Action is not necessarily the first thing you think of when you ponder the career of Aaron Spelling. He was the king of “lite” prime-time viewing, known for delivering glossy, easily-accessible fluff like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island to the masses. That said, he and partner Leonard Goldberg cranked out a number of cop shows during their glory days: The Rookies, Starsky & Hutch and T.J. Hooker to name a few. If audiences wanted a shoot-em-‘up, Spelling and Goldberg could deliver the goods in their own unique, lighthearted sort of way.
Though Starsky & Hutch was their most notable success in this area, the most memorable of the Spelling/Goldberg shows in the action genre was S.W.A.T. This short-lived and rather controversial show began its life as a mid-season replacement that was spun off from The Rookies. The central figure of the show is Lieutenant Dan “Hondo” Harrelson (Steve Forrest), who is in charge of the Special Weapons And Tactics for an unnamed metropolitan city. Each episode presents Hondo dealing with a different high-danger situation that is beyond the training and capabilities of the average beat cop (snipers and hostage situations are staples of the show).
There are four other members on Hondo’s team. His right-hand man is Sgt. David “Deacon” Kay (Rod Perry), who is not only his second in command but also the scout of the team – in other words, he’s the one who hits the location first to scope out its attendant dangers. The other three men are chosen for duty in the show’s pilot episode, “The Killing Ground.” T.J. McCabe (James Coleman) functions as the group’s sniper thanks to his strong skills as a marksman. The other two men, Dominic Luca (Mark Shera) and Jim Street (Robert Urich), function as utility men who tackle whatever tactic Hondo needs to be tended to.
As for the episodes themselves, they deliver gritty action scenarios with gusto. The city of the show seems to have crazies and crooks around every corner: for example “Coven Of Killers” has a gang of Manson-esque hippies led by Sal Mineo (!) while “The Killing Ground” has a coke-snorting trio of family members with a murderous vendetta towards cops and “The Bravo Enigma” pits the S.W.A.T. team against a shifty international assassin (Christopher George!) who happens to be carrying a highly infectious plague. Though never bloody, the action is surprisingly intense for this era of television, with a big emphasis on shootings, exploding cars and racking up a body count.
However, the intense and violent content of the show is offset by the Spelling/Goldberg “lite prime time” approach. Despite being violent, the action is portrayed in a bloodless, comic book fashion and the plotting is kept simple to make room for flashy guest-star performances and plenty of action. Some mildly political themes are flirted with on occasion, particularly about the press misrepresenting the work of cops, but it’s kept to a minimum. The early episodes are uneven as the show works to find the balance between action and fluff but it hits its stride around the fifth episode, “Hit Men,” and it never looks back afterwards.
Another interesting aspect of S.W.A.T. is that it goes out of its way to makes its heroes likeable to the point of being cuddly. Despite being able to shoot down several guys per episode, Hondo is presented as a family guy who takes a fatherly interest in both his team members and the victims. Picture Ward Cleaver with an M-16 rifle and you’ll get the right idea. McCabe is an almost perfectly polite small town kid turned perfect sniper, Deacon is flawless, totally reliable backup for Hondo and Luca is a fun-loving jokester. Street is the “serious” one of the group, the one with liberal leanings, but he never clashes with Hondo for more than one scene – and he’s always portrayed as caring, decent, etc. (not to mention a ladies’ man).
There’s also a surprising amount of humor in each episode: much of this is driven by the character of Luca, a wise-cracker with Noo Yawk accent who is obsessed with two things – pizza and girls. A recurring bit of schtick is introduced later in the season in the form of Hilda (Rose Marie), a lunch lady who comes to the office to hawk sandwiches as the officers banter with her about her lousy food. Virtually every episode closes with the guys hanging out at the office, trading a wisecrack or two to send the audience on a smile after the getting through the week’s shootings and explosions.
The end result never won any Emmys but it was not designed to. S.W.A.T. is very entertaining if you’re a fan of television’s trashier, more formulaic side. The show’s comic-book approach to the cop-show genre works because of the professionalism involved. The action is always skillfully choreographed and a decent amount of money was put into the cinematic action that opens and closes every episode. It helps that the directors were all skilled t.v. pros, including Starsky & Hutch regulars like George McCowan and Bob Kelljan.
That said, episodic t.v. is all about personalities – and S.W.A.T. benefits from a strong cast that keeps the viewer engaged. Forrest brings an agreeable persona to the table, not to mention effortless gravitas, as the leader. His consistent, solid, low-key work makes him a comforting presence as the leader. Perry and Coleman deliver along similar lines. Shera gets more latitude to show personality, handling even the corniest laugh-lines with the aplomb of a sitcom veteran. Urich wraps the package up with an early example of the leading-man chops he’d get to develop later on in Vega$ and Spencer For Hire. Whether he needs to brood, smile or shoot, he gets the job done.
In short, S.W.A.T. is the small screen equivalent of a popcorn movie – and the tension between its violent action and light entertainment elements keeps it interesting. It was an immediate hit with viewers – and also tremendously controversial with critics and television watchdog groups for its weekly body count. It would have a short shelf life, only eking out one further season, but it remains a cult fave. If you have a soft spot for Spelling/Goldberg productions, particularly Starsky & Hutch, then it is likely you’ll have a bullet-riddled good time with it.
If you want to read Schlockmania’s review of S.W.A.T.: The Final Season, click here.