Well, the weather outside is frightful, but the TV is so delightful…
That’s right, folks. As the snow and wind howl outside, those of us who don’t have the luxury of jetting off to the tropics to escape the Maine winter often hole up at home with a nice warm TV. Or these days, iPad or other streaming device. Yes, reading a book on a nasty winter day is also devine, but sometimes there’s nothing like finding a good old comfortable show to watch.
Today I took a break from writing and stuff to watch some of my favorite episodes of The Mod Squad. Don’t laugh, I find them comforting and still hugely entertaining nearly five decades after I first started watching the show.
Now, in the 21st century, we’ve been pretty lucky to see crime TV elevated to storytelling heights we’d never thought possible. After watching The Wire and other shows like it, or fantastic British series on Netflix like Broadchurch and Happy Valley, it’s hard to believe we were so enthralled by the cop shows of our youth.
I’m not talking about the shows that began to change the whole cop show genre that began coming out when I was a teen and in my 20s — Hill Street Blues, Police Story, Homicide: Life on the Street (the precursor to The Wire). I’m talking about the shows seeped in 1960s and early 1970s kitsch. You know what I’m talking about. Watch them and cringe, right? But I still find a lot of value in some of those shows, despite how dated they are. And on top of it, in a lot of ways they helped me develop into the storyteller I became, part of the foundation that’s allowed me to take a mystery series into two books, with another in progress and hopefully a lot more to come, if what’s going on in my head is any indication.
A recent discussion my sister Rebecca Milliken and I had about our favorite old cop shows on our podcast, Crime & Stuff, along with the death of Mike Connors last week (Mannix!) has me thinking a lot about those old shows and what they gave me.
Even as I child I think I was fascinated by character development. One of the main things I remember about Mannix is his secretary, played by Gail Fisher, nursing his wounds after he was beat up yet again. Fisher was a breakthrough on TV — a black woman playing second fiddle to the white PI.
While TV wasn’t yet progressive enough to have them have a full-blown relationship, even as a kid I could see there was something special between them. She was nurturing, yet stern. In a lot of ways playing the role a cool wife would play.
I admit, as a pre-teen I found Mike Connors’ craggy good looks compelling, but I think that relationship is what made the show so much more interesting than some others of its time.
The Rockford Files is another one that stood out. James Garner was always so great at self-effacing humor, and his anti-hero and the wry commentary that he provided gave the show a layer of character that many shows didn’t have. Garner, as he did in most movies he was in and his other great TV show, Maverick, always delivered his lines with that half-grin that told you he wasn’t taking any of it too seriously. Which gave the serious moments a lot more power.
Even the opening sequence, which always started with someone leaving a message on his answering machine, signaled that the show was not taking itself too seriously. Those messages were often ironic or funny, even to a 12-year-old. His exasperating relationship with his father, played by Noah Berry, was something you couldn’t find on another show.
Rockford Files was definitely not a police procedural, but a human study with the usual car chases and shoot-em ups added in because that’s what those shows had to have in those days.
But my favorite was The Mod Squad. The relationship between Pete, Linc and Julie, the fact that while there were plenty of car chases, foot chases and fights, they never used guns, the fact that they were outsiders and often treated like such, appealed to me as a child.
I’d go to bed and rewrite that week’s episode in my head, putting myself in the scenes, of course. I’d go over and over, trying to get dialogue right, or make a scene come out a certain way. I wasn’t just a budding writer, but a budding editor! Or maybe just a little nuts. But aren’t we all?
Sure, it was a cliche that Julie was always getting abducted, but just like the fact they couldn’t come right out and say Linc was the leader, even though it was obvious he was, it was the 1960s and early 1970s and there were social mores that just…were.
Still, the fact Linc WAS the leader — cool and composed, the one Captain Greer always turned to in times of crisis — was pretty cool. How easy it would have been to make Pete the leader. But Pete was too emotional, and often had to be reigned in by Linc (“Pete, stop, you’re gonna kill him!”). The co-protagonist of my Bernie O’Dea mystery series, Police Chief Pete Novotny, is kind of a homage to Pete Cochran, though their personalities are different. He may have a little Linc in him, too. That character started developing in my head back when I was 9 or 10 and rewriting Mod Squad episodes in my head.
The best thing about the show was that the three main characters cared deeply about each other, and their gruff Captain Greer, too. I’m sure that’s why I loved the show and kept watching, and that’s one of the reasons I like to rewatch them today, despite how dated some aspects are.
Writers aren’t born in a vacuum. The writer and storyteller we become has its roots in the influences that began as soon as we became aware of the world around us. As soon as we could see and hear, then start analyzing what we saw and heard and start making sense of it as far as our own reality went. Obviously, what we read throughout our lives was a huge influence. But don’t discount those old TV shows for those of you who, like me, are part of the TV generation.
Glad to realize those hours sitting in front of that black and white TV, that we had to use a pair of pliers to change the channel with after the knob broke off and hit to make the picture stop jumping amounted to something.
I could go on and on, but it’s snowing like hell out and I should be writing. Or maybe watching just one more episode of The Mod Squad. Don’t get uptight, man. It’s cool. Solid.
EVENT: Maureen will speak at Lithgow Public Library in Augusta, Maine, from 1-2:30 p.m., Thursday, February 16. She’ll have books available for signing and selling. Come on up and say hi!
Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at@mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.