Question: When I was a kid, my older brother got to watch S.W.A.T., but I wasn't allowed to because my mom and dad said it was too violent. Looking back, I can't believe it was that bad. Was it? — Vicki V., Norman, Okla.
Televisionary: Well, "bad" is really a question of time period, Vicki. Was S.W.A.T. bad compared to, say, The Shield? Nope. But it was violent stuff for network TV in the mid-'70s, when it aired. And concern over the violence was also complicated by the post-Vietnam politics of the time, when plenty of pundits and viewers had had enough of gunplay and anything they took to be pro-police-state imagery.
During its run from February 1975 to June 1976 on ABC, S.W.A.T, like the recent feature film spawned by the series, focused on the L.A.P.D.'s Special Weapons and Tactics team. Thrown at problems too heavy for the average on-the-street cops, the boys (Steve Forrest, Rod Perry, Robert Urich, Mark Shera, James Coleman) would arrive in their black truck, pile out in their matching black uniforms and go to town on whomever or whatever was causing the trouble.
The trouble with that, of course, was that matching black uniforms, an ominous black vehicle and full-force tactics reminded a lot of people of uniformed forces who weren't exactly on the side of good. "S.W.A.T. is about cops playing Storm Troopers with commando precision.... It's a great show for fans who enjoy seeing cops kill people," wrote one critic. "S.W.A.T.'s penchant for rolling up to a scene in a bulletproof 'war wagon' loaded with M-16s and flak-jacketed cops indicates the series wants to turn American cities into Vietnam-type hootches," wrote another.
And the public? On one hand, the show launched with respectable ratings; but on the other, four bomb threats were phoned in to ABC's Century City building the week before the show's launch. One threat led searchers to two fake sticks of dynamite sitting next to a script for the episode being shot that week. (The callers were rumored to be members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, six members of which had been killed in a shootout by real-life cops and S.W.A.T.-team members.)
Executive producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg were called "neofascists," which really stung Spelling, who described himself as "the biggest bleeding-heart liberal in Hollywood" and who sported four NAACP awards on the wall behind his desk at the time. "We started out with too much shooting, too much of a display of firepower," he admitted to TV Guide in 1975. "We've cut that down. If people still say there's an excess of violence, we'll cut that down, too. But please don't call us neofascists."
The funny thing was, the S.W.A.T. vehicle and uniforms were not quite what they appeared to be on TV. "They aren't black," Spelling said, showing them to a reporter to prove his point. "They just photographed black in the cloudy weather we had here in Los Angeles all winter. They're really police blue." That they were — early on — but you can bet they were lightened real quick after people complained. By the time TV Guide visited the set, in fact, the truck and uniforms were "approaching a rather effeminate robin's-egg hue."
Furthermore, Spelling argued, his cops were not the SS troopers the show's detractors made them out to be. "First of all, we always make it clear that our men can't be judge, jury and executioner on their own," he explained. "There are strict controls on them. They take orders from their chief of police, or from the civilian district attorney. Secondly, they make every effort to capture people alive, even psychopaths and vicious criminals. Third, they have tremendous firepower only because today's criminals also have tremendous firepower. And fourth, we never show S.W.A.T. being used in a riot situation against students, or social or political groups."
For his part, Forrest had no problem with his character or his show. "For years I had an automatic liberal reaction against any assertion of police power," he said. "Now, like most Americans, I've come to believe that strong professional police action — with the proper controls against abuses — is absolutely necessary. At least the kids who watch our show are emulating cops and not psychopathic killers. So we can't be all bad."
Perhaps not, but just to be sure, the writers and producers tweaked the formula a bit, putting together an episode in which the team rescued 16 elderly people from a burning nursing home, and introducing the lovable Hilda the Sandwich Lady (Rose Marie) in the ninth show.
And, as I said above, no one ever pulled a Vic Mackey and held a perp's face to a red-hot stove burner. So "bad" is in the eye of the beholder, but it's nice to know your ma and pa were looking out for you.