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Monday, May 11, 2009

THE MOD SQUAD: SEASON 2, VOLUME 2 -- DVD review by porfle

I used to think "The Mod Squad" was soooo cool when I was a kid. That opening titles sequence, with the three young cops running for their lives through an abandoned warehouse (we never got to find out what they're running from, did we?) to the tune of one of TV's most dynamic musical themes ever, is still emblazoned on my cerebral cortex. But after refreshing my memory of the show with the new 3-disc DVD set THE MOD SQUAD: SEASON 2, VOLUME 2, all I can think is: "What the heck was I thinking?" In retrospect, there's just no way for me to appreciate this show except with a fond nostalgia and a healthy dose of condescension. Yeah, that's right--I'm condescending! Nyaaahh!

Looking a lot like what would happen if Greg Brady fantasized about growing up to become a groovy, outasite cop himself, "The Mod Squad" is an attempt by those well-known hepcats Aaron Spelling, Danny Thomas, and Harve Bennett to appeal to "the kids" on their own level. Their inability to comprehend, and thus convincingly reproduce, any elements of the same counterculture that they're trying to attract makes the show fascinating even though it's hard to take a single moment of it seriously.

Not that it's all that much dumber than most of the other primetime cop dramas being made during the same era, but the pseudo-hip trappings and weak attempts at "relevance" that pop up all over the place just add an inescapable element of unreality to the show. And despite the "mod" angle, it's often as painfully arch and cliched as the sort of shows that "Police Squad!" used to spoof. This, of course, lends the show a whole different kind of retro-camp appeal, the same way that the far-out polyester grooviness of "The Brady Bunch" gives it a dimension of watchability beyond the standard sitcom formula.

The premise, as most people know by now, is that a group of young hippies ("one white, one black, one blonde", according to the famous tagline) are given a choice to either go to jail for their relatively minor crimes or join the police department as undercover cops. Well, you've just turned off much of the actual counterculture audience right there, since it's doubtful that many of them harbored any secret fantasies of becoming narcs. Who did this show appeal to so much that it stayed on the air from 1968-1973? There were the little kids like me, who thought it was super cool because we didn't know any better. (Teenybopper magazines like "16" and "Tiger Beat" had a field day with the lead actors.) And I guess a lot of older folks imagined that they were hip if they liked the show, even though it actually played up to and affirmed their values more than those of their kids.

As white Beverly Hills outcast Pete Cochran, Michael Cole displays that mumbly, self-conscious sort of demeanor which suggests that he wants to imitate the Method acting style without actually going to the trouble of learning it. (At least he isn't as odd and inaccessible as Michael Parks was around that time.) Clarence Williams III as Lincoln "Linc" Hayes, the black character with the awesome afro, is so arch and stiff that he's either one of the most wooden actors in television history or just incredibly intense. Sometimes he looks as though he's summoning a superhuman force of will just to unbutton his windbreaker, but it could be due to all that concentrated coolness.

He does break out some great action moves, though, performing breathtaking diving leaps to push people out of the way of danger or scrambling up the side of a building parkour-style. Linc also keeps things real with catchphrases like "you can't drink champagne out of a paper cup" and "solid." Winsome, waifish Peggy Lipton rounds out the trio as the blonde runaway Julie Barnes, who is totally ineffectual action-wise but you just wanna hug her anyway. Her main talents are going undercover as a hippie girl or a nun, or getting kidnapped and held hostage. And as their straight-laced boss Captain Greer, Tige Andrews is such a glowering, tire-screeching cop show caricature that he's sort of hilarious. A father figure to the group, the big lug even persuades Pete and Linc to endure something as totally uncool as fishing.

The sets have a chintzy look with lots of those bright pastels common to early color TV. There's an abundance of ugly late-60s atmosphere such as the dayglo paisley curtains in Julie's apartment, and the similarly horrific decor on display whenever we visit one of those hippie lairs just like the ones in the later episodes of "Dragnet." It's funny how similarly unreal the "Mod Squad" view of the hippie lifestyle is to Jack Webb's, with the same tacky psychedelic trappings, smooth-talking gurus, and ever-present sitar music, as we see in the episode "The King of Empty Cups." Here, the police commissioner's daughter falls under the evil spell of an abusive rock star (a delightfully miscast Noel Harrison, who definitely wasn't rock-star material), leading to the inevitable finale in which the drugged-out girl stands teetering on a balcony threatening to jump off.

Comical "Police Squad!"-style obviousness rears its head in this set's first episode, "The Debt." Linc impersonates a lunch wagon driver so that he can infiltrate a factory, whereupon he then sneaks around peering in windows and eavesdropping on private conversations. I don't know about you, but if the lunch wagon guy where I used to work did stuff like that, we'd have noticed. In "A Town Called Sincere", faux biker types take over a backlot Mexican village and hold everyone hostage until they find out who killed two of their own. During one tense situation, Pete confides to Linc: "This whole scene is getting very uptight, man." Later, Linc loses his cool with a reluctant witness: "BABY, DON'T YOU DIG IT? THEY'RE GONNA HANG A MAN!"

Sammy Davis, Jr. pops up in another "relevant" episode called "Survival House", playing a recovering addict who's about to be promoted to director of his halfway house until he gets falsely accused of statutory rape. Sammy does his best with the character but the script by Joanna Lee (who played flying saucer pilot Tanna in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE) and slapdash execution of it are just too dumb to take seriously. In "The Exile", Julie falls in love with a nice Middle Eastern guy from one of her night classes, only to find out that he's secretly a prince who's about to become king when his father gets assassinated! (Yeah, I hate it when that happens, too.) A dark-haired Lawrence Dane (Michael Ironside's ruthless henchman in SCANNERS) appears as a military officer.

The show's best episodes are the ones that ignore the whole "hippie cops" premise and simply tell interesting stories. Two of the ones I recall most fondly from the series' initial run, in fact, are right here in this set. The first, "Mother of Sorrow", stars Lee Grant as a rich eccentric artist and a very young Richard Dreyfuss as the neglected son who decides to take drastic measures to get her attention. Grant and Dreyfuss are both outstanding actors and they have some really strong scenes together here. It's especially fun watching Dreyfuss at the beginning of his career, playing this flaky, egotistical kook with all he's got.

The second episode that I was really glad to see in this set is "A Time For Remembering." This is the one where Linc gets shot and almost dies, and it's what comes to mind whenever I recall watching the show as a kid. Partly a clip show with some great use of earlier scenes (which strongly suggest that the show's first season was superior to this one), it allows the characters to open up and convey their feelings for each other in a way that I somehow find more moving than cloying. I like the part where the nurse tries to throw Pete out of Linc's hospital room, telling him that only family are allowed. "But I am family--" he starts to say, realizing that the lie is obvious even though the sentiment is real.

The biggest casting surprise for me comes in the episode "Return to Darkness, Return to Light." Gloria Foster is radiant as Linc's old friend Jenny, a blind woman engaged to a man (Ivan Dixon of "Hogan's Heroes") who may be concealing a criminal past. It's interesting to see "The Oracle" from the first two MATRIX movies in her younger days--not only is she quite stunning to look at, but her sincere performance helps to make this one of the most emotional episodes in the collection.

"Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot" is a nifty murder mystery that takes place on a Hollywood soundstage and stars Frank Converse and Ed Asner. In "Call Back Yesterday", a young Margot Kidder plays Pete's old girlfriend and Anita Louise is his Beverly Hills mom.

Other notable names making guest appearances in this set are Ford Rainey, Lisa Gaye, William Smithers, Bert Freed, Don Dubbins, Mark Goddard, Norm Alden, Diana Muldaur, Frank Aletter, Charles Aidman, Milton Selzer, Marion Ross, and teen idol David Cassidy. In full screen format with English mono, the 13 episodes on these three discs look and sound about as good as ever. No extras. Total running time is 663 minutes.

Yeah, I love this show, but not quite the same way I did when it was new. Because since then--somehow--it got kinda dumb. So now, I have to either give up and revel in its campy elements, or force myself to ignore them and try to take it all seriously. This show is tearing me apart! (Baby, don't you dig it?) But no matter how you turn on and tune in to its groovy vibe, THE MOD SQUAD: SEASON TWO, VOLUME TWO is a mind-blowing blast from the past.

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