S.W.A.T. – THE FINAL SEASON: Going Out With A Kitschy Yet Violent Bang

After a successful run as a mid-season replacement show, S.W.A.T. began its first full-length season on September 13th, 1975.  It’s obvious that both the producers and the network were invested in its success: the season opener was a feature-length double episode with some expensive undersea photography and stunts plus a cast full of guest stars (Christopher George, Don Stroud, Lesley Ann Warren, Susan Dey, Sal Mineo AND Phil Silvers).  Unfortunately, this first full season was also the final season for S.W.A.T. It drew a lot of negative attention for its high level of violence and the resulting controversy hastened the end of its run.

That said, the show that made it out during that one and only full season is the kind of slick, handsomely produced prime-time pulp that schlock aficionados can get behind.  S.W.A.T.: The Final Season isn’t terribly complex in terms of characterization or plotting but boy, does it ever deliver the action.  The core of the show is Lt. “Hondo” Harrelson (Steve Forrest), a classic square-jawed hero who leads a team of four men: scout Deacon (Rod Perry), sniper McCabe (James Coleman) and utility team members Street (Robert Urich) and Luca (Mark Shera).  Each episode brings a new mission that requires the skills of Harrelson’s special-weapons-and-tactics unit that allows the show to cram in a variety of flashy action sequences.

In other words, don’t expect Hill Street Blues-style drama or psychological depth here.  S.W.A.T.: The Final Season represents the full flowering of the bubblegum-action style that first season developed over its 13-episode run.  Any philosophical conflicts or emotional traumas are settled by the end credits and each episode closes with a lighthearted banter scene that sends the viewer out on a wisecrack.  Every now and then there is a daring theme – the trauma experienced by Vietnam War vets in “Soldier On The Hill,” racism and paramilitary groups in “Strike Force,” religious fanaticism in “Dragons And Owls” – but the messages are delivered in a light style that takes a decent but inoffensive stand on the issue.

The one real problem that S.W.A.T.: The Final Season runs into is that having to fill a full 24-episode season causes the limitations of its simple formula to show via the occasional clinker of an episode.  For example, “Lessons In Fear” has a rather goofy premise in which a robbery being conducted from the basement of a girls’ school (!) becomes disrupted when Officer Luca tries to take one of the girls on a date.  Another lesser moment is “Dangerous Memories,” an episode where Lt. Harrelson is injured in a way that requires risky surgery and the rest of the episode is devoted to his teammates sharing memories that allow the show to recycle copious amounts of footage from prior episodes.

However, ambitious storytelling isn’t the draw here: S.W.A.T.: The Final Season is a shoot-’em-up, pure and simple.  Each episode plays out to a formula design that opens and closes with big action scenes.  These often elaborate sequences allow the S.W.A.T. team to show off their weaponry and skills while often racking up a decent body count.

Highlights from this season in the action area include Hondo rescuing a woman from a burning warehouse in “Murder By Fire,” a daring infiltration of a mob hideout that opens the two-parter “The Running Man” and the nerve-wracking bomb defusing scene that closes “Any Second Now.”  All the action stuff is smartly filmed and edited, benefitting from tight direction by t.v. vets like Sutton Roley and Bernard McEveety.  The surprise amongst the directing roster is actor Fernando Lamas turning up to direct one episode “Criss-Cross” (and it’s a pretty good one, too).

And the action is only half of this show’s appeal: there is also a hefty dose of kitsch in the form of the lighthearted humor that pops up in virtually every Spelling/Goldberg t.v. show.  Officer Luca is a veritable font of schtick, constantly throwing in wisecracks to lighten scenes and perpetually ogling any women who pop up.  The humor is often woven into the storylines themselves: for example, “Strike Force” has a genuinely funny scene in which the S.W.A.T. men prove their worthiness to the paramilitary leader they have to guard by dispatching his best men in a training exercise.

The obligatory Christmas episode represents the blend of action and humor at its most see-saw extremes, alternating tense shootouts with scenes of the men schticking it up with Rose Marie in the children’s ward of a hospital – and there’s also heart-tugging scenes with a little girl who needs risky surgery!  The odd blend of old-showbiz comedy, violent action and the occasional dash of schmaltz often gives the show a whip-lash quality that will be hypnotic to b-movie buffs.

That said, the most important element of S.W.A.T. is its appealing cast.  Forrest brings a classic, 1950’s leading man-style appeal to role as the understanding, devoted leader of the team.  The character is written as a superhuman type who is never fazed by anything but Forrest makes this comic-book archetype work with a combination of a low-key acting style and the kind of gravitas that only a Hollywood veteran can convey.  Perry makes a reliable backup for Forrest, coming off as charismatic in a laid-back sort of way.

Amongst the young team members, Coleman reflects the cool superiority of his senior officers as McCabe but gets to flesh out his characterization a bit by acting as the straight-man to the comedic schtickery of Luca.  Speaking of Luca, Shera is a regular scene-stealer here, getting the biggest number of comedic quips and all the recurring gags.  He handles the comic relief stuff with an energy and an eagerness that makes even the most goofball gags appealing.  Elsewhere, Urich delivers a more dramatic persona but shows off his leading-man chops in spots, particularly when a team member needs to get romantically involved with a civilian (check out his interplay with Susan Dey in “Deadly Tide”).

In short, S.W.A.T. is a curious mixture of audience-friendly extremes – brutal brawls and shootouts for the action crowd, light comedy and drama for the family – and the high-wire act of keeping these divergent elements blended in a commercial manner makes the show a fascinating time capsule of prime-time t.v.’s wildest era.  If you dig action delivered in a comic book style (and further sweetened by 1970’s-era character actors), S.W.A.T.: The Final Season delivers the schlocky goods.

If you want to read Schlockmania’s review of S.W.A.T.: Season 1, click here.

3 Replies to “S.W.A.T. – THE FINAL SEASON: Going Out With A Kitschy Yet Violent Bang”

  1. Nice review. I’m just cherry picking my way through season 2 and have gotten through the first 3 episodes. “Deadly Tide” with Christopher George was a real treat. I first saw Steve Forrest on the TWILIGHT ZONE episode “The Parallel” and then later on DALLAS. He’s terrific and really underrated.

    1. Thanks – and be sure to check out “Strike Force” and “The Running Man” from Season 2. I think you’ll really like those.

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