Even forty years later, it’s a little difficult to wrap your head around the idea that a trio of youths from different backgrounds could jump from a probation sentence to carrying badges and being undercover police officers. Yet, that’s the central idea behind The Mod Squad, a relatively hip cop drama that debuted in 1968, ran five years on American television, and inspired one of the more critically maligned movies of 1999. The first half of the show’s debut season has now hit DVD in R1, several weeks after coming out in R2, and I’m happy to report that there’s still quite a bit of fun and interest left in the show, provided you don’t mind blowing the candy-coloured dust off some of the more ridiculous plot points. California hep cats Pete Cochran (Michael Cole), Julie Barnes (Peggy Lipton), and Lincoln Hayes (Clarence Williams III) are recruited by Captain Adam Greer (Tige Andrews) to work undercover on cases that regular officers would have trouble assimilating into, namely those involving the hippie youth culture bursting out of the 1960s. The fact that all three of the kids are criminals is sort of glossed over in favour of portraying them mostly as victims of circumstance (bad parenting, overly privileged looking to rebel, and getting caught up in a wrong place, wrong time riot in Watts). This is only problematic if you’re looking for an abundance of realism, a quality that was decidedly lacking in late ’60s television programmes. It seems that producers Aaron Spelling and Danny Thomas and creator Bud Ruskin were trying to establish a modicum of believability and timeliness with The Mod Squad, and maybe the show played like a daring look at the counterculture of America in 1968, but it now most closely resembles an attempt by an establishment-friendly arm of mainstream media (the “man,” for those still keeping it real) to tap into the burgeoning youth movement as safely as possible.
That’s not entirely bad though. By dimming the psychedelic rainbow a few shades and populating the show with harmless, parental-approved characters who, not coincidentally, are easy on the eyes, a larger audience was able to embrace Pete, Julie, and Linc and welcome the three protagonists into their living rooms each week with a minimal dose of controversy. It also prevented the series from becoming a completely dated time capsule of drug-induced trends. In reality, much of the show’s enduring charm rests with the sheer likability of the characters and their portrayers. Despite being either a little overly dramatic at times (Cole and Williams) or often stuck with a drowsy-eyed grin (Lipton), the actors are a huge part of what makes everything here click. Their differences are refreshing even if they seem a bit choreographed and the fraternal closeness each character immediately establishes with the others provides a pleasant feeling of togetherness too often absent in television shows that feature multiple leads. Though all three Mod Squaders are daftly naive at times, they still come across as genuinely appealing characters who manage to balance a heady distrust for authority while still acting responsibly as role models.
The other part of the show’s success (judging only from the meagre first half of its initial season that Paramount decided to release for now) lies within the self-contained plots of each episode. I find that one of the most difficult contrasts with modern television versus classic shows comes from the more recent trend of using multiple episode story arcs, transforming the series into a novel-like cliffhanger with each entry whereas shows of yesteryear were more content on isolated mini-movies that completely resolved themselves in that episode. The lack of depth that comes with one-off dominated programmes obviously hinders such shows in comparison. Even if The Mod Squad can’t really compete with the crime dramas found on television in the last decade or so, it’s still a pretty fun show with often entertaining storylines.
The sun-stained California setting and blindingly bright colours help give these 13 episodes an upbeat sugar rush of a lift, translating into easy and disposable viewing for the audience. After stumbling out of the gate with a bloated pilot episode and a few scenes better suited to the gang on Scooby-Doo (which would make its debut only a year after The Mod Squad first aired), the show seemed to settle in nicely, and grew on me in the process. Some things are ridiculous, namely the silly habit of prolonged foot chases and fisticuffs and the insistence on having the three characters use their real names every time they go undercover, but there are several well-meaning instances of socially aware issues being tackled as well. Mere months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Linc offers a subtle tribute without descending into preachiness. Similarly, an exceptional episode guest starring Louis Gossett, Jr. as a Vietnam veteran skillfully explores the difficulties of returning to the everyday obligations of civilian life and even provides an early glimpse of post-traumatic stress disorder. A more dated look at the medical dangers of meningitis, starring Yvonne “Batgirl” Craig, fares a little worse and instead seems overwrought and out of place.
Another dud is the episode entitled “The Guru,” about a popular underground newspaper. When the show is off, as it is in these episodes, the frequent unintentional humour and predictable failure to authentically capture the counterculture movement it depends on expose The Mod Squad’s glaring weakness and threaten to turn a fun piece of television history into a sanitised snapshot. Thankfully, the show more often settles in as a highly watchable diversion that stands out among its procedural peers, first, by keeping the focus on the kids and, second, by presenting a diverse cast at a time when television dramas almost exclusively starred middle-age white men. Whether it was a stunt or brave casting, the idea of three noticeably different-looking twentysomethings in equal and leading roles is still compelling. It’s not a concept that can carry a series on its own certainly, but here it doesn’t have to as the actors are all up to the task and the writers largely provide interesting plots. Now if we can only figure out a way to bring “solid” back into the hip lexicon of youth.
Somewhat surprisingly but absolutely welcomed, Paramount added some extra value to the set by including three supplemental featurettes. Disc 1 has “Forming the Squad,” (15:00) a look at how the show and the characters developed, and “Inside ‘The Teeth of the Barracuda:’ 1968" (9:34) which is about the post-hippie counterculture of the year the series premiered. Both feature interviews with Michael Cole (still wearing a large ring on his right hand, but, sadly, no ascot) and Peggy Lipton (who seemingly ages at a much slower rate than mere mortals). The final bonus is on disc 3. “Friends of The Mod Squad” (16:10) looks at a few of the guest stars who appeared during the show’s five-year run. Lipton and Cole return, alongside new interviews with Louis Gossett, Jr., Lesley Ann Warren, Ed Asner, and Tyne Daly. Everyone is very cheerful and happy, without anything negative to say at all. Conspicuously absent from the bonus material is Clarence Williams III, but it’s still great to catch up with Cole and Lipton.
One final note, and something that is a constant thorn in the side of TV on DVD enthusiasts, is that Paramount “may” have altered these episodes from their original broadcasts. A disclaimer on the back of the case warns, “Some episodes may be edited from their original network versions.” This usually means either music changes due to licensing costs or the use of syndicated versions. I don’t think the latter is the case here since all episodes are quite substantial at around 50 or 51 minutes long, with the pilot running even longer at over 73 minutes. Any music alterations probably won’t be noticeable to casual viewers and I didn’t detect anything out of the ordinary. I’m not a fan of the non-committal “may” in that disclaimer and would much prefer studios simply detail any changes. An episode listing with synopses and original air dates is included on the inside of the case and this would seem to be the perfect place for mentioning these possible alterations.
The Mod Squad - Season 1, Volume 1 Review
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