Friday, September 23, 2011
Trust him. He knows what he's doing.
The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Sledge Hammer!.
"If all you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail."
Cop shows are a dime a dozen. For as long as the medium of television has existed there have been cop shows. Consequently, in such an overcrowded genre, which includes such distinguished icons as Dragnet, Adam-12 and Hill Street Blues, it is very difficult for a new one to make a distinct impression on viewers let alone leave any kind of legacy. Thus, in a bold attempt to be different, some producers have had the brilliant idea of doing a comic cop show, but prior to Reno 911, those programs proved to be television poison. Car 54, Where Are You?, Cop Rock and Police Squad! all had notoriously brief runs (although the latter would spawn a very successful comedy movie franchise). Alas, the same fate also befell the satirical 1980s sitcom Sledge Hammer! Despite critical acclaim, Hammer! was consistently second-to-last in the Nielsen ratings and after running only two seasons was unceremoniously canceled. Like its “comic-cop” brethren, Hammer! has developed a cult following over the years but unlike its “comic-cop” brethren, Hammer! has aged remarkably well. In fact, watching it 25 years later it is painfully clear that Sledge Hammer! was, as the saying goes, way ahead of its time.
Needless to say, without Dirty Harry there would be no Sledge Hammer!. In 1971, 16-year-old Alan Spencer saw the iconic Clint Eastwood film and was very affected by it. While the movie was inciting heated debate over whether its portrayal of a gung-ho policeman more interested in protecting innocent people than following the law was fascistic, Spencer astutely grasped the absurd humor of the whole thing. He wrote a script that featured a central character with even less scruples and an even more destructive personality — sort of “Dirty Harry on acid” — and thus, Sledge Hammer was born. However, it would be many years before it reached the television screen. Originally intended for HBO, it was ABC that eventually took a chance on Hammer!. I wish I could report that risk paid off but, as actor David Rasche puts it, “it was not to be.”
I discovered Sledge Hammer! completely by accident. When it premiered on ABC in 1986 it initially followed a half-hour Disney show called Sidekicks (with Ernie Reyes, Jr., Gil Gerard and Keye Luke) that I wanted to watch because it was based on a Disney Sunday Movie I loved called The Last Electric Knight. At the time I thought it was great, but now I realize it was just another second-rate Karate Kid rip-off. However, I do owe the show a tremendous debt because if it weren’t for Sidekicks I wouldn’t have seen Sledge Hammer!. I remember watching the Sidekicks episode on the TV in my room and when it was over I decided to leave the set on rather than turn it off and go to bed. When the next show’s opening credits began I heard this very energetic, macho-sounding theme music (which I would later discover was written by an up-and-coming film music composer named Danny Elfman who would go on to become one of my all-time favorite musical talents) playing over close-up images of a .44 Magnum with an insignia of a sledge hammer imprinted on the handle. After several almost erotic-looking shots of the gun resting on a satin pillow a hand reaches into frame and holds it up next to his face staring at it longingly. He twirls it several times, points it slightly to the left of the camera and then says “Trust me. I know what I’m doing,” before firing it and making what was presumably supposed to be a hole in the television screen. Interestingly, the original idea was to have Hammer shoot directly into the camera Great Train Robbery-style, but the network was nervous it would frighten viewers and possibly even result in heart attacks. Hence, the slightly off-kilter direction of the gun’s barrel was agreed upon as a compromise. Incidentally, I‘d like to make a snarky remark here about television executives overestimating the stupidity of viewers, but I won’t because, according to IMDB, on the night of its debut a Midwest ABC affiliate was indeed “startled by the opening sequence, panicked and threw on the station logo thinking something had gone wrong with their tape machine.” It’s the kind of turn of the events that would fit right in with the absurd spirit of the show itself.
Sledge Hammer! was, as creator Alan Spencer aptly claimed, a “sitcom for people who hate sitcoms.” The main premise was apparently to take every cop show/movie cliché and exaggerate it to the point of absurdity. The humor ranged from pointed socio-political and commentary all the way to goofy, over-the-top slapstick. It essentially did for cop dramas what Get Smart (an admitted influence on Spencer) did for spy stories. It may have been dumb but it was dumb in a very intelligent way. It also was, and this is no small feat, side-splittingly funny. I remember liking it an awful lot when I was 10 but I was genuinely surprised, as I reviewed most of the episodes recently, how often I laughed out loud. Much of the hilarity came from the series’ central character, the sadistic, misogynistic, nihilistic San Francisco homicide detective. Born to parents Jack and Armen (think about it) Inspector Sledge Hammer was the kind of cop for whom excessive force was standard operating procedure, the kind of cop who would brag about violating a criminal’s civil rights, the kind of cop for whom the observation “he shoots first and ask questions later” was not a criticism but a compliment.
REPORTER: We're here at the scene of a liquor store robbery that was thwarted by the man beside me, Inspector Sledge Hammer. Inspector Hammer, tell us what happened.
HAMMER: Well, miss, I was in this store when two thugs entered and threatened the owner with shotguns. At that time, I drew my Magnum and killed them both. Then I bought some eggs, and some milk, and some of those little cocktail weenies.
REPORTER: Inspector Hammer, was what you did in that store absolutely necessary?
HAMMER: Oh, yes, I had no groceries at all.
Hammer’s main ally in his fight with crime (nay, his all-out full-scale global thermonuclear war on crime) was his beloved .44 Magnum. Hammer so adored that gun that he always had it with him. He showered with it, slept with it (and not under his pillow like James Bond, but resting comfortably on the pillow next to him…like a lover) and even talked to it. Yes, talked to it. Hammer was clearly unbalanced and yet still sane enough to realize that talking to one‘s firearm is considered strange. It’s a very funny running gag throughout the run of the series that every time he is caught conversing with his weapon, he would try to shrug it off or make some feeble excuse ("Who are you talking to?" "Uh, nobody."). In spite of his sheer disregard for any kind of human decency, compassion or etiquette, Hammer is a very engaging character. To that end, the charm and charisma of actor David Rasche (The Sentinel, Burn After Reading) goes a long way. Rasche fully commits to Hammer’s more disturbing personality traits without even attempting to soften any of his hard edges, but still manages to make him bizarrely likable. Rasche is truly a revelation in the role and it is no surprise to learn that Spencer wrote the part for him.
Supporting Rasche’s Hammer is the beautiful but tough Dori Doreau, played by the sexy and talented Anne-Marie Martin. In typical cop show/movie fashion, the crazy cop’s partner is very by-the-book. Though she is often distressed at Hammer’s antics, she nonetheless seems to like him. Martin essentially plays the straight man to Rasche’s anarchic antics (though she can be, and sometimes is, hysterically funny herself…especially in “Desperately Seeking Dori” were she gets hit on the head and believes she is Hammer herself). She’s the “99 to his Max.” Rounding out the solid cast is Harrison Page’s long-suffering Captain Trunk. Just as Chief Inspector Dreyfus was constantly irritated with Clouseau, so is Trunk forever upset with Hammer, always reprimanding him, but never able to let him go (because against all sense and reason Sledge somehow manages to get the job done), Trunk usually expresses himself in loud verbal tirades. Years before Frank McRae was shouting “SLATERRRRR!!!” at the top of his lungs at Schwarzenegger’s rogue cop character in Last Action Hero, Page’s police captain was shouting “HAMMERRRRR!!!!!” on prime time TV. Interestingly, Spencer never intended the character of Trunk to be African-American because, although he didn’t mind Hammer’s sexism, sadism and jingoism, he didn’t want Hammer to appear racist. It was Harrison’s sheer volume that won him the role. In his audition he decided to just let loose and go for it and his yelling brought people into the office from other floors in the building. Spencer hired him on the spot.
Another element that contributed to the show’s caliber (sorry) was the pedigree of directors they got. Indeed some of the best episodes were helmed by some of the best directors working in television at that time, such as Jackie Cooper and Bill Bixby. The pilot (“Under the Gun”) was directed with style and confidence by Martha Coolidge (Real Genius) and helped set the standard for everything that followed. I vividly remember watching that pilot. The mayor of San Francisco — John Vernon, who also played the mayor of that same city in Dirty Harry — hires Hammer to bring his kidnapped daughter home. I hadn’t yet seen Dirty Harry at the time (though I’ve seen it since) but it was not necessary to enjoy the over-the-top action and obviously over-the-top humor. One of the most memorable scenes involve Sledge on his way to work one morning in his car (an ugly green Dodge St. Regis with bullet holes in the windshield and a dent in its side) when he encounters a road block. Told by another officer that there’s a sniper on the roof of a nearby building, Hammer asks if the building is empty, goes to his trunk, pulls out a bazooka, levels the entire edifice and calmly declares “I think I got him.”
Dirty Harry was, of course, not the only movie Hammer! spoofed. Robocop (“Hammeroid”), Crocodile Dundee (“Death of a Few Salesmen”), and Witness (“Witless”) were also among those sent up in other memorable episodes. However, the makers of Hammer! were not content to simply satirize then-recent films. They also set their sights on such classics as North by Northwest (“Comrade Hammer”), Vertigo (“Vertical”) and Casablanca ("Play It Again, Sledge”). Hammer! didn’t just take down movies, of course. It also attacked other TV shows. ALF, Max Headroom and particularly Mr. Belvedere took a beating. One of my favorite moments comes when Hammer is in a bar watching a newscast on the TV when he gets up to leave, hears that they are returning to their broadcast of Miami Vice (one of the shows Hammer! was competing with) and blows away the set with his gun. In addition to movies, Hammer! also poked fun at significant cultural phenomena of the period, some of which would eventually become dated references (such the colorization of black and white films) and others which actually anticipated their widespread profusion (such as JFK conspiracy nuts). One of the greatest episodes (“All Shook Up”), written as a love letter to Spencer’s recently deceased friend Andy Kaufman, had Hammer going undercover as an Elvis impersonator (even going so far as to attend “Elvis impersonator school”) to capture a serial killer who’s targeting Elvis impersonators. Although the budget didn’t allow them include any actual Elvis songs, David Rasche wrote some great original Elvis-style music that was used instead. Occasionally, Hammer! would even tackle a serious subject (such as ageism in Hollywood or sexual harassment), albeit in a humorous fashion.
As with all television shows not every episode is a winner, but when Sledge Hammer! was good, it was great. It was a show never afraid to take chances. For example, as the end of the first season approached and it became clearer and clearer that the show would not get picked up, Spencer wrote a season finale that would allow the show to (literally) go out with a bang. In “The Spa Who Loved Me,” a terrorist group steals a nuclear warhead and threatens to set it off if their demands (which include new episodes of Moonlighting) are not met. Hammer, Dori and Trunk find the warhead in a spa and Hammer, after uttering his usual chilling assurance that he “knows what he’s doing,” attempts to disarm the thing only to have it explode destroying all of San Francisco. Partially intended as a desperate attempt to boost their ratings (a confession they got Robin Leach to make at the outset of the episode) and also partially intended as petulant thumbing their nose at the establishment, the outrageous gamble actually paid off. The finale was so highly watched that the network renewed for a second season, provided Spencer would find a way to get out of the apocalyptic ending. In typical Sledge Hammer!-style, Spencer's solution was yet another satirical jab at television…specifically lame resolutions to unresolvable scenarios (such as “it was all a dream”). In the premiere episode of season two, a title card informed viewers that the rest of the season actually occurs five years before the nuclear explosion. The usual credits then roll, only this time with the subtitle “The Early Years." It makes no sense (especially since Doreau was made Hammer's partner in the pilot and here she's seen working with him), but it's clever and hilarious.
The primary sin of Sledge Hammer! was being too good and too provocative for its time. It’s easy to see why audiences didn’t embrace it. It's pretty gutsy stuff. Even if ABC had treated it right (i.e. not pitting it against Dallas and Miami Vice in the first season and moving it around to various time slots in the second season, ultimately setting it against that ratings powerhouse known as The Cosby Show), it still might not have ever caught on. The very subversive sensibility of the show fits in more with the hyper-cynical culture we find ourselves in now than the conservative, homogenized environment of Reagan-era America. The fact that the show, against Spencer’s wishes, included a “canned” laugh track for much of the first season (I vividly remember that) illustrates this very point. At the same time, however, the tone and tenor of the whole thing (even the violence) is all so silly and good-natured that it's hard to believe anyone could take it so seriously as to be offended by it (which many people were). After being canceled in 1988, Hammer! did very well in syndication and both seasons are now available on DVD (sans the insipid laugh track thankfully). My advice, if you haven’t yet experienced this woefully underrated show, is to check it out. You might be surprised. You also might find yourself wondering how on earth the show didn’t catch on…or as Sledge himself would say whenever someone tried to use logic or reason on him: “Don’t confuse me.”