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Rookies - The Complete First Season, The
Sony has released a five-disc boxed set of The Rookies: The Complete First Season, one of the best-remembered cop shows from the "golden age" of network TV police series. Premiering on ABC in 1972, The Rookies looked to break the mold from the standard cop shows that were filling the airways, taking ABC's own youth-oriented policer The Mod Squad (also co-produced by The Rookies' co-producer Aaron Spelling), and melding it with producer Jack Webb's more straightforward, procedural Adam-12, a long-running smash hit over on NBC. Filtered through the sensibilities of best-selling author Joseph Wambaugh's gritty police novels (The New Centurians, The Blue Knight) that viewed cops not as unemotional supermen but deeply flawed individuals, The Rookies also tried to tap into the churning social and political zeitgeist of early 1970s America: in The Rookies, the "message" was just as important as the gunplay.
The Rookies started off as an ABC made-for-TV movie (when that really meant something), premiering in March of 1972. Depicting the "SCPD," or "Southern California Police Department, a fictitious department operating in an unnamed, large urban city (but of course, viewers knew it was Los Angeles), The Rookies told the story of young police cadets entering the force and the culture shock that ensued when they suddenly found themselves on the other side of the badge. Big ratings for the TV movie encouraged ABC to go with a series (particularly since their highly successful The Mod Squad was dropping precipitously in the ratings) in the fall. Starring the original movie's cast members Georg Stanford Brown (Officer Terry Webster), Sam Melville (Officer Mike Danko), Michael Ontkean (Officer Willie Gillis), along with Gerald S. O'Loughlin (Lieutenant Ed Ryker, recast when the original star from the telemovie, Darren McGavin, declined the series) and Kate Jackson as Nurse Jill Danko, Mike Danko's young wife.
The Rookies series told the story of the SCPD's new program of fast-tracking rookie recruits, where their youth and backgrounds might make a difference out on the turbulent, war-torn urban streets. Terry Webster, a passionate, articulate product of government social programs; Mike Danko, the somewhat older, married, solid ex-military officer, and Willie Gillis, the good-hearted yet naive college student from Ohio, formed the central trio of the new program, overseen by the gruff, rigid, yet kindly Lieutenant Ryker. Due to their inexperience and their youth, the rookies frequently let their emotions rule their actions, overshadowing standard police procedures. Yet just as often, their instincts were right (even though they constantly broke the rules), and with the firm guiding hand of understanding Lieutenant Ryker, their successes out on the street prove the value of the rookie program.
Well positioned on Monday nights at 8:00PM, The Rookies was intended to draw away young viewers who didn't want to watch the Old West dramatics of CBS' aging (but still massively popular) Gunsmoke, nor the already-passe "trendy" humor of NBC's Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In -- while still drawing in parents and adults who wanted a more contemporary drama. Starting at eight o'clock, it was still early enough for little kids to watch, and despite the heavy competition from CBS, The Rookies did fairly well its first year, tying for twenty-third for the year in the Nielsen's. Never a Top Ten hit, The Rookies was a reasonably dependable mid-level performer, lasting three more years before it was canceled in 1976.
I haven't seen The Rookies since TVLand ran it a few years ago, and overall, I have to say it holds up fairly well today. While plenty of the stories run towards "message alert" signposting, with weekly social ills tackled in a more or less superficial manner (when Willie and Terry challenge the supposedly vicious local youth gang - who all look about 35-years-old - to a basketball game, it comes off like a bad The Blackboard Jungle sort of moment: social transformation through sports), The Rookies still manages to be fairly even-handed with the realities of those confrontations. Brown's Terry Webster is certainly the most well-rounded, most conflicted character, with a ghetto background and upbringing that still nags at him, despite the culture of his newly chosen profession. And while Terry rages quite a bit throughout this first season (boy, is there ever a lot of speechifyin' going on in The Rookies), the writers are savvy enough to allow that good intentions don't always solved complex social ills, and that there are two sides to every problem - not just the then-popular anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian screeds that usually popped up in mainstream entertainment during the early 1970s.
The Rookies is good at walking that line because, as it's important to remember, the networks wanted to be hip, but not too hip. Young kids could tune in to The Rookies for the gunplay and the generally exciting air that the show produced. Young teens and adults could watch The Rookies guilt-free, because its stories didn't espouse the same establishment party line all the time; the rookies often broke the rules of the department and frequently clashed with their authoritarian lieutenant. And parents and older viewers could be reassured that an older man like Ryker still had control of the situation, and that he was watching over this "new breed" of cop, guiding them under the old framework of duty, honor, courage, and most importantly, following the rules of society. The Rookies, after all, was an expensive product produced by the network; it couldn't afford to alienate potential viewers, so it cannily incorporated the general ideas and conflicts of the various warring political and social factions in America, to make a palatable - and safely edgy - entertainment.
Certainly this commitment back in 1972 to directly reflect the mood and concerns of the times, has dated The Rookies somewhat. Some of the acting is a little too strident in accordance with the series' outlook (Brown, a phenomenal actor, can sometimes posture when he should have toned things down), while some of the stories have that "social ill of the week" mentality that has the viewer guessing just what "Big Problem" is going to come up next week. And some of the characters and characterizations are weak. Melville, a solid actor, really comes up shortchanged here; being the solid, married character (with a military background, which was a point of contention with a sizeable group of viewers back in 1972), he has little in the way of character development, considering the "youth appeal" of the show is clearly slanted towards Brown and Ontkean. Being the odd man out (Webster and Gillis room together, as well as ride a squad car togther), Danko frequently only serves as an introduction for Jackson's scenes. And poor Ontkean; it's not surprising he left the show after two years, complaining of the scripts he was given. Frequently, the naive Willie comes off more simple-minded than sweet-natured. Unintentional laughs can usually occur anytime Willie stares blankly at someone else, not quite understanding what's going on around him. It's an unfortunately drawn character, serving as a surrogate audience stooge for the "squares" out there who supposedly didn't understand the "real problems" crippling America.
Thankfully, The Rookies never lets the message squeeze out the action, and there's a surprising amount of it this first season. Bomb scares, assassinations, high-speed pursuits -- The Rookies has it all, with expertly designed action scenes on some of the most fantastic location shoots I've seen in a TV series. Most episodes go out of their way to find visually interesting, out-sized, real-life locations that lend a big-screen look and feel to The Rookies. And if the producers couldn't find a good location (or maybe the budget that week was trimmed), there are plenty of episodes filled with interesting looks at the 20th Century-Fox lot, where the show was filmed. There's one great episode, The Commitment where Danko and Webster are chasing a criminal who will kill for the money to buy old movie memorabilia (amen to that!). Climbing all over the Fox backlot, there's a spectacular shot of the massive, fading "New York" set built just three years before for Hello, Dolly!. And try and count how many left-over sets from the various Planet of the Apes sequels you can spot, incongruously incorporated into the various episodes! Special mention must go out to Elmer Bernstein's pulsating, thrilling theme music, cut to a lively opening montage, that sets the stage for big-screen excitement every time it comes up (it's one opening theme that I eventually didn't start skipping on the DVDs, even after watching twenty-three episodes).
Here are the 23, one hour episodes of The Rookies: The Complete First Season, as described on their slimcases:
Concrete Valley, Neon Sky
Officer Gillis volunteers to mediate a truce between notorious street gangs. But when he gets in over his head, he asks fellow officer Terry Webster for help.
Dead, Like a Lost Dream
Internal Affairs is investigating Lt. Ryker's men for taking bribes, unaware that it's their informer classmate who has been impersonating a crooked cop.
The driver of a van transporting stolen furs reluctantly agrees to give information against the two men he works for. When they are set free on a technicality, the rookies must stop the men before they exact revenge.
Officers Terry Webster and Mike Danko are in a race against time searching for the two men who shot Willie, an injury that may cause him to be paralyzed for life.
Covenant With Death
An evangelist asks Terry to help raise money for his church, but when Willie spots him escaping a drug bust, the preacher becomes an unlikely fugitive.
Time is the Fire
Lt. Ryker has been suffering from dizzy spells. The cause? The news that a recent kidnaping victim may be the daughter he gave up for adoption years ago.
The Bear That Didn't Get Up
While searching for prowlers at a university, Willie is caught in a gun battle. An unarmed suspect later dies, and the rookie must now face his first police inquest to clear his name.
Dirge for Sunday
A hired killer has taken Mike hostage, and hopes to exchange him for a police witness under protection -- a bookkeeper who plans to testify against the mob.
The Good Die Young
After a series of murders of single women, Lt. Ryker brings in two attractive policewomen to work with Willie and Terry, and act as swinging single decoys to catch the killer. But things don't go as planned.
To Taste of Terror
When two criminals break into a warehouse, one is caught and convicted, but the other escapes and starts terrorizing Jill Danko, Mike's wife.
A Deadly Verdict
The rookies guard a controversial army general who's come to town. While Ryker searches for a potential assassin, Willie romances the general's daughter.
A Bloody Shade of Blue
Terry is shot at and blinded by a pair of snipers. But while in the hospital, he bonds with a pretty, young nurse who helps him rehabilitate.
A Very Special Piece of Ground
A veteran cop partnered with Mike becomes unhinged after the city forces him to sell his family ranch in order to make room for a freeway.
Rabbits on the Runway
Officers Danko, Gillis, and Webster try to help a father find his runaway daughter, not realizing that he's really an imposter who is planning to kill her.
While Willie is visiting a crippled boy and his family, a vengeful ex-boxer throws a bomb in Willie's car, accidentally killing the boy's brother. So now the kid holds Willie responsible, and wants nothing to do with his cop hero.
An angry veteran cop, who was the first African American officer in the city, is ordered to attend a weekend camp that fosters understanding between cops and kids. Also in attendance? A thief looking for the boy who witnessed his latest robbery.
Just as a load of contraband is about to be dumped in the ocean, a Vietnam vet enrolled in Jill's drug program sneaks aboard and steals a cache of cocaine.
Point of Impact
Terry's friend, a martial arts instructor, insists he was provoked when he struck a cop. But his only witness is his drug-dealing brother-in-law who fled the scene.
Three Hours to Kill
Ryker has only three hours to transport a prisoner to the hospital, where the convict's wife is holding a police captain hostage...on the operating table!
The Wheel of Death
The only possible donor for a little boy in need of a bone marrow transplant is his father -- a man on the run from both the crime syndicate and the police.
Due to the large number of recent burglaries in a well-to-do neighborhood, the rookies are asked to help out Ryker's friend, an ex-cop who handles security for the area. But soon they come to suspect Ryker's friend may be responsible for the crimes.
A Farewell Tree From Marly
The only witness to a killing is a pretty teacher. She identifies the suspect, but her credibility is questioned when it is discovered that she is mentally retarded.
Terry is attracted to a beautiful African-American nurse, but soon fears that her little brother is involved with thugs organizing a neighborhood protection racket.
I wasn't expecting much when I saw how many hour-long episodes were crammed onto each disc, but amazingly, the full-screen transfers for The Rookies: The Complete First Season look fairly clear and bright. Some grain is evident in some low-light scenes, but that's from the original source material. I would have liked a higher bit rate (and only two episodes per disc, but, dream on); however, overall, The Rookies: The Complete First Season looks good.
The Dolby Digital English mono mix accurately represents the original broadcast presentation. Close-captioning is available.
Shockingly, there are no extras for The Rookies: The Complete First Season, not even -- most egregiously -- the original made-for-TV movie that gives the vital backstory information on the characters and the show's setup. At the very least, that should have been included, and it's too bad that the remaining "Rookies" couldn't be brought in for at least one commentary track.
Social and political "message" concerns vie with hot and heavy gunplay action in The Rookies: The Complete First Season, a terrifically entertaining cop show from 1972. Well acted by an excellent ensemble group, with sensational location work in Los Angeles, makes The Rookies: The Complete First Season a must-have for fans of vintage 70s TV and police shows. I highly recommend The Rookies: The Complete First Season.
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.