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Category:    Home > Reviews > Action > Crime > Mystery > Spy > Espionage > Drama > Cold War > TV > The Equalizer: The Complete Series - Limited Edition (1985 - 1989/Universal/VEI DVD Box Set)

The Equalizer: The Complete Series - Limited Edition (1985 - 1989/Universal/VEI DVD Box Set)

Picture: C+ Sound: C+ Extras: B Episodes: B

Television in the 1980s saw a serious decline in quality and most of the shows greenlit were boring or a joke, especially later in the decade and it took a long time to TV to recover as it has. CBS put a new show on their schedule in Fall 1985 with an odd premise that no one knew how to read at first. A mysterious man places ads to contact him if you need help and are in trouble with nowhere else to turn. Was it a religious, feel-good show? Was it a comedy? Was it just a gimmicky joke? It sounded like the networks were greenlighting any idea just to waste the viewers' time, but something else was going on. How would the person placing the ad deliver said services?

Then comes the title, The Equalizer. Was this a joke too, the name of a component for hi-fi systems? Then there was this British man, an extremely well-spoken, smart, confident, well-dressed man played by an actor few in the U.S. had heard of, but big fans of British film, and TV knew: the mighty Edward Woodward. Surfacing in important historical and crime drama feature films, his biggest hit TV show had never reached the U.S., but Callan (reviewed elsewhere on this site) had him as a deadly, old school hitman pulling off the most dangerous secret missions while still fighting with his bosses. One of the great spy shows of all time, it only made it to home video in the U.S. a few years ago, and only the later full color episodes at that.

Writer/Producer Michael Sloan was a big fan and knew how great Woodward was, so he decided to create a new kind of show that had the odd premise, but was secretly a spy show about old, unfinished business (even taking off from the lost agent theme of the British hit Man In A Suitcase (one of the only British TV shows ever to make U.S. prime time TV, also reviewed on this site) about an agent who had run afoul of the CIA and was traveling Europe redeeming his past while battling evil. His name was McGill.

Now finally arriving with its full; 4-year run in one amazing DVD set, The Equalizer: The Complete Series - Limited Edition (1985 - 1989) includes the second, third and fourth season never issued in North America before and a ton of extras doing justice to what turned out to be the last great Cold War era spy series. Woodward is McCall, the man you call when the odds are against you and he fixes things, doing this to make up for the ugly things that happened in his spy past and in part, his failures to be a full time father to his artistic, smart, good son Scott (highly underrated work by William Zabka). However, the Cold War is not over, ugly new enemies are showing up in New York City (et al, prophetically as it turned out) and he gets many a visit from his old contact only known as Control (Robert Lansing) who he has civilized conversation with half the time... and gets into intense fights and shouting matches with the rest of the time.

Driving around in his U.S. 4-door Jaguar XJ-6 S2, McCall is as bookwise as he is streetwise, does not care what he has to do to finish a mission and is the threat hardly anyone suspects. Woodward gets to pick up where Callan left off in a way that that series never seemed to have the proper closure (even after a 1974 theatrical film and later reunion TV movie, the latter of which was late in the game) so there was much left to say, show and do. Best of all was having a man with his superior command of English giving high class speeches about how these people were scum and made him feel dirty, that he had to lower himself to their lowest level, all while beating them up, slamming them and yelling speeches at them in the process. McCall was more than original in this respect, dealing with the nihilism that had just surfaced in 1980s America and a pre-revived New York City. The show holds up well, especially in its first two seasons, where most of the shows defy their age, especially in the Cold War storylines, because the show's action was not always about Cold War spying at all and then, it was also a character examination of the people, the world and the man himself asking dark questions TV rarely does on either side of the Atlantic.

Season One immediately established McCall as a no-nonsense force who was not going to tolerate any kind of rot, corruption or foolishness. As an assistant when needed, he hires Mickey Kostmayer (Keith Szarabajka) when tactical activities get tougher than expected, as well as turning to Mark Margolis as Jimmy and Sal Rubinek as Jason when needed. Jerry Stiller turns up in the pilot involving advanced blackmail. A Triad/Chinatown gang thinks they kidnapped the son of a wealthy Chinese couple, but grab the maid's son instead. McCall intervenes as the script deals well with class division. Melissa Leo shows up in a show about a Soviet defector, while Adam Ant (not in the episode enough) plays a seductive pimp who kidnaps the daughter of a tourist couple (J.T Walsh is the father) in an early darker show and Karen Young (The Sopranos, Heat, Hoffa, 9 1/2 Weeks, Birdy) in Lady Cop has to deal with three corrupt male cops, so you-know-who gets involved in another classic show.

No one was laughing and the show was a much-needed hit for CBS, Woodward became a star all over again and the show was on a roll, including actors who were known or about to become big names in almost every episode. The lack of quality TV drama by this time only helped the show and the show never sold out its dark side when most everything else on 1980s TV did. Yes, there are odd moments, like McCall sounding more like De Niro in Taxi Driver or some of the triumphant moments that contrast oddly with the rest of the show, but the show had guts and would try things most shows would not. That ambition also helps it hold up today.

Linda Thorson (The Avengers) shows up (again, not long enough) as a deadly operative in No Conscience, though not as Tara King, of course. We also get shows where the interests of the Company lands up crossing into McCall's client's serious troubles, which always makes for great conflicts throughout the show. Austin Pendleton shows up in too few episodes as Jonah. The great journeyman director Russ Mayberry, who sadly just passed away not long ago, helmed some of the strongest shows in the series and they stand up with his remarkable best career work. Alan Metzger (who also lensed some shows), Donald Petrie, Richard Compton, Ron Holcomb, Michael O'Herlihy, Paul Krasny and Gordon Hessler were among the other solid directors helming various episodes.

By Season Three, Woodward was having unexpected health issues so to get real life treatment (as I've noted before), the makers, Universal, CBS and Woodward had to allow his character to be kidnapped (Robert Mitchum was hired to play an old friend who could help out in what also looked like a potential spin-off idea that never happened) and Richard Jordan (Logan's Run) became an assistant who was once a killer hired to kill McCall. At the same time, the scripts were running into the trouble of the weekly TV grind, especially in the days when an hour-long season was over 22 episodes, so that threw its momentum off. As noted before as well, I enjoyed the opening two-parter where a priest played by Telly Savalas was being tormented by a terrorist played by William Atherton (Die Hard) and we get a Christmas episode about a child with AIDS being threatened that is more in line with how daring the show could be. However, Woodward was getting tired as indicated by his not yelling enough at enough people. We see some other familiar faces including a young boys who gets kidnapped played by a then unknown Macaulay Culkin, whose name is only in the end credits. There are three two-parters altogether, Tobe Hooper directs the No Place Like Home episode and the writers try to deal with more of McCall's secret past, but the developments here start to strain credibility

By the final season of Season Four, as noted, it was obvious that Woodward was no longer in the total health to do the role and the writing was sadly becoming thin despite adding new talent behind the scenes with those already making the show. At least the final episodes here have some watchable moments and the show ended with its dignity in tact. Unknown to anyone at the time, the Cold War would end one year after the show, with ironic timing at that. In the end, Woodward became a permanent part of U.S. pop culture and the show at least a minor classic of its genre.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that only serious Academy Award-winning actors (Russell Crowe was first considered before Denzel Washington signed on in the new, varied remake) were in the running to just begin to step into Woodward's shoes. He was that great and the proof is across all 30 DVDs in this set including all 88 episodes of the show.

The 1.33 X 1 image on the episodes are different than the U.S. Universal Home Video Season One DVD set or the four Umbrella Entertainment DVD sets for all four seasons offering darker, even redder transfer with less depth and detail than the Australian sets in particular, but not as watery as any of those releases. I favor the early Australian seasons, but consider the differences at a draw, as some VEI transfers are better and less red than others. The show was shot well on 35mm film and that one reason it holds up as well as it does, along with Moonlighting, St. Elsewhere, early Hart To Hart and early Dynasty seasons as among the best-shot U.S. TV shows of the 1980s. This one happens to be the darkest, so DVD can only capture the range of black and darkness so well, while color range is still not bad.

The lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono on all shows is not as distorted as it can get on the Australian sets, but not always as clear as the U.S. Universal Home Video Season One DVD set, falling in between the two. The sound needs a little work (wish we had isolated music tracks for Stewart Copeland's music) and VEI added a disclaimer about the limits of the video masters used for the set. Possibly one of the last filmed TV shows not finished on NTSC standard definition video, HD upgrades are needed for all the shows, but a DVD version would only show limited improvements versus the likes of Blu-ray in this case.

Extras in this excellent box packaging with a solid flip top includes a well-illustrated booklet on the series including informative text, a classic audio commentary track by co-creator Michael Sloan on the pilot episode, stills section, a great new Making Of featurette called The Story Of The Equalizer, Woodward's last professional work in a feature film called A Congregation Of Ghosts and an amazing bonus in CI5: The New Professionals: The Complete Series, making its North American home video debut before its big hit predecessor The Professionals (now out on Blu-ray in the U.K.!) does. Woodward was the head of the new team of the troubleshooting group, but the show was very mixed and failed to catch on despite his presence. It is still worth a look just for him in it.

So as they did for the underrated In Search Of.. speculative TV series with Leonard Nimoy (also reviewed elsewhere on this site), VEI has again delivered a top rate box set that all serious collectors should have. The Equalizer is not just a cult show, but was a legitimate hit series worth your time all over again.

- Nicholas Sheffo


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