Movie: 1983 was a good year for movies with shows like Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Risky Business, Flashdance, Rock & Rule, and Blue Thunder making waves in our collective pop culture. Blue Thunder in particular struck a chord with those fearful of big brother (i.e.: George Orwell's version) invading our privacy by use of technological advances at the hands of a government still pretty fresh from the stunning revelations of the Watergate Hearings. In January of the following year, two television series sought to capitalize on the success of the movie, one was Blue Thunder: The Television Series (about a police helicopter advanced enough that in the wrong hands it could help enslave us all) and the other was a spiritual brother called Airwolf, a show about an advanced attack helicopter manufactured by the government for covert operations. The subject of today's review is, of course, on Airwolf: Season One.
The show followed in the footsteps of action adventure outings like Knight Rider, Street Hawk, and numerous others that had an advanced machine as the focal point of the show. Airwolf was a helicopter that could reach mach one and take on just about anything in the air, including jet fighters and missiles, and threatened to destabilize the balance of power in terms of air superiority. Initially designed and built by a secret government organization patterned after the CIA, the first two episodes detailed how the machine was stolen by a mad scientist for his Libyan allies' intent on taking over the Middle East. The show having taken place so shortly after the second wave of the Arab oil embargo in the early 80's and in light of various terrorist activities of the day, it was easy to focus on them as the bad guys and rally support among fans.
The main hero of the story was a fellow by the name of Stringfellow Hawke (Jan Michael Vincent), a former operative that has retired to a secluded mountain cabin after losing his confidence in a government gone bad. Having seen far too many episodes where his organization sold people out, betrayed their mandate and otherwise acted in dishonorable ways, Hawke initially refuses to participate in regaining Airwolf from the "other" bad guys but soon finds himself in an ethical dilemma where only he can save the day. He does, aided by his best friend in the world, Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine), a friend of his fathers and the only person he feels he can trust in a world gone bad. He makes a deal that "The Firm" (again, a thinly disguised version of the CIA) will help him find his MIA brother long lost in Vietnam in exchange for his cooperation. Led by Michael "Archangel" Coldsmith-Briggs III (Alex Cord), the Firm plays hardball to the point where it steals Hawke's prized art collection (seemingly acquired while he was still an active operative, likely by the same methods he now despises) as leverage in regaining their aircraft. Needless to say, as skilled an operative as Hawke was trained far too well to give in so easily and he eventually cuts a deal with Archangel that keeps Airwolf in his hands while the Firm searches for Hawke's brother.
Fans of action shows know how they are set up since they tend to follow a formula set in motion decades earlier and Airwolf: Season One was no different. The opening prologue sets up a situation that is seemingly impossible, the next act sets the players in motion, and the following two acts show how the superiority not only of the machine but of the man flying it will overcome any obstacle to achieve the goal at hand. The most common theme in the first season's episodes was someone trying to steal Airwolf, including the government, and the uneasy truce between Hawke and Archangel was often tested as the loyalty of each became clear (neither was a saint but each seemed to follow a set path of duty to what they believed in). As the 80's progressed, a lot more shows focused on the disenchantment of government operatives, like Wiseguy for example, as various events in our country's history showed that our standing as the pure keeper of the faith was somewhat less accurate than many of us believed. In that sense, Airwolf was truer to the original Blue Thunder movie than the generic series baring it's name ever could've hoped to be (that series lasted about a dozen episodes and but for Jan Michael Vincent's various problems with substance abuse, Airwolf would've last more than three years too). A lot of people, myself included, found the thematic issues of Airwolf to be a couple of steps above the pack since it didn't rely solely on the mulligan of the helicopter (a highly modified Bell 222B if I recall correctly) so much as the "doing the right thing" principles of Stringfellow Hawke and how he turned the tables on so many of the shadowy figures of the world.
Season One Episodes:
Episode 1 & 2: Shadow of the Hawke: (January 22, 1984):
Episode 3: Daddy's Gone A Hunt'n: (January 28, 1984):
Episode 4: Bite of the Jackal: (February 4, 1984):
Episode 5: Proof Through The Night: (February 11, 1984):
Episode 6: One Way Express: (February 18, 1984):
Episode 7: Echoes From The Past: (March 3, 1984):
Episode 8: Fight Like A Dove: (March 10, 1984):
Episode 9: Mad Over Miami: (March 24, 1984):
Episode 10: And They Are Us: (March 31, 1984):
Episode 11: Mind of the Machine: (April 7, 1984):
Episode 12: To Snare A Wolf: (April 14, 1984):
Airwolf: Season One was not the best the series had to offer as it came down to a three man buddy show of sorts without the needed balance that came later. I think it tried to set the pace in the first season though and that allowed it to see the light of day in order to address more varied themes later on. As a fan of the series, I worried that it wouldn't hold up to modern scrutiny but it actually surpassed my expectations far better than its contemporaries of the mid 80's did so I rated it as Recommended. Had there been some better extras or a better picture, I might've boosted it up a notch but considering the low price of this one and the fondness I originally had for the show, I think this was pretty fair. I look forward to later seasons of the show although I still have my concerns about the material holding up.
Picture: Airwolf: Season One was presented in the usual 1.33:1 ratio full frame color as it was originally shot in for broadcast television. The quality of the picture varied a lot here, especially during the parts using the stock footage (that never looked good) or during less than optimal conditions. The levels of grain were often very high, the amount of video noise sometimes problematic, and the colors often appeared slightly muted as though time took its toll on the remaining prints in the vaults of Universal. On a positive note, the DVD looked better than the replays that used to populate cable television and the episodes did not appear to be edited as some other series have been so while it wasn't the best looking show I've seen (it's over twenty years old folks), it sufficed for this long time fan of the series.
Sound: The audio was presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Monaural English with the option for English Closed Captions, or subtitles in Spanish and French. The vocals were pretty straightforward, sounding as they did years ago as did the special effects and music; none of which appears to have been replaced for the DVD release. Universal didn't go all out and improve the audio to provide a better mix, add in any separation between the channels, or improve the dynamic range but you don't get twenty+ year old television series to showcase your stereo system, yes?
Extras: The double sided, two disc set had no real extras outside of a brief synopsis of the episodes on DVD. Some commentaries might've been nice, some of the interviews the cast gave back in the show's heyday, or any number of other extras would've added value but the important thing for fans will be the inclusion of the episodes in uncut form and the low cost of the set.
Final Thoughts: Airwolf: Season One was one of those shows you either got or didn't with little middle ground. The militaristic themes were offset by the realities of experience the characters were portrayed as having, providing a somewhat different voice for those wanting to balance President Reagan's massive military buildup that eventually collapsed the only real external threat to our nation at the time (the USSR). In that sense, it was subversive since it hawked a militaristic solution to almost every problem while routinely pointing the finger at the government as just as bad (or at least nearly so) as those who sought to harm us. There were plenty of plot holes that needed to be overlooked and the use of stock explosions bugged me even back then but taken as a whole, I really enjoyed this blast from the past.