Gone but not forgotten: 1980s US police procedurals

Gone but not forgottenThe wonders of multichannel TV and the DVD boxset have allowed those of us of a certain age to indulge our nostalgia by revisiting our favourite shows from childhood. Frequently these turn out to be a disappointment: what is remembered as an action-packed classic turns out to be stultifyingly dull, cliched and, well, just a bit naff. To me, that almost doesn’t matter because the memories they evoke of a younger, more innocent time are the most satisfying part of the whole experience.

In this occasional feature, I’ll take a look back at shows from yesteryear: series which are gone, but by no means forgotten. I’m going to kick off with a quick review of some lesser-known US police/detective shows from the 1980s which were relatively short-lived – only one survived beyond its second season and three were unceremoniously chopped midway through their first year – but each offered something different enough that they have become firmly lodged in the deepest recesses of my childhood memories. I haven’t seen any of these since their initial UK broadcast, but I would dearly love to see them all again. In alphabetical order …

1. Automan (13 episodes, 1983-84)

Inspired by the success of Tron, this series featured Lucille Ball’s son Desi Arnaz Jr, a DeLorean car and Chuck Wagner as the eponymous computer-generated hologram hero whose sidekick, a skittish ball of light named Cursor, had a habit of looking under ladies’ skirts (and, it must be said, a greater acting range than the rather wooden Wagner). Automan, frequently posing under the pseudonym Otto Mann, would assist Arnaz’s character Walter, a police computer geek, in solving a variety of crimes. And that was about it.

It was, as you might expect, exceedingly silly and played with tongue firmly inserted in cheek. It was certainly not the best piece of television ever but it was, however, good fun, something too often missing from contemporary, angst-ridden shows.


Desi Arnaz Jr as Walter and Chuck Wagner as Automan (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

2. The Highwayman (10 episodes, 1987-88)

There is a world just beyond now, where reality runs a razor-thin seam between fact and possibility; where the laws of the present collide with the crimes of tomorrow. Patrolling these vast outlands is a new breed of lawman, guarding the fringes of society’s frontiers. They are known simply as ‘Highwaymen’ – and this is their story.

Set in the near future, this short-lived series is probably best described as Knight Rider meets Mad Max, with a Wild West-style setting. The title character was one of a small number of law enforcers, each equipped with a futuristic truck, patrolling the country, solving crimes and investigating other strange occurrences.

The Highwayman featured three well-known genre stars in its regular cast: Sam Jones, star of the 1980 film Flash Gordon, played Highwayman, and was joined by V’s Jane Badler and Tim Russ, who would later star in Star Trek: Voyager.

Sam Jones as The Highwayman

Sam Jones as The Highwayman

3. Leg Work (10 episodes, 1987)

Cancelled before it had a chance to establish its niche, this series boasted – Cagney & Lacey-style – two female leads: Margaret Colin and, nearly a decade before her Oscar-winning turn in FargoFrances McDormand.

There was much to admire about Leg Work. Here we had a private investigator, Claire McCarron (Colin), who relied on empathy and intelligence rather than physicality or an excess of testosterone, traits underlined by the running joke of her owning a Porsche which was always broken and which she could barely afford to keep repaired.

It was also the first prime-time show I can remember that centred a story on AIDS at a time when the disease was still very much a taboo and poorly understood subject, and handled it in an unflinching and sympathetic fashion. The show deserved better than the mid-season cancellation it received as US audiences abandoned it due to its lack of crash-bang-wallop – entirely missing the point that a huge part of its appeal was that it was so different from the norm.

Margaret Colin starred as Claire McCarron

Margaret Colin starred as Claire McCarron

4. Midnight Caller (61 episodes, 1988-91)

This is Jack Killian, the Nighthawk, on KJCM 98.3 and good night, America, wherever you are.

Gary Cole starred as Jack Killian, the San Francisco cop who turned late night radio talk show host after accidentally shooting and killing his partner.

Midnight Caller provided a different twist on the cop-turned-PI theme by focussing more on the social rather than procedural aspects of the ‘case of the week’. Through his radio show, Killian came into contact with all manner of people in need, addressing tough issues from neighbourhood drug-dealing to child abuse and AIDS (in a controversial episode which saw a bisexual AIDS carrier deliberately infecting straight women). There was nothing glitzy about the show, which regularly peered into social subcultures through a jaded lens. But through it all, the cynical Killian could not help but reach out to and help his audience with a hand of hope.

Cole has had a distinguished career since, including notable turns as Sheriff Lucas Buck in American Gothic and vice-president ‘Bingo’ Bob Russell in The West Wing, but Midnight Caller remains his finest work. And the show also featured a young Mykel T Williamson, years before his Forrest Gump role as the shrimp-loving Bubba Blue.

Downbeat and yet resolutely optimistic, Midnight Caller spoke to those of us who recognised that, while we live in a far from perfect world, there is something inherently good about people everywhere, a sentiment perfectly encapsulated by Killian’s signature sign-off.

Midnight Caller Gary Cole

Jack Killian (Gary Cole) fields another call

5. Sledge Hammer! (41 episodes, 1986-88)

As a send-up of the long procession of ‘on the edge’ film and TV cops such as Dirty Harry and Hunter, this sitcom presented us with a wonderfully over-the-top caricature of a policeman of Inspector Gadget or Clouseau-level incompetence, for whom violence was the first (indeed only) option.

Played purely for laughs – and with a wonderful balance of seriousness and knowingness by David Rasche – the series lovingly poked fun at all the staples and cliches of the cop show genre, presenting us with a sexist, shoot-first buffoon of a hero who talks to and sleeps with his gun, and yet is somehow utterly sympathetic. If Lethal Weapon had been a comedy, this is what it would have looked like. Sadly, ITV buried it in a late-night weekend slot for its UK transmission – consequently hardly anyone watched it.

Fire. Ready. Aim

Shoot first, ask questions later

And there you go: five 1980s procedurals from across the pond which may (or may not) be worth a second viewing. You may remember some or all of these, or you may have other long-buried favourites of your own. (If so, feel free to share in the comments.) Now if you’ll just excuse me, I’m off to check for boxsets on Amazon …

8 Comments on Gone but not forgotten: 1980s US police procedurals

  1. YES!

    I remember The Highwayman, and Sledge Hammer! is still one of my all-time favorites! Automan I’d rather forget, though. 😉

    • I’d really like to see Automan again, if only to confirm that it was as camp and silly as I remember it being. You can just hear the network execs after the success of Tron, can’t you? “We want Tron. Only as a TV series. Make it big. Make it spectacular. Make it fun.” 🙂

  2. Midnight Caller is the only one I remember, I watched it regularly and really liked it. In my mind it was in the same sort of class as Knightrider. I had completely forgotten about it though, but when I read your quote of what he used to say at the end of each show, it gave me those kind of chills you only get when your memory is sent flying back to a particular time in your life!

    It’s possible I may have watched one or more of the others, but they’re certainly not ringing any bells.

    • Midnight Caller aside, the rest are relatively obscure by virtue of their short shelf-life, even though a couple were actually given relatively good timeslots: Automan had a Saturday tea-time slot on BBC1, Leg Work was (I think) Friday evening prime-time on ITV. Both The Highwayman and Sledge Hammer had late-night weekend slots – both aired at a time when ITV was just making its early forays into through-the-night TV and needed cheap imports to go along with its even cheaper home-produced programming. (Anyone remember Night Network? Now there’s a subject for another post …) As such, I doubt very many people watched them other than insomniacs such as me!

  3. I absolutely adored Midnight Caller. Gary Cole was amazing in it and Jack Killian was my hero. Being a die-hard shipper from a young age ;-), I remember really wanting him and Devon to get together, because he quite clearly loved her and was absolutely awesome, but the series ended I think with her very definitely being with someone else and SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER, and I was GUTTED.

    I haven’t seen the rest of the shows you mention, Tim – except a minute or two of Sledgehammer, maybe? – but they sort of look absolutely terrible…..

    • You’re right, a lot of them probably were terrible with hindsight (except Leg Work, which I genuinely did like very much but was, if anything, a series which aired before its time).

      Ah, Jack and Devon. Yes, they should have ended up together if not for SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER 😦

  4. “Sledge Hammer” was the business.

    Interesting how Glen A. Larson gets two entries (“Automan” and “The Highwayman”).

    • Glad it wasn’t just me who remembered and loved it! 🙂

      I hadn’t thought of it consciously, but Glen Larson had his paw-prints on so many action-based shows during the late 70s and throughout the 80s, it’s hard not to include multiple example of his work. buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Battlestar Galactica, The Fall Guy, Knight Rider, Manimal, Cover Up – he was pretty busy! (Ooh, Cover Up – now there’s a story to tell. I’ll come back to that one …)

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