Shout! Factory has picked up the gauntlet from Universal on several shows they released to DVD first but abandoned after less-than-anticipated sales. The return of the minimalist police drama Adam-12 after such a long absence is particularly welcome; it's a good show, popular in its day but even better in retrospect. The series was largely the creation of Jack Webb, Sgt. Joe Friday himself, whose revived Dragnet 1967 was a surprise hit the season before Adam-12's debut. (The first season of that series was similarly released by Universal, with no subsequent DVDs forthcoming.)
Webb is early television's unsung genius, a true innovator whose best work was nothing like and remains nothing like anything on television, though just about every police/detective drama and reality crime series has been influenced by Webb's one-of-a-kind style. More on this below, but suffice to say Adam-12 was just about the last Webb-created series to successfully incorporate elements of what made the original, early-1950s Dragnet so utterly fascinating.
Universal's Season 1 DVDs were, in a word, awful. Replicated in Mexico, these double-sided, dual-layered discs were completely unreliable, practically worthless junk. On many, perhaps a majority of DVD players, the damn things just wouldn't play properly. I know: on myriad players both the first season of this and Universal's Dragnet 1967 would play about half the shows without any problems, others wouldn't play at all, jamming the player so badly that, in my case, I had to unplug it from the wall to get the disc out. This was a widespread problem on many Universal discs of that era yet, as far as I know, the label never publicly acknowledged the problem, ever. Shout! Factory's Adam-12 - Season 2's discs are single-sided and play just fine, only there's a very distracting ghosting effect whenever there's any motion. Some shows seem worse than others, but I've been looking at episodes on everything from a 45-inch plasma to a 12-inch portable player and the problem is noticeable on those and everything in-between.
Before Cops there was Adam-12, the half-hour, 1968-75 drama following seasoned cop Pete Malloy (Martin Milner) and earnest neophyte Officer Jim Reed (Kent McCord) patrolling their beat: vaguely in the Rampart area between downtown Los Angeles and Silverlake, though their duties often find the pair driving near the Universal lot in and around nearby Studio City and Toluca Lake. (Extensive use is also made of the Universal backlot, which is easy to recognize today - there's one backlot house Webb unimaginatively uses on about every other show of this and Dragnet - but back in 1968-69 played pretty seamless.)
Like all of Webb's best shows, the beauty of Adam-12 is its simplicity. Malloy and Reed's work is captivating because it's so deglamorized and authentic. Less like '60s TV cops than COPS, Adam-12's heroes were more likely to be investigating the break-in of a coin laundry's cash box, mediating a dispute between angry motorists after a fender-bender, or helping a cat out of a tree than shooting gang-bangers or chasing suspects down the 110 Freeway at a 100 mph. In other words, the calls are mostly routine stuff, the kind of thing you yourself might call the police about, or small, petty crimes that could happen on your block. Malloy and Reed don't even take their pistols out of their holsters all that much, let alone fire their guns.
The student-teacher aspect of Reed and Malloy's relationship shrewdly allows the audience to relate to what's going on: the audience learns authentic police procedure along with Reed, to say nothing of all the little tips of the trade from the unmarried Malloy, who's not just more world-weary but also more cynical than optimistic family man Reed, giving the show a neat balance similar to Joe Friday and his various partners. Sometimes Malloy's cynicism is justified, sometimes Reed's faith in people pays off.
Like all of Webb's series (and films he directed) there's an effort to be absolutely accurate to LAPD procedure circa the late-1960s: the patrol car, the equipment, the way Malloy and Reed question suspects, carry their weapons, etc., everything. Though undermined by an overuse of the Universal backlot and occasionally inauthentic counterculture characters, Adam-12 is almost like a museum piece now that cops today find fascinating and, for retired officers, downright nostalgic.
One thing that made the original '50s Dragnet so good, but which sometimes hurt later Webb-created shows, was his minimalist visual style and monotone "non-acting" he deliberately sought (especially for interview/interrogation scenes) through the use of multiple cameras and TelePromters. If Milner and McCord were reading some of their lines off television monitors they hid it well; Adam-12 has none of the static quality of Dragnet 1967, etc., which could ruin a promising episode as much as help it. (One extremely good example of this minimalist style is an episode of Dragnet 1967 featuring a pre-Adam-12 McCord as a possibly dirty cop Friday and partner Frank Gannon [Harry Morgan] interrogate. It's a great half-hour show.)
Milner and McCord are excellent. Milner's character, in terms of both the writing and the performance, holds back, revealing little of himself beyond the here and now (rather like Joe Friday), but the audience can feel the great weight of his experience. McCord's Reed is earnest but sometimes awkward and uncertain, yet honest enough to admit this to himself and his partner. Sometimes he tries too hard, but there's also little doubt he's well on his way to becoming a model officer.
Video & Audio
Adam-12 - Season Two is presented on four single-sided DVDs in their original full-frame format, with six-seven episodes per disc. Episode titles, airdates and brief descriptions (some inaccurate) are noted on the packaging. The ghosting effect whenever there's any motion (see above) is highly distracting but not ruinous. Hopefully it will be corrected on future releases. The film elements sourced otherwise are in great shape, much as they were on Universal's disastrously replicated Season One release. Audio is English (mono) only, though the shows are closed-captioned.
Though a DVD release of Adam-12 really cries out for some participation from Milner and McCord, and writers and directors who worked on the show and with web, Shout! Factory has opted for a different approach. The four audio commentary tracks (one per disc) are with active and retired LAPD officers who note the changes to the department over the years, pay homage to the show's accuracy (while noting a few minor mistakes the actors make) and influence on their careers.
There's a couple of helpfully captioned still galleries, a Tour of Reed & Malloy's Training Center and a Historic Police Photo Gallery, but the real ringer of the bunch, literally, is an "Official Adam-12 Ringtone" ("One Adam-12...One Adam-12...") you can download to your cellphone via text messaging or the Internet. All of this is fun stuff; I only wish there was more involvement from those involved with the original series.
Adam-12 - Season Two's problematic transfer, from good elements, is a big disappointment, but the show is good and engrossing enough that you can almost if never quite forget that it's there. The extras are okay, but ultimately it's the show itself that makes this set Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.