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The Mod Squad

The Mod Squad

"One black, one white, one blonde." That was one way to describe the three members of The Mod Squad, executive producer Aaron Spelling's enormously successful late-1960s "hippie-oriented" cop drama. With a broadcast run on ABC from September 1968 to 1973, the series was part of an attempt by all of the networks to lure baby boomers back to prime-time during a period when it appeared that this lucrative demographic had abandoned the medium for cinema, rock music, and social protest. The show's premise provided an ingenious means to bridge the generation gap: take three rebellious, disaffected young social outcasts and persuade them to work as unarmed undercover detectives for the Los Angeles Police Department. The intent was that younger viewers would identify with the lead characters, while the older generation would find comfort in the law-and-order nature of the series.

While this premise seemed terribly calculated and perhaps even cynical, the show managed to work. The Mod Squad team, Pete Cochran (Michael Cole), a longhaired youth disowned by his Beverly Hills family, Julie Barnes (Peggy Lipton), a willowy blonde "hippie chick," and Linc Hayes (Clarence Williams III), an afroed and angry ghetto black busted during the Watts Riots, all displayed continual discomfort about their roles as cops. Their missions usually involved infiltration of some area of the youth counter-culture, from underground newspapers to campus anti-war organizations, in order to ferret out the inevitably grown-up villains who preyed on the idealistic young. This approach proved to be the show's winning formula: the bad guys were almost always short-haired establishment-types. During the first year of its run, Spelling was quoted gushing, "We're telling it like it is. Somebody has to help adults understand young people. They've got so many hangups and nobody seems to care. Love is the answer. Those hippies are right. Those kids are so totally involved with life, they've involved me."

The Mod Squad quickly developed a reputation for handling socially relevant issues of the day while so much of prime-time fare continued to focus on the inanities of suburban witches, nuns who could fly, bumbling secret agents who talked into their shoes, and the rural adventures of the gentle folk in Hooterville and Mayberry. The Mod Squad proved to be the harbinger of an inevitable change in prime-time programming philosophies as the tumultuous 1960s raged on into the early 1970s. While the series did not deal with politically and socially troubling issues every week, it was noteworthy for tackling such issues at all. In a 1970 episode, for instance, the show explored the My Lai massacre in thinly fictionalized form. American public opinion was still quite raw over whether American troops in Vietnam had engaged in war crimes around that action. This episode of The Mod Squad provided a remarkably sensitive and complex examination of soldier psychology and racism. Another 1970 episode dealt with draft resistance, portraying a draft resister as sympathetic and principled in his pacifism.

The success of The Mod Squad, along with its formula of presenting the rebellious and idealistic young as heroes, led prime-time to begin a wholesale shift in its approach to programming in the early 1970s. The 1970-71 network season was ballyhooed as the "Season of Social Relevance." All around the dial, new dramas appeared using The Mod Squad's formula. Storefront Lawyers featured idealistic, rebellious young lawyers wanting to use the law to change the Establishment. The Interns featured idealistic, rebellious doctors-in-training who fought authority to change the system. Even Ironside, an established series, found itself grappling with socially relevant issues like the draft. None of the new Mod Squad clones, however, ended up a ratings winner. The networks would not get their social relevance approach right until they shifted away from dramas to comedies like All in the Family and M*A*S*H, both of which gave viewers a means to take in countercultural values and social protest with spoonfuls of laughter.

By 1973, with the 1960s over, The Mod Squad quickly became dated, obviously a product of its time. Its basic formula proved powerful, however, for a new generation of television viewers. When the upstart Fox network wanted to lure young viewers—Generation Xers this time—to its offerings, one of the network's early hits proved to be 21 Jump Street, a youth-oriented cop show thoroughly modeled on The Mod Squad.

—Aniko Bodroghkozy

Further Reading:

Spelling, Aaron. Aaron Spelling: A Prime-Time Life. New York, St.Martin's Press, 1996.

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