Friday, December 17, 2010

EXTRA: Where’s my M Squad?

I guess if I have a Christmas holiday wish, it is for someone to get me a DVD set of all the episodes of “M Squad.”

That’s the late-1950s television drama starring the late Lee Marvin as a Chicago police detective with an elite unit whose members were capable of handling just about any kind of crime.

THAT SHOW HAD become a staple in recent months of the evening lineup on the MeTV channels in Chicago. But in recent days, I have noticed that the show has been removed. As I write this, I should be seeing yet another episode where Det. Frank Ballinger takes on some of the scummiest people of Chicago’s seedy underside (one of my personal favorites was one where Ballinger investigated a ring of people who were counterfeiting pop music records).

Instead, I’m seeing Jimmie Walker and the rest of the gang from “Good Times” (although not my favorite, John Amos’ portrayal of father "James Evans, Sr."). Which as far as I’m concerned is a let-down.

Now I understand these stations that rely on re-runs have to juggle their programming schedules about periodically to avoid becoming stale. I only wish that the “M Squad” broadcast (which some people claim was the original inspiration of Leslie Nielsen’s “Frank Drebin” in Police Squad! and the “The Naked Gun” films) could have somehow been retained – even in a crummier time slot.

The show had become one of my guilty pleasures, in part because I used to get a kick out of recognizing the parts of Chicago that were used in the television show. The Wrigley Building still retains its glamour.

BUT IT USED to amaze me when I’d see some locale as it existed some five decades ago, and compare it in my mind to how it exists today. Some places in Chicago have experienced radical change, while others might as well be the same.

There also were the “stars” who made their appearances on the television show that made a celebrity out of Marvin, building up the credits before they had their own hit roles.

Leonard Nimoy as a conniving arsonist whose truly heartless reaction to learning a security guard had burned to death in one of his incidents? Quite illogical. And I would expect the future Mr. Spock would treat him to that Vulcan grip, unlike the harsh beating that Marvin’s “Ballinger” ultimately gave him.

Angie Dickinson, Burt Reynolds and Don Rickles were just a few of the other guest stars to appear on the show throughout the years.

NOW I UNDERSTAND this particular show was a large part of the reason why the elder Mayor Daley (as in Richard J.) hated the entertainment industry. Marvin’s “Ballinger” in many ways was a thug with a badge.

One was never sure if the episode would end with Ballinger arresting the suspect, or killing him. 1880s-era Dodge City might as well have existed in 1950s Chicago, if “M Squad” was to be believed. Although sometimes I wonder if those “Untouchables” episodes from that same era (which theoretically have a basis in 1920s Chicago history) are even more ridiculous. Nobody ever claimed there was a real-life Frank Ballinger the way there really was once an Eliot Ness working in Chicago.

So now I’m going to have to go through withdrawal. I can’t count on seeing an episode every night. I won’t even be able to hear the theme music, written by Count Basie and played by his orchestra.

I’ll have to settle for 1970s-era echoes of “easy credit rip-offs,” at least until the next round of MeTV re-scheduling.


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