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Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Having just watched the 5-DVD set SLEDGE HAMMER!: THE COMPLETE SERIES, I find that, once again, I dislike something at first and then end up liking it after further consideration.  This proves either one of two things: (a) I'm wishy-washy, or (b) you can't always go by first impressions.  I'm going to go with the second alternative, since it's less uncomplimentary toward me.

I have a vague memory of seeing an episode of this show during its first run (1986-88) and dismissing it as a crappy "Police Squad!" wannabe.  That criminally brief 1982 series (six big  episodes and out) by the Zucker brothers, which introduced Leslie Nielsen's celebrated "Frank Drebin" character and inspired the NAKED GUN movie trilogy, continued the same outlandishly farcical yet totally deadpan vibe of the Zuckers' AIRPLANE! on a smaller scale. 

Naturally, I was disappointed when I approached "Sledge Hammer!" expecting it to be more of the same.  What I finally realized after watching several episodes, however, is that this show is its own addlebrained entity--it's still a lightheaded farce that often resembles something out of MAD Magazine and celebrates silliness for its own sake, but the deadpan humor is shot through (pun alert!) with heaps of pure, giddy goofiness.  In fact, "Sledge Hammer!" works both when it's aping the bone-dry "Police Squad!" comedy style and when it's making funny faces at us.

It takes awhile to get its groove on, though.  The first episode is a bit of a mess--production values are murky, the direction and editing are flabby, and, worst of all, there's a laugh track pointing out the funny parts to us.  Still, it has John Vernon (ANIMAL HOUSE) as the mayor, who demands that Sledge be let loose on the case when his daughter is kidnapped by terrorists. 

There are some funny bits and Hammer's character, who is a cross between Dirty Harry and his watered-down TV equivalent "Hunter" (also a likable fascist cop with a female partner), is well established when he uses a bazooka to demolish an entire building in order to stop a sniper ("Trust me, I know what I'm doing" is his oft-heard motto).  Overall, though, it's pretty limp.

We get to watch the show get its bearings and start firing on more cylinders as the season progresses, with the scripts getting funnier and more daring, and the direction improving (Bill Bixby eventually helmed eight of the series' best episodes, with Dick Martin of "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" contributing a couple of good ones).  Despite its lesser moments, there's a relentless quality to the hot-and-cold-running gags and a sort of earnestness from the stars that makes the first season somehow likable.  And some of the gags actually score big laughs, as when Hammer and an informant (guest star Dennis Fimple) conduct a secret conversation via adjoining pay phones.

Before long, the chemistry between Hammer and his female partner Det. Dori Doreau starts to click.  RUNAWAY's Anne-Marie Martin (who, incidentally, co-wrote TWISTER with Michael Crichton) is an appealing foil for Hammer even though her comedic skills take awhile to develop, and their relationship has a certain charm--Doreau sees the good behind Hammer's fascist, violence-loving, ultra-right-wing exterior and eventually finds herself falling for him even though Hammer's first love is his gun, which he talks to and sleeps with. 

As Hammer, David Rasche (BURN AFTER READING, UNITED 93) has a firm grasp on the character from the start but also gets better as he goes along.  Rasche has a field day in the role, with his trigger-happy detective shooting first and asking questions later while gleefully roughing up everyone from jaywalkers to the mayor's wife.  He reels off one-liners like nobody's business--when a nagging reporter asks if he has any predictions, Hammer's deadpan response is, "Yes...scientists will perform the first brain transplant, and you'll be the recipient."  We eventually learn that Hammer thinks the death penalty is too lenient, his favorite song is "Taps", and the only thing he fears is world peace.

As season one comes to a close, just about the time Patrick Wayne does a delightful guest shot as Hammer's long-lost brother, the show really starts getting serious about being funny.  The season-one cliffhanger is insane, opening with a introduction by Robin Leach in which he announces that the series is making a bid for renewal by packing more sex and violence into the upcoming episode and ending with Hammer frantically trying to disarm a nuclear warhead that could annihilate the entire city.  Cult star Mary Woronov plays the mad villainess in this one, which actually does end with a nuclear explosion. 

How they resolve this open-ended situation at the start of season two is undoubtedly one of network television's nuttiest moments, with the show even changing its name temporarily as part of the joke!  And this is just the beginning of a series of episodes that get progressively more willing to be weird, while cast and crew all seem to be on the same page at last and making funny things happen.  Movie spoofs dominate, with films such as SHAMPOO, JAGGED EDGE, and VERTIGO getting the treatment (with the occasional misfire such as a weak parody of PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM). 

"Hammeroid" finds Hammer seriously wounded by a juggernaut robot (which is reminiscent of a similar character on the cult series "The Avengers") and turned into a cyborg a la ROBOCOP.  Fans of that movie should love this affectionate spoof, while Bela Lugosi fans are in for a treat with "Last of the Red Hot Vampires", in which "Love Boat" alumnus Bernie Kopel does a surprisingly good Lugosi imitation.  (The episode is "dedicated to Mr. Blasko", the actor's real last name.)

In "Jagged Sledge", Rasche gives a tour-de-force performance when Hammer must defend himself while on trial for the murder of a mob boss (the great Tige Andrews of "Mod Squad" fame).  Another episode, which finds Hammer going undercover as a prison convict involved in a breakout attempt, actually beats NAKED GUN 33 1/3 (1994) to the punch with a strangely similar premise.

Harrison Page (CARNOSAUR) is undoubtedly the funniest supporting actor in the role of Captain Trunk, a dead-on spoof of the perpetually screaming squad captain whose blood pressure is always sky-high thanks to Hammer's destructive hijinks.  Avoiding what could've been a one-note performance, Page is one of the best things about the show and is a constant delight.  In addition to those already mentioned, a sterling roster of guest stars includes Ronnie Schell, Bill Dana, Nicholas Guest, Ray Walston, David Clennon, Armin Shimerman, Richard Moll, Adam Ant, Brion James, Bud Cort, Mark Blankfield, and Russ Meyer regular Edy Williams.  Directors Bixby and Martin pop up in cameos.

The 5-disc DVD (22 episodes) from Image Entertainment is in 1.33:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital mono.  No subtitles or extras.

It's interesting watching a show go from blah to good as we see with SLEDGE HAMMER!: THE COMPLETE SERIES.  It may not be perfect but it's just plain fun, and by the time the last few episodes rolled around, I didn't want it to stop being Hammer Time. 

Buy it at

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