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“Myths are just the truth a few generations later.”
–Detective Jesse Reese, about to learn a very unique mythology

The sources for television shows are many, but certain things are quite often tapped as places where creative ideas can be born.  The costs of, say, comics are decidedly less, and yet the combination of the visual and description is not really that far away from what is needed for many series.  Combine that with the style and action-orientation of some graphic novels, and you have the makings of a potential success.  Sometimes, you get 10 years worth of Smallville based upon the Superman mythos.  Other times, you end up with Birds of Prey.

Birds of Prey

In the fall of 2002, The WB network had just found success with the aforementioned Smallville and its take on the formative days of Superman.  Looking for a companion series, they took the ideas from a comic called Birds of Prey, and adapted them for television.  Birds of Prey focused on three super-heroes instead of one, along with a parade of super-villains and characters with a legacy full of angst and problems, set in the city of New Gotham.  Taking place roughly seven years after the traditional Batman stories (and slighty farther in the future of our own time), Birds of Prey was an ambitious series, with lots of character interplay, special effects, large amounts of back-stories… and asked probably a bit too much out of those who watched it.

As far as characters, let’s start at “television normal” and work our way up.  There’s a detective on the New Gotham police force, Jesse Reese (Shemar Moore), who wonders about some of the strange goings-on in the city, especially at night.  His partner obliges with an information dump for viewers, speaking of the history of the city, and the development of “meta-humans”, with powers beyond those of normal people.  Each is different… and each can be deadly.

Helena and Reese

While investigating a break-in, Reese discovers Helena Kyle (Ashley Scott), a.k.a. Huntress.  Endowed with significant strength and a combination of abilities and a costume that allows her limited flight, their meeting is… tense.  While there’s obviously an attraction, and while they both share a willingness to rid New Gotham of the criminal element, their methods are significantly far apart… so, at least for now, their relationship is the similarly distant, despite their connection.

Reese:  “I thought you worked alone.”
Helena Kyle:  “I keep trying.”

Helena is (as told to us in a flashback sequence in the pilot) the daughter of the criminal Catwoman and the heroic Batman (although Batman wasn’t aware of her existence).  If that isn’t enough to cause personality difficulties, she watched another person gun down her mother right in front of her — an event which has recently resurfaced in her therapy sessions.  It also caused her to go into the vigilante business like her legendary father, and she now scours the city at night as Huntress, seeking those who break the law, even as she struggles with her own past.

Helena and Barbara, contemplating their dual lives

In her fight against crime, she teams with Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer).  In the past, Barbara also had a secret identity.  As Batgirl, she fought side-by-side with Batman, and knows what the whole “alter-ego” thing is about.  At the same time as Catwoman was killed, Barbara was also felled by a bullet, this one shot by The Joker.  Barbara lived, but she was confined to a wheelchair.  She took the now orphaned Helena as her ward (shades of Robin!) and became known as Oracle, a computer and technical expert in manipulating sources of information and knowledge.

Teamed with Helena to hunt down villains in their own way, their “lair” is inside New Gotham’s clocktower.  Looking out over the city as a protective duo and helping to fight the good fight, they’re hoping to be able to do their work in secret, but things don’t always go as planned….

“Sometimes, when I touch people, I see things… things that only they know.  And sometimes, when I dream things… they come true.”
–Dinah

In the pilot, they team up with one more person, a teen named Dinah (Rachel Skarsten) who has the ability to see inside the minds of those she touches.  Dinah had visions as a child of both the shootings above, and as a teen she’s sought out both Helena and Barbara to understand her gift, and what had happened.  They decide (after Dinah saves their lives with her ability) to help her understand her powers, and so she becomes the third of their trio.

Also assisting them is Alfred Pennyworth (Ian Abercrombie), the loyal butler from Wayne Manor.  A reminder of Helena’s past (as she ostensibly is the heir to Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne, now sadly deceased), he is also the only other person who originally knew of Barbara Gordon’s secret identity as Batgirl.  He provides a sounding board for various members of the team, and assists them as a moral compass when things get hazy (and considering their assorted pasts, that’s likely a good thing).  He’s become a helpful addition, if only because fighting crime doesn’t leave a lot of time for the normal things in life, like grocery shopping and cleaning.

“Hey, time out!  There will be absolutely no use of superpowers to settle domestic disagreements!”
–Barbara Gordon (Oracle)

Using the information from Detective Reese, the Birds of Prey (as they were named in the comic) continue their battles, both with the criminal masterminds of the day, and with their own pasts.  Dinah comes by her powers as a result of her heritage, which is explored in detail later.  Helena particularly has some rather vexing issues to address, as the psychoanalyst she’s been seeing for years hasn’t exactly been treating her correctly.

“This whole thing is gonna send me straight to my shrink.”
–Helena Kyle

Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a.k.a Harley Quinn

Dr. Harleen Quinzel (Mia Sara) not only has been treating Helena, but her reputation as a doctor in dealing with the most unusual cases has landed her as New Gotham’s resident “go-to” person when confronted by some of its more demented criminals.  Unknown to most, however, she’s not exactly sane herself, thanks to her relationship with The Joker back in the day.  As alter-ego Harley Quinn, she’s a mastermind as crazed as any she’s been charged to treat, she just hides it better from the world.  And she has her own vendetta against those whom she sees as having wronged “her love, Mr. J”, and if she ever finds out about Helena’s alter ego or the people she’s teamed with, hell hath no fury….

“Never send a businessman to do a psychopath’s job.”
–Dr. Harleen Quinzel

Television has a style all its own, and yet it does its best to adapt various source materials (such as comics) to tell its stories.  It’s almost like spoken and written English is made up of many other words taken from various sources and languages.  It helps tremendously, however, when the language is extremely visual, as television is a very visual medium.  Therefore, it only makes sense when the small screen looks to translate a property from the comic/graphic novel arena into its own.

But not all are successful adaptations (I’ve featured one of them previously).  Birds of Prey was ultimately unsuccessful, even though it came on the heels of the popular Smallville series, which re-examined the Superman legend in detail as a prequel.  But everyone pretty much already knew the story of Superman, or at the very least the general parameters.  And that’s where Birds of Prey had difficulty.

Many had heard of Batgirl, and while those familiar with comics might be aware of some of the lesser characters (like Harley Quinn, or Black Canary, who guested in an episode), much of the mythos surrounding Birds of Prey was brand new to an extremely large percentage of viewers.  (Just look how long it took to explain the premise of the series while writing this article!)  In order for the people watching to get immersed in the tales being told, there was a large amount of back-story for them to know and understand before their empathy with the characters would be complete.  And if viewers didn’t have that knowledge of the individuals’ pasts, then the stories being told on the show wouldn’t have the same emotional resonance.  They’d be incomplete.

This is the battle many shows face.  Some keep it very simple, and just tell a procedural where the plot is the important part and the characters are practically interchangeable with some on other shows.  Situation comedies, with their shorter length, often hang a character’s back-story on a rather simple premise, and then just do variations on the theme (like Tim Taylor’s fascination with tools on Home Improvement, or Mama Barone’s way of using food as comfort on Everybody Loves Raymond).  And if a show is on long enough, plenty of back-story can be “laid in” to various future episodes so a clearer picture emerges for the audience, and a more complex character can be developed.  But this takes time… and sometimes, there’s a lot of information that has to be dumped into the audience’s lap before even the first story can be clear.

Apparently, the first story on Birds of Prey wasn’t really that clear to begin with.  Portions of the pilot episode were reshot, and Dr. Quinzell was recast (it was originally Sherilyn Fenn of Twin Peaks fame).  One would think it would have been necessary in order to better explain the complex history of the characters, but the opposite is actually true.  The “alternate” pilot is included on the DVD set, and scenes give viewers even more information, mostly concerning some possible friction between the regulars.  While this helps viewers understand the characters more, it is information which can be used later, instead of as part of the initial introduction of the characters.  Perhaps a two-hour pilot would have allowed for both to exist, but that wasn’t part of the network’s plans.

“I felt the direction the show took didn’t come close to the potential it had. I had some great writers on staff – they have since gone on to write on Heroes, Fringe, Lost, Dexter. (…)  I think my team could have made something exceptional, and I’m sorry that Birds of Prey didn’t live up to that for fans.”
–Laeta Kalogridis, Executive Producer and writer for the pilot and 2 other episodes.

Initial ratings were good, but simply didn’t continue.  The WB was somewhat surprised, as they had hoped for another winner from the comic world, but it wasn’t going to be Birds of Prey.  The initial 11 episodes were shown, but the series was cancelled.  Amazingly, The WB did allow production of the final two hours, which were shown a few months later.  This “finale” allowed producers to tie up various loose ends surrounding the continuing plotlines on the series, a luxury most short-lived television shows aren’t allowed.

But again, the necessity of those final two installments was because there was even more information to be given, in order for a proper finish to the series.  The back-story that was laid in as early as the pilot was finally paid off, at least to a degree.  It was a worthy journey, but ultimately a lengthy one, especially if measured in knowledge of the characters.  And while I have nothing against deep, complex characterization — I love the process of discovery.  So… just peel the layers back instead of making me eat the onion whole and I’ll enjoy it so much more.

ASHLEY SCOTT (Helena Kyle/Huntress) has been featured here before, on the series Jericho.  Other television credits include Dark Angel, CSI, and NCIS.  Movie roles include the remake of Walking Tall, 12 Rounds, and The Kingdom.  She got her start as a child model before deciding to try acting.

DINA MEYER (Barbara Gordon/Oracle) has also been seen on this site previously, for her work on Point Pleasant.  Also coming from a modeling background, she had parts in Castle, Miss Match, both versions of Beverly Hills 90210 (one of the few non-regulars with that claim), and a featured role in the Saw movie series.

RACHEL SKARSTEN (Dinah Lance) is a Canadian native, and spent much of her youth studying ballet and becoming a top hockey goalie (and that’s a rather unusual combination).  She actually quit acting for a brief time after Birds of Prey to return home and finish her schooling, as she’d quit high school to play the part of Dinah.  She’s since returned to performing, and been featured in Flashpoint and The Listener.

SHEMAR MOORE (Detective Jesse Reese) had, before his acting career took off, appeared as a contestant on The Weakest Link game show, but was voted off and did not win.  After Birds of Prey, he later became a regular for a season on the soap The Young and the Restless, and has most recently been a member of the cast on the successful series Criminal Minds.

IAN ABERCROMBIE (Alfred Pennyworth) was acting for decades, both in his native Great Britain and in America.  In Hollywood, he’s been seen in everything from Get Smart in the ’60’s to Moonlight a few years ago.  He also was active in voice work, portraying Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars:  The Clone Wars.  He unfortunately passed away just this last week, at the age of 77.

MIA SARA (Dr. Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn) is best known to most audiences as the girl who skips school with her boyfriend in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  She starred with Tom Cruise in her first feature, Legend, and will be seen in the miniseries The Witches of Oz (playing, of course, a witch).  Birds of Prey was one of the very few regular roles she’s ever played on television.

The DVD set for Birds of Prey has a couple of special bonus features, rather unique and especially appropriate for the topics in this article.  As part of the cross-promotion of the show, The WB also created 30 animated webisodes using the characters and settings of Birds of Prey, and has included them on the DVD.  There is also an alternate version of the original pilot, with less overt narration and more character scenes (some of which showed up in later episodes), but it doles out even more information than the televised version.  Fans can find more information on the show at, appropriately, the Gotham Clock Tower, a fan site with tidbits about the series, its stars, and many pictures to peruse.

Barbara:  “Sometimes I close my eyes and I can almost feel it… what it was like to race across rooftops under the moon…”
Helena:  “Cold, wet, and hell on your nails.”

Complex characters and situations are something that television excels at, given its longer form and frequent installments.  But expecting people to learn tons of information about their on-screen heroes before their visualized adventures really begin is difficult, and it can turn many viewers (and television screens) off when they have to work to that degree.  This was especially true when Birds of Prey was advertised as a darker comic book.  And while the angst and emotion certainly lived up to its billing, the vast majority of viewers (who thought of “comics” as something a bit lighter) were unimpressed.  And regular comic aficionados (who prefer the term “graphic novel” for the stories, with good reason) felt the adaptation lost a bit in the translation from page to screen, which is entirely possible given the different needs of the respective mediums.

Ultimately, however, the flaws that hampered the success of Birds of Prey were more in presentation than in the material itself.  A longer pilot, with more time to present the massive amounts of data necessary, would have gone a long way towards developing a series with lasting impact.  Although the webisodes helped a bit, even just promising more back-story to come, instead of forcing people to digest it all immediately, may have been enough.  .  Birds of Prey may never have been allowed to soar, but I’m uncertain as to whether it was really their fault at all.  It may have taken off… but it was never really allowed to land in the hearts and minds of us at home.

-

Vital Stats

13 aired episodes — none unaired — available on DVD (including the unaired version of the pilot)
The WB Network
First aired episode:  October 9, 2002
Final aired episode:  February 19, 2003
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  No.  Wednesdays at 9/8 Central, and a victim of the reality craze when scheduled up against the newly popular The Bachelor and the debut of its sister series The Bachelorette.  A complex series on the youth oriented WB network, the audience for Birds of Prey was elsewhere.

Comments and suggestions are appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Hank:  “Are you saying we’re small time?”
Britt:  “If we grow two sizes we might actually be small-time.”
Hank:  “What if we’re actually big time, and just didn’t realize it?”

–Best friends Hank Dalworth and Britt Pollack in Terriers

Britt and Hank, hanging loose while they can....

In my opinion, one of the best shows to come out of cable television over the last couple years is Terriers, which aired on the FX Network in 2010.  It sadly didn’t last, but for thirteen wonderful episodes it was one of the most unpredictable dramas viewers could possibly experience, with terrific characters and unique storylines that, like the namesake animals of the series title, grabbed ahold of you and never let go.

Terriers is primarily a buddy comedy with dramatic elements, telling the story of two down-but-not-quite-out best friends and their adventures as private investigators (unlicensed, naturally).  Hank Dalworth (Donal Logue) is an ex-cop, drummed out of the force some years back with a dishonorable discharge brought on by his (then) obsessive drinking.  While he’s now on the wagon (barely), he’s still trying to scrape together a livelihood and get back in the good graces of his ex-wife Gretchen (Kimberly Quinn).  She’s already met someone new after their divorce a year ago, but he’s hanging on, to the point where (after falling into some unexpected cash) he puts a down payment on their old house, because he still wants to life that life.

Katie and Britt

His best buddy is Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James), a former thief who’s also trying to make a better life after living on the wrong side of the tracks, but his previous skills come in handy when trying to make ends meet with Hank.  Britt has a girlfriend, Katie Nichols (Laura Allen), who wants to settle down and have a baby at some point, but Britt’s fear of commitment and free-wheeling ways don’t mesh with a traditional idea of home and family.  This is especially true when he and Hank stumble upon an old friend who turns up murdered, and a conspiracy much larger than these two small-time buddies ever thought they’d be involved in.

Hank's former partner, Det. Gustafson

They do have a couple of allies, although their “friends” are also knowledgeable enough about both of them to be wary.  Hank’s former police partner Det. Mark Gustafson (Rockmond Dunbar) would love to trust Hank, but sometimes believes the best way to handle his old friend is to lock him up for his own protection, especially with the trouble he keeps finding himself in.  And lawyer Maggie Lefferts (Jamie Denbo) is trying to keep Hank and Britt out of the lock-up and throw a bone to the boys occasionally, hiring them to do some of the legwork she can’t do (because she’s going to give birth any day now, and the boys don’t mind getting roughed up anyway, as long as they give as good as they get).

So, in between odd jobs of retrieving pets caught in a messy custody battle and figuring out how to get a house loan with no “actual” job, Hank and Britt end up on the edges of a major conspiracy.  It seems to involve a rich land speculator named Lindus and his plans for a new economic development, and that leads to a sex scandal, possible carcinogens in the land, and stolen drugs in Mexico (among other things).  Hank and Britt could, at many different junctures, just cut and run, lick their wounds, and save themselves an awful lot of pain and trouble.  But despite their lack of money, lack of judgment, and (occasional) lack of common sense, they share one characteristic with the dogs mentioned in the title:  like Terriers, they’re loyal to a fault, and they will do their very best (and then some) to take care of their friends.

“I’m going to destroy you, Lindus.  I could have walked away from this thing an hour ago eating shit, and Jesus knows I’ve eaten enough in my life.  But you killed my friend, so I’m going to destroy you.  And I just wanted you to know that.”
–Hank Dolworth

So begins a very twisted tale full of unexpected moments of laughter and even more unpredictable plots.  At one point, Hank and Britt end up having to help developer Lindus… by stealing a quarter of a million dollars from him!  (He actually ASKS them to, and is willing to give them a percentage!)  It makes sense in the progression of the plot, but that’s the amazing thing about Terriers.  This happens during the thirteen episodes that you wouldn’t even dream of in most television series, but the plot twists occur organically out of the story and characterizations, so that even the outrageous becomes acceptable, to the point where the viewer can’t really imagine any other way.  And neither can Hank and Britt, as sometimes their best laid plans turn into their next nightmare, and sometimes their nightmares turn into gold anyway.

Tell me again... how are we gonna do this?

Characters designed as heroes are commonplace on television.  Even characters who don’t want to be heroes end up that way.  But in Terriers, we follow Hank and Britt as they try to overcome their worst enemies:  themselves.  And we cheer their successes… but we also understand their defeats.  Few of us could ever be heroes on television, no matter what we wish.  But far too many of us have been burdened with untenable choices, and while they may be a bit magnified as far as the stakes on Terriers, those lives are still far closer to our everyday existence than found on typical cop/lawyer/medical dramas.

Plus, there’s a definite friendship and camaraderie between Hank and Britt, and with all the regulars on the show.  You can tell there’s a part of Gretchen that would still love Hank, if only he’d become the man she knows is inside him.  Katie loves Britt, and accepts his past, but is a bit unsure of what the future holds with a man so reluctant to take the next step.  Det. Gustafson remembers what Hank used to be, and still stands up for him even when Hank himself falls, and lawyer Maggie sees something more in these two than just a handout, and is willing to help where she can.  But while Hank and Britt try to move forward, they won’t be able to without letting go of their pasts.  And the one thing about Terriers is that they never let go.

“Well, we saved her.  Now who’s gonna rescue our asses?”
–Britt, after helping a friend to safety

Hank couldn’t let go of his ex-wife.  Britt couldn’t let go of his single “freedom”.  Neither could toe the line long enough to find a reasonable job, let alone be successful at it.  But when they saw a need to help someone they cared about, they did something.  And if that something led to more, then that trail got followed too, no matter where it led or how far in over-their-heads they got.  Because that’s who they were and what they did.  And whether it led to a Mexican drug cartel, a multi-million dollar conspiracy cover-up, or just making sure a friend’s daughter was safe from trouble, they did it.  And occasionally, they fell into some badly needed cash along the way.

What they didn’t fall into, unfortunately, was ratings.  Anyone who ever actually saw the show seemed to love it.  It was a critical darling, making many reviewers Top 10 lists for the season, and even drawing some early Emmy buzz, especially for Logue as Hank.  But it aired on cable, on the less-watched FX Network, and the early advertising (and the name Terriers) did the show no favors.  Airing at Wednesdays at 10/9 Central and premiering against more high-powered and better-promoted offerings on traditional networks, a great many people never even knew it was on, and others thought it was a show about dogs.  Add to that its adult subject matter and realistic language issues and the family audience was out immediately.  Quite simply, viewers in any quantity just missed it completely.

“I can’t blame an audience. I’ve never in my life watched a TV show in its first season.  I always have to wait several seasons for someone to say, ‘You have to see this.’  That’s how I discovered The Wire and The Shield.  I don’t know the secret to getting people to watch a show in its first season.”
–Creator Ted Griffin

It’s that kind of world these days.  Networks have been so callous with new shows, yanking them off so quickly, that some series don’t even last more than a couple of episodes.  And viewers have had their collective hearts broken enough times that many shows don’t even get sampled, let alone have people find time to watch consistently.  Add to that the troubles of accurately measuring viewers, and the multiple ways for shows to be seen online and time-shifted with DVRs, and viewing numbers simply aren’t what they used to be, and eyeballs aren’t being consistently counted anyway.  Terriers was a perfect storm of ineffective promotion, a minor cable network provider, and a changing audience.  While that doesn’t stop a great series from existing, it does stop one from continuing.

The end? Or a new beginning?

Although stars Donal Logue and real-life best friend Michael Raymond-James embarked on a cross-country promotional tour for the show, the numbers just weren’t there.  The “Never Let Go” attitude was clear from all involved, from Creator to Stars to crew and more.  Fans and critics were passionate about the show, but even if the show had earned twice the ratings, it still would have been the lowest-rated series on the FX Network.  And yet, FX Network tried long and hard to make the series work for them.

Even in cancellation, Terriers was different.  Most shows just fade away, with networks sometimes not even admitting the stoppage of production.  Knowing the small but intense number of people who dearly loved Terriers, FX President John Landgraf took the unprecedented move of having a half-hour press call to announce the demise of the show, and to take questions from critics and other reporters about its end.  While he lamented the cancellation, and called Terriers a credit to the FX Network, even he was a bit baffled about the lack of audience numbers:

“I don’t think there’s anybody to blame.  We wish that there was a perfect intersection between all that is good and all that is successful, but the reality is that there’s a very poor correlation between creative success and commercial success.”
–John Landgraf, President of FX Network

Even the network was heartbroken about the ending of Terriers, let alone all the others involved.  One producer said,  “This is both the most painful and painless cancellation, because you really like the show and hate to see it go, but it was such a great time.”  If you get to watch Terriers, you’ll find that those sentiments weren’t just true for the production of the show, but for the viewing of it as well.  Once you find Terriers, you will have something in common with Hank and Britt.  You’ll never let go.

Give us one more chance. Just one more....

DONAL LOGUE (Hank Dolworth) has starred in many series, including Grounded for Life (which ran 5 years), The Knights of Prosperity, and Life (each of which only ran one short-but-critically-acclaimed season).  He’s also a writer and producer, creating the independent film Tennis, Anyone?, and will be seen in a new ABC pilot (and prospective series) for next season from Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry called Hallelujah.

MICHAEL JAMES-RAYMOND (Britt Pollack) is best friends with Donal Logue in real life, which contributed significantly to their on-screen chemistry.  He’s gone from California in Terriers to Louisiana as a recurring member in True Blood (even though he had never even heard of the books upon which it is based when he got the job).

KIMBERLY QUINN (Gretchen Dolworth) has guested on Ned and Stacey, Suddenly Susan, N.Y.P.D. Blue, Without a Trace, and The Secret Life of an American Teenager.  She’s appeared in multiple episodes of Two and a Half Men and House, and has also been seen in numerous commercials over the past decade.

LAURA ALLEN (Katie Nichols) is best known to genre fans as part of the original cast of The 4400, playing Lily Tyler.  She later was a regular on the series Dirt, and has guested on Criminal Minds and Grey’s Anatomy.  She was also featured with an amazing cast in the movie Mona Lisa Smile, playing a student at Wellesley College, which she graduated from in real life.

ROCKMOND DUNBAR (Detective Mark Gustafson) has been in many series, starting as a recurring character on Earth 2 and Girlfriends.  Lead roles in Soul Food and the medical drama Heartland followed, with his role a “C-Note” in Prison Break being his most famous part.  Most recently, he’s remained on the FX Network, joining the cast of Sons of Anarchy.

JAMIE DENBO (Maggie Lefferts) specializes in comedy, and was a member of the Upright Citizens Brigade troupe out of New York.  Her appearances on television include numerous sketches on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, multiple roles in Reno 911! and Children’s Hospital, and recurring parts in Suburgatory, Weeds, and Brothers.  She starred in the short-lived series Happy Hour, and recently sold a script for a movie called Best Buds, which actress Natalie Portman is reportedly going to produce and star in.

Surprisingly for this modern era, Terriers has yet to receive a DVD release, although FX has claimed that the very small original audience is to blame, and that they just can’t make money off the projected sales.  There is hope, however, as the show has recently been made available through Netflix Instant, for those who have access to the service, and episodes are also available for purchase and download at iTunes and Amazon.  Since it was a critical darling, there are many news websites which talk about its short run and unfortunate demise, using it as a case study in poor marketing, unfortunate scheduling, and just plain bad luck (series star Donal Logue injured his shoulder/arm during the pilot, and it is basically unusable during much of the series… but he’s such a good actor and the production worked around it so well, it’s almost unnoticeable unless you’re actively looking for it).

Battered and broken, but still ready to go

“We don’t want to stop making this show…”
–Donal Logue

I don’t want to stop watching, either, and others have felt the same way.  But the thirteen produced episodes do complete a story, and while another season was plotted out to some degree, there’s an ending there if you do choose to find it and watch.  While Terriers is not for youngsters, it is for those viewers who like character-based drama and comedy, and plots you won’t find on any other show.  I find, after going back and reading again what I’ve written above, that it’s difficult to really express how good Terriers actually is, and I can only hope that those with Netflix access can stream the show and discover Hank and Britt, and their constant struggle to find their own versions of happiness.

If I learned nothing else from watching Terriers, it was that the circumstances don’t matter.  Yes, they may bring you down, and the choices people make are sometimes not the easiest or the best.  But when push comes to shove, I’d like to have Hank and Britt on my side.  And even though there may be stumbles every so often, and an occasional fall… I know that they’ll do what they can to be there, loyal to a fault.  Because once you have a friendship like that… you never let go.

Vital Stats

13 hour-long episodes — none unaired
FX Network
First aired episode:  September 8, 2010
Final aired episode:  December 1, 2010
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  No, Wednesday nights at 10/9.  But hey, so few people found it (Terriers averaged less than a million viewers per episode) that it may as well have aired in the middle of the night.  But it was still worth it.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“When Maury Chaykin and I first started working together, last year, we worked well together from the beginning, from day one.  So, it was in a pretty good place to begin with… and now it’s just become more comfortable.”
–Timothy Hutton, about his co-star Maury Chaykin on A Nero Wolfe Mystery

Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

There’s a certain level of comfort with a well-done mystery.  Whether it’s in traditional book form or a dramatic portrayal on-screen, a particular level of intelligence and style is present, no matter the setting.  It could be Agatha Christie’s well-known Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, or the OCD adventures of Adrian Monk on television, but there are always familiar trappings for the reader/viewer to enjoy and have as touchstones. 

The same could definitely be said about the A&E Network’s  2001-2002 adaptation of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, dramatizing the literary creations of author Rex Stout.  For any unaware of the long-standing characters, Nero Wolfe (Maury Chaykin) was a rather famous and rich recluse who solved mysteries without leaving his own house!  His right-hand man, Archie Goodwin (Timothy Hutton), did the majority of Wolfe’s investigative work, discovering and reporting information to his boss (who then put all the pieces together to solve the crime). 

Nero demands. Fritz provides even better.

Other regular characters included the long-suffering, but loyal, butler/cook Fritz Brenner (Colin Fox), who dealt with Wolfe’s demanding peculiarities.  These included very specific instructions on culinary preferences, down-to-the-minute details on when dinner was served, when to make sure there were no interruptions, and how to intercept and deter almost all visitors to Wolfe’s brownstone.  Fritz knew how to handle Wolfe’s persnickety nature, but was very protective of his boss as well. 

One of the few visitors who was barely (and I do mean barely) tolerated was Police Inspector Cramer (Bill Smitrovitch), whose presence was only allowed because of his official status and the information it gave Wolfe to advance his investigations. 

Cramer, Archie, and Wolfe in the greenhouse

Operating as a 1950’s period piece, A Nero Wolfe Mystery takes place in New York City, complete with some shady gangsters, femmes fatales, mostly innocent ingénues, and times when actions (and fists) speak louder than words.  The “uncivilized” world outside the doors of Wolfe’s townhouse is seldom, if ever, allowed to intrude upon the order and intellect living there, most especially when Wolfe is in his rooftop greenhouse tending (some would say “fussing”) over his beloved orchid collection. 

“You know, I’ve taken great pleasure in lying to you in the past.  And I’m sure I’ll lie to you again.”
–Archie Goodwin, found by the authorities in the wrong place at the wrong time

We therefore see the world (and the crimes) through the eyes of investigator Archie, whose playful attitude, eye for the ladies, and ability to get tough when circumstances demand, allow viewers all the fun of a well-played mystery.  The device of not having the true mastermind on-site provides for dialogue between Archie and the imposing Wolfe, exposing to the audience the information that would normally be an internal thought process for a TV detective.  This, in the best mystery tradition, lets the audience play along with the investigation.  The concept also allows for the traditional “gather everyone into a room” ending of many great mysteries, often the room being the lavish office of Nero Wolfe’s brownstone, where the dénouement of most cases was revealed. 

One of you.... is the murderer!

There’s an entire sub-genre of mysteries in the book world currently known as “cozy” mysteries.  The name comes from the style of description, where grisly descriptions of dead bodies are frowned upon, and style and cleverness are celebrated more than the realistic messiness of homicide; in other words, a “cozy” murder.  In this respect, A Nero Wolfe Mystery fits perfectly, as the crime victims are seldom, if ever, seen as anything other than a dead body on the floor (as if they were sleeping).  The fun of both “cozy” mysteries and Nero Wolfe is in comfortably playing along, trying to figure out “whodunit”, and enjoying the mood and presentation along the way. 

“When we did The Golden Spiders, the first one… nobody was thinking about doing any more.”
–Timothy Hutton, on the original A&E Nero Wolfe movie

In 2001, A&E produced what they believed to be a one-off movie adapting Rex Stout’s The Golden Spiders, featuring Hutton and Chaykin.  Hutton enjoyed his experience tremendously, introducing the world of Archie and Nero to an entirely new audience.  When executives at A&E floated the idea of a continuing series (due to the good reviews and ratings the movie had received), Hutton enthusiastically asked not only to continue his role, but to become both a producer and director on the series in addition to a lead actor.  A&E was more than happy to accommodate an Academy Award winner. 

Hutton not only brought out more of this period style and flair in his presentation, but he also worked with a number of actors who became familiar with the specific type and genre he was trying to present.  Therefore, if only for a level of comfort for both the production and the audience, many of these actors formed a sort of repertory company, and were featured in multiple episodes as widely different characters. 

Kari Matchett portraying three different women in three different episodes

Kari Matchett played Lily Rowan, Archie’s on-again, off-again, love interest in a number of stories.  But she also played almost another dozen characters in different episodes, from nightclub singer to European immigrant.  Occasionally a suspect, occasionally an ingénue, she and Hutton developed a certain special chemistry in their performances.  That relationship continues to this day, as she was requested by Hutton to play his ex-wife, recurring character Maggie, on Hutton’s current show Leverage

James Tolkan, in one of many roles

James Tolkan is another of these recurring actors on A Nero Wolfe Mystery, playing everything from a tough FBI agent to a rather rich, entitled drunk.  While Tolkan has been traditionally cast as a rather rigid authority figure, there are still many shades to that type of character, and Tolkan was able to portray many of them during his stint on the series While his rather distinctive looks (and bald head) made him easy to spot, his superb acting ability allowed him to inhabit various personalities and allowed the viewing audience to enjoy whatever flavor he presented each story. 

“It’s wonderful for them.  They have an opportunity to morph into completely different characters every week.”
–Maury Chaykin, about the repertory company of actors on the series

All in all, 15 different actors (besides the regular cast) appeared in at least half the series episodes, in multiple roles.  And over 60 actors portrayed at least 2 different parts in the series (which is incredible, considering there were only 30 hours filmed in total).  A Nero Wolfe Mystery truly did have its own little world, full of actors who trusted each other and allowed consistent performances from all due to their level of comfort.  That comfort translated to the audience as well, bringing into our homes the familiarity of old friends and new adventures, no matter who they portrayed each week. 

If anyone at home was already familiar with Nero and Archie, the stories were like the gourmand Wolfe’s rather famous meals:  just one more helping of exquisite comfort food.  All 30 hours were taken from the original stories of Rex Stout, lovingly adapted for television in a very faithful manner.  Many of the stories were made into 2-part episodes, allowing time for proper dissemination of the layered plots from the original novels. 

Anyone wishing to immerse themselves into a world gone by, full of action, fun, and mystery, had to look no further than A Nero Wolfe Mystery.  The immersion also involved some unique challenges.  Street and location shooting meant using period automobiles and the removal of what would be anachronistic items like air conditioners and other modern amenities.  Costumes and make-up required specialized application in order to re-create the feel of fashionable ’50’s looks.  Since Hutton was a producer and director in addition to his starring role, he had to make decisions for the look and presentation for the series almost every minute of every day, let alone involve himself in the 12-to-15 hour shooting days as an actor.  And yet, for him, this was also a level of comfort.  This went all the way down to the dialogue of the show, a throwback to movies made half a century before the filming of the series. 

“There’s a style of those movies where the dialogue was very rhythmic.  It wasn’t sentimental.  You know, nobody took these long, realistic, emotional pauses.  There wasn’t a lot of contemplating going on.  It all has to have a certain kind of a rhythm to it, so that it becomes musical, and people don’t get bogged down into naturalism, you know?”
–Timothy Hutton, describing the presentation of the show

Taken together, the elements of A Nero Wolfe Mystery created something about as comfortable and classy as a television show could be.  It involved a familiar cast each week, memorable period presentation, fun characters, and the opportunity for viewers to lose themselves in a clever story, full of twist and turns in great mystery tradition.  What else would you expect from a cozy mystery repertory company? 

TIMOTHY HUTTON (Archie Goodwin) won an Oscar for his performance in the movie Ordinary People.  He has preferred character roles in many independent films, taking parts on the basis of their acting needs rather than their box-office potential.  In addition to his wearing multiple hats (acting, producing, directing) on A Nero Wolfe Mystery, he’s the lead on TNT’s Leverage, where he literally gets to wear multiple hats in various cons and heists (a part he took simply because “he wanted to have fun!”)  Also noted is the family acting legacy, as Hutton’s father Jim played the great American sleuth Ellery Queen in the ’70’s series of the same name, a role Tim paid tribute to in a recent episode of Leverage

MAURY CHAYKIN (Nero Wolfe) is a relatively soft-spoken actor, quite unlike the bombastic Nero Wolfe.  A prolific actor in Canada, he’s best remembered in America (other than his role as Wolfe) as being the commanding officer of Kevin Costner’s character in Dances With Wolves.  He died of kidney failure on his 61st birthday in 2010.

COLIN FOX (Fritz Brenner) is another Canadian actor, having starred in PSI: Chronicles of the Paranormal and guested in numerous series shot north of the border, both for American and Canadian television.  He’s also a stage veteran, and helped design and perform a unique theatre work for pianos, actors, and multimedia. 

BILL SMITROVITCH (Inspector Cramer) played the patriarch on the early ’90’s series Life Goes On, a four-year success for ABC.  He’s also starred in Crime Story, The Practice, Without a Trace, and The Event.  Specializing in tough-guy/military roles, he’s been featured on television shows from Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine to Castle, and movies like Independence Day, Air Force One, and Iron Man

KARI MATCHETT (Lily Rowan and others) is a favorite on this site, and although she’s not yet been a regular on a show covered here, she’s been a featured and recurring character in Wonderfalls, Invasion, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  Currently, she’s a regular on the USA series Covert Affairs, and hopefully will make a return visit to Leverage in the near future. 

JAMES TOLKAN (FBI Agent Wragg and others) was a notable presence in the Back to the Future trilogy, playing Michael J. Fox’s school principal (and other roles, naturally, in the past and future settings of the sequels).  A regular on the short-lived comedy Mary, he was also a recurring foil for Remington Steele, as an insurance investigator out to prove Steele’s guilt.  Other significant roles were in the feature films Top Gun and WarGames.  In addition to his multiple acting parts on A Nero Wolfe Mystery, he also directed two episodes of the series. 

Nero and Archie, and the orchids

For those sleuths wishing more information on Nero Wolfe, in book form or on television, there are multiple resources available.  The series was released on DVD, and is still available, as are most of the books written by Rex Stout.  The fan website A Nero Wolfe Mystery is an excellent source of information, including links to scripts and notes about scenes filmed but never aired on A&E.  Other adaptations of Nero Wolfe have been tried, most notably a 14 episode NBC series from 1981 starring Lee Horsley as Archie and William Conrad as Nero Wolfe (memtioned here only for completeness — it wasn’t really all that good).  Oddly enough, both shows used the same Rex Stout story, The Golden Spiders, as their pilot episodes. 

“Rex Stout wrote the books over many decades.  We chose to set this series in the early 1950’s because there is such a unique sense of style and flair and fun and color about the period.  The cars look great.  The femme fatales look great.  Archie’s hats are fabulous.  There’s a whole world and sense of style there that is very different from 2001 because it is “period”.  I think it’s going to be very appealing to a contemporary audience, because of the fun and flair of it.”
–A&E executive producer Delia Fine

A&E Network was in the midst of changing from running off-network reruns to original programming in the early parts of the decade, and despite the enthusiasm most had for the project, costs and a limited pocketbook caused the demise of the show after two short seasons and a total of 30 hours, counting the pseudo-pilot film of a year earlier.  While the network was still searching for the right combination of money, time, and program content, A Nero Wolfe Mystery certainly was one element they could point to as successful.  Fondly remembered by those who saw it originally, its style, intelligence, and cleverness are definitely missed on today’s television screens. 

The idea of a repertory cast for a television drama was last used regularly on the live dramatic broadcasts of the 1950’s, so the use of such a group for this show was a unique idea almost 50 years later.  A Nero Wolfe Mystery did it, and did it well, embracing the entire concept with flair, confidence, and comfort seldom found in most modern shows.  There’s more than a little to be said for something that can best be described as “cozy’.  A Nero Wolfe Mystery couldn’t be described as well any other way. 

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Vital Stats

2-hour “pilot” TV-movie + 27 episodes aired — none unaired (series premiere also 2 hours)
A&E Network
First aired episode:  TV-movie – March 5, 2000; series debut – April 22, 2001
Final aired episode:  August 18, 2002
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No.  Although cable networks tend to repeat their shows more than broadcast networks, each episode premiered on Sundays at 8/7 Central. 

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“Another challenge for the Green Hornet, his aide Kato, and their rolling arsenal, the Black Beauty.  On police records a wanted criminal, the Green Hornet is really Britt Reid, owner-publisher of the Daily Sentinel — his dual identity known only to his secretary and the District Attorney.  And now, to protect the rights and lives of decent citizens, rides the Green Hornet.”
–The opening title narration for The Green Hornet

The year was 1966.  Television airwaves had been filled with westerns, straight-laced cop shows, lawyer dramas, and traditional family sitcoms.  Irwin Allen had started breaking that mold a season or two earlier, with cheap, occasionally silly SF shows, and the fall season of 1966 seemed populated with either extremely dry and serious television, or safe escapist fare.  ABC was home to much of this new style, and one of the hottest shows from earlier that year was the campy and outrageous Batman, based on the comic book character.

"Let's roll, Kato!"

Another comic book crimefighter show started that fall, designed to capitalize on the runaway success of the Caped Crusader and appeal to both the serious and the escapist viewer at the same time.  The Green Hornet was introduced as a companion to the Batman series, including cross-over character appearances featuring fights with The Dynamic Duo.  While The Green Hornet got reasonable ratings, they weren’t Batman-level.  The show had been rushed into production and placed in a difficult time-slot, and therefore The Green Hornet was not nearly the television success of its near twin.  But what do you expect when you’re portrayed as essentially the “next-best” comic-book crimefighter on television?

The Green Hornet was created by George Tendle and Fran Striker in 1936 as a radio program.  This occurred nearly a year before the first character appearances of both Superman and Batman, as all three properties have many similarities.  Batman and Green Hornet have armored cars and no superpowers, and are rich playboys; Superman and Green Hornet both work at newspapers.  Similarly, The Green Hornet had other successes in both the film serials of the 1940’s, and comics that stared around the same time.  The Green Hornet should have been known as “the original”.

And yet… The Green Hornet character didn’t even get first billing by his “creators”.  Tendle and Striker also created The Lone Ranger, and explained in the radio series that the Hornet was The Lone Ranger’s great-nephew, in order to help market and cross-promote them both.  So it wasn’t surprising what happened when television came along….

Hot off the success of his spring hit Batman, producer William Dozier decided to put together another show about a masked crimefighter supported by a youthful sidekick.  Also lacking superpowers (and therefore not needing expensive special effects), the Green Hornet instead has, in addition to significant fighting skill, creative weapons like the Hornet Gun (a gas gun that knocks out enemies) and the Hornet Sting (seen above, which used sonic energy to open up doors and cause distractions).  The Green Hornet also encouraged a reputation as a criminal and allowed his name to be sullied in order to get closer to the bad guys.  (Again, not what you would think of as the actions of the best hero out there….)

“We tried to make The Green Hornet as truthful as you could be with a guy running around in a mask.  I feel proud about that and I don’t care what anybody says.”
–Van Williams, comparing the TV versions of The Green Hornet and Batman

Where the Batman series went for the camp angle, The Green Hornet was played straight.  Instead of fighting outrageous villains like the Joker, the Penguin, or Mr. Freeze, Green Hornet took on the lowlifes of the criminal underworld.  Fistfights were shown as actual violence instead of comedy, and punches were never followed by a BAMPH! or a POW!  There were few (if any) one-liners or catch phrases, and the only relationship the two shows shared (besides their comic book pasts) was a storyline “connection” as young playboy rivals mentioned during the cross-over episodes.

Britt Reid, publisher of the Daily Sentinel

The Green Hornet’s true identity is Britt Reid (Van Williams).  A newspaper publisher by day and the Green Hornet at night, his mission is to combat crime as a vigilante.  His father, Dan Reid, was the founder of the Daily Sentinel, a newspaper that sought out and uncovered the evil denizens of the city and brought their injustices to light.  When Britt’s father passed, Britt took up the mantle of editor and owner of the Daily Sentinel, and uses the vast financial and news-gathering resources to defeat the crime underworld in his city.  But lawful methods are not always successful, and Reid’s alter ego allows him to go after those who were unable to be stopped in any other way.

Kato, ready for action

The Green Hornet is accompanied by his Asian manservant Kato (Bruce Lee).  Kato is of Japanese-Filipino descent and, unlike most sidekicks, actually drives the super-car and third main “character” of the group, the Black Beauty. In the previous radio and comic versions, Kato was a  relatively minor character, and although Kato always had some hand-to-hand combat experience, Lee added much more to the role with his extraordinary martial-arts fighting skills.  Lee also used his knowledge of the nunchaku and added them to Kato’s personal arsenal, which included “throwing darts” to immobilize armed enemies.

Mike Axford (Lloyd Gough) is the crime reporter for the Daily Sentinel.  His loyalty and fervor for the paper is matched only by his hatred for The Green Hornet, believing that the Hornet is a true villain and menace to the community.  Britt allows this (as he obviously would have the power to stop any article that Axford would want to print), because he feels that The Green Hornet being viewed as a criminal will get him closer to the criminal elements that he wants to defeat.  Even though Axford would never suspect Britt as being the Hornet, Axford’s knowledge and resources make him an invaluable asset to “both”, since all of his scoops pass through Britt first, thus keeping the Green Hornet in the know about the happenings of the scum of the city.

Frank Scanlon (Walter Brooke) is the city’s District Attorney.  His glasses have a receptor that, when activated by the Green Hornet, notifies the D.A. that they need to meet.  He is one of the few people who knows Reid’s crime-fighting alter-ego, and is also one of very few people whom Britt trusts completely.  This partnership is extremely valuable for both parties, as the D.A. gets crime off the streets thanks to the Hornet’s efforts, and the Green Hornet is able to do his work with little police interference.

The Black Beauty

The Green Hornet’s car, Black Beauty, might well be considered a character in the series.  It is a customized 1966 Imperial Crown sedan equipped with several weapons and defensive measures, including headlights that flipped to a “infra-green” mode, allowing anyone in the car to see perfectly in complete darkness.  This “rolling arsenal” features rocket launchers, machine guns, and even a scanner device that could be launched into the air and send coordinates and pictures of cars and/or people being followed by Green Hornet and Kato.  These all could be easily concealed, as there were times during their adventures when a low profile was necessary.

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Shooting of The Green Hornet took place mostly on the Fox studio lot.  Many of the sets used were simply re-dresses of already built sets for movies and shows that were currently in production.  Budget-conscious producers (like Dozier and his bosses) were expected to be creative with their money, especially on a half-hour show. The signature shots of the Black Beauty leaving its secret lair and heading out into the city were actually shot on redressed Western town sets, making the car seem larger than it would on traditional city streets, and this shot was a “signature” because the same clip was used in almost every episode, eliminating the need to shoot the footage differently each time!

The many “night shots” in the series were actually filmed during the daytime using the day-for-night technique common during the ’60s (and refined and used even today).  This involved using a specialized lens, or even just underexposing an ordinary daytime shot, to create a darker exposure approximating nighttime action and saving a bundle in actual night overtime filming as a result.  The Green Hornet was still notoriously expensive, as it was really trying to be an hour drama with a half-hour comedy budget, and that budget was blown sky-high on more than one episode.  Again, the series was trying to live up to being “the best” and not being given the ability to do so.

Robin vs. Kato, on and off screen

“Oh, Bruce was just livid.  He didn’t get along with Burt Ward at all.  Ward was always making cracks about Bruce being a waiter, and it got back to Bruce.  He didn’t want to have a confrontation with Robin where he would be bested.  As a matter of fact, Bruce almost walked off the show because he thought Robin was just a comic character and had no balls.  Here, Bruce was the big kung fu guy and he was going to be bested by this kid.  It was just a mess.”
–Van Williams, talking about Bruce Lee and filming the Batman cross-overs.

The Green Hornet was often seen in the back seat of the Black Beauty, being driven to his criminal confrontations by Kato.  Ultimately, the actor playing the Hornet willingly took a back seat to his co-star in popularity.  Williams actually asked for more screen time for co-star Bruce Lee, as Williams saw his talents and thought it would be great for the show, and thus would benefit everyone.  Although Lee would joke that the only reason he got the part in the first place was that he could pronounce “Britt Reid” well enough to satisfy the brass at 20th Century Fox, rumor has it that the writers of the series modified the scripts to show off Lee and his amazing talents.  Lee’s portrayal of Kato earned him more fan mail than Williams before the series was over.  (Lee still suffered from the racial attitudes of the day, however.  He was the lowest paid performer on the show, making a fifth of what Williams made per episode, and less than the other regulars and guest stars, even though he got second billing.)

Bruce Lee’s impact on the character of Kato and The Green Hornet franchise is still felt today.  Nearly all portrayals of Kato since Lee’s have been strong and important to the storyline, unlike in the original radio and movie serial incarnations.  Nearly every version since the television series features Kato as a martial arts master, with him training The Green Hornet and honing the Hornet’s fighting skills.  Some comic-book versions portray Kato having the same look and mannerisms as Bruce Lee, and have progressed to having Kato training a new Green Hornet in case of the former Green Hornet either retires or is killed.  Even compared to the sidekick, the Green Hornet finished in second place.

Britt and Kato, if they'd had an hour show....

“We really didn’t have time to develop anything except a stern guy who was out to do good.  There was no scope to it.  Somehow, we would discover a new criminal element, and there we would go.  There really wasn’t the time to do Kato and I.”
–Van Williams, on the lack of time and budget caused by the half-hour episode length

The Green Hornet was rather successful, although not as successful as Batman had initially been.  The show still won its Friday time slot, and ABC actually wanted to renew the series for a second season.  Producer Dozier was tired of fighting the budget battles, and wanted ABC to commit to an hour-long version of the show that would better handle dramatic storylines (and be able to afford them), and ABC was unwilling to pay for that version.  The Black Beauty was then parked after one season and 26 episodes, again having to settle for being the next-best version of what it could have been.

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VAN WILLIAMS (The Green Hornet/Britt Reid) was known for his earlier leading role as Kenny Madison in both detective series Bourbon Street Beat and its sequel Surfside 6.  Williams was already financially successful when he did The Green Hornet, as he had brokered several business deals with his money from acting and made several very profitable business investments.  After his acting career, he used his investments and a job as a reserve deputy of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to keep him going (and apparently fighting crime!)  His land dealings has also kept him in touch with Batman actor Adam West, who is not only a close friend, but neighbor as well.

BRUCE LEE (Kato) moved to Hong Kong soon after the cancellation of The Green Hornet. The Green Hornet’s success there was actually a stepping stone for Lee, marketed there as The Kato Show.  Several other films followed, including Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon (which featured Chuck Norris), and Lee’s most popular film Enter the Dragon, bringing him international acclaim.  Lee was also a teacher, philosopher, director, producer, screenwriter, and founder of his own form of martial arts.  He is considered one of the most influential martial artists of the 20th century and a cultural icon, and his trademark style has influenced movies, games, MMA, health, fitness and philosophy.  Most of this, unfortunately, he would never see as he died of a cerebral edema, caused by a painkiller, only a few weeks before the premiere of Enter the Dragon in 1973.

LLOYD GOUGH (Mike Axford) was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist witch hunt led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and lost 12 years of his film career (from 1952 to 1964) due to that unfortunate and terrible time.  Primarily a movie actor before then, he became a character on television during his “second” career, guesting in shows like Ben Casey, The Odd Couple, and Barnaby Jones.  He died of an aneurysm in 1984.

WALTER BROOKE (D.A. Frank Scanlon) is best known for playing Mr. McGuire in The Graduate, where he said his famous line, “Plastics”, which caused the stock market for that particular commodity to rise in real life.  He also did many plays in the Washington D.C. area and was a veteran TV actor with nearly 200 titles and a 45-year professional career to his credit.  Brooke died of emphysema in 1986.

THE BLACK BEAUTY sat on the Fox back lot until 1992, when Green Hornet fan Dan Goodman bought the main (number 1 of 2) Black Beauty and commissioned the original designer Dean Jefferies to restore the car.  This version now resides in the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, where it is part of their permanent Cars of Hollywood exhibit.  The second version is in the hands of a private collector, who has created a website about the history of both cars.

The Green Hornet for the current generation

The Green Hornet has not been released on DVD (at least, not officially, although the standard bootlegs are out there, of course).  The rights issue on the TV series is rather cloudy, considering its comic book origins, although the upcoming release of a major Hollywood feature film based on the franchise is cause for some hope.  (The movie was a labor of love for its star, Seth Rogan, who is a huge fan of the original TV series, comics, and radio program, and the movie has been in development with various other actors as far back as 1992.)  Here’s the trailer for the film, which comes out in January 2011.  The show’s famous opening theme song (also used in the radio series) is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, performed for the series by the famous trumpeter Al Hirt.

“I dig the fact that he kicked off a run of billionaire playboys who decided to put on a mask and fight crime, and that he was Batman before there was a Batman.”
–filmmaker and comic book writer Kevin Smith

The Green Hornet movie finally being produced after all this time (after the blockbuster success of The Dark Knight) shows once again that Hollywood seems to think of the franchise as being the also-ran to Batman.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  One can only hope that The Green Hornet will finally gain the respect it deserves, and maybe the title of this article can be changed from “The Next-Best Crimefighter” to a slightly different version:  “Next, the Best Crimefighter”.

I’d like to thank my good friend John B., Green Hornet fan extraordinaire, for all his help and knowledge in making this article work, and for wanting to cover this show as a prelude to the new movie version.  I appreciate the continued support.  –Tim R.

Vital Stats

26 aired episodes — none unaired
ABC Network
First aired episode:  September 9, 1966
Last aired episode:  March 17, 1967
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? No, but Fridays at 7:30/6:30 Central is about as close as you can get.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

“Well, the series didn’t work, because you had to watch it.”
–Tony Thomopoulos, Head of ABC Programming, 1982

I’ve been a student of television for almost my entire life.  An old girlfriend once told me that “you watch the commercials more intently than most people watch the shows”.  (She was right.)  And yet, every once in a while there’s a show that makes me grateful for things like rewind buttons on remotes, so I can see and hear what actually just happened — to catch those lines or jokes that I didn’t catch the first time.  In fact, for a certain show, the rewind button is practically necessary… too bad it originally aired in 1982, before that feature was commonplace.

And yet, the show lived on to become the basis for a hit motion picture series, even though it only lasted six episodes on TV.  For that, we have to thank the warped minds of producers David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, and the files of Police Squad!

Following their success with the joke-a-minute spoof movie Airplane!, the trio of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker were looking for their next project.  This time, they were hoping to parody the conventions of cop dramas.  To do this, they wanted Leslie Nielsen, who had made a lengthy career as a serious dramatic actor, but had played a significant comedic part in Airplane!

Alan North as Captain Ed Hocken, and Leslie Nielsen as Detective Frank Drebin - Police Squad!

As Detective Frank Drebin, Nielsen was superb at delivering funny lines in a deadpan and droll manner, the serious center around which the craziness occurred.  He and his boss Captain Hocken (played by Alan North) were involved in all the tropes of traditional cop dramas, no matter what absurdity was going on around them.

“We sold the show just with the credits.  Normally a show just does a pilot.  We shot the credits beforehand so we could say, ‘It’s like Airplane!, but for the cop show genre.’  And then we went to New York to pitch the show, and we showed that opening credits sequence.  We showed that in front of all those ABC executives, and it was like a mortician’s convention.  The credit sequence was an exact replica of M-Squad, which starred Lee Marvin in the late ’50s or early ’60s.”
–Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker

The series was full of visual puns, gags, and non-sequiturs, all sending up the TV cop show motif.  Even that opening credit sequence was full of jokes, especially if you were familiar with the genre.  The original announcer for many of the popular Quinn Martin-produced shows of the sixties and seventies (such as the original Untouchables, The FBI, Cannon, and The Streets of San Francisco) was hired to do credit voice-overs for Police Squad! in the same ultra-serious manner.  The opening credit sequence also featured a couple of running gags: One was that each episode had two titles, one onscreen, and a different one heard in the voice-over (for example, you’d see the words “Ring of Fear”, but the announcer would say “A Dangerous Assignment”).

The other running gag was the announcement of that week’s “guest star”… who would be “killed off” during the credits, and never actually appear in the episode itself!  The “death of the week” included television favorites like Robert Goulet, Florence Henderson,  Lorne Greene, and William Shatner (who actually avoided a hail of bullets in a restaurant… and then promptly died, overacting, after drinking a poisoned glass of champagne.)  This actually proved to be a point of controversy that the show barely avoided, as they had filmed one of these “guest” scenes with comic John Belushi being drowned… and two weeks before the episode was to air, Belushi died in real life due to a drug overdose.  Another actor and sequence was quickly substituted, and that footage was likely destroyed, as it has never seen the light of day.

“We would have come earlier, but your husband wasn’t dead then.”
–Detective Frank Drebin to a murder victim’s wife in the opening episode

Our heroes were aided by a few other regulars.  Officer Norberg (played by Peter Lupus) was a younger detective, who usually was far more interested in circumstances surrounding the crime being investigated than the crime itself, with absurd results (in one episode, there’s a sting operation using a phony locksmith shop as a front, and Norberg is ecstatic over the business that they’re doing, and completely forgets the fact that they’re actually there to catch the crooks).  Ted Olson (played by Ed Williams) runs the Crime Lab (and you can tell, because the sign on the door literally says “The Lab”).  He is usually teaching some innocent child how science is supposed to work when interrupted by Drebin for information on a case… and he sends the child off with instructions along the lines of “next week, make sure you bring along some of your mother’s underwear”.  Finally, whenever Drebin is stuck on a case, his street informant is the shoeshine guy Johnny (William Duell), who is so connected that he knows every detail about every possible situation, even items that it would be impossible for him to know.  The running gag with him is that, after Drebin leaves with whatever information is needed to advance the plot, someone else comes up to the shoeshine stand for help.  This included a doctor (in full surgical scrubs) needing advice on how to perform complex surgery, Dodgers baseball manager Tommy Lasorda on what to do about his pitching rotation, and even eternally young American Bandstand host Dick Clark wondering what this new “ska” music was that the kids were talking about (and getting another supply of miracle youth cream from Johnny as well!!)

Visual gags -- like cops too tall to fit on screen

Much of the humor in the show was hilariously obvious, but some of it was so understated and “in the background” that it was easy to miss a joke… or three… as they went by.  The show was done without a laugh track because, as the producers stated, “Where do you put the laugh track for a visual joke that the audience is discovering at different times?”  This truly was a show that could NOT be watched casually, or used as background noise, and you HAD to pay attention to really “get” the show.

I wasn’t kidding about having the rewind button.  While watching the episodes again recently for research on this article, and it took a friend and me an average of forty-five minutes to watch each twenty-five minute episode.  First, because we were laughing so hard we’d miss the next lines and have to rewind the scene to hear them, and second, because there would be so many visual jokes in the background of a scene (that didn’t always call attention to themselves) we’d have to keep hitting rewind to check and see that we’d caught the gag that was actually there.  One of us would catch a joke that the other hadn’t, and we’d back up the episode to show the other what we were laughing about.  You couldn’t do that in 1982 (well, most couldn’t, as the VCR was just hitting the market at that time), and so many of the jokes on Police Squad! were simply missed by the audience instead of being “pointed out” by a laugh track (or a convenient friend with a rewind button).  And there were lots of jokes.  If you didn’t like one, wait 10 seconds.. there would be another one coming by.

The show also ate up material with amazing speed.  The producers were almost glad that they’d gotten canceled after only six episodes, as they hadn’t realized how many jokes were necessary for each half-hour episode.  But they’d also figured out that the problem with doing Police Squad! as a TV series was, as the network had noted, the series had to be actively watched, by an engaged audience.  Unfortunately, for an audience whose standard of comedy at the time was Happy Days and Mork and Mindy, constant attention to detail and background wasn’t a skill that had developed around a television set, and rewind buttons were practically nonexistent.  The show’s studio, Paramount, believed in the idea of the series nonetheless, and soon decided that the problem wasn’t the material, it was the attention span of the audience.  And so, a failed TV series became a major motion picture.

“It sounds funny, and sounds dumb, but it was true.  You had to pay attention.  You couldn’t look away, you had to watch to make sure that you caught the humor, or where it was coming from… and television, people don’t really “watch” TV.  (…)  The television screen is too small, because in the screening room, if it’s big enough, you don’t miss the humor, you don’t miss a chance to participate in that humor, because it comes out and hits you.  That’s why it works in the movie, because that movie screen can fall on you, and you’re not going to miss it.  And you’re not going to miss what’s up there to be seen.”
–Leslie Nielsen

The first Naked Gun movie (subtitled From the Files of Police Squad!, just in case anyone HAD paid attention to the series) did tremendous business in 1988.  It made over $78 million dollars during its run in theaters.  That may not sound like much compared to the blockbusters of today, but realize that movie tickets were much cheaper then, and the movie was still comfortably in the Top Ten movies of the year as far as money earned.  And what makes it even more amazing is that the movie stole a significant amount of its humor directly from gags that had been used on the original TV series!  (If people had just paid attention, they could have essentially seen it for free six years earlier, and not had to pay for a babysitter and popcorn….)

There were eventually two more movies in the series, and more gags from the original show were used in addition to all new material, but the feel of those movies was a bit more slapstick and the visual jokes more blatant, and ironically, as a result, the sequels didn’t do as well.  But the source material is still very, very funny, and holds up well, even today.  Clever wordplay, sight-gags, and straight, deadpan delivery of outrageous material is timeless.  One good joke, done properly, can last a lifetime.

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LESLIE NIELSEN (Detective Frank Drebin) was known primarily as a serious dramatic actor before Airplane! came along, most famously in the sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet and as the lead in the 50’s Disney series The Swamp Fox.  Numerous TV guest roles (over 100) followed, before his second career as a comedian, and an Emmy nomination for his role in Police Squad!.  He loves golf, and was featured in a comic series of films about playing the sport, titled Bad Golf Made Easier.

ALAN NORTH (Captain Ed Hocken) appeared on the soap opera Another World for more than 3 years, and was also featured on the TV series Love, Sydney and Kate and Allie, in addition to movie roles in the original Highlander and The Long Kiss Goodnight.  He died in early 2000 of kidney and lung cancer.

PETER LUPUS (Norberg) played the strong, protective Willy Armitage for six years on Mission:  Impossible, and again was a serious actor turned into a comedian.  He also is a bodybuilder, and holds records for weightlifting, the most recent set at the age of 75.

ED WILLIAMS (Ted Olson) was the only actor besides Leslie Nielsen to re-create his role in the Naked Gun movies, which is surprising since acting was actually his second career.  His first was as a teacher, which means all those scenes with the kids in Police Squad! were just an extension of his original profession.

WILLIAM DUELL (Johnny) was originally a stage actor, appearing in both the original Broadway and movie versions of the musical 1776.  He was also featured as one of the inmates in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and later returned to Broadway for the revival of 1776, making him the only actor to appear in all three versions of the production.

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The series is available on DVD, with interesting and funny commentary by the writers and producers on three of the six episodes.  Obviously, the three movies are also available on DVD.  But if you’re too impatient, or just too cheap to buy them, then once again YouTube is your best bet.  Most of the information on the internet focuses on both the TV series and the movies, but the best site for specific information about just the series is here.

“If Police Squad! had been made twenty years later, it would have been a smash.  It was before its time.  In 1982, your average viewer was unable to cope with its pace, its quick-fire jokes.  But these days they’d have no problems keeping up, I think we’ve proved that.”
–Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons

Police Squad! certainly won’t go down in history as one of the great works of mankind.  It didn’t show the strength of the human spirit, or the struggle for acceptance, or any of those terrific, dramatic things that great television can do.  But it did do one thing, and did it well, and that was to make people laugh.  And that’s a pretty good thing for a television show to be able to do… but only if you’re paying attention.

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Vital Stats

6 aired episodes — none unaired
ABC Network
First aired episode:  March 4, 1982
Last aired episode:  July 8, 1982
Aired Friday 8/7 Central?  No, it aired for the month of March on Thursdays at 8/7 Central, and got clobbered in the ratings by Magnum P.I and Fame during a sweeps period.  The final two episodes were burned off later in July.

Comments and suggestions welcomed, as always.

–Tim R.

Television has this amazing habit, as it keeps using the same ideas, but finds new ways to present them.  Due to different eras, styles, and creative personnel, a simple four-word idea evolved into three very different series.  About all they had in common was that each focused on the relationship between two very different lead characters… and the fact that each of the shows lasted one season or less.  Oh, and that four-word idea?  “Human Cop — Robot Partner.”

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VERSION 1.0:  ABC tried this idea when it premiered a “buddy comedy” titled Holmes and Yo-Yo.  Set in the then present day of 1976, it featured Alexander Holmes (Richard B. Shull) as the human cop, who was such a bumbler that his incompetence kept putting all of his former partners in the hospital (accidentally, of course).  When no one would partner with him any longer, he was finally teamed with rookie cop Gregory Yoyonovitch (John Schuck).  During their first assignment, “Yo-Yo” is shot (of course, due to Holmes ineptness).  Surprisingly, Yo-Yo is relatively unharmed, but Holmes discovers Yo-Yo’s “secret”:  that he’s actually a robot, being tested for police work, and no one but his creator and the officers’ Captain (Bruce Kirby) are supposed to know his true nature.

The Slapstick Version: Holmes and Yo-Yo

Trying to keep the secret of Yo-Yo’s identity was difficult, since a female fellow officer was falling for him (and Yo-Yo, programmed for friendliness and not love, is totally oblivious of this).  It also didn’t help that his robotics weren’t nearly perfected, and he was affected by everything from elevators to magnets to garage door openers.  What follows is 13 episodes of slapstick humor and sight gags, usually involving either Holmes clumsiness putting Yo-Yo into ridiculous situations, or Yo-Yo’s lack of understanding of human behavior and Holmes’ trying to cover for his partner’s true nature.  The comedy was broad, hoping to invoke the style of famous teams like Martin & Lewis, and Gleason & Carney (the show was produced by Leonard Stern, who’d written for The Honeymooners and Get Smart, so you can tell the tone the series was going for).  Shull and Schuck were actually very good physical comedians, but the material they had to work with was almost too outlandish, and the Holmes and Yo-Yo series (and buffoonery) soon ended.

But that four-word “high-concept” idea was still out there… and the idea of “human cop–robot partner” might still work, if someone took a completely different approach….

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VERSION 2.0:  Producer Dick Wolf (creator of the long-running Law and Order franchise) tried his hand at this idea in the summer of 1992.  NBC’s Mann and Machine was set in the “near future”, and inhabited a similar but slightly more advanced world than what we know of today in 2010.  Its plots took a much more traditional “cop show” tone, just with a few futuristic touches.  Robots and artificial intelligence (AI) are beginning to become more commonplace in this era, and human police detective Robert “Bobby” Mann (David Andrews) ends up being paired with the newest generation model, a beautiful female robot named Eve (Yancy Butler).  Again, almost everyone else (except their boss) is supposed to think that she’s human… and according to her creators, she almost is….

The Serious, Edgy Version: Mann and Machine

“There’s only one thing that separates the machine mind from its human counterpart, and that’s the ability to learn from experience.  Eve is the first creation of artificial intelligence capable of assimilating “emotional” material.”
–Dr. Anna Kepler, Eve’s creator, in the pilot episode

Eve is programmed with an incredible amount of knowledge… but emotionally, she’s at the level of a seven-year old, still learning about human behavior (and everything from “little white lies” to the concept of modesty, since she thinks nothing of disrobing in front of Mann at one point).  But she learns very quickly… and Mann, with all his great instincts as a policeman (and bad habits as a human being) gets to be the one to teach her.

The stories utilized both Eve’s advanced abilities and Mann’s street sense to solve crimes, and the only real downfall of the series was that the presentation of the show almost tried to be too futuristic.  With jerky, oddly edited action scenes and vaguely unsettling electronic music, the characterizations and plots were undermined by the attempts at being “cutting edge” in style, and the show’s emotional core suffered as a result.  When the film editors don’t get in their way, Butler shines in one of her early acting roles as Eve, and Andrews does a fine job presenting Mann as a character that, in lesser hands, would be unlikable, but here is simply a fallible human, and therefore the best teacher Eve could ever have.  Their Captain is portrayed by actress S. Epatha Merkerson, who started playing the boss of other cops (but essentially the same character) for 16 seasons on Wolf’s long-running Law and Order, shortly after Mann and Machine‘s 9 episodes ended.

So… the broad comedy didn’t work, and neither did the slightly futuristic drama.  What’s left?  Well, the next version took a little of both , and some inspiration from the movies, and came up with a far different approach….

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VERSION 3.0:  Move forward a couple of TV seasons to 1994, and a few more years into the future.  RoboCop:  The Series was based on the movie franchise, which had gone through 3 films, although the last two weren’t nearly as successful as the first.  Therefore, the series threw out any continuity of those two sequels, and returned to the original for its inspiration.

“We always felt RoboCop was a lonely hero who could not express who he is.  The television series is an opportunity to explore the ethical honing of RoboCop’s character against a more science-fiction like setting.”
–Michael Miner, co-writer of both the original film and the series pilot episode

It’s now a few years after the events of the original movie, in which cop Alex Murphy (played in the series by Richard Eden) had been critically wounded, and what was left of him was fused with a robotic shell and computer programming.  The result, RoboCop, is an armored law enforcer, with supposedly no memory of his prior existence, and instructions to serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law.  However, RoboCop’s discovery of the wife and son he’d had in his previous life as Murphy trigger troubling memories and images, and a slow realization of the humanity he has lost.  His partner in the TV series, Lisa Madigan (Yvette Nipar), also discovers the truth, and promises to keep secret the existence of his slowly recovering memories, while helping to protect his former family and encouraging Murphy to tell them what has happened to him.  This forms the emotional core of the episodes, as Murphy/RoboCop must deal with the present while reaching back to try and grasp his elusive past.

The Schizophrenic Version: RoboCop: The Series

“They need a husband… and a father.  I cannot be that.  But I can protect them.”
RoboCop/Murphy to Madigan at the end of the first episode

This heartfelt character arc was oddly combined with a darkly comic tone (which both the series and the original movie shared).  It presented sharp ironic satire bordering on the absurd, in a heightened and almost parody-like demonstration of present day attitudes taken to extremes.  In fact, it’s probably a good thing that the show was syndicated and sold directly to local stations, because if it had been on a major network, it could never have gotten away with the spirited jabs it took at almost any target.  Religion and politics were both satirized, and corporations and crooks ran almost everything, while the populace looked the other way (as long as they weren’t inconvenienced).

RoboCop is also a comedy, social satire in the broadest sense, we were always thinking about the next crazy character, place name, or situation which would pillory our existing institutions.”
–Ed Newmeier, the other co-writer on the original movie and series pilot episode

The one thing that was different from the original film was a significant lack of over-the-top violence, which simply wasn’t acceptable on broadcast TV in 1994, even in syndication.  So, instead of violence, irony ruled the day.  In a world that had willingly given up its own humanity in trade for material comfort and the illusion of contentment,  RoboCop/Murphy represented a journey back to humanity.  He not only was our protector, he represented hope.

Compare the above two quotes of the co-writers.  Just like RoboCop/Murphy, the feeling you get is a severe case of split personality for both the character and the show.  This, to me, is the best explanation of why RoboCop:  The Series only lasted one 22 episode season.  The juxtaposition of styles and substance might work over a two-hour movie (and even then, it didn’t work for the two sequels), but it’s just too difficult to balance and maintain over an entire series.

Comedy, drama, or irony?  Network or syndicated?  No matter what approach, apparently there were still too many “bugs” in the (television) programming for any of these versions of “Human Cop — Robot Partner” to succeed.  But maybe someday….

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RICHARD B. SHULL (Alexander Holmes) appeared in many comedy roles on TV and film including Hart to Hart, Alice, and The Rockford Files, but his first love was theatre.  He appeared in numerous Broadway productions, including Victor/Victoria and Goodtime Charley, for which he received a Tony award nomination.  He passed away in 1999, acting almost literally until the end, part of the cast of the Broadway play Epic Proportions.

JOHN SCHUCK  (Yo-Yo) has had a wide range of roles, known as a comedic actor earlier in his career as Sgt. Enright in McMillan and Wife, and Herman Munster in the revival series The Munsters Today.  He’s used his dramatic muscles in numerous science fiction shows, including Babylon 5, and both the fourth and sixth Star Trek movies.  He also toured for many years as Daddy Warbucks in the musical Annie.

DAVID ANDREWS (Bobby Mann) was in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street movie, as well as playing supporting roles in the movies Fight Club and Apollo 13.  On television, he appeared in the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon and was a regular on the final season of JAG.

YANCY BUTLER (Eve) is best known for starring in the two-season cable series Witchblade, but also starred in the short-lived series Brooklyn South and South Beach.  She was also featured in multiple episodes of Third Watch and the soap opera As the World Turns.

RICHARD EDEN (Alex Murphy/RoboCop) spent a season on the NBC soap Santa Barbara and appeared regularly on Emerald Point N.A.S. He also guested on numerous Canadian-filmed syndicated series in the ’90’s, including Tarzan, Forever Knight, Total Recall, Earth:  Final Conflict, and Relic Hunter.

YVETTE NIPAR (Lisa Madigan) played recurring parts in Brisco County Jr. and 21 Jump Street.  She’s also made appearances on everything from Murder, She Wrote to Chicago Hope to Party of Five to Profiler.

Holmes and Yo-Yo exists almost only in the memories of those who saw it originally, with little information or resources online.  One episode is available, in chunks, on YouTube.  You can also find the pilot of Mann and Machine on YouTube, in addition to further episodes (again in chunks).  There are also bootleg DVDs of the Mann and Machine available in various places on the web, but there’s never been an official release of either of these two shows.  RoboCop:  The Series did receive an official DVD release in Canada, but it’s still Region 1 and therefore playable on North American DVD machines and available from Amazon Canada.  There’s also a great site dedicated to the entire RoboCop mythology, with excellent information on all the movies, the animated series, comic books, and everything else from that universe.

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Whether in comedic, dramatic, or ironic terms, by contrasting a human cop and a robot partner we are not just entertained, but discover some facet of our own humanity.  One has to wonder, however, why these robots keep wanting to be human… when humans themselves don’t seem to appreciate the lessons of these shows enough to keep them on the air.

Someday, someone will come up with VERSION 4.0 of this theme, and try it again, and maybe this next show will find an audience that appreciates that message… and be reminded of their humanity in an increasingly technological world.  Until then… the idea is still there, waiting.  Just four words….

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Vital Stats

Holmes and Yo-Yo
13 aired episodes — none unaired
ABC Network
First aired episode:  September 25, 1976
Final aired episode:  August 8, 1977, although the series had stopped airing the previous December, with the last episode unaired until late summer of the following year
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No, its scheduled time slot was Saturdays at 8/7 Central.

Mann and Machine
9 aired episodes — none unaired
NBC Network
First aired episode:  April 5, 1992
Final aired episode:  July 14, 1992, but the show skipped the entire month of May and most of June, essentially having been cancelled already, and again, the remaining episodes were burned off in the dead of summer with no promotion.
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Again, no.  The series aired on Sundays at 8/7 Central, with the “burned” episodes airing on Tuesdays.

RoboCop:  The Series
Two-hour pilot and 21 hour episodes aired — none unaired
Syndicated
First aired episode:  March 18, 1994
Final aired episode:  November 26, 1994
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Possible, but unlikely, as local stations across the country who bought the show could air it when they pleased during the week, which meant that some stations aired it in prime time, and others buried it at 2am on Saturday night/Sunday morning, meaning very few viewers.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“I wrote for Stephen Bochco’s series Cop Rock.  I was the only girl songwriter on the show which was, alternately, one of the most exciting and one of the worst things that was ever on television.  When it was good it was unbelievable, and when it was bad it was really bad.  But nobody had ever done something like that before.”
–singer/songwriter/actress Amanda McBroom, writer of the Bette Midler classic “The Rose”

One of the biggest shows of the eighties was Hill Street Blues.  It changed the way viewers looked at police dramas, and instead of dry “straight-laced” cops-and-robbers tales, viewers were told quirky, messy stories that didn’t always end in one episode (and didn’t always end with the criminal behind bars).  Even the heroes weren’t always heroic, and sometimes they took more of the damage (and broke more of the rules) than the villains.  It was a landmark show, in many ways.  Lots of viewers (including the Emmy committee who, at the time, awarded it more Emmys than any other show in TV history) thought Hill Street Blues was brilliant.  And then its creator followed with another winner, L.A. Law.  That man, Stephen Bochco, was considered a television genius.

Stephen Bochco, Creator

And someone put the unusual idea in Bochco’s head that Hill Street Blues could be made into a Broadway musical.  Never one to back down from a challenge, Bochco gave this idea some serious thought.  Logistically, it would have been difficult, with a large cast and source material that had both stand-alone and continuing stories.  Ultimately, the idea was deemed unworkable, and no Broadway musical materialized.  But the idea was still there, waiting for a different form… and boy, was it different….

“If I can’t bring the cop show to Broadway, why can’t I bring Broadway to a cop show?”
–producer/creator Stephen Bochco, on the genesis of Cop Rock

Hill Street Blues was a monster success, both in ratings and quality, with 98 Emmy nominations (and 9 Emmys for Hill Street and L.A. Law for Bochco himself).   On the basis of this success, Bochco then got a 10 SERIES commitment from ABC and, in the fall of 1990, premiered Cop Rock.  The show was supposed to combine the quality storytelling of Hill Street and… five songs, of different styles, from different actors, in EVERY episode.  It really was Hill Street Blues done with music… and Amanda McBroom was correct.  At times, it was terrific viewing… and at other times, it was so bad that TV Guide ranked it 8th on its list of “The 50 worst shows in the history of television.”

“…there’s no such thing as a track record.  You toil and you toil and you argue and argue and you tear your hair out and go nuts and eventually you either retire, go mad, or become powerful enough to make your own show.  You say, ‘I am going to show them how it’s done!’  And that’s when you make ‘Cop Rock from Cincinnati.'”
–Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer; Firefly; and Dollhouse; on the craziness of making television, good and bad.

I (obviously) love quirky, different, and unusual (it’s why I write this blog, after all).  Therefore, just as obviously, I loved Cop Rock (well, mostly) and videotaped every episode.  I even made a “mix tape” cassette of the songs, from the beginning (and if this first song from the opening of the first episode doesn’t show you the dichotomy of the series, then you’re lost before you start).  Fortunately, I don’t have to refer to this “mix tape” anymore.  Someone has graciously posted almost every song (here’s the playlist) from Cop Rock on YouTube (over 50 songs, but fair warning, they’re NOT in the order that they were performed on the show, so continuity and context are sometimes lost).  This is where you can find the best few songs (which were about a love triangle, and therefore fit more emotional moments) AND the worst (some of the more ‘staged” numbers)… and decide for yourself, with some of the other clips, if you don’t happen to like my linked specifics.  But then, the entire show was a “love it or hate it” deal….

Captain Hollander confronts "bad cop" LaRusso

The actual plot of the show used many staple “cop show” ideas (the love triangle on the force; a good cop bending the rules; and racism and anti-feminism among both crooks and cops).  With only 11 aired episodes, all you have to know is it was a character-based cop drama, with occasional comedic moments (like all good shows).  Then add Broadway style numbers with groups of synchronized dancers, interspersed with introspective solo songs, depending on the particular scene and character(s) “moved” to sing.

You see, there’s a theory in musical theatre that says characters are only supposed to sing when mere words aren’t really enough, emotionally, to express themselves.  Cop Rock, when those moments occurred, did admirably.  The problem was, contractually, there were supposed to be five songs per episode…. in a four-act show, plus a teaser before the opening credits theme, in a series that featured ELEVEN regulars.  And at least one featured song each week was supposed to be the “big Broadway showstopper”.  (And sometimes, those were the ones that literally “stopped the show” in its tracks.)  Good musicals find reasons for the music, and bad ones don’t… and Cop Rock was, ultimately, both at the same time.

Initially to sell the show (and for publicity’s sake), the songs in the pilot (and the theme song) were written by Randy Newman, famous for his lengthy career, quirky songwriting, and more recently for his contributions to the Toy Story movie series.  Asked once if Cop Rock was simply ahead of its time, Newman replied this way.

“No… I think it’s an impossibility.  It just wasn’t fated to have an audience.  Out of the four or five things I did, 2 or 3 of them worked.  I did the first show.  You can’t take an action thing, and have people singing.  The audience [for that style] wants action.  If it had been a more touchy, feely show…. I don’t think the audience had tolerance for it.  When it worked, like in the courtroom number, ‘Guilty‘, it was really good, but you can’t do that all the time.”

But they tried… oh, how they tried.  On Cop Rock, they tried songs with every kind of topic and style, from funeral requiems to racism, from ballads to rap, police anthems to feminist anthems, and from country cowboy songs to riffing on The Temptations.  Again, some of it worked.  There were places where character, emotion, and story came together to create wonderful moments…. But some of the music was inserted for the sake of “having to have a song here”, took the audience completely out of the story, and gave some very good singer/actors some less than wonderful material to work with.

Greatness and imperfection, at intervals

If you get the feeling that this is about as much of a “mixed bag” show as you could get, well, you’d be correct.   But, based on those moments when it DID work, it had such promise that I HAD to write about it.  Of course, a show has to be more than “promising” or a “mixed bag” to succeed.  ABC had paid not only a premium for the 10 series commitment contract for Bochco but, thanks to the extensive costs of music production, rehearsal, a large cast, and significant location shooting, the show cost $1.8 million an episode (the most expensive TV series up to that time).  Despite the need for the show to be a big success, and a large promotional campaign (including trailers shown on thousands of movies screens the summer before the show premiered), Cop Rock just didn’t attract any kind of audience at all.  ABC even encouraged Bochco to drop, or at least reduce, the number of songs in the show and turn it into more of a “regular” cop show, but Bochco had already done Hill Street and had no interest in making just a pure retread.  The show was canceled just before Christmas 1990, with 11 episodes instead of the contracted 13.

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With 11 regulars, the usual Bios will be short, and they will also be about the individual characters they each played on the series.  Following that will be just the most noted “other” project or two the actors have been involved with (or the bios will last longer than the show did!)  Using the picture above, starting L to R, at the bottom:

RON McLARTY (Ralph Ruskin) got to be the insecure part of the “love triangle” on the show, and sings “She Chose Me”, one of the best ballads of the series.  McLarty’s primarily known as a novelist, having had a best-seller with the book The Memory of Running, and has narrated numerous audiobooks.

ANNE BOBBY (Off. Vicki Quinn) was the female part of the triangle (married to Ralph), and, in my opinion, the breakout best singer of the regulars.  Bobby has been more of a stage actress since, performing in four Broadway shows, but probably best known for a long running stint in the off-Broadway musical I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.

PETER ONORATI (Det. Vincent LaRusso) was the cop who “broke the rules”, killing a suspect instead of arresting him.  Onorati has done significant guest roles (including a recent episode of Rozzoli & Isles), but is best known as a regular playing a divorce attorney in the series Civil Wars, which aired a couple of years after Cop Rock.

JAMES McDANIEL (Off. Franklin Rose) had his character’s partner killed off in the first episode, and dealt with both the emotional fallout from that, and being paired with a new, unskilled partner.  McDaniel later found much more success on the NEXT Bochco hit, N.Y.P.D. Blue, as another cop, Lt. Arthur Fancy, winning a Screen Actors Guild award for the role.

(middle row)

VONDIE CURTIS-HALL (Warren Osborne) played the confidante and assistant to the Police Chief, and gets the fabulous Temptations number mentioned above.  Curtis-Hall’s best known other role is as Dr. Dennis Hancock in the series Chicago Hope, in which he starred in for 4 seasons.

RONNY COX (Police Chief Roger Kendrick) was the “throwback” traditional-style police officer (who also had a crush on the female Mayor, although his idea of “traditional” male/female relationship roles got in the way).  Cox’s long and established career included starring roles in Apple’s Way, St. Elsewhere, The Agency, and a recent recurring role in The Starter Wife.  He also has a real following as a traditional country music singer and, in Cop Rock, gets to ride down an L.A. Street, on a horse, playing a guitar, singing… with a tumbleweed following along after!

BARBARA BOSSON (Mayor Louise Plank) had a early storyline centered on the Mayor’s plastic surgery, and later a possible bid for the ’92 election year (provided her money grafting wasn’t discovered, or was covered by her use of the Police Chief’s feelings for her).  Bosson earned five Emmy award nominations for her work on both Hill Street Blues and Murder One.

LARRY JOSHUA (Capt. John Hollister) was in charge of the precinct, riding herd on all these crooks, cops, and politicians and keep them working (or off his ass) depending on whether they were below or above him in rank.  This created much pressure on his family life, and his character’s focus was the balance of work and family.  Joshua split his time career-wise between TV (also as a Captain on N.Y.P.D. Blue) and movies, appearing in both Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven, among others.

(top row)

DAVID GIANOPOULOS (Off. Andy Campo) was playing Vicki Quinn’s partner, and the third part of the “romantic triangle” (he also got some of the best songs because of it).  The following season Gianopoulos was one of the good-looking boyfriend/husbands on the series Sisters, and also appeared in most of the episodes on the American version of Queer as Folk… again, as a policeman.

PAUL McCRANE (Det. Bob McIntire) portrayed the love-struck detective who fell for a suspect in one of his cases.  McCrane was credited in his younger days as P.R. Paul, and appeared as Montgomery in the original series Fame.  As Paul McCrane, he appeared in five seasons of E.R. as Dr. Robert “Rocket” Romano, and was in seasons 5 & 6 of 24.

MICK MURRAY (Off. Joseph Gaines) played the “really rookie” cop who becomes Officer Rose’s new partner after his previous one was killed.  Honest and inexperienced, the rookie’s a bit too generous with sympathy toward the criminal element, but at least his values are in the right place, and the character hasn’t been (and won’t be) corrupted.  Murray’s other acting roles included guest parts in series such as Civil Wars, Beverly Hills 90210 (the original), and Angel.

Kathleen Wilhoite (Patty), one of the many talented guest singers

Not listed as a regular, KATHLEEN WILHOITE simply must be mentioned, although she was only in a few episodes.   She has three of the very BEST songs in the series, playing Patty, a drug-addicted single mother who sells her baby for drug money, and then fights through the cops, until she gets the chance to get her baby back.  Wilhoite is a multi-talented singer/actress who specializes in guest roles (in everything from Quantum Leap during her Cop Rock days to The Mentalist this past season, along with a 16-episode stint on Gilmore Girls) and also fronts her own band.  I highly recommend, in addition to all the Cop Rock music I’ve linked to, that you give her site a try, and download and listen/see some of her own original music.

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“I’m guessing I’m gonna end up talking about [Cop Rock] until the day I die… not by choice, I might add….  The advice I’d have to give producers is take responsibility for what’s up there, good or bad.  Preferably bad.  Always share the responsibility when it’s good.  Take all the responsibility if it’s bad.”
–Stephen Bochco, on the success and failure of all his shows, particularly Cop Rock.

If the above statement is taken as fact and not just opinion, then responsibility for Cop Rock has to be a shared thing, because the series aimed to do something stylistically that hadn’t ever been tried before, and dared, occasionally, to achieve it.  Of course, it went down in critical flames at other times, but that’s the cost of any attempt at greatness.  The final judgment isn’t really in the hands of critics.  They’re paid to be pithy, and to not like everything they see (and some critics refuse to like ANYTHING they see).  But in the case of Cop Rock, while it is still known as a “failure” by the business and some of the people in it, the show was nominated for five Emmys and WON two of them.

Cop Rock is still remembered now, 20 years later, by those of us who love TV, so it must have done SOMETHING right.  It was even rebroadcast multiple times on VH1, A&E, and the Trio cable networks into the 2000’s.   And one of the best quotes about the show also comes from Bochco, who said, simply:

“It was the most fun I ever had working on a show.”

Besides, as the old showbiz line goes, “It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings!”  But the ratings weren’t there, and the company knew ahead of time that Cop Rock was going to be canceled.  So, in its usual atypical style (of course), in the last act of the final episode, they took advantage of it–in song.  Check out their farewell, where everyone gets a solo (there’s even a sly comment on the show that was going to replace them, called Equal Justice), and THEN, of course, the fat lady sings.

I’m not kidding.  She really does.  Go watch it.

Just one more coda of “different” on a show that dared to ALWAYS be that way… for which I’m grateful, and because of that, I still remember Cop Rock fondly… and still sing its praises.

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Vital Stats

11 aired episodes — none unaired — no DVD release, but over 50 clips on YouTube.
ABC Network
First aired episode:  September 26, 1990
Last aired episode:  December 26, 1990
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No, Wednesdays at 10/9 Central

Comments and Suggestions welcomed, as always.

–Tim R.

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