As far as I can tell, the Adam-12 Fan Club consists of me and me alone. It’s generally regarded as Dragnet‘s red-headed stepchild— a lightweight, superficial cop show. I think it’s better than that, but it does have its limitations. As usual with vintage television, you’ll enjoy it to the extent that you can overlook the limitations and just let it entertain you.
Adam-12‘s reason for being was to portray the daily life of Los Angeles patrolmen, as realistically as possible. Of course, realistic cop shows are everywhere today, but in the 1960s there was no such thing. You had a farce like Car 54, Where Are You? on the one hand, and the invincible supercops of State Trooper and Highway Patrol on the other.
It was a long time before Jack Webb’s pilot was picked up. But when the show hit the air on NBC in September 1968 (during one of America’s recurring backlashes against violence on the tube), it quickly transformed the genre. Police detectives and private detectives would continue to dominate the dial, but every street-level, punk-chasing, sirens-blaring cop show to follow— The Rookies, Police Story, SWAT and the rest— owed a debt to Adam-12.
Ironically, my only beef with Adam-12 is that it isn’t realistic enough. Not in its first two or three seasons, anyway. Like its sister show (the color Dragnet revival), there’s an over-reliance on Webb’s old friends from radio days and familiar TV character actors (Virginia Gregg and Myron Healey pop up in half a dozen roles over the years; Raymond Mayo, seven). Interior sets look like sets, brightly and evenly lit.
Worse, with production based on the Universal lot, standing sets were frequently used in place of actual location work. Again and again in the early seasons, you see city sets that look a whole lot more like old Brooklyn than Bell Gardens, with generic buildings bearing placards reading HOTEL or CAFE. Similarly, there are standing residential sets that look like leftovers from the days of Deanna Durbin— huge stately houses on large lots, surrounded by lush trees thirty feet tall. That’s not Nixon-era L.A.
Of course, there’s authentic location work too, and it’s great. I just wish there was more of it. Happily, with each passing season Adam-12 got better and better, more realistic and more honest.
I’ve heard complaints about the acting of the leads, Martin Milner (Officer Pete Malloy) and Kent McCord (Officer Jim Reed). I don’t get it. To me the acting is just fine, and Milner’s is particularly good. His style is restrained, natural. It’s not a role that calls for arm-waving theatrics and thundering monologues, and Milner plays it just right. You get a sense sometimes that Malloy’s been on the job so long that he’s on the verge of burnout, as if there’s a deep weariness held in check by pure dedication.
There’s something else I want to say about this show. It’s never boring. Ever. It hardly has a chance to be, since it only runs half an hour, and Malloy and Reed typically handle three or four events in every show. And those are always unpredictable. It might be an armed robbery in progress, a drunk wandering around in traffic, or anything in between. Whenever I watch Adam-12, I’m regularly startled by the closing credits rolling when it seems like the show only started ten minutes ago.
Adam-12 may not have been the last of the network thirty-minute dramas, but it was certainly the last one anybody remembers. A lot of its familiarity comes from its post-network years of syndication, though. Just as Webb’s other 1970s stalwart, Emergency!, was doomed to a low profile because of stiff competition from the All in the Family juggernaut, Adam-12 was thrown to the wolves in its last years, sentenced to the worst timeslots in NBC’s schedule. It faced the hit Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in the 1973/74 season, and Happy Days in 1974/75. (So enthralled with Happy Days was I at the time that I was later shocked to discover that Adam-12 had still been on the air that season.)
Shout Factory! did an excellent job with its DVD release of Season 2 (which originally aired September 1969-May 1970). The episodes are complete, with superb color and sound, so apparently someone’s been taking care of the negatives all these years. Several episodes have optional commentary tracks recorded by actual LAPD veterans of the era, and they’re worth listening to. (The vets give the show high marks for accuracy, but stress that cops today sometimes handle things very differently than the way Malloy and Reed did, thanks to better training and a general legacy of LAPD trial and error.)
One of the series’ most memorable episodes (not necessarily great, but memorable) was aired this season, “A Sound Like Thunder.” It’s a very off-beat entry, in which Reed, Malloy and their significant others hit the road on their day off, and end up in a ghost town overrun by heavily-armed, kill-crazy bikers. Other WTF moments this season include Malloy and Reed entering a suburban apartment and finding an unleashed lion inside, and a domestic dispute call that results in the guys being tossed around by hulking ex-wrestler Mike Mazurki— Reed is sent flying into a grand piano and Malloy is thrown against a wall before dazedly crashing onto a collapsing coffee table. (Milner does the scene without a stuntman and his reward is having his head visibly bounce off the un-collapsing frame of the table.)
There are a lot of solid episodes here. My favorites included “Pig is a Three-Letter Word,” in which the arrest of black suspects nearly results in a street riot; “Baby,” in which Reed’s wife is about to give birth, but the non-stop pressures of the job keep him from even completing a phone call to the hospital; and “Good Cop: Handle with Care,” in which photographers for an underground newspaper follow Malloy and Reed around, loudly accusing them of police brutality.
Adam-12 was never much for guest stars— which is just as well— but making appearances this season are a post-Munsters Butch Patrick and a pre-Partridge Family David Cassidy, and an assortment of character actors I’m always glad to see, including Ellen Corby, J. Pat O’Malley and Burt Mustin.
The later seasons are better, but Season 2 is well worth a look.