On Monday nights at eight o'clock, during the 1973-74 season, our family set was tuned in to WXYZ-TV, Channel 7, the ABC affiliate in Detroit, for The Rookies. My parents had apparently given up on Gunsmoke, which barely beat The Rookies that season but not the next, though by that time I think my mother, who lorded over the dial in our home (we had no remote), had switched channels yet again and was by that time watching Born Free.
Until preparing this review I hadn't seen The Rookies since then. All I had remembered about it were Elmer Bernstein's memorable main title theme, Gerald S. O'Loughlin's excellent performance as the rookies' mentor, Lt. Ryker, and a single sequence from one episode so vividly burned into my consciousness all these years that when I watched it again it was exactly as I had remembered it, camera angles, character blocking and everything, thirty-nine years later. Weird.
The series, alas, is extremely ordinary, despite some early promise and a few interesting elements here and there. Shout! Factory's DVD set, while no-frills, nonetheless offers decent, uncut transfers of these second season episodes.
Movies like The French Connection, The New Centurions, and Dirty Harry raised the bar of gritty realism for the urban police drama. Predecessors like the revived Dragnet and Adam-12, while technically accurate in their use of police jargon and procedures, nevertheless seemed phony in the wake of those influential films, and The Rookies, along with other shows like Kojak, were attempts to move top cops more in that same direction and directly emulated that style.
Created by Rita Lakin for executive producers Leonard Goldberg and Aaron Spelling, The Rookies showed some promise early on. I have the vaguest memory of catching some first season shows during summer reruns, and those earliest episodes were closer to the program's original premise: the on-the-job training of rookie police officers fresh out of the academy.
Had the series stuck to this premise, The Rookies might have been a lot less ordinary. Having Officers Terry Webster (Georg Stanford Brown), Mike Danko (Sam Melville), and Willie Gillis (Michael Ontkean) learn about police procedures along with the audience, to have them make mistakes along the way, to be hamstrung by the limited authority of rookie officers, to learn from veteran cops, to face moral dilemmas for the first time - all this could have resulted in fascinating series-long character arcs similar to those later successfully exploited on shows like Hill Street Blues and ER.
Instead, by season two The Rookies are rookies in name only. Though Lt. Ed Ryker (O'Loughlin) continues to advise them, their movements and authority appears no more restricted than other cops. Indeed, frequently they find themselves caught up in cases and situations that in real life only the most experienced of officers would be assigned to. In short, by year two The Rookies is pretty much just another police melodrama.
The season opener, "Cauldron," is a typically uninspired and unbelievable episode. Terry and Willie are taken hostage by two desperate men, one an escaped convict. Not only are they unaware that their victims are off-duty cops, but also that Terry and Willie had earlier that same day shot the brother of one of the kidnappers, a mad gunman. Terry and Willie are left for dead in the desert, and from here the story becomes a decidedly dreary tale of them trying to cross the desert before they bake in the hot sun.
The show doesn't improve all that much, and yet... The sequence I had remembered so vividly is from a show called "A Matter of Justice." In that episode, Mike is celebrating his wedding anniversary with wife Jill (series regular Kate Jackson, quite adorable during this period), a nurse. However, shortly after being seated at a swanky restaurant, another one of these mad gunmen (perennial '70s mad gunman James Olson) bursts in and begins firing a handgun (madly, of course).
One bullet pierces the back of Jill's chair, passing through it and wounding her near her spine. Another bullet hits an older man in the chest and, unusual for network television of the period, a squib is utilized and a modest amount of blood squirts out. As an eight-year-old kid at the time this first aired, the melee was quite graphic and even shocking, and in light of recent events it still grabs the viewer's attention if in other respects it's almost ludicrously tame.
"A Matter of Justice" sets up an interesting quandary: that the killer, who has a brain tumor, might get off scot-free on the grounds that his illness drove him to kill. But that gives way to much ridiculousness, and by the end the show has gone down in flames and, like "Cauldron," is utterly unbelievable.
The cast is basically good, however, with Brown, Melville, and Ontkean trying hard to rise above the below-average material, and O'Loughlin consistently doing so, week-after-week. Indeed, no TV cop was more authentic. It was if the producers had turned a real cop into an actor, rather than the other way around. Too bad the show he inhabits isn't up to his performance.
Guest stars this season include John Saxon, James Sikking, Claude Akins, Robert Walden, Victor French, Robert Hooks, Annette O'Toole, John Travolta, Thalmus Rasulala, Joan Blondell, Anthony Eisley, Pat Harrington Jr., Bill Quinn, Richard Bull, Judson Pratt, Herbert Jefferson Jr., Dabbs Greer, Marty Ingels, Jim Nabors, Jason Wingreen, Richard Hatch, Marjorie Bennett, Barbara Bostock, Leif Ericson, Ned Glass, Charles Lane, Jared Martin, Sissy Spacek, Malcolm Atterbury, Joe Maross, William Smithers, Don Johnson, Strother Martin, Nick Nolte, Don "Red" Barry, Don Gordon, Dane Clark, Lorraine Gary, James Luisi, Tyne Daly, (Brown's then-wife), and Anthony Zerbe. You'd think Shout! would have mentioned actors like Travolta and Nolte on the packaging.
Video & Audio
Shout! Factory has been all over the map quality-wise with regard to its classic TV releases, but The Rookies - The Complete Second Season, in its original full-frame format, looks just fine. Sublicensed from Sony, the episodes are presented across six single-sided, dual-layered disc, with four 51-minute shows per disc (three on disc six). The region 1 encoded DVD offers Dolby Digital mono, also okay, with no alternate audio or subtitle options. No Extra Features.
Nostalgia for a show I barely remembered was the main draw for this reviewer, followed by disappointment that, unlike contemporary programs like The Rockford Files and Hawaii Five-O (in its early seasons), The Rookies doesn't hold up, though it's not really bad, either. Just ordinary. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.