M Squad: The Complete Series (review)

Not in Color!

I kept expecting to hear, with every episode of M Squad I watched, the voiceover guy saying, “M Squad! In Color!” over the opening credits. It’s not in color, this classic 1957-to-1960 NBC cop drama — it’s in very dramatic and noirish black-and-white — but here’s what I never realized: Police Squad!, the extremely short-lived (six episodes) 1982 cop comedy was a direct spoof of M Squad. I understood, even as the kid I was then, that Police Squad! — with its opening credits, of course, featuring an announcement that the show was “in color” — was generally spoofing serious cop dramas of an earlier era, but I never knew that it had a specific cop drama in mind when it did so.

Of course, I’d never even heard of M Squad till this huge new set, recently released by Timeless Media Group, landed on my desk with a thump. It’s the whole series, 117 episodes spread across 15 DVDs, and like Timeless’s other new release, Wagon Train, it’s not just a collection of TV that had been all but lost to the distant reaches of the nonsyndicated pop-culture past, it’s a reminder of how different TV used to be, as well as how that past created TV as we know it today. One hundred seventeen episodes in only three years on the air is unheard of today for a primetime drama, and each of these 24-minute episodes (they would have been half an hour with commercials) is like a mini movie, all gorgeous, gritty cinematography and jazz on the soundtrack (there’s a bonus CD with selections from the show’s score) and murder and adultery and bank robbery and more felonies and more murder.

Before The Dirty Dozen and Cat Ballou, Lee Marvin starred here as Lieutenant Frank Ballinger of the Chicago Police Department, member of the elite M Squad, which handles all the high-profile cases that need solving quickly and correctly. “If it doesn’t fit anywhere else and it’s important, it comes to us,” Frank tells us in his voiceover. There’s a lot of voiceovers. It was a noir thing. There were a lot of noir things, actually, like the titles of episodes: “Neighborhood Killer.” “Face of Evil.” “Street of Fear.” “Diamond Hard.” I kid, but this is good stuff. Sure, some of those titles get a little goofy later on, and start to sound like movies Roger Corman made in the 70s — “High School Bride,” “The Man Who Lost His Brain” — but the stories they’re attached to are sly and clever and a lot of fun. (The brain one is about a stolen computer. I told you it was clever.) This is one episode about a clown accused of a very bad crime, but even though I was ready to snort with derision at that one, I never needed to.

What may have surprised me the most, though — other than the fact that each episode was more of a snappy crackerjack than the last — is how much forensics stuff creeps into each episode: Ballinger’s partner talks about collecting hair and fibers; the coroner talks about blood tests; and so on. I wouldn’t have thought it, but it looks like CSI owes as much to M Squad as Law and Order does. And it’s still intriguing enough on its own to be of more than historical interest: fans of those shows should get a retro kick out of this one.

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