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A 1980s drama inserts a suave British spy into the means streets of Gotham. 

The Equalizer, which ran on CBS from 1985 to 1989, is a show that could probably only exist in the context of the widespread popular fear of street crime in the 1980s. Set and almost entirely filmed in New York City, the program follows the exploits of Robert McCall, excellently played by British actor Edward Woodward. Disillusioned by the world of espionage, McCall quits the organization (never named but likely patterned off the CIA) and becomes a “trouble-shooter,” of sorts, offering his services as a protector of the powerless through a classified newspaper ad.

What can’t be stressed enough when evaluating this show is that McCall is explicitly a vigilante, practicing most of his heroism outside the bounds of the law. While he maintains a prickly-at-best relationship with an NYPD Lieutenant—one which seems to extend from the Equalizer’s spying days—law enforcement in the show is often shown to be ineffectual and overly bureaucratic. For example, in the first episode, the police decline to provide help to a woman who is being stalked, claiming that their hands are essentially tied until he actually commits violence against her. The Equalizer, operating under a far less rigid administrative structure, deals with the situation more effectively. In an episode centered on a girl kidnapped into a prostitution ring, the police refuse to file a missing persons report, and assure the parents—tourists from the Midwest—that she probably was a runaway, entranced by the lights of the big city.

In the context of the 80s, such a portrayal of law enforcement would resonate with most of the viewing public. The show derives much of its believability from New York’s national reputation at the time as a particularly unsafe city, a den of iniquity where danger stalks the law-abiding citizen on a regular basis. The year before the premiere of the show, Bernie Goetz infamously shot four teenagers on a New York subway car, claiming he felt threatened by the youths. The man was hailed as a folk hero by the public and in some of the press, a sharp contrast to the more polarized reaction to George Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense in the Trayvon Martin case.[1]

That messy context aside, The Equalizer does accomplish the misdirection of making the viewer forget, or at least background, the protagonist’s vigilantism. Perhaps this is because McCall has all the markers of a “classy” person:  a nice Jaguar, a seemingly oft-played grand piano in his apartment, and of course, has a British accent, a typical means of telegraphing a character’s worldliness, at least in American television.  Judging from press accounts the writers seemed to be at least somewhat aware of the social implications of the program, and adjusted the character and storylines accordingly.

Another feature that makes The Equalizer fun to watch is simply the variety of cases he takes on, from the stalked woman to a kidnapped child, and even a bullied school kid. That last case (the B storyline to an episode primarily focused around a Soviet embassy double agent) was a nice touch as made the show more believable, showing how the protagonist would handle the kind of problem an average person would call in with. The program does show a bit of a penchant for “women-in-peril” stories, a tendency that can even be noticed in the show’s intro sequence (see above, and example in below clip).

What The Equalizer does manage to accomplish is to take a concept that could have been cartoonish or cheesy—a trench-coated avenger, seeking justice for the common man—and make it intelligent. The characters are well written, and while the show has a clear sense of right and wrong (something that has gone out of fashion in “good” TV today) the villains are not caricatures.

My Take: 3.5 out of 5 stars; sharp writing, nicely paced exposition and action, and relatively non-formulaic plot. Come for the window into the 1980s, stay for the story.

Some final notes on the show: I came across this program through a reference in The Wolf of Wall Street –one of the characters in the film is shown watching the program. A remake of the series into a feature film is planned for later this year, which makes one wonder if the extended reference was an intentional product placement to pique interest in the remake. One of The Equalizer’s executive producers, Joel Surnow, would later go on to co-create 24.

[1] While there are some notable differences between the two incidents—one of the kids Goetz shot later admitted that they were going to rob the man, while Martin was unarmed and simply walking in the neighborhood—the differing reaction is at least in part a function of today’s lower rates of street crime. As with Zimmerman, Goetz was acquitted of the most serious charges stemming from the incident, only going to jail on charges related to possession of the firearm used.

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