‘The Rookies’ (Season 1): ’70s police actioner holds up well today

Looking out the window (and ducking), it’s probably a good time to revisit the first season of The Rookies, one of the best-remembered cop shows from the “golden age” of network TV police series (Sony put out a DVD set for this a few years ago…and it’s worth some bucks now).

By Paul Mavis

Premiering on ABC in 1972, The Rookies looked to break the mold from the standard cop shows that were filling the airways, taking ABC’s own youth-oriented policer The Mod Squad (also co-produced by The Rookies‘ co-producer Aaron Spelling), and melding it with producer Jack Webb’s more straightforward, procedural Adam-12, a long-running smash hit over on NBC.  Filtered through the sensibilities of best-selling author Joseph Wambaugh’s gritty police novels (The New Centurians, The Blue Knight, which would soon be turned into one of the first miniseries) that viewed cops not as unemotional supermen but deeply flawed individuals, The Rookies also tried to tap into the churning social and political zeitgeist of early 1970s America.  In The Rookies, the “message” was just as important as the gunplay.

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The Rookies started off as an ABC made-for-TV movie (when that really meant something), premiering in March of 1972. Depicting the “SCPD,” or “Southern California Police Department,” a fictitious department operating in an unnamed, large urban city (viewers knew it was the LAPD), The Rookies told the story of young police cadets entering the force and the culture shock that ensued when they suddenly found themselves on the other side of the badge. Big ratings for the TV movie encouraged ABC to go with a series in the fall (particularly since their highly successful The Mod Squad was dropping precipitously in the ratings). Starring the original movie’s cast members Georg Stanford Brown (Officer Terry Webster), Sam Melville (Officer Mike Danko), Michael Ontkean (Officer Willie Gillis), along with Gerald S. O’Loughlin (Lieutenant Ed Ryker, recast when the original star from the telemovie, Darren McGavin, unwisely declined the series) and Kate Jackson as Nurse Jill Danko, Mike Danko’s young wife.

The Rookies series told the story of the SCPD’s new program of fast-tracking rookie recruits, where their youth and backgrounds might make a difference out on the turbulent, war-torn urban streets. Terry Webster, a passionate, articulate product of government social programs; Mike Danko, the somewhat older, married, solid ex-military officer, and Willie Gillis, the good-hearted yet naive college student from Ohio, formed the central trio of the new program, overseen by the gruff, rigid, yet kindly Lieutenant Ryker. Due to their inexperience and their youth, the rookies frequently let their emotions rule their actions, overshadowing standard police procedures. Yet just as often, their instincts were right (even though they constantly broke the rules), and with the firm guiding hand of understanding Lieutenant Ryker, their successes out on the street prove the value of the rookie program.

Considering what passes for cop shows today, The Rookies holds up fairly well.  While plenty of the stories run towards “message alert” signposting, with weekly social ills tackled in a more or less superficial manner, The Rookies still manages to be fairly even-handed with the realities of those confrontations (when Willie and Terry challenge the supposedly vicious local youth gang—who all look about 35-years-old—to a basketball game, it comes off like a bad Blackboard Jungle sort of moment: social transformation through sports).  Brown’s Terry Webster is certainly the most well-rounded, most conflicted character, with a ghetto background and upbringing that still nags at him, despite the culture of his newly chosen profession. And while Terry rages quite a bit throughout this first season (boy, is there ever a lot of speechifyin’ going on in The Rookies), the writers are savvy enough to allow that good intentions don’t always solve complex social ills, and that there are two sides to every problem—not just the then-popular anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian screeds that usually popped up in mainstream entertainment during the early 1970s (…and today).

The Rookies is good at walking that line because, as it’s important to remember, the networks wanted to be hip, but not too hip. Young kids could tune in to The Rookies for the gunplay and the generally exciting air that the show produced.  Young teens and adults could watch The Rookies guilt-free, because its stories didn’t espouse the same establishment party line all the time; the rookies often broke the rules of the department and frequently clashed with their authoritarian lieutenant.

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And parents and older viewers could be reassured that an older man like Ryker still had control of the situation, and that he was watching
over this “new breed” of cop, guiding them under the old framework of duty, honor, courage, and most importantly, following the rules of society.  The Rookies, after all, was an expensive product produced by the network; it couldn’t afford to alienate potential viewers, so it cannily incorporated the general ideas and conflicts of the various warring political and social factions in America, to make a palatable—and safely edgy—entertainment.

Certainly this commitment back in 1972 to directly reflect the mood and concerns of the times, has somewhat dated The Rookies. Some of the acting is a little too strident in accordance with the series’ outlook (Brown, a phenomenal actor, can sometimes posture when he should have toned things down), while a few of the stories have that “social ill of the week” mentality that has the viewer guessing just what “Big Problem” is going to come up next week.

There are weak characters and characterizations, too. Melville, a good actor, really comes up shortchanged here; being the solid, married character (with a military background, which was a point of contention with a sizeable group of viewers back in 1972), he has little in the way of character development, considering the “youth appeal” of the show is clearly slanted towards Brown and Ontkean. Being the odd man out (Webster and Gillis room together, as well as ride a squad car together), Danko frequently only serves as an introduction for Jackson’s scenes.

And poor Ontkean; it’s not surprising he left the show after two years, complaining of the scripts he was given. Frequently, the naive Willie comes off more simple-minded than sweet-natured. Unintentional laughs can usually occur anytime Willie stares blankly at someone else, not quite understanding what’s going on around him. It’s an unfortunately drawn character, serving as a surrogate audience stooge for the “squares” out there who supposedly didn’t understand the “real problems” crippling America.

Thankfully, The Rookies never lets the message squeeze out the action, and there’s a surprising amount of it this first season. Bomb scares, assassinations, high-speed pursuits—The Rookies has it all, with expertly designed action scenes on some of the most fantastic location shoots I’ve seen in a TV series. Most episodes go out of their way to find visually interesting, out-sized, real-life locations that lend a big-screen look and feel to The Rookies. And if the producers couldn’t find a good location (or maybe the budget that week was trimmed), there are plenty of episodes filled with interesting looks at the 20th Century-Fox lot, where the show was filmed.

One great episode, The Commitment, where Danko and Webster are chasing a criminal who will kill for the money to buy old movie memorabilia (amen to that!), has the actors climbing all over the Fox backlot (there’s a spectacular shot of the massive, fading “New York” set built just three years before for Hello, Dolly!).  And try and count how many left-over sets from the various Planet of the Apes sequels you can spot, incongruously incorporated into the various episodes! Special mention must go out to Elmer Bernstein’s pulsating, thrilling theme music, cut to a lively opening montage, that sets the stage for big-screen excitement every time it comes up (it’s one opening theme that I eventually didn’t start skipping on the DVDs, even after watching twenty-three episodes).

Well positioned on Monday nights at 8:00PM, The Rookies was intended to draw away young viewers who didn’t want to watch the Old West dramatics of CBS’ aging (but still massively popular) Gunsmoke, nor the already-passe “trendy” humor of NBC’s Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In—while still drawing in parents and adults who wanted a more contemporary drama.  Starting at eight o’clock, it was still early enough for little kids to watch, and despite the heavy competition from CBS, The Rookies did fairly well its first year, tying for twenty-third for the year in the Nielsen’s.


Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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