The Mod Squad
The strangest thing about The Mod Squad is that it's not at all mod. This rejuvenated version of the original Aaron Spelling TV series (which ran from 1968 to 1973) occupies a weird, apolitical time warp: There's nothing '60s about it, but nothing very '90s, either.
Back in the day, ABC promoted its new undercover-cop series with faux-hip ad copy reading, "The police don't understand the now generation and the now generation doesn't dig the fuzz. The solution: Find some swinging young people who live the beat scene. Get them to work for the cops." Enter the mod trio, a "Watts rebel" (Clarence Williams III), a hippie chick (Peggy Lipton), and a disaffected Beverly Hills heir (Michael Cole), to infiltrate the counterculture on behalf of the LAPD. Yeah, right, but aside from its fuzz-friendly raison d'être, The Mod Squad did at least engage the political issues of the day--campus unrest, civil rights, draft resistance, poverty--with a semblance of sympathy for idealistic, youthful dissidence.
But by 1971 even that veneer was wearing thin, as the Squad no longer took on landlords, warmongers, anti-Semites, or pre-Roe abortion laws, instead training their sights on encephalitis-ridden pigeons (!) and activists gone bad. Take, for example, a particularly sick post-Kent State episode ("A Short Course in War") where a wannabe revolutionary kills other students, conveniently letting the National Guard off the hook. And let's not even talk about the Squad's gender politics, what with Lipton's role as typist, sex-bait, and beverage-provider. ("That's good coffee, Julie!" one episode begins; "How about a refill, Julie?" another echoes.)
Flash forward to the hip '90s crew, whom exec-producer Spelling describes in promotional material as "a canary with a broken wing" (Claire Danes), a wealthy wiseass "who had gone down the wrong path" (Giovanni Ribisi), and "an angry, urban kid" (Omar Epps), all working for The Man in the paternalistic person of Captain Greer (Dennis Farina). Once again the L.A. cops recruit the threesome to go where the police can't, in this case a downtown "rave scene" that's a front for a teenage prostitution ring. This time around, the establishment heavies comprise a rich dad, a drug-dealing rock promoter, and fat cops.
As for what's '90s about the new now generation...very little, except for the troupe's remarkable lack of power in the face of Farina's father figure. This is tough love for the '90s, folks, where a stern disciplinarian "rehabilitates" alienated youth. Danes's wounded bird, for one, finds redemption by literally going undercover--that is, between the sheets--with an ex-boyfriend-cum-pimp in order to expose his part in the crime ring. You've come a long way, baby. Meanwhile, she and Ribisi's rich kid strike up an asexual romantic relationship ("Just hold me" apparently being the come-on line for the chaste '90s), leaving Epps's rebel a tired third wheel. Had Mod's makers really been rad, they might have paired the blonde and the boy from the hood. (After all, in real life, Peggy Lipton's mod career led into a marriage with Quincy Jones.) And had they possessed any interest in L.A. youth culture, they might have acknowledged its queer component. In other words, there's no counter in this culture.
Unless that's the counter at the mall, of course, where product pushers like Levi's plan to cash in on the squad's bods. Indeed, this movie is the centerpiece in Levi's bid to revamp the company's fading image and "recapture" the youth market (an advertising strategy that includes sponsoring Lauryn Hill's current tour and was recently described at length in the New York Times Magazine). Ultimately, the movie provides a textbook lesson in what Baffler editor Tom Frank calls "the conquest of cool"--the advertising of name brands as emblems of rebellion, thereby channeling alienation into consumption. In other words, The Mod Squad strips its vulnerable kids of guns, badges, and supportive peers, and arms them instead with attitude and stylin' threads.
In this badly executed case, though, the viewer can tell who's pulling the strings. Although some eager preteens eyed the drama for fashion tips in the '70s, more savvy youth pegged the series as the commercial fantasy of middle-aged moguls and past-their-prime TV viewers. As for the youth of today: I know that at least one cynical teen audience laughed for a good 90 minutes at the retooled Mod Squad. At, not with.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.