When I read the obituaries for Edward Woodward last week, my mind went back to an essay I wrote in 1986 about The Equalizer, the stylish TV series in which he starred a quarter-century ago. This piece, which appeared in National Review, was one of the first things I wrote for a magazine that I really liked, and I’ve no idea why I didn’t include it in the Teachout Reader.
I especially like this part:
Over a churning electronic soundtrack, we see a jerkily edited sequence of New York nightmares. A young woman unsuccessfully attempts to board a subway car at Columbus Circle and a punk slithers out from behind a column as the train pulls away. A man pounds frantically on the door of a telephone booth as a big black car screeches toward him. One stark image bears down savagely upon the next. All at once the soothing image of a man in deep shadow fills the screen. He is The Equalizer, the Nietzschean superman come to make safe the mean streets of the Big Apple….
The dream of the Übermensch as urban savior has always gone over big in America. Superman fantasies can be easily found in the hard-boiled detective novel, many of our movies, and most of our comic books. But television, from Dragnet to Hill Street Blues, has generally preferred to let duly appointed authorities clean up the streets. It’s all right to be a maverick, a cop with an independent streak, but a current institutional affiliation in reasonably good standing is almost always a must. Shows that posit the helplessness of the police in the face of urban crime have never been popular on American television, which prefers to reassure rather than frighten. So it is intriguing that each episode of The Equalizer should enact the desperate notion that the center cannot hold without the occasional benign intervention of a fearless vigilante….
The show is clearly aimed at a sophisticated audience of baby-boomers, and the assumption that this audience would appreciate so straight-forwardly moralistic a denouement is a telling one. The baby-boomers, despite their notoriously touchy consciences, are still looking for simple answers to complex questions, and commercial television has long been in the business of supplying them. The Equalizer caters gracefully to subway-riding boomers who wonder nervously when their turn to be mugged will come up. Nothing stimulates the desire for order quite like advancing age.
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The opening title sequence to The Equalizer. The music is by Stewart Copeland: