Perhaps best remembered today for its theme song, S.W.A.T. had a good, brief run during the mid-1970s. Produced by the seemingly indefatigable Aaron Spelling (Dynasty, Beverly Hills 90210), this spin-off of The Rookies was an early effort to make action the focus of a weekly series.
Columbia’s release of the first season on DVD is timed to promote the new movie based on the series, due in theaters 8 August. And it should not come as a surprise that, after nearly 30 years of increasingly more violent and complex TV shows, S.W.A.T. has not aged well with regard to stunts and grit. But its persistent confidence in the justice system now looks oddly timely.
Lt. Dan “Hondo” Harrelson (Steve Forrest) is in charge of the LAPD’s Special Weapons and Tactics, an elite group trained for high-risk operations. Team members include Sergeant “Deacon” Kay (Rod Perry), and Officers Jim Street (Robert Urich), Dominic Luca (Mark Shera), and T.J. McCabe (James Coleman). During their first season, they rescue hostages, fight terrorists, track snipers, and protect a federal witness and a U.S. Senator. Though such assignments call for violence, it looks tame by today’s standards — as does everything about the show. Gunshot entry wounds are bloodless, car chases are bland, corpses aren’t nearly so anatomically correct as those on CSI.
Typical of TV shows at the time, the S.W.A.T. episodes move slowly and are self-contained, not much interested in character development (as opposed to the complicated arcs of many of today’s series). Also typically, there are only two recurring female characters: Hondo’s wife Betty (Ellen Weston) is relegated to supporting her workaholic husband, and Hilda (Rose Marie) sells sandwiches at the police station. Women understand they have a place.
In the episode, “The Steel-Plated Security Blanket,” reporter Susan (Lara Parker), McCabe’s fiancée, interviews a former Miss America, who observes, “I don’t suppose you will be doing this much longer. I saw the way you and your young man looked at each other; I hope you have a long and happy life together.” Similarly, Miss New Mexico (a pre-Charlie’s Angels Farrah Fawcett) confesses that her goal is to marry a rich husband. As if to demonstrate the value of such an ambition, in “Pressure Cooker,” a nosy woman reporter endangers the S.W.A.T. team.
Women aren’t the only threats. It’s the ’70s, and so rebellious kids can only mean trouble. In “Omega One,” a group of opinionated college students take over a government laboratory they suspect is manufacturing bacteriological weapons. And in “Coven of Killers,” teenagers form a sect strikingly similar to the Charles Manson family. Hondo blames a reporter’s pro-cult stories for seducing the kids, linking unprincipled pop media with teen culture.
S.W.A.T. is only slightly more progressive in its presentation of race differences: most black characters are thugs or dealers. Casting Rod Perry as the team’s second in command looks like a good idea, but Deacon’s plotlines remain subordinate to those of his fellows. During the first season, each white cop has one episode focused on his personal life, but none is devoted to Deacon’s.
Still, he does better than the villains, nearly cartoonish in their simplicity and vanity. Seven out of season’s 13 episodes feature wrongdoers with twisted moral codes: a psychotic feels victim of unrequited love in “Death Carrier”; an ex-stuntman decides to make a film studio pay for his disability in “Time Bomb”; and a Vietnam War vet feels betrayed by Hondo in “Jungle War.” Throughout these episodes, the message is clear. Although individuals may have their own sense of justice, social law is orderly and immutable, not open to personal interpretations.
Created just after Watergate and as the Vietnam War was ending, S.W.A.T. seems inclined to restore confidence in institutions: when the regular police force are in trouble, after all, they call S.W.A.T. This idea — that the regular cops can’t handle the job — is becoming more pervasive these days, what with Emergency Alert Levels fluctuating and First Response Teams in training (when funding permits). This might explain the tagline for Clark Johnson’s upcoming movie of S.W.A.T.: “Even cops call 911.”