Sledge Hammer!: Season One Review

Anchor Bay’s DVD release of all 22 episodes of the first series of Sledge Hammer! should be akin to the unveiling of some ancient artefact, with all of the “dated” assumptions that entails. After all, this was a mid-eighties cop comedy series that sent up Dirty Harry and his various offspring who had pervaded cinemas and television sets up until that point. Yet history has conspired to make Sledge Hammer! oddly prescient, and it now appears, in retrospect, to be a sharper satirical take on those action films which followed, rather than those which preceded it.

Indeed, one of the great pleasures of Sledge Hammer! is that its titular creation, as portrayed by David Rasche, is such a blank page. Beyond the macho gun-loving, peace-hating and casually misogynist attitudes, Hammer is strictly one-dimensional, and this, of course, is the point. By representing their only bare essentials not only does he become Harry Callahan and his progenitors, but also the various like-minded that have emerged since. Despite numerous eighties references (the Cold War, Miami Vice, Moonlighting), episode after episode reminds us of scenes from one the Die Hard or Lethal Weapon movies, even though they hadn’t been made yet. Whilst entire episode plot lines, when not paying homage to Assault on Precinct 13, D.O.A. or Witness (in the wonderfully titled episode, Witless), could easily be utilised for today’s modern action movies. After all, the likes of S.W.A.T. and Swordfish are utterly absurd in their plot twists and developments, yet nobody blinks an eye. Indeed, it is often the case with Sledge Hammer! that we forget to laugh at the on-screen exploits simply because its sense of the ridiculous has inadvertently become the norm.

Moreover, by predicting the kinds of action film which would follow, Sledge Hammer! has also pre-empted their own spoofs. And as with National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 or High School High (which took on Dangerous Minds, pre-figured in the episode To Sledge, With Love) the gag remit moves beyond direct satire. It’s a move that makes perfect logical sense; its central target being the ridiculousness of these supposedly serious pictures, it makes perfect sense to adopt this attitude towards everything. With such a broad approach, however, the gags do, on occasion, miss more often than they hit - especially with regards to the sometimes clumsy slapstick - resulting in a handful of poorer episodes (and, at times, a closer kinship to Police Academy than Police Squad!).

It is the similarities in the episodes rather than the differences which prove most telling, however. Despite the presence of a female partner, Dori Doreau (played by Anne-Marie Martin), there is no attempt to soften up Hammer, or to provide him with any kind of narrative arc. Indeed, no lessons are learnt and the Sledge of the pilot is exactly the same as the Sledge who figures in the series finale, The Spa Who Loved Me. And that’s exactly the point. He’s “a policeman whose hobbies are police work” (as the character is introduced when he appears on a quiz show) and as long as his fellow big and small screen officers remain likewise, Sledge Hammer! will continue to be sharp, incisive and, of course, highly amusing.

The Disc

As a mid-eighties American TV show, a certain softness of image should be expected of Sledge Hammer!’s DVD appearance, and this is certainly the case. That said, it is perhaps a little sharper than expected, and most likely superior to its original broadcast quality. However, compression artefacts blight each of the 22 episodes (discs three and four being the worse hit) which proves, at time, overly distracting. I’m also inclined to believe - and this is enhanced by Anchor Bay’s recent track record - that this is a direct NTSC to PAL transfer.

Soundwise, the disc fares somewhat better. A choice between DD2.0, DD5.1 and DTS is given, with the former being the best option. Not simply because this is the original format, but also because the other two options add very little to the mix. The rear channels are used only during the credit sequence, i.e. during Danny Elfman’s classic theme, whilst at times both suffer from seeming strangely disassociated from the on-screen action. This is not a problem on the original mix which, moreover, also shows little in the way of damage or audio dropouts.

With regards to the extras, the R2 release is identical to Anchor Bay’s previously available R1, and as such is largely directed at fans. This means a huge amount of inconsequential features, such as the original ad bumper (i.e. the bit that separates the programme from the commercials) and various TV spots. However, such a target audience has also lead to a number of commentaries by creator (“it makes me sound like I gave birth to the actors”) Alan Spencer, the original, longer pilot and a specially created retrospective featurette.

Of the three, the pilot is likely to provoke the most interest. As with the other episodes, a choice of DD2.0, DD5.1 and DTS is available as is the option for English subtitles, but sadly the picture quality is slightly worse. However, the changes are fairly subtle (slightly extended scenes, a final gag about Dirty Harry) and it unlikely that this will receive the repeat viewings the rest of the series is likely to receive.

The featurette, entitled Go Ahead, Make Me Laugh!, is equally of interest, especially as it reunites the three main leads. Admittedly, it is rather clip-heavy (and surprisingly most emphasise the slapstick rather than the satire), but its full of anecdotal and gives a good, overall history of the first series and its inception.

Those wishing for more information should check out Spencer’s commentaries, however. He’s a quick talker and admirably fills all 23 minutes of each of the four episodes he covers (the pilot, Witless, All Shook Up and The Spa Who Loved Me). His overly goofy presence can at times prove overbearing, but more often than not he agreeably selfless and has plenty of time to discuss the various guest stars and other pieces of trivia (All Shook Up, the Elvis impersonators episode, for example, was his homage to late friend Andy Kaufman). What makes these pieces stand out, however, or rather the last of the four, is the presence of an earthquake in the background which eventually disrupts the proceedings. Surely a DVD first!

None of the special features, excepting the full-length pilot, come with subtitles, English or otherwise.

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