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"MOD SQUAD," which is being billed as a daring taste of the way things are Now among the young, turns out in fact to be T.V. for the Wallace generation. Like the candidate himself it offers reassurance to a lot of scared people, it tells 'em what they want to hear. And, depending on how you want to take it, "Mod Squad" can be a good larf or an evil little phenomenon with nightmarish implications.
The Mod Squad in question is three kids, a white boy, a white girl, and a black boy. The girl, the run-away daughter of a prostitute, was picked up by the police for vagrancy. The white boy, who had been thrown out by his rich family, was arrested for car theft. And the black boy was busted during the Watts riots. The three have been given "a second chance" by the cops. They are trained by the police as undercover agents, so they can work for the cops on cases involving teenagers. The premise of the show is rich in unintended humor, for these three finks are passed off as representative of our generation.
For its premiere, "Mod Squad" ran an hour and a half, to give us a chance to get to know the kids. The idea is reminiscent of the first-of-the-year Lone Ranger shows, In Which We Learned Why he wore a mask, Why his horse was called Silver, Why he used expensive silver bullets, How he met Tonto, etc. But "Mod Squad" is, in contrast, woefully boring, displaying not a tenth of the style or the imagination of "The Lone Ranger."
The opening episode, for example, was about a gubernatorial candidate who was being blackmailed by a gang that had incriminating pictures of his teenage daughter. What makes this plot different from the same plot that we've seen a zillion times before, what makes it Turned On Now stuff, is the way the cut-throats got the pictures. You see what the sneaky petes did is...is...they gave her L.S.D.! And then, while she was "under L.S.D."--and putty in their hands, needless to say--one of the blackguards made love to her and took pictures of it.
"Mod Squad"' is like that -- details with a veneer of Now, dripping with unintended Significance, a meaning that is either funny but scary too. The handling of L.S.D., for example: We see the girl at the end of her trip. She is semi-conscious, lolling about on a bed and moaning, as if, in fact, she had drunk too much, or taken too many tranquilizers. She is discovered in this state by a Mod Squader, and a doctor is summoned. He injects something into her and in a few moments she wakes up. Like all the good adults on the show the doctor is stern, selfless, and knowing. He refuses the payment the Mod Squader offers. The doctor can tell what was wrong with the girl (by her symptoms no doubt), and warns, "Tell her not to take any more L.S.D. before she's twenty-one or she'll suffer permanent brain damage."
SEVERAL other bits are like that. The white kid says a suspect must be rich because he has an eight thousand dollar car, and the black kid (picked up in the Watts riot, you remember), replies, "May-be he's not rich. I know a cat on welfare who has a bigger car." The remark might come from a militant consciousness akin to Malcolm X's when he called welfare emasculating, but considering that the black boy is working for the police, it probably is just as absurd, vicious, and ugly as it seems.
The part that perhaps hits closest to home for most viewers is when the rich white kid tells about his past. He admits in a teary and impassioned speech that he hadn't left home voluntarily at all, but had been thrown out by his parents. "I was obnoxious. I shot down everything they tried to do for me. I wasn't just anti-establishment but anti-everything. I was kicked out."
You see, out there in T.V. land, although kids may talk about rejecting the rotten establishment, although we may call adult values hypocritical, well we really don't mean it at all. In truth we're just just spoiled brats, anti-everythings rejecting for rejecting's sake, obnoxious for the nuisance value of it. Just give us the old boot in the arse and we'll understand. It's what we deserve after all.
What the black kid then replies to the white boy's mea culpa is a striking example of false consciousness. "We're all in the same bag," he says, "We've all been kicked out. Let's face it, this job is the first time we've ever belonged to anything."
Beyond the improbability that this Watts rioter wouldn't see that the white boy has been kicked out by his family, while he, on the other hand has been kicked out by most of white America, there is the secret continuing message of "Mod Squad": "...this job is the first time we've ever belonged to anything."
The Mod Squaders are under the direction of a tough cop who never praises them, dresses them down constantly, and generally acts like a Marine Sergeant. And, of course, this is just the kind of treatment these kids need, yes sir. They need standards. They need discipine. They've been coddled too long. They love a good swift kick.
At the end of the first show it almost seems as if this jerk of a Sergeant is more than even a mod-squader can bear. They've all resigned because, as the black kid says, "the man is too hard to please." But after the commercial we return to a scene of the three Mod-Squaders standing around on a beach, and ... they've nothing to do, they're aimless, drifting, feeling useless to themselves and society:
"Sometimes I'd like to be a gull," the girl says.
"I'll tell you what, I'll sell you Sunday real cheap."
"Sorry, I got a closet full."
And then, to save them from this awful purposelessness, this dreadful freedom, their Sergeant reappears, and ... hurray? They are still on the force! "File the report. Finish up," he says in his hard but secretly loving way.
God, they nearly die of gratitude. To be a real human being you need something to give your life purpose and take your freedom away, you need something to belong to, the corporation, the force, the platoon, the kiwanis, the brigade.
* * * * *
OUTSIDE news hours television no longer even pretends to offer images of the real world. Nor does it offer fantasy that is moving enough to disturb you, to make you laugh or to scare you. Instead there is silly reassurance, something on the order of cake-eating people while there are food riots in the streets.
"Mod Squad" is proof that someone who is paid to keep their finger on the nation's pulse thinks that America is scared of its young. America is afraid of the rock and roll army, scared of its rejection of their values, scared of the drugs kids take instead of alcohol, scared the kids might really be having fun in spite of the imminent wrath of God, scared that it might be true when the young say that adults lives are boring, trivial, and nourishing as spit.
"Mod Squad," with its unrecognizable caricatures of these scary kids, is reassurance for frightened adults. The images say that kids who reject the advantages offered them are not morally superior but spoiled troublemakers who will regret it later, that black people just need more of the old free enterprise system, that the Army makes a man of you, that any of these hippie kids would just jump at the chance to play ball, to get on the bandwagon, to join the team.
T.V. offers these silly images because it's what people want to see, it's the line of least resistance, it gets the high ratings and moves the goods. But for many Americans T.V. is the primary source of information, their window to the world. And in fact, no matter what T.V. says, there is a war going on, the worst in America is facing the best, something is going on here that Mayor Daley doesn't understand and that scares him to death. And a country whose official "reality" on T.V. is so at odds with what any kid knows is actually happening is a country gone schizoid.
At the end of "Mod Squad," the black kid, incredulous at being taken back on the force, says, "We thought we were finished." And the tough cop replies, "That's the trouble with you kids today. You think too much."
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