s beck and call. He typically uses their beauty and sexual allure as a means to trap criminals. Charlie’s face is never seen (he’s voiced by John Forsythe), but he seems to be one randy fellow. In the Angels episode, “Hellride,” he groans in pain while giving the Angels their assignment. He explains that his lower lumbago is “very stiff,” but “it will be a matter of some deft manipulation before I will be standing as erect as ever,” as the camera cuts to a shot of a bikini-clad woman walking on Charlie’s naked back. The episode concludes with Charlie and five buxom women splashing about in a hot tub. Again, the women are wearing nothing but bikinis and Charlie seems to be naked. Innuendo like this may have been funny or cute back then, but today it comes across as sexist and offensive.
For the most part, women are relegated to supporting roles. They’re window dressing (Kate Jackson in The Rookies), bubble-headed bimbos (a pre-Three’s Company Suzanne Somers as a go-go dancer in Starsky & Hutch), or conniving molls (Annette O’Toole in S.W.A.T., Jenny O’Hara as murderous race car driver “Bloody Mary” in Charlie’s Angels).
Fighting the odds, Dickinson’s performance as Anderson stands as one of the best in this collection. Hers is a complex character: smart, tough, slightly jaded yet vulnerable, almost maternal on occasion. She can shoot ‘em up with the guys, but she doesn’t like it. When a fellow officer dies in her arms, a distraught Pepper heads straight for the office and a stiff belt from a bottle she has hidden in a filing cabinet. Looking forward to Marg Helgenberger’s Catherine Willows on CSI, Pepper was a TV breakthrough in that she was intelligent, independent, and complicated.
Following the lead of Charlie’s Angels, both S.W.A.T. and Starsky & Hutch have been made into big budget films (the first scheduled for this coming August, the second for March 2004). Like the Drew Barrymore/Cameron Diaz/Lucy Liu Angels, you can expect the cops in these films to have more bombast, less of the subtlety that defines these shows. The pilots may be cheesy, but they serve as a reminder that television once had more fun telling a story than punching us in the face with every image and emotion.