Monday, August 1, 2011

Smooth Operator

So one of the things which had me busy recently was this:

Yeah, in a moment of abject nostalgia for my childhood I got the entire first season of The Equalizer on DVD from my local library.

It's not the first time I've gone all nostalgic. The thing about it is that, quite often, I find that the stuff I enjoyed as a child really doesn't hold up with the passage of time. Shows that I can remember looking forward to watching way back when turn out to be trite, cliche ridden, lacking depth, and/or poorly scripted and acted. and yet, I continue to go back to my past to look at these things again. One might think I was a glutton for punishment.

Ah, but once in a while.... I find the true gold that time does not tarnish. Such is The Equalizer. And I have to admit I was surprised. Yes, I really did go into this expecting that I would be disappointed but from the moment I sat down with the first disc to the time when I popped the last disc from my DVD player I was enchanted.

For those of you not in the know or too young to remember this show "The Equalizer" was actually one Robert McCall (played by British actor Edward Woodward) a former spy for an unidentified espionage agency. It is never really clear what finally caused McCall to give up the spy business but it is strongly hinted that at least one major event and several minor ones convinced him that he was on the wrong path and that he had much to atone for. In his past was a failed marriage and a son from whom he was estranged and now, in his middle years, was attempting to reconnect with.

In an effort to balance the scales of the things he did which he felt were wrong he set himself up as a troubleshooter for those who had nowhere else to go. A sort of 'court of last resort'. McCall used his skills, knowledge, and occasionally even his old agency contacts to see that justice was done -- even if that justice didn't exactly come from a court of law. Independently wealthy (although from what source his income derived is never really stated), McCall often took cases for free or at least a nominal fee or some sort of tit-for-tat deal. McCall took on drug dealers, abusers, crooked businessmen, assassins, gangs, and even other spies just to name a few.

The show ran from 1985 to 1989 and so, like many shows from that era, it features the slick, superficial look of a lot of shows of the 1980's -- expensive, flashy cars, expensive, flashy clothes, good looking men and women, a kicky soundtrack... and no heart. What sets The Equalizer apart from those others shows are three things -- 1) Heart 2) Edward Woodward 3) The character of Robert McCall.

The heart and the character of McCall are actually closely intertwined in the show. While the people who come to McCall for help are often defined only by their problems and are not terribly deep McCall quite often takes their plight to heart. He cares about them very much and it shows and so we as the audience care about them just as much. The writers were quite careful to include a heaping helping of compassion and empathy in the series which sets it apart from other shows of the time period. And related to that McCall's own seemingly bottomless capacity for that compassion makes him a more sensative hero.

Along those lines, the character of McCall himself is a flawed person -- again, something that makes him far more interesting as a hero as the writers cannily play up. He has a failed marriage, he has had lovers in the past that he feels he failed to protect, he's done terrible things in the name of "peace" and he now questions whether some of those things were necessary. He has blood on his hands and like with Lady MacBeth it simply will not come off. He has a son whom he loves but whom, in his devotion to his job, he allowed to slip away and now struggles to reconnect with. He has determined to leave his life of espionage behind and yet it still follows him and occasionally threatens to draw him back. He is also not the typical young hero. He's well into middle age and time has taken it's toll on him. He exhudes a sense of a person who has lived a difficult life and struggles to deal with the fallout from that life. All of this draws the audience into his existence deeply even today. This is the key to why the show still works -- because the core of the character of McCall still works. The audience can still recognize and relate to his flaws because they are problems which exist in all times and eras.

Finally, there is Edward Woodward. A respected and award winning actor, it would have been easy for someone of his calibre to simply "phone in" his performance. With shows like The Equalizer they were often run far more off of their "look" and premise than they were of the actors in them. Woodward could have easily let the trappings of the show carry it along and it probably still would have been a hit for the network. He did not, however. Instead, Woodward put himself into the role fully and as a result he breathed real life into the complex character the writers crafted. Woodward brought charm, charisma and most of all a genuine sense of humor that ranged from sly and snarky to jolly. All of those things still shine through today and this is also what makes the show still eminently watchable today.

Sadly, it appears as though only the first season is available on DVD but if you're a fan of 1980's Cold War intrigue, or a fan of USA Network's series Burn Notice then check out The Equalizer -- you'll find that Burn Notice owes quite a bit to Edward Woodward's Robert McCall.

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