Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #21

Series Title: The Equalizer | Years: 1985-1989, CBS | Starring: Edward Woodward, Keith Szarabajka, Robert Lansing | Theme Music: Stewart Copeland

Gotta problem? Odds against you?
Call the Equalizer 212-555-4200

Although it suffers from some obvious grammatical clumsiness (“Gotta problem?” should be “Have a problem?” or “Do you have a problem?”), this newspaper advertisement was astonishingly effective. At least it was on the Reagan-era TV series The Equalizer, which found British actor Edward Woodward portraying a nattily dressed, well-spoken, and well-read modern-day urban vigilante.

The series’ premise went something like this: Robert McCall (Woodward) was a 50-something ex-senior operative for a CIA-like operation (referred to only as “The Company”) who, ultimately disillusioned with the abundant ethical compromises he’d had to make over his long career, and cynical about the power of America’s justice system to actually right wrongs, took early retirement from the espionage game in order to become a New York City private detective--of sorts. Having invested wisely, and thus no longer in need of a regular paycheck (he already laid claim to a stylish apartment and wheeled about the metropolis in a new-model Jaguar), McCall set himself up as what The Thrilling Detective Web Site calls a “one-man ‘equalizer,’ dedicating himself to helping people who really need it, as penance for his previous life.”

While he looked the part of a proper gentleman, with his neatly clipped gray hair, cuff links and pocket hankies, and bespoke three-piece suits fresh from Saville Row or Brooks Brothers, the 5-foot-10 McCall took to his assignments with a particularly cold-blooded efficiency. His cases came via that classified ad mentioned before, and he sifted through his answering-machine messages for people he thought could benefit the most from his no-cost, distinctive services--those whose lives were endangered by their discoveries at work, or who were threatened by predators, or who were being singled out for abuse because they were somehow considered weaker than their fellows. The message with which McCall greeted folks soliciting his aid demonstrated both how dangerous he knew himself to be and how weary he was of having to repent for his past sins: “This is Robert McCall. If you will leave your name, message, and number I will get back to you as soon as possible. I don’t want to, but I will.” Although he wasn’t prone toward physical violence, McCall may have been the most menacing of small-screen P.I.s. Confronted in one episode of The Equalizer by an arsonist who told him to “Go to hell!,” McCall responded with simple and utter contempt: “After you, sir! After you!” Is it any wonder that family values fringers targeted The Equalizer for expeditious cancellation?

As the Web site TV Acres recalls:
While on a case, McCall’s methods of persuasion varied. At first, he simply informed an offending person, in a fair but firm manner, to please stop their wrong-doing. When that failed, some threats, blackmail, or intimidation followed. And finally, when the initial methods failed (and the target was really, really crummy) Robert might pull out a gun and execute the person. But Robert didn’t take a life on a whim. He genuinely tried to resolve his problems without the use of force, but when it came down to the safety of his clients, McCall’s sharply-honed skills as a spy could quickly kick in for the kill.
Not exactly the sort of guy you want to have over for a friendly little game of Monopoly. However, McCall and his Walther PPK definitely had their place in the Darwinian strata of troubled, late-20th-century society. What saved him from being dismissed as a one-dimensional assassin was the guilt he felt after his years as a spy and the manifest complications of his personal life. As we learned over the four years The Equalizer aired, McCall was divorced, with an estranged son who bitterly resented his progenitor for abandoning him, but who was later drawn into the same nefarious world that had shaped (or, it could be said, misshaped) the elder McCall’s makeup. The show’s protagonist also had a daughter born of another woman he’d once loved, but who had vacated his life without telling him about their child. These personal disappointments and failings contributed to McCall’s weight of guilt, but they also gave substance to a character who desperately needed it in this revenge fantasy.

The Equalizer benefited, too, from featuring Woodward as Robert McCall. A former Shakespearean stage performer who’d earned his tough-guy chops playing a professional killer working for the British government in the 1967-1972 British spy drama Callan, and who’d later portrayed a god-fearing cop in the 1973 horror flick The Wicker Man, Woodward was somehow able to pull off McCall’s “death look”--which he fixed upon the worst of his fictional adversaries--without appearing silly. Had another actor won the McCall role instead, the show might not have survived as long as it did. Similarly premised series, such as 1997’s Delleventura, which posited the usually terrific Danny Aiello as a Gotham gumshoe taking “cases the NYPD can’t or won’t handle,” have been forgotten even faster than John McCain forgets his supposedly principled stands on political issues. Unfortunately, Woodward suffered a heart attack during The Equalizer’s run, and both Richard Jordan and--amazingly--Robert Mitchum stepped in to fill Woodward’s shoes while he was recovering. Without Woodward at the helm, though, the show seemed less convincing than it did otherwise. (A citizen avenger running around New York, bringing down criminals? Who’re you kidding, Batman?)

Contributing significantly to this show’s strength was its dramatic opening, which rolled quickly through a succession of scenes in which men and (mostly) women were being threatened by mendacious figures of one dark stripe or another. It capitalized on the sense many people have these days that their safety is perpetually under threat, no matter how innocent they might be. The opening was lent still greater impact by its theme music, a pounding, tension-creating rhythm that was composed by Stewart Copeland, the founder and drummer of the rock band The Police. (Copeland later release an album that included an extended version of that theme.) It’s surprising that The Equalizer’s weekly introduction didn’t dry up Manhattan’s tourist trade forever. Robert McCall was fictitious; the sort of dangers dramatized in that title sequence are not.

Earlier this year, the first season of The Equalizer was finally released in a DVD set. And crime novelists Terrill Lee Lankford (Blonde Lightning) and Michael Connelly (The Overlook, The Brass Verdict) are reportedly working away on the script for a big-screen adaptation of the series. (The International Movie Database has it scheduled for a 2009 release.) Let’s hope that if the film does happen, its producers find a part for Edward Woodward someplace. Although he’s suffered two heart attacks over the years, and is now said to be undergoing treatment for prostate cancer, the 78-year-old thespian continues to act, appearing most recently in a two-part episode of the very-long-running British police procedural series, The Bill. I, for one, can’t imagine The Equalizer without him.


Anonymous said...

Its all about Magnum PI.
More recently it's Veronica Mars.

Unknown said...

An article about the Best Intros itself has one of the Dullest, Most Pedantic Intros ever. "Got a problem?" is a slogan, a tagline - not an example culled from an English textbook. This site, as great as it is, would benefit from a professional editor. I could go on about how the first half of the first sentence of the second par is almost entirely redundant - but it's the type of phrase you always read when writers are being paid by the word. Yet here, JKP is doing it for love and peanuts. Hmm

Uriah Robinson said...

Edward Woodward as Callan and Russell Hunter and Lonely were superb in the TV series. Although it seemed to have been made on a shoestring budget Callan put most modern British series in the shade because the participants could act.

Graham Powell said...

Jeff Pierce needs no defence from me, Miles, but allow me to quote from a fine English wordsmith:

"This is just the sort of pedantic nonsense up with which I will not put."

Unknown said...

I'm watching the boxed set now. His advert actually says "Gotta problem" and not "Got a problem". Why does nowhere (such as this blog) actually say that? Even Wikipedia gets it wrong. Why write something if it's going to be inaccurate?

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Why people avoid the phrasing "gotta problem" is probably because "gotta" is not actually a word; its a slangish contraction that rubs editors (including me) the wrong way. Also, there's some dispute among Equalizer fans as to whether Robert McCall would ever have used such slang. (See here:
TOPIC_ID=2016). He just wanted that type of person.

However, you're right that the advertisement does appear with that slang in it--at least in one version. Another version of the ad apparently read as follows:


I've gone ahead and installed the slang spelling here--but not without protest.


Unknown said...

You're right about


I've noticed that one too. I also thoroughly agree that McCall would never have used "Gotta" in his advert, but the fact remains that that is what it says.
It's taken me a while to get into the series. It was a favourite when originally out, but now the acting seems so wooden and the 80's fashions are so... 80's!
I'm unsure if, by episode 12 where I am now, the acting has improved or I've just numbed to it a bit. A little of both I suspect.