Background: One of the great things about TV on DVD is getting to see your favorite shows unedited and without the commercials (at least when companies like Universal do the shows justice) that were always a drag when the shows first aired. I know the idea of paying for television shows you could (or still do) get to see for free grates on the financial sensibilities of some but think of it this way, you're paying in lieu of the advertisers for the benefit of a better experience. One such title I came across last year was from my younger, more military oriented days in the form of Airwolf: Season One. It was great fun to revisit the two dimensional characters and situations, and while I may have a more critical eye nowadays, I can still enjoy the fluff of a fun "popcorn" show which is why I'm happy to report that today's release of Airwolf: Season Two was even more fun as the writers and producer got the formula fine tuned a bit. Here's some background from my look at the first season, followed by a few observations of what made the second season different:
Series: Airwolf: Season Two 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 Two 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.
Airwolf: Season Two took the action a bit further with Archangel more formally entering into a series of off the record agreements with Hawke, likely altering some of the details to suit test audience tastes. First, the mentions of Hawke's fabulous art collection seemed to largely disappear. This was probably an effort to make it look like he was a regular guy, not a spoiled art collector with a hot war machine under his belt. Second, the introduction of a female member of the team (to enhance the appeal to ladies or men depends on your take of the dynamic) in the form of Caitlin O'Shaughnessy by Jean Bruce Scott. She was a feisty redhead working as a helicopter pilot cop for the state of Texas, introduced in the first season's opener Sweet Britches as one of the good guys trying to protect the rights of a prisoner from an abusive sheriff and then gave all that up to eventually join the team. As a capable pilot and someone to keep the men civil to one another, she was okay but much of the time, her role seemed to be tacked on as an afterthought by most of the writers for the season.
More interesting to me was the slightly darker nature of the action in this season. In most shows, people rarely die and the good guys always try to work things out, especially back in the mid-1980's when this came out. Well, in the aforementioned opener, String was gunning down people left and right, even blowing up the police station before it was over. This dynamic was repeated time and again by the team, though usually justified under the "it was to save lives" (yet not always). Then you had episodes that mirrored Vincent's life in the form of drunks in positions of power (perhaps the writers making not too subtle pokes at the lead's drinking binges), starting with Firestorm (the second season episode). The most common plot thread was either the team saving (or retaliating for) a family member or saving Hawke when he gets captured by the bad guys in numerous episodes, which was akin to the transporters not working on Star Trek; an effort to keep the protagonist in an immediate danger outside of the protective helicopter we all watched the show for in the first place. Still, in many ways, this was the best season of the show, even if the standard four part acts were written in a very similar manner.
Season Two Episodes:
Episode 1: Sweet Britches: (September 22, 1984):
Episode 2: Firestorm: (September 29, 1984):
Episode 3: Moffett's Ghost: (October 6, 1984):
Episode 4: The Truth About Holly: (October 13, 1984):
Episode 5: The Hunted: (October 20, 1984):
Episode 6: Sins of the Past: (October 27, 1984):
Episode 7: Fallen Angel: (November 3, 1984):
Episode 8: HX-1: (November 10, 1984):
Episode 9: Flight #093 Is Missing: (November 17, 1984):
Episode 10: Once A Hero: (November 24, 1984):
Episode 11: Random Target: (December 8, 1984):
Episode 12: Condemned: (January 5, 1985):
Episode 13: The American Dream: (January 12, 1985):
Episode 14: Inn at the End of the Road: (January 26, 1985):
Episode 15: Santini's Millions: (February 2, 1985):
Episode 16: Prisoner of Yesterday: (February 9, 1985):
Episode 17: Natural Born: (February 23, 1985):
Episode 18: Out of the Sky: (March 2, 1985):
Episode 19: Dambreakers: (March 16, 1985):
Episode 20: Severance Pay: (March 23, 1985):
Episode 21: Eruption: (April 6, 1985):
Episode 22: Short Walk to Freedom: (April 13, 1985):
Airwolf: Season Two was the best the series had to offer as it came down to a three man buddy show of sorts. 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 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 seeing season three of the show although I still have my concerns about the material holding up.
The back cover put it this way for those still wondering: "Get ready to take off for action and adventure as all 22 one-hour episodes of Airwolf-Season Two soar onto a spectacular five-disc DVD set for the first time ever. Cruise the skies once again with Airwolf, the cutting-edge, high-tech surveillance and defense helicopter of the future, and Stringfellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent), its reclusive renegade pilot, as they touch down on dangerous secret missions from Afghanistan to the jungles of Central America. From drug runners to dambreakers to demented businessmen, there's no one who can hide from the Airwolf team's high-tech gadgetry and fighting power. Co-starring Ernest Borgnine and Alex Cord, this suspenseful and daring Emmy-nominated series from TV producer Donald P. Bellisario (Magnum P.I., Quantum Leap) is sure to be a thrill-ride fans won't want to end."
Picture: Airwolf: Season Two 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. I can only imagine what the fourth season will look like given how the production values tanked when the show went from CBS to USA (and moved to Canada) but like many loyal fans of the show, I don't consider that to be part of the actual show so I probably won't ever find out.
Sound: The audio was presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Monaural English with the option for English Closed Captions (as a SDH version). 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? The score replayed the familiar theme time and again, with minute variations but this was to be expected.
Extras: The double sided, five disc set of 22 episodes 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 Two was one of the best seasons for an action show that I can recall in many ways back when this aired. The levels of campy acting were just right to keep things from getting too serious and the production values of the show were as good as I expected from a prime time show by CBS. Yes, the basic plot of most of the episodes varied little but I remember how much fun it was leading up to the inevitable moment at the end of the episodes when Airwolf would blow away the strawman enemies with the kind of vengeance many of us would love to know existed in this day and age when thugs routinely walk away on technicalities. In a sense, the vigilante nature of the show was an extension on the Dirty Harry theme where Hawke would act as judge, jury, and executioner based on his own moral code that didn't allow for those technicalities to get in the way of true justice taking place. Simple answers appeal to many of us fed up with a system that is at least perceived as giving away the store to the accused; making Airwolf even more appealing today. Check it out if you like high tech action shows, knowing that the episodes varied very little when viewed in larger terms.