As we continue our Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem series, we move from Maine where senior citizen Jessica Fletcher solved mysteries to the streets of Los Angeles, where a hip trio infiltrates the counterculture to solve crimes.
Airing from 1968 till 1973, The Mod Squad was a unique concept. Created by Buddy Ruskin, a Los Angeles police officer, the show took eight years to become a reality. Ruskin based the concept on his time as a squad leader for an undercover narcotic division in the 1950s.
Aaron Spelling was the executive producer. Spelling worked on a number of projects from 1960 onward, but his biggest hit shows were still in his future when he took the helm of The Mod Squad.
As soon as the jazzy theme song by Earl Hagen began, we knew this was a different type of show. The sixties hippie culture and counterculture drug scene had not been explored in depth on television before.
In order to get the necessary evidence, three young team members were trained to go undercover to solve cases. Michael Cole was Pete Cochran, a wealthy kid who was arrested for stealing a car; Peggy Lipton was Julie Barnes, who had run away from a bad home situation; and Clarence Wlliams II was Linc Hayes, who was arrested during the Watts riots. Captain Adam Greer (Tige Andrews) supervised the trio. He mentored them and provided “parently” advice and wisdom. He hand-picked them for his team. (Similarly, Spelling’s Charlie’s Angel’s would also feature a father figure hand picking three non-traditional members for his crime-solving team.)
None of these kids were innocent, and their records were eliminated when they chose to work with the LA police. But they soon realized they had the ability most cops did not to inconspicuously fit in to help stop criminals from killing or hurting other young adults.
Similar to Room 222, which aired almost the same time, The Mod Squad covered a lot of socially relevant topics: abortion, domestic violence, drug addiction, child abuse, police brutality, illegal immigration, and racism. Though the pilot was written sixty years ago, these issues are still on the front page today.
The writers, including Tony Barrett, Harve Bennett, Sammy Hess, and Buddy Ruskin, created realistic characters. These three outcasts were a bit rebellious; they lived in the gray instead of black or white. They understood good people sometimes did bad things, and racism and domestic violence were not to be tolerated. Their speech and clothing marked them as quintessentially 1960s. Linc often said “Solid” or “Keep the faith.” You would probably hear “groovy” at least once an episode.
The team traveled in an old green 1950 Mercury wood-paneled station wagon that they affectionately referred to as “Woody.” Unfortunately, it was burned in an accident at the end of the second season.
The show was definitely controversial. It aired at a time when westerns, rural sitcoms, and Lawrence Welk were popular. The episodes pushed the envelope a bit on topics that had been taboo on television in the past. The team was like a family and on one episode, Linc gave Julie a brotherly kiss on the cheek which had the network up in arms, but not one complaint came in. Their relationship with Captain Greer helped America see how the generation gap could be bridged.
Despite the controversy, the show attracted a lot of famous guest stars. Some of the actors who can be spotted during the show’s run include Ed Asner, Jim Backus, Tom Bosley, David Cassidy, Tyne Daley, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Dow, Andy Griffith, Carolyn Jones, Leslie Nielsen, Stefanie Powers, Vincent Price, Robert Reed, Marian Ross, Sugar Ray Robinson, Martin Sheen, Bobby Sherman, Danny Thomas, Daniel Travanti, and Billy Dee Williams.
Each episode ended with the squad walking away from the camera.
The show was extremely popular given its uniqueness. It was the 28th most popular show its first year and number 11 in its third season. The show received seven Emmy and four Golden Globe nominations. In 1970, it was nominated for Outstanding Series. During its final year, it only ranked 54 and the “hipness” of the show was starting to age a bit, so it was cancelled.
It did have an afterlife. In 1979, a tv movie, The Return of the Mod Squad, aired on ABC with the original cat. In 1999, a big-screen film was released starring Giovanni Ribisi, Omar Epps, Claire Danes, and Dennis Farina. Don’t feel bad if you don’t remember it; not many people do.
The Mod Squad could be seen on MeTV in 2014 and 2015. Apart from that, it has not fared well in syndication. Like Room 222, the show can feel dated quickly due to its language and fashion.
The show is still celebrated for its ground-breaking scripts, and in 1997, TV Guide included an episode, “Mother of Sorrow” as 95th of the greatest 100 episodes of all time.
While you probably won’t find it on television, it is available on DVD. Although the show may not be known by many people today, it was one of the first shows to break the barriers of going where television had not been before. In many ways, it paved the way for the creation of shows such as All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Miami Vice. What more could you ask for: relevant topics, well-rounded characters, and exciting plots. Although its language and fashions date it, it captures a unique time in our history and is worth exploring.