Bud CortMary WoronovJohn VernonBrenda Strong
Sledge Hammer!
Medium: TV, series
Year: 1986-87
Creator: Alan Spencer
Actor: David Rasche, Anne-Marie Martin, Harrison Page, Leslie Morris, Patti Tippo, Kurt Paul, Diane Sainte-Marie, Adam Ant, Lewis Arquette, Bill Bixby, Bud Cort, Bill Dana, John Densmore, Norman Fell, Conchata Ferrell, Dennis Fimple, Sid Haig, Evan Handratthy, Mark Holton, Clint Howard, Brion James, Davy Jones, Bernie Kopell, Dan Lauria, Robin Leach, David Leisure, Peter Marshall, Richard Moll, Armin Shimerman, Don Stark, Brenda Strong, John Vernon, Ray Walston, Patrick Wayne, Duane Whitaker, Mary Woronov
Keywords: comedy, action, favourite, detective
Country: USA
Format: 2 seasons, 41 half-hour episodes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090525/
Website category: Comedy
Review date: 2 June 2009
Dirty Harry is one of the great American pop culture icons, but I'm tempted to say that he's less important than the parodies and satires that he inspired. There's Judge Dredd and through him RoboCop, then on the other hand there's also Sledge Hammer. I love this show. The most surprising people turned out to be fans of it. Some of its humour reminds me of Moonlighting, except that if anything for me it's lasted better.
For those who don't know, this show's premise was that Sledge Hammer is Dirty Harry, but exaggerated in every possible way and played for laughs. Sledge destroys something in most of his scenes. He believes that shooting people is the answer to all problems, including a lack of groceries, and he's in a nearly romantic relationship with his gun. Sexism, brutality and toddler-like stupidity are his good points. His boss, Captain Trunk, only occasionally lowers his voice to a shout and has blood pressure so high that it can protect him against experimental military bio-warfare.
In other words, Sledge Hammer on form is pretty much the funniest thing on the planet. When it comes to idiot comedy policemen, really and truly I'd put him up there with Inspector Clouseau. Obviously Peter Sellers was a better comic actor than, well, almost anyone ever born, but Sledge Hammer is the richer character.
What makes him even weirder is being on network television. A proper Dirty Harry parody would be full of corpses, nudity and bad language, which Alan Spencer had wanted when he originally pitched the series to HBO. However it ended up on ABC and so had to be family-friendly, which meant Hammer couldn't swear or shoot anyone and the show became even more ridiculous than it already was. You'll have all these silly climactic showdowns in which Sledge will defeat the bad guys by knocking them into cardboard boxes or something, while another problem is the lack of nudity. Episodes like Model Dearest needed to be sleazier. However on the upside, I like the fact that Sledge can't swear. There's nothing creative about dropping a load of F-bombs, whereas Sledge's insults are surreal. Usually they're merely a bit off-putting ("yoghurt-sucking creeps", etc.), but occasionally the writers stumble across something inspired. My favourite is "doughnut hole".
Besides, I like the fact that children can watch this show.
All that said, Sledge Hammer would have also lost something if we'd seen him killing people. The most miraculous thing of all is that David Rasche takes this sadistic, pathologically insensitive brute and makes him charming. He's like a big kid. He genuinely wants to help people and stop criminals, while his relationships with Doreau and Trunk could be compared to those of a child with its parents. His emotional development and self-control are on a par with a four-year-old's, although his attitudes and worldview might suggest pushing up his mental age as high as six or seven. I'm a huge fan of what David Rasche does in this role. He's making this fascist lovable while doing a surprisingly specific Clint Eastwood parody, but at the same time he's capable of playing it outrageously broad in lots of different directions without losing the character's reality.
It's the role of a lifetime, basically. Rasche will never stop being known as Sledge Hammer, in a manner more often seen with roles like James Bond or Doctor Who.
Sledge's partner, Dori Doreau, was played by Anne-Marie Martin. She married Michael Crichton in 1987 and retired from acting after the show finished, but oddly enough she also wrote the 1996 movie Twister. I don't adore Martin's performance the way I do Rasche's, but she's the show's indispensible straight man and doing solid work in the role. Doreau's our moral compass. She's clever, beautiful, compassionate and all these other things that Sledge isn't, but she also sees the good in him and will even defend him against his enemies, i.e. everyone.
Then there's Harrison Page's Captain Trunk, which in some ways I find an even more impressive performance than Rasche's. Trunk's a one-note character. He's Sledge's boss. He's angry. That's it. Nevertheless Page keeps finding new angles on his role and new ways of blowing his top at Rasche, with a lot of improvisation in their scenes together. He was nominated for a Leading Actor Emmy for Quantum Leap, you know.
Other folks include the coroner, Norman Blates, played by an Anthony Perkins lookalike who'd done stunt work in Psycho II and III before taking on the role propertly in Bates Motel (1987). He's my favourite screen coroner. John Vernon is the mayor in the pilot, having played the same role in Dirty Harry. Oh, and Danny Elfman did the theme music.
The heart of it all though is Alan Spencer, the show's creator. Sledge Hammer is clearly a young man's show. Spencer was 16 when he dreamed it up and I think 25 when showrunning it. The on-screen results are the kind of comic free-for-all that you'd never get from a more seasoned writer who knows to ration out his ideas more sensibly. This show has an astonishing breadth of gags. It's packed full of physical comedy and sight gags, the richness of which would in themselves have been enough to make the show memorable. Amazing ideas will appear as three-second throwaways. You'll get Hitchcock parodies and RoboCop take-offs, yet also sincere homages to people like Elvis and Bela Lugosi. You'll get fourth wall gags, with potshots being taken at other TV shows and even making reference to Sledge Hammer itself.
This is a show with a clear voice. Admittedly it's the voice of a teenager with lots of puerile stupid non-jokes alongside the good stuff, but it's completely fearless and you'll never mistake it for anything else. Take their jab at colourised black-and-white films, for instance. A number of TV stations didn't screen the warning caption setting up the gag, after which they were flooded with viewers asking what had gone wrong with their televisions. "Why can't you make a normal show?" is how they later complained to Alan Spencer.
Similarly the acting can range from near-realism to ludicrous mugging along the lines of Little Shop of Horrors. Sometimes an actor goes too far even for this show (e.g. Sledge's landlady), but for the most part pretty much anything can be accommodated. This is a world where suitcases can fall out of the sky hours after the plane crashed and exploded, for the sake of a throwaway visual joke about your luggage always arriving after you.
Noteworthy episodes include the pilot, in which Sledge kills people even if we don't see them die and has bits that people remember like the "I (heart) VIOLENCE" bumper sticker. There's an extended version of the pilot on the DVD, although it doesn't restore all of the hour-long original. 'The Spa Who Loved Me' is the season one finale and has Sledge trying to defuse a nuclear bomb. Whoops. Season two is set five years earlier. 'They call me Mr Trunk' is a great Harrison Page episode with some juicy invective even by his standards, although counter-intuitively I'm convinced I heard him use "TARDIS-brain" as an insult. 'It Happened What Night?' is the penultimate episode and teases us with Sledge and Doreau seeming to have got drunk and slept together, after which 'Here's To You, Mrs Hammer' stars Sledge's ex-wife, played by the real wife of David Rashe.
By the way, there are occasional hints at possible romance between Sledge and Doreau in season two. Of course Sledge regards marriage and women as being on a par with the Black Death, but it's still fun to watch Doreau trying to do the impossible and soften him.
The show sold very well abroad. The visual comedy, the wild spread of gags and of course Sledge himself are all elements that will translate. The broad silliness means that no one could take offence at it. It's not the kind of show you marathon, being one-off comedy episodes with no attempt at an ongoing story, but I still remember how delighted I was when I found the DVDs had been released. Its wildness doesn't always work, of course. Personally I'd say it topples too far into stupidity about 10% of the time, but that doesn't stop me loving the show and the characters. "Trust me. I know what I'm doing."