‘S.W.A.T.’ (Season 1): ’70s adult action still fun today

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By Paul Mavis

Now, full disclosure: I had a pretty grumpy reaction to the “final season” of The Rookies’ spin-off series, S.W.A.T., ABC’s 1975-1976 actioner from creator/producers Rick Husky, Aaron Spelling, and Leonard Goldberg, when I had to review it years back for that other verkakte review site (DVD Balk, where the motto is: “Half-Assed Is Good Enough!”). Maybe I was pissed they didn’t give me the first season to look at (they pulled that JV power move on me all the time…). Maybe I didn’t get enough sleep that week (because I was too busy churning out their most-viewed articles every f****** day). Or maybe I ate a bad clam. I don’t know. Maybe S.W.A.T.’s second season really isn’t so hot, after all (I’m working through it again this week).

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But straight up: I had a blast watching season one of S.W.A.T., starring Steve Forrest (“Hondo!”), Robert Urich (“Street!”), Rod Perry (“Deacon!”), Mark Shera (“Luca!”), and James Coleman (T.J.!”). The perfect ‘70s testosterone antidote for our new limp d*ck #MeToo era, S.W.A.T. just wants to smack you over the head with as much sadism and violence as the TV network censors would allow back in ’75, before the cops bounce in that nondescript high-tech panel van and waste your shiftless ass. Now…let’s roll!

An unnamed major urban area in Southern California. Lieutenant Dan “Hondo” Harrelson (Steve Forrest) is in charge of the police force’s elite S.W.A.T. commando team: Special Weapons And Tactics. Hondo and his boys handle the jobs that make Officers Reed and Malloy wet their pants: holed-up, heavily-armed bank robbers; holed-up, heavily-armed diamond thieves; holed-up, heavily-armed microelectronics thieves; holed-up, heavily-armed soldiers-of-fortune; holed-up, heavily-armed racist revolutionaries, and the holed-up, heavily-armed like.

Veteran cop and sage touchstone Sergeant David “Deacon” Kay (Rod Perry) is Hondo’s right-hand man and observer/communicator. Pretty boy Adonis Officer Jim Street (Robert Urich) is company scout. Unfunny comedian and unprepossessing ladies’ man Officer Dominic Luca (Mark Shera) is the team’s sharpshooter. And wholesome, wooly-haired Officer T.J. McCabe (James Coleman), is the team’s all-purpose/no definable job/back-up player. Their job? Waste the criminals who hole up with heavy arms. Their uniforms? Uncomfortable onesie coveralls that don’t breathe and bag in the seat. Their weapons? Automatic machine guns they never fire in full automatic mode. Their super-secret, heavily-armed surveillance vehicle? A laundry truck chock full of one radio and some bench seats. Look out, you punk criminals: you’re about to get wasted.

If you’ve read any of my vintage TV reviews, then you know I live for ‘70s television. It’s what I grew up on, and I have a great, abiding affection for all its manifestations, regardless of how a particular show is perceived by newer audiences or critics. I can find beauty and truth and “art” (whatever the hell that is) in an Aaron Spelling creation like The Love Boat or Charlie’s Angels as readily as I can find it in diverse programs like Kojak or All in the Family or The Mary Tyler Moore Show or The Waltons. I make no distinctions based on accepted levels of snobbery that somehow pervade evaluations of ‘70s TV programming today (mostly from internet troll dumbasses who watch one compilation disc of ‘70s TV programming and ironically brand the entire era “cheesy”―the analytical equivalent of calling War and Peace “long”).

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I loved S.W.A.T. as a kid (the Mavis boys at play: “Hondo! Take the swing set! Street! Cover me at the Big Wheel! Holy sh*t I fell off the roof!”). I remembered S.W.A.T. as this kick-ass show where guys were running around, rappelling down ropes, smashing in doors, somersaulting over hedgerows, and crashing through glass windows while blasting away at the bad guys as they died, pirouetting in simulated bullet hits, before crumpling to the ground like so many marionettes with their strings suddenly cut.

Of course, childhood memories are notoriously tricky, and while S.W.A.T.’s first season may not play today like the toned-down Peckinpah slaughter-fest of my youthful recollections…it is fast-paced and action-filled, and frequently quite hilarious (unintentionally) in that way only 1970s television can be for those of us who grew up on it.

Let’s look very briefly at the 12 episodes of mid-season replacement S.W.A.T.’s first half-season.

Killing Ground (February 24th, 1975)
This one has it all. The opening scene is a marvel: Robert Urich in a patrol car gets caught in a three-way crossfire: Geoffrey Lewis does his crazy-eyes thing as a sniper, Jesse Vint plays it cool, and William Lucking snorts some coke, right out on the street corner and nobody cares (L.A. has everything!). Hondo confirms the attack was racially motivated on Urich: “It’s because of our color: blue.” Amen, Hondo. Luca is a poor man’s Serpico for about five seconds. Best line is a toss-up: either “When it gets dark…we go pig hunting,” or Hondo’s icky suit-up instructions in the van, “If your mama didn’t teach you how to dress on the run, you’re gonna learn damn fast.” Oh god; it’s 5th grade gym class all over again….

A Coven of Killers (March 3rd, 1975)
It wouldn’t be 1975 TV without a Manson family rip-off. Here, Charlie’s Doppelganger is…Sal Mineo? Hooo-boy. We get a glimpse of Hondo’s family (nice—they actually should have played off that more), before he gets down to investigating Mineo’s evil “mind-bending, nether world of group acid trips, witchcraft, psychedelic satanism and reverse [?] exorcism” (well, it beats the Rotary…). Check out a totally bored William Windom in love beads and Jimmy Swaggart hair: gaaaaah-roovy! Only in 1975.

Death Carrier (September 20th, 1975)
A sniper is zapping the boyfriends of model Ronne Troup. Enter “Street” Urich as her undercover lover to draw out crazy, obsessed David Sheiner (I love it when my TV psychos snivel and cry). Boy, she fell pretty quick for Street, huh? Fast-acting grieving process. Some nice boob tube-sized Guns of Navarone action at the end (that whole rappelling and climbing stuff really got us kids back then).

Pressure Cooker (March 17th, 1975)
The press is interested in exposing S.W.A.T. as the fascist killer thugs they are, so reporter Darleen Carr is kindly invited to ride along. When Luca hears about it, he exclaims, “‘Her?’ You mean a girl?” Some cool synth music cues throughout this routine outing (that boat at the end is seriously listing).

Hit Men (March 24th, 1975)
The S.W.A.T. team pulls hospital duty as they guard a gangster with a price on his head. Some very nice, well-staged—and violent—shoot-outs in this one, from director Harry Falk. Robert Loggia shows up (always welcome), along with stone-faced Paul Stevens and fine, fine, fine Jess Walton. Watch Hondo insanely shove that injured man on the gurney out of the way…to save him.

Jungle War (March 31st, 1975)
One of my favorites this season: exploitation god Cameron Mitchell, switched to “Full Grotesque” mode, hot dogs his way onto the S.W.A.T. team, only to bag some punk in the garbonzo beans on his first day out. Now, does he care? Hell no! All he wants is action, baby! We know he’s trouble when it’s revealed he’s an old buddy of Hondo’s…from ‘Nam (uh oh…). Mitchell, one of my favorites, flips out even more in the end (complete with disgusting crying), before Hondo takes him on (his macho, “Let’s get rid of the guns! Let’s get it on!” is a classic). The Price is Right’s Anitra Ford does a foxy walk on…and my heart stopped. Primal 1970s TV.

Death Score (April 7th, 1975)
Some nice big-scale action at the opening (in a well-choreographed, nicely-framed section of old L.A.), before we get down to sneering Robert Webber (god I miss actors like him) taking an entire basketball team hostage at the stadium (don’t ask). Some sweet squealing van action inside the barn, and remember, Webber doesn’t care “if you’re shooting Airport ‘77,” just get the shot right, okay?

The Bravo Enigma (April 28th, 1975)
An entirely acceptable mixture of low-rent Day of the Jackal and Panic in the Streets, as an animated Christopher George—looking spiffy in Haggar coordinated actionwear—plays a James Bond-type assassin carrying a deadly plague. When a waiter sneers at George’s complaint about too much vermouth in his martini, George breaks his neck (exactly, sonny…and no tip, either). God save us, though: Spelling and Leonard must have felt even more comedy relief was needed, so human gargoyle Rose Marie shows up as friendly, wise-cracking sandwich lady Hilda (“Hiya fellas! Who wants a tuna on rye?”). I’ll eat out, thanks.

The Steel-Plated Security Blanket (May 5th, 1975)
An authentic pop culture moment: Charlie’s Angels’ Farrah meets WKRP in Cincinnati’s Loni Anderson meets Dark Shadows’ Lara Parker, as they take turns being absolutely gorgeous hostages at a hijacked beauty pageant (I know, right?!). I know what you’re thinking—me, too. By the way, the winner, hands down? Crazy hot Parker (Race with the Devil indeed!). Why couldn’t someone have pulled the trigger on Rose Marie, who’s back as homicidally chipper Hilda? I love Farrah’s unapologetic wayback machine answer to today’s #MeToo whiners: she calmly admits to using her beauty to get ahead—it’s worth it to ditch her small home town and poverty, she plainly states. So of course we need a feminist counter-answer to this…so the producers cast grossly made-up Carole Ita White (who’s very funny, as always, in her small bit).

Omega One (May 12th, 1975)
Sorry: anything with Kip Niven is a deal breaker. Anyway, this is a silly outing, with radical student activists protesting a chemical plant…before terrorists move in. How about that smart-assed uniformed officer who delivers the ransom dough and sneers at Hondo, “You wanna count it?” (he gets back the “Steve Forrest Death Stare”). As great as it is to hear Hondo yell at one point, “Hold it! I don’t want to waste you!” nothing can compare to that crackerjack temperature dial they keep showing, the one that’s supposedly connected to the entire high-tech, multi-million dollar plant…with the simple levels of “Normal,” “Warning,” “Danger,” (get ready) and “Explode!” God that kind of incompetent production design is priceless!

Blind Man’s Bluff (May 19th, 1975)
A dull one: Hondo gets his top plate creased by a stray bullet, and he goes all woozy and floaty. So, it’s bed rest for the Hondo while hard-ass Frank Aletter takes over. When the only thing I wrote down in my notes is, “Hondo’s wife got a perm,” you can rest assured the episode was uninspiring.

Sole Survivor (May 26th, 1975)
Oh, dear: a kid’s episode. For me, anytime I watched an “adult” TV show—something like Mannix or Adam-12—and they dragged in some cute kid my age to help me “connect” with the story, I would usually hit the can and then the fridge. Boring. I was a kid—I didn’t want to watch kids in a non-kid show, okay? So when Hondo goes around wanting to adopt the little Witch Mountain dope in this episode—his father was a nutjob whom Hondo had to drill because Street forgot “tactics, discipline, and control”…anyway, it’s a whole thing with those two—I began shouting out a warning to the Tidy Bowl Man. Good cast, though, with Simon Oakland and George DiCenzo among others…but that gold coin heist? It’s as boring as people who collect coins.

Despite the outraged calls from TV watchdog groups for ABC to cancel the “ultra-violent” S.W.A.T., the network suits happily looked the other way while the Nielsen ratings went through the roof. Coming in as a mid-season replacement during the 1974-1975 season, airing right after ABC’s Monday Night Football ended (and a few The ABC Monday Night Movies spots), S.W.A.T. proved to be a potent 9:00pm anchor on Monday nights. Lead-in host series The Rookies was actually climbing in the ratings from its previous two seasons (it was 18th for this year), so it was a perfect compliment and springboard for S.W.A.T.

NBC was no competition at all (the NBC Monday Night Movie couldn’t get any traction coming out of first Born Free and then the new The Smothers Brothers Show. However, CBS was killing it that night, first with Gunsmoke (28th in the ratings, in its last season…even if they didn’t know it), then Maude (9th), newcomer smash hit Rhoda (6th), and then Chad Everett in Medical Center (27th). S.W.A.T. had the sweet spot in terms of counter-programming—husbands who just got done with Matt Dillon’s six guns and didn’t want a yapping hour of Bea Arthur and Valerie Harper at 9, switched right over to S.W.A.T., and then right back to Medical Center at 10, with their besotted wives in tow (too bad the not-bad Caribe, with Stacy Keach, didn’t catch on after S.W.A.T. at 10). And too bad that ABC didn’t leave well enough alone with that solid line-up, in the upcoming 1975-1976 go-around.


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