Friday, January 13, 2012

Nostalgia Theater: CHiPs Edition

L-R: Erik Estrada, Robert Pine, Larry Wilcox
For this week's dose of Nostalgia Theater, we motorbike our way back to the late 1970s, when the televisual tastes of the masses were so malnourished that an hourlong drama about glorified traffic cops was able to not only last, but last and last for an improbable six seasons. That's right. You knew this day was coming. It's time to talk CHiPs. For anyone who grew up during its broadcast and syndication heyday during the '70s and '80s, I have a feeling the following theme music (composed by John Carl Parker for the second season and beyond, replacing Parker's original opening from year one) is indelibly branded on their psyche:

Premiering in fall of 1977, CHiPs (a slang reference to the California Highway Patrol that, in eight years of Golden State living, I've never heard anyone actually use) was a police procedural that primarily revolved around the workaday lives of two Los Angeles motorcycle cops -- buttoned-down, straight-laced Jon Baker (Larry Wilcox) and "cool" partner Frank "Ponch" Poncharello (Erik Estrada) -- as they deal with speeders, collisions, and wrecks. Also of note in the cast to readers here, Robert Pine, father of current Captain Kirk Chris Pine, played the duo's friend and CO, Joe Getraer.

I realize what I mention above isn't much of anything to hang an entire series on, and I'd love to say there was more to it, but there really wasn't. Nonetheless, some of the clearest memories I have from my childhood are of setting the timer to record CHiPs eps that were coming on after my bedtime (this was in Saudi Arabia where, for some reason, shows wouldn't start at round times like "8" or "8:30", so all you could do was cross your fingers, set it for "8:43" or whatever, and hope you got a majority the next morning).

Anyway, whether because of the teeth-grinding urgency of the premise or the pin-up generating heat of Estrada, CHiPs was an inexplicable marketing force for a little while there (I even owned a "Ponch" figure that came pre-posed on a drag-and-release motorcycle), and it filled enough of a void with viewers to soldier on into the '80s, ending one year after Wilcox left over a simmering feud with Estrada, whose popularity ballooned -- then deflated. The show even benefitted from another TV trend of the '80s and '90s: the reunion movie (though a bit more belatedly than some of its kin). Here's a promo spot for CHiPs '99, a real thing that aired on TNT in 1998:

There was some talk a few years back about some kind of a remake of the property, with That '70s Show's Wilmer Valderrama stepping into Estrada's uniform as the big screen Ponch, but I think it's probably for the best that it's never materialized. This is one of those shows that, more than anything, puts a stick pin in a specific moment in time, and any appeal is purely as an artifact of that time. Proving my point, Fox put the first and second seasons of CHiPs out on DVD a few years back, but stopped there due to the response not justifying hurdling the various clearances that would allow further releases.

1 comment:

RobRoy said...

Good times!

I remember an episode when I was a kid where Ponch is walking shirtless by a pool.

I remember being totally grossed out at how hairy he was.

Years later - - maybe my second or third month in SoCal - - I was sitting outside a Starbucks wondering what I was going to do for work. Ponch himself walked in and ordered a tall frappe.

I tell ya'. He's even hairier in person.

But a heart of gold, kid. Heart of gold.