The Mod Squad: The Show That Oozed Hip, Groovy, and Cool

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Stars David Cassidy and Marion Ross

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

I Spy: With My Little Eye A Very Sophisticated Show

As we continue our crime-solving duos series, today we learn about I Spy featuring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. They were a pair of spies who traveled the world posing as tennis pro, Kelly Robinson, and his coach, Alexander “Scotty” Scott. They work for the Special Services Agency which was part of the Pentagon. The show aired on NBC from 1965-1968.

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David Friedkin and Morton Fine, writers, and Fouad Said, cinematographer, formed Triple F Productions. The show was filmed at Desilu Productions. Fine and Friedkin took on co-producing the show. Friedkin also appeared as a guest actor in two of the episodes. Continuing the job-sharing duties was was Sheldon Leonard. Leonard was the executive producer. He also directed one of the episodes and guest starred on the show.

The theme music was written by Earle Hagen. (For more on Hagen and his composition of music from the series, see my blog dated)He also wrote specific music for each of the countries the team visited. He received Emmy nominations all three years, winning in 1968.

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Cosby’s character was written as an older mentor to Robinson, but Sheldon Leonard changed the role once he saw Cosby perform. Culp said Cosby was not very interested in the series and insulted the producers during his audition. Culp acted as a mediator and Cosby was hired.

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Like future shows such as Miami Vice, The X-Files, or Castle, the partners had great chemistry. They had witty and clever dialogue and often improvised much of their banter. Friendship was the main theme of the show, not the crimes. The actors developed a close friendship that lasted long after the show did. The characters were also very different. Culp was the athlete who lived by his wits. Cosby was the intellectual who didn’t drink or smoke.

This was the first TV drama to feature a black actor in a lead role. Some of the NBC affiliates in the south refused to air the series. Truly a color-blind series, the two spies did not encounter racial issues. It also made history– being one of the first shows to be filmed in exotic locations around the world. The pair visited Acapulco, Athens, Florence, Hong Kong, Madrid, Morocco, Paris, Tokyo, and Venice.

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Like the western genre in the 1950s, spy shows were popular in the 1960s. Unlike Get Smart or the Man From UNCLE, I Spy was more realistic. The duo didn’t rely on unbelievable gadgets or campy villains.

Some of the episodes had more comedy than others. “Chrysanthemum” was inspired by The Pink Panther. The episode, “Mainly on the Plains” starring Boris Karloff, was about an eccentric scientist who thinks he’s Don Quixote. However, many shows took on more serious and contemporary themes. “The Tiger” was set in Vietnam.

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During the three seasons the show aired, an incredible number of guest stars chose to work on the show. Some of these talented celebrities included Jim Backus, Victor Buono, Wally Cox, Delores Del Rio, Will Geer, Gene Hackman, Joey Heatherton, Ron Howard, Boris Karloff, Sally Kellerman, Eartha Kitt, Martin Landau, Peter Lawford, Julie London, Vera Miles, Carroll O’Connor, Don Rickles, George Takei, Cicely Tyson, Leslie Uggams, and Mary Wickes.

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Both Culp and Cosby were nominated all three years for Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, with Cosby winning all three years.

While the series was extremely popular, it was always over budget due to the high costs of filming. During the third season, ratings began to decline. The show was moved from Wednesdays to Mondays. It was on against The Carol Burnett Show. Unfortunately, the network refused to move the show back to its original night. They offered Sheldon the choice of renewing the show in the current time slot or the chance at creating a new series. Leonard realized that Culp and Cosby were tired of the show and ready to move on. In all, 82 episodes were filmed. 

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The show holds up well today.  The dialogue is timeless, and scripts are sophisticated and well written. The plots are realistic, but they are secondary to the relationship of Robinson and Scott. The exotic locations add a romance and intrigue to the show as well. The complete series is available on DVD and well worth watching.

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Of course, it’s hard to talk about a Cosby show without acknowledging the effect his legal issues have had on his work.  While I don’t condone his behavior and am sad that someone so talented (and preachy about character) would resort to such offensive actions, what makes me even sadder is that both I Spy and The Cosby Show were wonderful shows that featured talented casts. That so many people have to suffer because one person’s actions were unethical and selfish seems unfair.

One thing I’ve had to learn doing my research on all these classic shows is sometimes you have to separate the character from the actor. It’s possible to love a character even when the actor or actress who portrays them is a crummy human being. Of course, there are more of the other scenarios. Fred MacMurray was every bit as nice as Steve Douglas and Howard McNear was even nicer than Floyd.

Hopefully these shows get their due and their reputation for their well-written scripts overcomes the stain Cosby saddled the shows with.