Back Away Slowly, Walter White, Sgt. Suzanne ‘Pepper’ Anderson’s Got Her Own Big Gun

Police Woman, “Smack” (6 December 1974)

Appreciation of television as an artistic medium may seem to have reached new peaks of mainstream acceptance, but it can still get pretty lonely out here in the realm of cathode-ray, pre-Sopranos, prehistoric episodic TV obsession. Most popular commentators seem to vaguely accept that David Chase didn’t actually invent the TV drama in 1999 with The Sopranos, but mostly in the same way that people accept that the ancient Mesopotamians had battery technology: it’s plausible, but far from certain and, even if true, it’s not like they knew how to use it for anything good.

The benefits of “vintage” episodic TV analysis can therefore be few and far between; it has all the economic drawbacks of devoting the bulk of your time to art and literature, but with none of the associated cultural capital. Were I to spend my days wasting away in front of blank sheets of music paper, I have no doubt I’d be swooned over as a starving artist like Sydney Chaplin in Charles Chaplin’s tragic Limelight (1952), but my own profound cultural pursuits – such as extracting a two-second clip of Sally Struthers saying “That was gross!” from an episode of All in the Family – are met only with scorn. Even Canadians reject my efforts to turn every conversation topic towards Sgt. Preston of the Yukon (with Yukon King, swiftest and strongest lead-dog!) and, no matter how many hints I drop, nobody will buy me the Twilight Zone “Henry Bemis Book Replica” playset, complete with fake books and “actual” glasses (broken lenses optional) from classic 1959 episode “Time Enough at Last”. Philistines.

But every now and then a gem from television’s history turns up that threatens to disrupt the modern television environment in the same way that a mislaid glowing power cube threatens to disrupt the foundations of the universe itself in every superhero movie, ever.

While fans lament the passing of dearly-loved series Breaking Bad, from the depths of television history comes the Breaking Bad urtext, the undiluted original source, the secret that Vince Gilligan hoped you’d never discover.

Unassuming high school chemistry teacher faced with insurmountable medical expenses turns to manufacturing illegal drugs to make ends meet? Sorry Breaking Bad, Angie Dickinson and William Shatner got there first in Police Woman episode “Smack” (6 December 1974).

Score 1 for vintage TV.

Police Woman was spawned from the highly-praised anthology series Police Story (1973-1978), but with a more commercial recurring cast and story focus. Its opening credits are a thing of beauty, assuming your idea of beauty primarily involves the height of ’70s TV chic. A siren (though not as cool as the weird siren noise in Ironside) leads us into a nice, percussive piano beat.

Things start off pretty nicely with “starring Angie Dickinson” (a credit that’s welcome at any and all times) as Dickinson does some stern-faced gun-firing, but any hoped-for feminist credibility drips away pretty quickly as her legs and cleavage make a prominent appearances in between shots of her face in various stages of wig-wearing and/or terror. Is that a stewardess’ uniform she’s wearing before a shot of some brass knuckles flying towards the camera?

It’s easy to pick apart the logic behind the credits sequence: Police Woman has Dickinson (as “Pepper” Anderson) in a variety of costumes and in various stages of threat – an underlying narrative of “attractive woman in dangerous situations (and clothes)” rather than actually, y’know, being an active “police woman”. But while that’s a valid criticism, it’s important to remember that this is still the underlying logic behind plenty of modern credits sequences: female leads still frequently parade costumes and are defined strongly by sexuality. It’s easy to roll our eyes at Police Woman‘s overtness, while ignoring the fact that it’s just a clearer glimpse at the logic still operating today. That doesn’t make it OK, it just means that we shouldn’t use the obviousness of the past as a way to make ourselves think we’ve made unquestionable progress (are you listening, Mad Men?).

Dull Earl Holliman then shows up to let us know that he’ll be doing all the real, manly work. The following entrance of Charles Dierkop (as Royster) and Ed Bernard (as Styles), however, delivers the peak of ’70s-ness, as the two burst through a door into freeze-frame, letting us bathe in the brown colour scheme, leather jackets, open shirts, moustaches and, for Royster, a suavely off-centre cap. Superb.

As obvious as this rushed pseudo-feminist reading of the opening titles may be, the fact that Dickinson is so passive and relies so heavily on her experienced partners (in the first season anyway, since that’s all Retro Remote has seen) does make Police Woman substantially less exciting than it promises to be. The series seemed to be off to a good start when Pepper responded to a police officer dying in her arms with some honest emotional distress (Retro Remote finds the currently trendy tough-woman character as mind-numbingly dull as the historically ubiquitous tough-man character), but her reasonable emotional response is turned into a surprisingly snivelling portrayal that ultimately needs to be reined in by the tough male cops: “could I have tomorrow off?” Pepper sobs, only for “tough” Holliman to undercut her by reminding her that the crooks won’t be taking time off. (Pepper should probably be asking for a lot more time off – trauma is a serious issue – but the show isn’t following that path…).

Still, Police Woman is at least a step towards a series with a central female lead, though far from the first, of course. Dickinson isn’t even the first eponymous police woman, with Beverly Garland helming Decoy aka Decoy Police Woman (1957-1958).

But back to “Smack”. While there’s a nice precursor to Breaking Bad to be found, it’s still just a nugget in the broader setup. Pepper – needing to try out a new costume – is assigned to a high school. Dickinson was over 40 at the time the series started (a reminder that age is yet another issue in modern media that has yet to be properly dealt with), but given how “young” she consistently plays the character – combined with the show’s unsurprising obsession with her sexuality – I almost expected her to be undercover as a student rather than a teacher. In any case, the viewer doesn’t have to wait long for the show to exploit some “in costume” sex appeal, not even to the opening credits: undercover as a physical education teacher, the pre-credits episode teaser makes sure we know that Pepper is going to be doing some bending and stretching (for some reason out on the training field in tight jeans and a trendy cap).

The episode proper begins with mild-mannered chemistry teacher William Shatner witnessing a student fall to their death one night on the school football field; the next day the fuzz show up and start asking questions about drugs. That fills about four long minutes before the shows gets back to Pepper stretching (“now touch that fence with your butt!”) for a full minute or so. Three more minutes and Pepper reveals that she’s scheduled to teach Sex Ed the next day. Quelle surprise.

Shatner gets questioned but is distant…

Shatner gets questioned but is distant. Suspicious. Pepper tracks down another police woman to go undercover as a student; her colleague/ boyfriend tries to talk her out of it but eventually changes his mind because whatever, everything will be fine. Uh oh. Shatner gets the shakedown from some shady type. Pepper pays him a visit and he’s drunk, starting out at about a 7/10 on the Shatner acting scale and edging up towards an 8 as the drunken tears and despair kick in. Mystery! Post Sex Ed the next day, Shatner puts on the moves and they head out for dinner at a restaurant that Shatner has clearly selected so that the décor matches his perfect chocolate brown ’70s suit. Smooth.

A murder later and Shatner’s in the questioning tank, spilling the beans on his Breaking Bad origin story: “I was a chemist in his [the drug baron’s] lab, making and refining drugs… it was for my wife, she needed to be on a kidney machine most of the time, it cost a lot of money.” He may not quite be Walter White – the chronology’ of his start date’s a bit out of whack – but the key parts are all in place. Alas, if the Breaking Bad finale hadn’t already aired, the stage could be set for the perfect chem-teacher-turned-drug-manufacturer showdown between Bryan Cranston and William Shatner.

Unfortunately, while it’d be nice to ride Breaking Bad‘s momentum, use “Smack” as a rallying-cry for an increased focus on pre-Sopranos TV, and make Gilligan hand back his Emmys in an internationally-broadcast spectacle of contrition, the sad fact remains that “Smack”, and Police Woman itself, isn’t really that great. Television history is full of amazing artistic content that was though-provoking, relevant, creative, stylistic, you name it. This just isn’t the particular place to look for it. The ’70s was a rough decade in US TV, but still not without its high spots (Lou Grant being a personal favourite); but TV history is too complex to reduce to simple “eras”, and ’70s cop shows certainly aren’t representative of anything other than ’70s cop shows.

The real relevance of “Smack” to Breaking Bad is, of course, essentially non-existent. I’ll eat my off-centre ’70s-style cap if the episode actually had any influence on Gilligan, and it doesn’t even draw any particular resonance out of its “good guy forced bad” story – Shatner disappears completely right after he spills his Walter White backstory.

But the point isn’t really that it has any substantial connection to Breaking Bad; too often discussion of immensely popular serialised television can seem a bit solipsistic, discussing its series as something apart from or substantially above the history of its medium. The past, when it’s summoned, is something that’s been “moved on from” rather than providing a foundation for all that followed. Breaking Bad is no more or less a part of television history than any other text – whether Decoy or Police Woman – and Retro Remote is blithely happy to try to hijack the momentum of its finale to give some passing attention to a moment of TV history with a touch of resonance.

Besides, we never find out what happened to Shatner’s version of the chem teacher drug cook. That’s some Breaking Bad history waiting to be retconned. Can we have a Shatner vs Cranston cook-off, please?

Police Woman season 1 (with “Smack”) was available on DVD through Sony, and season 2 is currently available through Shout! Factory (who have been doing a great job at picking up TV series abandoned by major studios). There’s also (for some reason) a six minute compressed version of “Smack” on YouTube; Shatner’s retro-Walter White reveal kicks in around the 3:50 mark.

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