Sledge Hammer! Series Two Review
“Why play war when you can join the police force and kill for fun and profit? And use bullets”.
When the first season of Sledge Hammer had aired stateside in 1986 it gained a huge fan base; the trouble was that despite twenty million plus viewers it generally kept to a cult minimum. It was critically acclaimed for its daring approach and offbeat humour but as time went on it became relegated to several poor time slots and more during a dastardly network fiasco. This move prevented the series from attaining a wider fan base and as a result, creator Alan Spencer devised a brilliant send off for Hammer, convinced that the series was about be canned. However, so strong were the final episode’s ratings and reviews that ABC decided to extend Hammer’s life and move for a second season. How then could Alan Spencer bring back a roster of characters who were destroyed by a nuclear explosion at the hands of Sledge himself? Well he turned the second series into a prequel, setting it five years prior to those shocking events. Of course being Alan Spencer and never one to stick to conventional rules he totally ignored continuity; in turn season two picks up right where the first left off - almost - with Sledge, Doreau and Captain Trunk back together again and handing out their own special kind of justice on the streets.
“Every move you make, every breath you take...I’ll be watching you. That’s police talk”.
Sledge Hammer had already made a name for itself by lampooning several celebrity figures, movies and politics, while providing a firm social satire on the state of the world and predominantly America itself. It also managed to get ahead of the crowd with a lot of its ideas, from which many television shows later borrowed from; though if I recall season two's Star Wars reference was already pre-dated by Moonlighting. Nevertheless in a very true sense Sledge Hammer was pioneering, both in its concept and statements. The second season continues on in the same tradition as the first. Making the second season’s episodes stand out are their titles alone; clearly fond homage’s to classic cinema, along with many quotable lines that seem to run right through; from A Clockwork Hammer, Play it again Sledge (complete with Bogart look-a-like) and Death of a few Salesmen to Vertical, Dressed to Call and The Last of the Red Hot Vampires. With this much of season two’s foundation was set, which admittedly gave it less of an edge than the first had so marvellously exhibited. Season two then began to rely on far too much slapstick and fond movie memories; keeping a social critique it still provided some interesting factors, though unlike the first season it wasn't quite so refined. Despite Bill Bixby’s solid directing for most of the season, Sledge Hammer had grown a little tired in its send-ups and other jokes; mainly because the whole series just feels too repetitive. More frustratingly is that many of them still do work, but it’s evident that by now it was trying just too hard. When Sledge Hammer’s movie tributes work they do so very well; Sledge’s brilliantly awful undercover ruse as “Crocodile Ralph” in the episode Death of a few Salesmen is a real character highlight, as his is excellent stint during the Hitchcock inspired Vertical; where Sledge must deal with a new found fear of heights, with one scene in particular showing Sledge suffering from his vertigo after looking down at an aerial photograph of a mountain. But other episodes in the series fail to engage on any greater level. The Robocop inspired Hammeroid is largely a failure, delivering a string of flat and almost embarrassing gags that sees Sledge being cybernetically enhanced after an accident. It’s interesting to note then that this episode is a particular fan favourite and one of David Rasche’s all time faves too; but its only saving grace is a superb sight gag that features Sledge taking on a dismembered cybernetic arm, for which Rasche fondly remembers. Still it is worth noting that Spencer was just fifteen years of age when he started to write and produce the series; an absoloutely stunning achievement, and in all fairness it seems natural that a few far more immature or less worthy gags would seep through from time to time. With that said, Spencer never had all of the credit as episode writer; as a result of this some of his other writers were prone to getting a little over excited it would seem for some of the other non-penned Spencer episodes. Episodes by Spencer himself fare well, notably Last of the Red Hot Vampires which is actually a decent little mystery thriller, with some good gags chucked in.
Getting back then to its commentaries Sledge Hammer succeeds in the area it became better associated with. Several times throughout season two we have Alan Spencer taking pot shots at the entertainment industry and various public systems; covering both film and music equally, with even the toy industry getting a little ribbing. Spencer has since voiced his distaste for network television and how it isn’t so glamorous behind the scenes. At the time Sledge Hammer was airing the young Spencer managed to churn out some very valid criticisms; amazing then that he actually got away with it, but no more surprising when he quite brilliantly kept much of it under the surface. Saying that there are one or two moments that are blatantly in your face, such as the opening episode A Clockwork Hammer where Sledge learns of a TV network’s plot to turn its viewers into mindless automatons; again providing the basis for what many other TV series and movies would later try to tackle. At the same time other notable television series were appearing on air that dared to be a little more challenging. One of the finer examples was Moonlighting and although season two takes no less than two digs at that particular series it seems that Spencer respects the show, but is informing us of how a series like Sledge Hammer, which is equally as unique had been treated with far less respect by the networks. In Sledge, Rattle and Roll the music industry gets a taste of Alan Spencer’s poison. The Monkees legend, Davey Jones guest stars to play a “slime ball” (as Sledge would so eloquently put it) producer who is suspected of murder when his rock band are killed; naturally you can expect to find all kinds of piss taking going on, which is usually attributed to the heavy 80’s rock scene at the time, where in this instance many bands seemed to have quasi Australian English accents; American production + British stereotype = surprise surprise.
Far be it from Spencer to stop there. The second season also features many, much smaller gags that are more fun because of their ambiguity or otherwise. Big Nazi on Campus‘s biggest laugh comes not from any single line uttered or action taken, but a sign outside of a school that says “Generic University, where education is a bargain”. This is where season two hits its marks, with its observational quality. But equally as effective is when the series just becomes too absurd for words. Sledge Hammer works better when it’s playing on surreal ideas; it’s just a shame then that Spencer never exploited this side as much as he could of, in favour of many cheaper gags. Some moments throughout the season are pure genius, with a good example coming from the episode Wild about Hammer. For some totally unexplained reason the obligatory end tag is set up with an unusual disclaimer: “The following tag was shot in black and white, then artificially decoloured. We promise you will not be able to see the difference”. What follows is the entire tag degenerating into a psychedelic mess, turning from colour to black and white, then going from polarized to inverted. Indeed it caused concern for a network who couldn’t understand why Spencer had just decided to roll with such a gag; it was simply because he could. But it needn’t matter, it’s one of those rare pleasures we’re rarely afforded with these days and brilliantly makes an example of the likes of Ted Turner and his evil colourised butchering of the black and white classics.
“Stealing purses from little old ladies ought to get you the chair”!
Although season two is notably weaker than the first, having simply kept with the same formula for most of its run there are new steps taken. Detective Hammer has always been the same; he’s always slept with his gun, he’s always been ultra sexist and in many ways that is what fans love about him. The difference now is that his relationship with Doreau is a much more important focal point. In the past Sledge has been beyond reproach and Doreau has always been there to try and keep him on the straight and narrow. As the series approaches its end Sledge is faced with a few personal truths. Obviously Sledge is fond of Doreau, he just doesn’t know how to express himself properly; his idea of a compliment to Doreau is simply by saying “You’re losing more and more of your femininity everyday”, to which she can only reply with a simple "thanks, Sledge". Several times during the series his feelings are challenged; an episode in particular being Icebreaker, featuring guest star Adam Ant. When he sees Doreau becoming attracted to a British agent he tries to look out for her in his own unique way. From here the two of them will become closer as events move on. It’s not until the final two episodes that Hammer finally comes to some sense; having gone through a mid-life crisis of sorts and decides to project his feelings upon Doreau, which is something that was a bigger no no during season one. Being a traditionalist, Spencer refuses to go out on a tangible note by finishing the series with an equally climactic scene as he did with the previous season, where answers are not provided. A wise choice? Perhaps. Had Sledge Hammer gone on to a third season one wonders how it might have worked; can Sledge and Doreau be a romantic couple? In Spencer’s mind maybe they are, to others it may have killed the series anyway. It’s questionable when a character loved so much for his unflinching penchant for death and destruction should become a bit of a softie in the end. It could be deemed as a sign for growth, that his attitude was a cover up for his insecurities over past relationships; in particular his ex-wife (and Rasche’s real life partner, Heather Lupton) who is mentioned many a time and even makes an appearance in the final episode Here’s to you, Mrs. Hammer. However Sledge has been this way ever since childhood, which was part of the reason why his wife left him. Whatever the reason these turns of events do illustrate some positive changes for Sledge, which some viewers may have been crying out for.
Of course Sledge Hammer might be nothing if not for David Rasche, in perhaps his most defining role as the world’s craziest law-enforcer, whose motto “Make war, not love“ pretty much sums him up. Rasche rarely deviates from his portrayal in the first season which is just as well; he cemented himself as a TV icon. Without a doubt the character of Sledge Hammer was - to use an overstated remark - ahead of his time, and his kind don’t often frequent television these days. Rasche is 100% committed and believable in his role as the eponymous Sledge, who has the unusual habit of talking to his gun and degrading women. Ordinarily it would be too far fetched to even consider buying into, but Rasche’s conviction in the role sells it straight off, and what makes it work even better is that his character is most definetly going through a crisis, which almost justifies his actions. Anne-Marie Martin and Harrison Page provide Rasche with ample back up again, though this time round Page gets little in the way of character development like he did during the first season, when we got to see a little of his home life. Page is simply used for the same devices in each episode; being the poor chief who is lumbered with a psycho detective at whom he shouts at a lot and almost causes himself cardiac arrests. Page is very good in his role but it’s a shame that there’s no extension to his character here. Anne-Marie Martin fares a lot better. Most of season two requires her to go through similar acts as the first, but as the season progresses and nears its end she is dealt some new cards, which manage to add a little more depth to her character when she must explore her feelings for Sledge. When the three of them are together on screen the chemistry is electric and the gags fly fast; and with that kind of dedication to the roles in order to make them work you can be sure that season two of Sledge Hammer still comes away with a lot of plus points.
Norman: “If I wasn’t a coroner, I’d be sick”.
Sledge: “Norman, being a coroner already means you’re sick”.
Season two (dubbed here as Series Two) is presented in the now common booklet style case; four plastic pages each holding a disc, much like several other recent Anchor Bay titles and the older Alien Quadrilogy set. This is housed in a card slip cover and also comes with a confidential report-style case file; detailing production of both series. The discs themselves are attractively designed, each owing themselves to a particular film spoof.
The years have not been kind to Sledge Hammer. The first season was shot on 35mm and then transferred to 16mm. It was released on DVD as best as possible, but poor masters were used as the originals could not be acquired. In addition Alan Spencer and the gang over at Anchor Bay painstakingly had to restore it for its DVD debut, from tapes I believe. Season two is about on par, with the difference being that due to a budget constraint it was shot on 16mm from the get go. Of late we’ve seen some remarkably good looking 80’s shows on DVD and sadly Sledge Hammer falls into the category as being one of the worst. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio it’s adequate at best, exhibiting inherent problems as well as some poor DVD authoring. Much like the first season we have a fairly soft image all round, which has had some Edge Enhancement applied to it, not to mention some pretty ugly halos that seem to be a result from old tape sources. Flesh tones are decent and most of the colour throughout is good, if not a little washed out at times. There is noticeable cross colourisation and aliasing, which doesn’t help matters any, along with evident compression artefacts that marred the previous season. With that said it’s very likely that this is the best we’ll ever see the series; a shame that Anchor Bay couldn’t have ironed out the DVD faults at the very least. Lastly it shouldn’t come as any shock to learn that these discs are NTSC to PAL conversions.
For sound things fare a little better; I believe Anchor Bay didn’t have the same difficulties in restoring the original track as they did with season one. The series sounds as good as can be expected then, with dialogue clear but requiring the volume be turned up a little high, despite the strong sounding opening sequence. A few little ambient effects make it through from time to time but there's nothing to get overly excited about.
Season two is also accompanied by optional English subtitles, which read fine aside from the occasional word omission.
“Oh give it up, Tina. There’s no way you can win. I’m a man and you’re nothing but a soft, silly woman”.
Extras - The following features have no subtitles.
Audio Commentaries with Alan Spencer
Gracing this collection are four commentaries by creator, Alan Spencer. The first features on the episode Wild About Hammer, with Spencer starting off by mentioning how popular his previous commentaries were and how many people said that he talked too fast. This is his way of giving us value for money; not only does he manage to talk quickly and never pause for thought, his info is also very interesting. With this episode he explains a little reasoning behind the network television jabs, along with insights into how he tried to come up with strange things throughout the series, such as the sushi hotdogs. He reflects upon making the series and having to work with a considerably small budget, which meant that stunts were rare and cash had to be saved as much as possible. The second track features on Last of the Red Hot Vampires.This is Spencer’s personal favourite episode, for many reasons. Firstly it was his way of addressing how disrespectful Hollywood had become toward its ageing actors, which is clearly personal to him. He keeps this up for a short while before talking about the supporting actors involved and Bill Bixby’s directing. Spencer holds Bixby in very high regard; this isn’t the first or last time you’ll hear him mention the late actor/director’s name on a commentary, but it’s nice that he comes through as genuinely affected by his passing; when he praises his work and everyone else you’ll believe his sincerity. The real highlight of this track is when Spencer gets into Mr. Belvedere bashing mode - his most loathed TV series of all time. He ends up telling an amusing story about when the producer of that show approached him and, oh I won’t spoil it. For disc 3’s Ice Breaker commentary Alan Spencer is joined by Anne-Marie Martin. Martin starts off a little slow, making some farty noises, to which Spencer comments on but eventually he gets her talking. This is the least insightful track of the set, but still plenty of fun to listen to the pair entertain each other. The final commentary is for the final episode ever, Here’s to you Mrs. Hammer. Spencer gets a little serious this time around and evidently truly misses working on the series. He talks about how he knew the series would not be renewed this time and that if Sledge was going out then he might as well grow as a character. He then elaborates on writing the “controversial” material and showing it to David Rasche, who just went along with it. He of course praises Rasche to no end and he has every right to do so, just as he does with Martin and Page. Fans have always wanted to know what happened between Sledge and Doreau, and Spencer promised he’d tell us during this commentary; but would you believe it another earthquake (staged) strikes and the recording studio can be heard toppling over. Thus Spencer’s commentary culminates in tragedy.
Gun Crazy: Memorable Moments with the cast of “Sledge Hammer!” (13.36)
This newly recorded set of interviews features David Rasche, Anne-Marie Martin and Harrison Page fondly reminisce over their favourite moments in the series. It’s a nice inclusion, although it bears striking resemblance to the season one featurette, which includes season one episodes being mentioned as equally often than season two ones. Rasche and Martin seem to enjoy talking about the series’ physical aspects, both having particular favourite stunt moments. Page recalls a season one episode as being his fave, naturally because it’s a good character episode, of which he didn’t get too many.
Our Favourite Director: A Tribute to Bill Bixby (5.50)
Alan Spencer and the cast talk about the pressures of entering a second season, but having Bixby express great interest in directing most of the season. There’s an awful lot of respect going out to the man and the contributors here speak greatly of his directing style and how much fun he was on set. Spencer misses him a great deal as we can see and he and the participants offer some very sincere comments.
Top 10 Questions about “Sledge Hammer!”
Here are the top ten questions that Alan Spencer gets from fans. Each question is accompanied by a videotaped answer. Most of the questions are obvious ones that Spencer has probably heard a thousand times each but he replies whole heartedly and even teases us a little.
Syndication Reel (5.55)
When Sledge Hammer went international, Spencer put out a “greatest hits” reel to promote the series. Spencer amusingly tells us that the reason he is putting this on the disc is because video pirates got hold of it and he “wanted to screw them”. This provides a solid collection of classic moments from both seasons, narrated by some obsessed mystery figure.
Here you’ll find some brief but informative biographies for David Rasche, Ann-Marie Martin and Harrison Page.
Network Answering Machine Message (0.56)
The episode Wild About Hammer featured a tag sequence that despite issuing a warning “not to adjust your television sets“, still caused controversy when viewers phoned up and complained of a faulty picture. This is the answering machine message left for those calling.
Four TV spots are included which are in order “Premiere TV Spot”, “Regular Timeslot TV Spot”, “Triumphant Return TV Spot” and “Christmas TV Spot”; these are accompanied by notes which inform of the series’ continual time slot shifts. The latter is w specially recorded Christmas message, which isn’t very amusing but probably would have been had the network not pulled the original which featured Sledge shooting an ornament.
Still and Memorabilia Gallery
There are 47 images here that range from promo shots/stills to articles, clippings and even fan made toys by the looks of it.
This features 20 questions about the series. Get all of them right and you’ll be treated to a short collection of clips. There’s no chance that you can even lose, because you can guess as many times as you need to before moving on to the next question. A bit pointless really and not worth sitting through.
Want to know exactly what gags didn’t make it to the screen? Insert this DVD into your PC and you’ll be treated to scripts for Last of the Red Hot Vampires and Wild About Hammer, both in PDF format.
Season two of Sledge Hammer is a fine send off for our hero, even if it lacks the kick that the first season had. Watching the series again generates just as much fondness as it did all those years back, but it also highlights some obvious problems. Although it does have some laugh out loud dialogue it is often stinted by equally flat gags that simply run on for longer than they need to be. Still Sledge Hammer is a prime example of no holds barred TV, at a time when having full control over a series wasn’t all that common. Alan Spencer pulled off a tremendous feat in the 80’s and today Sledge is still loved by millions. There have been talks for a number of years about a possible revival in the form of a movie; with the original cast eager to reprise their roles. Alan Spencer hasn't written it off just yet and with a bit of luck we just might see it happen. Good luck Mr. Spencer, the fans wait eagerly for Sledge's return.