"Julie, the day of the 'flower child' is over."
Paramount has released The Mod Squad - Season 2, Volume 2, featuring the final 13 episodes of the ABC teen-crime hit's sophomore 1969-1970 season. Fashion plates-slash-undercover cops-slash-really beautiful people, you know? Pete, Linc and Julie are back, getting in touch with their feelings, you know? and sensitively dealing with various psychos and murderers under the impossibly beautiful skies of sunny Southern California, while gruff-but-kindly poppa bear Captain Adam Greer mentors them through the harsher realities of the dying counter-culture movement. It's all gorgeous nonsense, and wonderfully evocative of the kind of escapist television the networks used to effortlessly crank out.
For you soulless young punks who didn't grow up during the afterglow of the hippie movement, let me clue you in to what went down with The Mod Squad. The LAPD, tired of trying and failing to sniff out the Commies who were obviously orchestrating the revolutionary youth movement in America, decided a new tact was needed to infiltrate the counter-culture: undercover hippies. Captain Adam Greer (Tige Andrews) piloted the program, a hardass veteran cop who relentlessly trained his young charges in the stealth arts of undercover police work...while brusquely sniffling back the tears that came whenever his team called him, "Daddy." And what a team they were! Carefully tousled Steve McQueen-lite Pete Cochran (Michael Cole) was a disillusioned rich kid from Beverly Hills who couldn't hack the insincerity and hypocrisy of all of mumsy's and da-da's money, so he dropped out of that whole scene, man, and like...stole a car. Busted! Solemn, meticulously afroed Malcolm X-lite Lincoln Hayes didn't like that sh*t that was going down in Watts, so he buttoned the top-most buttons of his crisply-pressed cotton windbreaker and joined the riots. Busted! And San Francisco's wounded little bird Julie Barnes (dreamy Peggy Lipton could never be "fill-in-the-blank"-lite anything) winged into Hell-A via the "Juvie Runaway Express," ditching her prostitute mom...but forgetting to put the requisite 10 bucks in her pocket to bummer The Man's heavy vagrancy trips, you know? And...busted! Greer, after having cleaned up The Dirty Trio and sensing the endless merchandising possibilities with major label clothing brands, lunchbox makers, and novelty manufacturers should these beautiful young people get their own TV series, offers them a chance to connect on a really spiritual level, you know? with L.A.'s worst criminal offenders - an offer the newly christened Mod Squad says, "Solid" to in a heartbeat, you know?
I wrote before about The Mod Squad (you can read my detailed review of Season One here), commenting on the nostalgic, iconic pull it continues to have for TV viewers of my generation, while also noting that a lot of that nostalgia looks a tad shabby on closer inspection of the series. What felt cutting-edge and exciting to kids back then somehow looked terribly conventional and ho-hum when I first re-visited the series last year after decades of it being out of syndication. Well, that initial shock has worn off, and while I still strain to see signs of what made the series seem so important to kids at that time, I'm feeling a bit more charitable towards The Mod Squad this go-around. Now don't get me wrong: its "message" is still calculated as all get out, with executive producers Aaron Spelling and Danny Thomas cannily using the counter-culture movement to spruce up the tired detective genre, never veering too far from the conventional values and norms The Mod Squad's mainstream audience held, while superficially touching on hot button societal issues like racism and drug addiction. All of that is fine, though, if you don't take The Mod Squad too seriously. After all, how can you take seriously an episode like The Loser, where a character, with an absolutely straight face, comments on the "changing" political landscape thusly: "Things are getting better now. Politicians aren't made in smoke-filled rooms anymore. The people decide now. You can't fool them." (anyone who believes that probably voted for "Hope and Change"). It's escapist entertainment, through and through, and if The Mod Squad's message is only really trotted out to give the series superficial topicality, so what?
It's difficult for me to fully map Season Two
since DVDTalk didn't receive the Season 2, Part 1 DVD set back in the fall. With a show like The Mod Squad, it isn't hard to jump into the middle of a season (although I understand, dammit, that I missed the beloved Mod Squad Woody biting the dust somewhere in those first 13 episodes); its production design and camerawork ensure a sameness of the visual schematic through all the episodes, while the writing ensures the formula stays fairly rigid. But trends are harder to definitively spot when you're only working with half a season's episodes (another reason why I despise these split-season releases, primarily from Paramount). Having not seen those first episodes of the Second Season, I can't say for certain that The Mod Squad at this point seems to be moving slightly away from the counter-culture topicality of its first season...but it sure looks that way from these final 13 episodes. Throughout this second half of the second season, I was waiting for stories that specifically addressed the counter-culture, or at least featured the leads utilizing their hippie credentials to solve a case, but for the most part, the storylines are fairly standard for the genre. The "heavy" messages of Season One are overshadowed by stock plots involving familiar racketeering, political intrigue, and standard murder plots.
In fact, that reliance on more mainstream plotting is a big reason why this episodes go over as well as they do; their pulpy plots are wired right into some of the more sensationalized preoccupations of the viewing audience at that time, filtered of course through the predictable conventions of the TV detective genre. Anyone tuning into The Mod Squad on the off-chance of getting enlightened about "today's" problems would first have to wade through the Charles Manson-style killings, the psychotics loose on the streets, opening kidnaping people, kids flipping out on drugs when their sweethearts buy it in 'Nam, and of course, the ever-faithful marauding biker gangs, ready to stomp some trusting hippie heads. Now that's the kind of early 70s TV I remembered and loved as a kid. If quite a few of the episodes from Season One turned out preachy, quite a few of these second-half Second Season ones are fairly speedy and exciting - and quite fun in that ABC/Spellingish/eye candy-and-action-70s fashion. Sweet Child of Terror is a primo example of that 70s style, with poor wounded Julie exhibiting her hair-trigger "Stockholm Syndrome" gene when a babbling psychotic (self-named: "William Bonnie") mistakes her for the daughter of a rich couple who wronged him, and kidnaps her to the Paramount western set before he's finally ventilated. A Time for Remembering, which basically functions as a clip show celebrating the anniversary of the team's forming, features what else, a psychotic ex-con seeking revenge on the Mod Squad who put him away. There's a great action scene in Julie's far-out apartment where Linc is shot and Pete savagely beats the shooter - all done in trippy Sam Peckinpah slo-mo, a la The Wild Bunch. Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot is a beautifully shot whodunit, set again almost exclusively on the actual sound stages of Paramount, concerning a years-old murder jinxing a movie company shooting a film (the best part is Frank Converse is cast as...Ed Asner's son?). Richard Dreyfuss, annoying as hell (as usual) but still compulsively watchable, shows up for an amusing Oedipus Rex Meets Peeping Tom hybrid, with Lee Grant showing utter disdain at the lurid plot of a voyeur son who loves/hates his mother so much, he's willing to kill (there's an unintentionally hilarious scene at the Los Angeles Zoo where painfully obvious doubles for Linc, Pete and Dreyfuss run around with...a rhino. These are the joys of 70s network TV, folks). A Town Called Sincere ("Heavy, man.") is a classic 70s exploitation biker flick, downsized for TV, lifting its plot elements from a hefty number of other films, including The Wild One, The Wild Bunch, Easy Rider, and of course, the single most ripped-off film in 70s television, Bad Day at Black Rock (there's another stylish Peckinpah-inspired action scene where Ford Rainey, bathed in eerie red light, shotguns a biker in half in delicious slo-mo). My favorite episode has to be The King of Empty Cups, though, where the Chief of Police's daughter flips out when her fiancé buys the farm in Da Nang, changes her name to "Fig," and hooks up as a groupie with Noel Harrison, for god's sake! His filthy mansion, complete with zonked-out hangers-on, is no match for Harrison's truly awful songs (and I'm a fan of The Windmills Of Your Mind), and right when things start to look up as Linc and Julie go undercover to get Fig out, a massive freak-out occurs and everyone is zapped, Manson-style, with poor Fig ready to take a header off the balcony. Game, set, and match! Kids, that kind of mindless eye-candy TV is sorely missing from today's sets, and it's a pity.
As for The Mod Squad's popularity this sophomore season, it climbed a healthy five spots from its first season ranking of 28th for year (a very respectable showing for a new series; it tied that year with its DNA-opposite, The Lawrence Welk Show), to 23rd in the Nielsen ratings. Certainly it didn't have any competition over on the other networks, with NBC's I Dream of Jeannie limping through its final season, followed by new non-starter, The Debbie Reynolds Show, while CBS's western series Lancer, never having caught on with the public, finished out its second and last season. It's always a guess to reason out why a series climbs or falls in the ratings, but there's no doubt that this particular season, The Mod Squad benefitted from two new lead-out shows that would make Tuesday nights on ABC "must see" for the next couple of seasons. Back when millions of dollars worth of programming and advertising were gambled on now-outdated theories about viewership habits, a solid line-up on a network could ensure a win of the entire evening for a particular network, simply because quite a few people didn't bother to get up and change the channel. So when 7:30pm's The Mod Squad acquired not only the ground-breaking The ABC Movie of the Week (seriously - isn't anyone at the studios listening out there? Release those superior made-for-TV films from this beloved series on disc!), but also megawatt hit Marcus Welby, M.D., that was all she wrote as far as the Nielsen's go. The Mod Squad's third season ratings would show the full effect of that "must see" TV night of programming.
Here are the 13 episodes from Paramount's The Mod Squad - Season 2, Volume 2, as described on the set's insert. Please note: as with almost every Paramount vintage TV release, there's the obligatory disclaimer (in really small print) on the back of hardshell, stating "Some episodes may be edited from their original network versions." That warning could encompass music alterations or missing or deleted scenes.
Pete Cochran searches for the mysterious man who saved his life, convinced that he's in trouble. His search uncovers an old family secret that turns deadly.
Sweet Child of Terror
When a disturbed young man is fired by a rich woman, he seeks revenge by kidnaping her daughter. But he kidnaps Julie Barnes by mistake.
The King of Empty Cups
The drug-addicted daughter of the chief of police has taken up with a decadent rock star. So Captain Greer orders Pete, Linc, and Julie to bring her home.
A Town Called Sincere
A road trip through Mexico on motorcycles turns into a nightmare for Pete and Linc: they run into a vengeful biker gang holding a small town hostage.
Julie becomes romantically involved with a Middle Eastern student. Only later does she learn that he is the son of a king...and that his life is in danger.
Just as a recovering addict is promoted to director of a halfway house, he's accused of rape. But the real shock comes when he divulges the identity of the girl.
Mother of Sorrow
Pete's old college chum, who has a tortured relationship with his mother, plays a cat-and-mouse game with the police when it appears he may have killed a girl.
The Deadly Sin
After a young nun sees her gangster father commit murder, she blanks out and doesn't remember a thing...until the police find rosary beads on the corpse.
A Time for Remembering
On the two-year anniversary of forming the squad, Pete considers resigning. But then a newly released convict shoots Linc, whose life now hangs in the balance.
Return to Darkness, Return to Light
Linc is reunited with a beautiful blind woman from his past, who announces that she's engaged to a doctor. And yet Ling suspects he may be a con artist.
Call Back Yesterday
Pete gets pulled back into his old life when he is reunited with his former girlfriend. She's afraid that her father is in danger and trusts no one else.
Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot
A movie director, the son of a studio chief, is desperate to get his film made. It's an unsolved murder mystery, but someone repeatedly tries to sabotage production.
The captain tries to help the teenage son of his former partner. The kid is accused of a hit-and-run, but the squad believes a political candidate may have done it.
The Mod Squad, without a doubt, is one of the best looking series from the 1960s and 1970s, with cinematography worthy of the big-budget feature films from that era. They look just smashing, thanks to fairly good transfers here in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, with no compression issues to speak of here. Colors are candy-colored bright, the image is very sharp, and blacks hold. Some anomalies do pop up occasionally (a small scratch or dirt speck), but overall, these are real winners.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track no doubt accurately reflects the original network broadcast presentation, but baby wouldn't it be sweet to hear one of television's coolest themes (by Earle Hagen) in driving 5.1? Close-captions are available.
I guess they got all of the extras out of the way in the first season (a sneaky way to get viewers hooked on sampling that first season set), because there's nothing here.
Superiorly crafted eye-candy, gorgeously-lensed, and cannily contrived. The Mod Squad's political and sociological posturing are amusing today, but luckily, most of the storylines are pulpy enough to sell this counter-culture detective series even forty years later. I want more, you dig? Take it light. I recommend The Mod Squad - Season 2, Volume 2.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.