Excuse me, but when did "CHiPs" become the greatest goddamn show in the history of television? I mean, I watched it as a kid, and enjoyed it well enough, but I don't remember counting it as one of my "must see" shows at the time, and I doubt I ever caught it deliberately in reruns since then. But sitting down this weekend to watch "CHiPs" The Complete Second Season, I was blinded by the realization, in something akin to a religious epiphany, that "CHiPs" was entertaining me on so many freaked-out levels that I wanted to put my head through a cement wall. Sitting there watching Jon and Ponch tooling around on their tricked-out KZ1000 rigs, their gladiator-gold helmets shining in the blazing California sun, their toreador-tight jodhpurs competing with their skin-snug uniform shirts for just a millimeter of breathing space, I realized these Olympian West Coast Sun Gods of the Forever Spinning Firestones were providing thrills, spills, disco dance moves, handy driving tips, and some questionable after-hours wardrobe choices, in epic, Biblical proportions. I have seen "CHiPs", and It is Right. It is Good.
And I'm not exaggerating. I suppose "CHiPs", for those adults who would admit to liking it, would come under the term, "guilty pleasure," a moniker I always have difficulty with because it implies an apologetic, wishy-washy defeatism. If you like something, stand up and be proud of it. Defend it! Say why you love it. Don't apologize for it. I guess my first impression back in 1977 when "CHiPs" premiered was, "This is Adam-12 filtered through Emergency!". Its premise was simple: two California Highway Patrolman ("CHiPs"), blonde Officer Jon Baker (Larry Wilcox) and brunette Officer Frank "Ponch" Poncherello (Erik Estrada), riding around the greater Los Angeles freeway system, encountering all manner of accidents and illegal activity, ranging from the mundane to the truly bizarre (recalcitrant joyriders, van full of L.A. Rams cheerleaders, a liquor store-robbing ghost, kids driving themselves to the beach in their parents' station wagon, Evel Knievel rip-off artist, runaway school bus), inbetween glimpses (mostly comical) of their lives at the station house and at home. After a pre-credit sequence which many times set up the episode's main story arc, the opening credit sequence would roll, set to a driving synthesizer disco beat theme, and instant TV history was born. You want to know where MTV and Miami Vice started? They started right here, during the opening credits of "CHiPs", where disjointed, fractures images of Jon and Ponch aboard their patrolman hogs vied with the crazed disco beat to render us in a giddy, hazy fog of delight.
And like Emergency!, "CHiPs" focused almost all of its time out on the real streets and backways of Los Angeles, giving the rest of the country plenty of that evocative So-Cal location work, while engineering many Emergency!-like crack-ups where Jon and Ponch were first on the scene, pulling victims free of the wreckage - or toe-tagging their corpses for later identification. About mid-way through "CHiPs"' six year run, another NBC cop series, Hill Street Blues, became the darling of the critics (which is a pretty good indicator that it blew) who championed its "reality" and grittiness. I would imagine, if "CHiPs" was mentioned at all by those same critics, it was strictly for humorous counterpoint to the "arty" Blues. But I can absolutely guarantee that this year, more people will watch re-runs and DVDs of "CHiPs", over thirty years after its premiere, than ever caught the faux-somber, obvious, pretentious claptrap Blues.
You want "arty?" Wait a minute. Skip that. You want real, honest-to-God "ART," whatever the hell that is? You can find it in the first episode of this second season of "CHiPs". In addition to the 22-episodes on this second season, I've watched that first, amazing season opener twice now (and I'll probably catch it again before the week is out), because quite simply, it is everything TV - true TV - should and can be, and yet sadly, is frequently not. You want to know what goes down in episode one of Season Two, Peaks and Valleys? How's this: a couple on the freeway tries to switch seats in an MG convertible, getting stuck under the steering wheel, which causes Troy Donahue (for God's sake), in full blown hippie regalia (including the moniker, "Pops"), to freak out beside his wife Kay Stevens and roll his camper down an embankment, almost killing his family. Jon and Ponch try and help, and get bitched out by the guy who played the football player who used Marcia to steal Greg's playbook in that Brady Bunch episode. Next, a kid pretends to shoot them in traffic with a cap pistol (they restrain themselves from plugging him), and then Jon is shamed by an old high school friend for still being a patrolman when he could have had a respectable career like his - as a used-car salesman (only in California would that be respectable). Jon has feelings of inadequacy and doubt, just like Sam Elliott a few years earlier in Lifeguard. They then go back to the station, and check out Harlan the mechanic's drug-sniffing dog, who happens to be stoned out of his mind due to overwork on the Mexican border. Next, a runaway truck hauling a trailer on fire flips over and explodes before the guys are sent by their superior, Sergeant Joseph Getraer (Robert Pine), to give a demonstration to a bunch of Girl Scouts on motorcycle safety...which they illustrate by riding around without their hands on the bars while standing up on the seats. Next, some crazed rednecks take submachine guns (I'm not making this up) and lure one of the CHiPs patrol cars to a remote spot, and machine gun it to death (while the officer is off on foot on a wild goose chase). The reason they do this is never explained. Jon then gets invited to a disco dance contest by a beautiful blonde car dealer, who also has tickets for Ponch, who shows up and blows everybody away with a solo number right out of Saturday Night Fever, finishing up just in time to deliver a baby, right on the dance room floor. Read over that plot description again, and tell me if "CHiPs" isn't the Citizen Kane of network TV? When Ponch hits the disco floor, and unselfconsciously gets his groove on, that is when everything that is just and fine and necessary in escapist TV crystalizes into geometric perfection.
Watching "CHiPs" again instantly transports you back to that "feel good California Me" decade that was so prominently on display on so many network series at that time. This season of "CHiPs", detailing Ponch's increasingly upwardly mobile lifestyle, is practically a primer on how to be a stud in California. First, get a job as a Highway Patrolman (flash rig, sweet uniform, gun). Next, get an apartment down at the Marina (Ponch's is too expensive at $500 a month but he takes it when he sees his blonde neighbor). Next, get a waterbed (loosely filled for that "ocean motion" effect), restore a Trans Am that you picked up as a wreck (actually, get your partner Jon who has no life to fix it up for you), and then have your partner help you move your stuff in, including your Carpenter records (they're prominently on display, to let the chicks know Ponch is sensitive). Throw in some ferns and smoked glass, and watch the chicks roll in.
Of course, the success of "CHiPs" was dependent on the casting, and although critics then and now liked to poke fun at the leads, they're utter perfection within the designed limitations of the series' structure. Representing the eternal ying and yang of essential "maleness," the dark, dangerous, preening peacock Estrada, and the sun-kissed, blonde, preternaturally calm and collected Wilcox aren't only "TV co-stars." This isn't just TV; it's Elemental, like fire and ice. Are they great actors? Probably not. So...they're perfect for TV, and utterly suited for the hijinks on "CHiPs". Yes, they sometimes play like Gage and DeSoto from the show's inspiration Emergency!, but these clean-cut guys don't have that pesky Jack Webb morality hanging over their heads (or that Webb drumbeat to follow the rules absolutely or else). Sure the show was seen at eight o'clock, and aimed often at kids, but unlike Gage and DeSoto (and Malloy and Reed, for that matter), these guys scored with the seriously good-looking chicks on the show. They may not have shown it, but no one was denying it, either. As Jon says to two French models when he's hitting on them (in French, no less), "You're real foxy ladies." Amen, Jon. Amen.
Here are the 22, one-hour episodes of the three-disc box set "CHiPs" The Complete Second Season, as described on their slimcases:
DISC ONE: SIDE A
Peaks and Valleys
DISC ONE: SIDE B
Trick or Treat
DISC TWO: SIDE A
Return of the Turks
DISC TWO: SIDE B
DISC THREE: SIDE A:
Rally 'Round the Bank
DISC THREE: SIDE B:
Ride the Whirlwind
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.