Go trippin' back in time with those cool 'Mod Squad' cops as they
finally arrive on DVD
BY FRANK LOVECE | Special to Newsday
December 16, 2007
It was originally to be called "The Young Detectives." Maybe if it
had been, it would have gone the way of the short-lived "The Young
Lawyers" and "The Young Rebels" that soon followed. But somewhere
during the show's development, in that halcyon year of 1968, the
title got changed to the catchier, kitschier "The Mod Squad," a name
promising something other than young versions of our same old elders.
Its first 13 episodes come out on DVD Tuesday, giving nostalgic
boomers a chance to remember when they were The Young Whippersnappers.
A cop show for the counterculture, "The Mod Squad" starred Michael
Cole, Clarence Williams III and Peggy Lipton as, respectively, a
young white dude, a young black bro and a young blond chick working
as a youth-culture undercover team for the Los Angeles Police
Department. Tige Andrews played their police superior, Capt. Adam
Greer. Very loosely based on a 1950s LAPD narcotics squad headed by
series creator Bud Ruskin, the show became a four-season hit on ABC.
And for all its sanitized TV vision of hippies and Hell's Angels,
protesters and "pigs," it broke ground in giving the screen its first
lasting counterculture protagonists - something the ostensibly more
sophisticated movies wouldn't do for another year, with the
breakthrough youth-culture film "Easy Rider."
"It was one of the earliest attempts to deal with the counterculture
and the disillusioned-youth sensibility of the time," says David
Bushman, curator of New York's Paley Center for Media (formerly the
Museum of Television and Radio). "It successfully drew in that young
audience and made it feel it spoke to them - and did it without
alienating older viewers, since it had the trappings of a police
drama. 'The Mod Squad' was remarkable for its time in what it
addressed and ... it deserves credit for taking on the issues it did."
"We had shows about topics nobody was dealing with at the time," says
co-star Cole by telephone from Los Angeles, where he continues to
appear occasionally on series including "ER" and in TV movies. While
the early 1960s had seen such hard-hitting, topical dramas as "The
Defenders" and "East Side/West Side" - what historians call
"Kennedy-era" or "New Frontier" dramas - they had largely been
replaced in mid-decade by escapist balm like "The Wild Wild West" and
standard genre shows like "The FBI." "We did an episode on abortion,"
Cole says. "Another on anti-Semitism. And, of course, we also
addressed the Vietnam War and racism. It was pop culture-ish, but we
were dealing with very serious situations. And Aaron had to fight to
get some of those shows on."
"Aaron" would be the late Aaron Spelling, early in his career before
becoming a megaproducer of hits like "Charlie's Angels," "Starsky and
Hutch," "Beverly Hills 90210" and countless other shows. Partnered
with comedian-producer Danny Thomas in
Thomas-Spelling Productions, Spelling contributed his singular
combination of showmanship and sociological savvy, traits that helped
him predict what people would want to see - even if people didn't
always know it themselves - and then sell it.
"When Aaron started to sell the show," Cole recalls, "a lot of people
thought it wouldn't get an audience because [it teamed] a white, a
black and a girl." Robert Culp and Bill Cosby pioneered integrated
series leads with "I Spy" in 1965, Greg Morris was part of the
"Mission: Impossible" team from the start in '66 and Don Mitchell
aided "Ironside" in '67.
But the first two were globetrotting secret-agent fantasies. "Mod
Squad," set here at home, was a cop show in form but thematically
aspired to be a naturalistic drama. That made it the target of
anti-integrationist ire. "We got hate mail," Cole says. "And the more
we got, the more we knew we were on the right path - thanks to Aaron.
He really stuck to his guns."
Or didn't, in another context: The show's three young cops -
disgraced rich kid Pete Cochran (Cole), ghetto denizen Linc Hayes
(Williams) and prostitute's daughter Julie Barnes (Lipton) - didn't
carry firearms. Cole says that was his idea. "On the second or third
day [of production], I went to Aaron's office. I told him we're about
peace and love, so let's not have the Mod Squad ever carry a gun. And
we didn't. We made a point of, when the bad guy dropped his gun, to
take that weapon and throw it away. It was symbolic, a way of saying,
'We don't need that.'" Cole and Lipton (who was also married to
Quincy Jones for 16 years) appear in new interviews on the DVDs, as
do "Mod Squad" guest stars Ed Asner, Tyne Daly, Lou Gossett Jr. and
Lesley Ann Warren.
The premiere episode involves some very ungroovy businessmen
blackmailing a politician. Aside from the blackmailers having photos
of the politician's daughter taking LSD, the plot could be that of
nearly any detective show. What gives it and subsequent episodes
their distinctive voice is the visible camaraderie of its three young
stars, and something else - a feeling that the actors believe what
their characters believe, that they're making a difference during a
tumultuous time filled with possibilities.
"'The Mod Squad' was groundbreaking in the realm of socially relevant
drama," says Bushman, citing as an example a later season-one
episode, "Peace Now - Arly Blau," about the family dynamics of an
Army general and his pacifist son, who's in prison for dodging the
draft. One 1970 episode involves the death of an immigration officer
who may have been trafficking in illegal aliens. How 2007 is that?
Its cultural significance aside, "The Mod Squad" really isn't a
towering pinnacle of TV drama. But it was a well-crafted weekly show
with ambitious and laudable ideas, and even landed a best-drama Emmy
nomination its second year. The three stars were good actors for the
roles - particularly Broadway veteran Williams, but it was Lipton who
got an Emmy nomination each year.
"It was the first TV drama to embrace the counterculture," says
classic-TV authority Diane Albert, former editor and publisher of
"The TV Collector." "The three lead characters were the vanguard of
[drama-series] protagonists who weren't older people; it didn't look
like shows five years or even a year before it. But," she admits, "I
think anybody up to about age 39 is going to find 'The Mod Squad' a bit corny."
Hip, hip, hurrah
TV dramas had few young-adult leads before "The Mod Squad" in 1968.
But that show sparked a quest for "relevant" (code word for hip,
youth-oriented) shows, most of which hit the air in the fall of 1970.
Dig these short-lived youth-culture dramas, baby!
"The New People" (ABC, 1969-70) - Forty young Americans become "Lost"
on a South Pacific island, and try to create a better society than
their parents did. Producer Aaron Spelling teamed with writer Rod
Serling - in which "Twilight Zone" was that?
"The Young Rebels" (ABC, 1970-71 ) - The American Revolution
televised. Four youthful colonists (including Lou Gossett Jr.) fight
the power in 1777.
"The Young Lawyers" (ABC, 1970-71) - From their storefront office,
idealistic Boston students lay down the law to slumlords,
head-busting cops and other exploiters of the people.
"Storefront Lawyers" (CBS, 1970) - From their storefront office,
idealistic L.A. associates lay down the law to slumlords,
head-busting cops and other exploiters of the people.
"The Interns" (CBS, 1970-71) - Three white guys, one black guy, one
blond chick: Young physicians at New North Hospital operate on tough
issues of the day. Before he was B.J. Hunnicut on"M*A*S*H," Mike
Farrell played a doctor here.