Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 17, 2014)
With a big-screen adaptation starring Denzel Washington on the horizon, this becomes a good time to re-examine the 1980s TV series The Equalizer. The show aired for four seasons from 1985 to 1989 and focused on Robert McCall (Edward Woodward), a former intelligence agent.
McCall leaves his old life behind and becomes a champion of the defenseless. Based in New York, he runs a newspaper ad that reads:
“Got a problem? Odds against you? Call the Equalizer.”
The series follows McCall’s adventures as he performs his services. This “Complete Series” boxed set includes all 88 episodes in the order they originally aired. Normally I would watch every program for my review, but with a running time of more than 70 hours, that’s not practical. Instead, I’ll watch four programs per season and discuss my thoughts about them as well as a general opinion about the series.
Pilot: “When he decides that the violence of his secret agent career is consuming his life, McCall, aka The Equalizer, opens a security service out of his Manhattan apartment and takes on his first desperate cases.”
The “Pilot” opens the series in a decent manner. It seems a little broad and silly, but it comes with potential. While I’m not wild about the episode on its own, I think the series could go somewhere.
The Distant Fire: “McCall must team up with his worst enemy in order to save the woman that they both loved in the past.”
Given the lead’s hard-bitten nature, it seems interesting to see him show a more tender side. It becomes a bit tough to swallow the casting choices, though, as McCall’s former love is decades younger than he – and looks it. Still, that gaffe aside, the show delivers a good mix of thrills and character moments.
Bump And Run: “McCall gets a lesson in terror when he protects a young student from a group of angry thugs and tries to find vigilante killer pinning McCall’s ad on his victims.”
The second half of that synopsis drew me into the episode, but the first part dominated. That becomes a drag on the show, as the plot with the student degenerates into a lame romance with one of McCall’s colleagues. This becomes a disappointing show, as it squanders an intriguing story in favor of cheap sentiment.
Note: plenty of Equalizer episodes come with guests who either already experienced fame or would become known at a later date. “Run” includes appearances from Meat Loaf and Charles S. Dutton.
Break Point: “The honeymoon is over quickly for one young couple when Middle Eastern terrorists take them, their guests and McCall hostage during their wedding reception.”
Normally The Equalizer prefers two-pronged stories, but “Point” focuses on one plot. That makes it unusually interesting, as it creates a more tight and exciting show than many of its predecessors.
Guest star alert: Tony Shalhoub plays the lead terrorist, while Patricia Clarkson shows up as the bride.
Prelude: “A journalist has been kidnapped by a dictator and his daughter calls McCall who she believes helped put him in power.”
I like the aspects of the show that shed a little light on McCall’s history, but other parts fizzle. Most of these relate to the sentimental bits connected to the daughter and McCall’s son. The two sides to make this a mediocre episode.
Another guest star: Lori Loughlin portrays the daughter.
Solo: “McCall falls for a woman who is framed for killing a cop.”
Given McCall’s usual coolness and control, I like this episode’s willingness to make him more vulnerable. “Solo” goes with a film noir feel and turns into a better than average show.
Double Oscar-winner time: Kevin Spacey pops up here. Single Oscar-nominee Lindsay Crouse also appears.
Hand and Glove: “McCall tries to help a woman who has psychological issues after the murder of her father.”
While not without some compelling elements, “Glove” falters too much of the time. The biggest problem stems from predictable moments, as it seems easy to figure out important plot points well in advance.
Another day, another guest star: William H. Macy gets a small part in this episode.
Re-Entry: “A young boy calls McCall to help him stop his father from committing a crime for a man he owes money to.”
The family emphasis means “Re-Entry” feels schmaltzier than I’d like from this series. It’s too violent to go into true Afterschool Special territory, but it lacks much bite. It spends less time with McCall than usual, though, which adds an unusual – if unsuccessful – twist.
Batten down the hatches – “Re-Entry” comes packed with name actors, as it gives us John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and Joe Morton. Former New York Doll David Johansen shows up as well, and it even throws out series composer – and Police drummer – Stewart Copeland in a bit part.
The Rehearsal: “McCall and Gage are attending a play rehearsal when they get trapped inside the theater when a vengeful man booby traps the exits with a bomb.”
That sounds like a good setup for a lively episode, but “Rehearsal” tends to falter. It suffers from too many bland characters and too little tension.
More Oscar-winner fun: Chris Cooper takes on a role here.
Something Green: “The ex-wife of a corrupt French diplomat hires McCall to track down her son who, she believes, is with his father.”
Though the story attempts a mix of twists, none of them pay off in a satisfying manner. The show becomes lackluster.
More than two years pre-Home Alone, “Green” gives us a then-seven-year-old Macaulay Culkin.
Regrets Only: “A divorceé being harassed by her psychotic ex-husband seeks McCall’s help.”
For its first 15 minutes or so, “Regrets” offers a good show because it maintains suspense; we don’t know if the ex-wife is crazy or if her allegations are true. Unfortunately, the episode becomes more literal before long. It still works fairly well, as it’s interesting to see McCall deal with various challenges, but I like it better when it remains evasive.
Target of Choice: “A man fears for the safety of his family when a convict, who he helped put in jail, is released on parole.”
Does McCall ever deal with “victims” who aren’t innocent and beleaguered? Maybe – since I won’t watch every episode, it’s possible the show occasionally gets into a greater level of moral ambiguity.
But not as far as I can tell – I get the impression the series prefers a black and white viewpoint that allows McCall to become the perfect do-gooder. That’s fine to a point, but it gets a bit tedious after a while, as it comes with cartoon baddies like this episode’s Hawkins. The episode feels too thin and melodramatic to succeed.
Last Campaign: “A politician’s assistant is framed and committed to an asylum when she discovers her boss is involved in a political blackmail plot.”
Don’t expect much moral ambiguity here, but “Campaign” does go onto some interesting tangents, especially when McCall goes undercover in a psychiatric hospital. The episode seems more playful and less sanctimonious than most, and that helps it become more enjoyable.
Future star alert: Stanley Tucci plays a big role here.
The Visitation: “The autopsy of a murdered man reveals that he was the victim of a rare and contagious disease. McCall and his old companion, who is also a disease specialist for the WHO, must trace his last steps to stop it from spreading.”
Tales of contagious diseases tend to strike a chord, but “Visitation” seems like a bit of a dud. It doesn’t invest either the illness side of the story or McCall’s investigation well enough to make it consistently involving.
The Caper: “Emmy Rutherford is a mystery novel fanatic who unwittingly witnesses a real life murder. The Equalizer is called in when the police refuse to believe her.”
At times, “Caper” feels like it comes from a leftover Murder She Wrote script. Still, I think its balance of comedy and drama works well, so it turns into a decent show.
Future semi-star alert: Laura San Giacomo pops up as Emmy’s “nanny”.
Suicide Squad: “When a high school football prospect loses his college scholarship because of an injury, his sister calls McCall to stop him from turning to a life of crime.”
The series ends with a clunker, as “Squad” feels sappy and melodramatic. With thin characters and circumstances as well as relentless overacting, “Squad” falls flat and becomes one of the series’ weaker episodes.
Final “notable guest stars” alert: “Squad” brings us Ving Rhames – and another appearance from Joe Morton, though he plays a different character than the one we saw in “Re-Entry”. Morton got a semi-recurring role in the series’ final season, as his “Carter Brock” showed up three times that year.
Because I only “sampled” the series’ episodes, I feel reluctant to offer an overall judgment on The Equalizer. That said, I suspect I watched a representative mix and doubt that my impressions would be much different if I’d viewed all 88 programs.
The Equalizer aired during my college years, and my friends and I enjoyed it. The presence of a dapper “old guy” as a butt-kicking vigilante seemed cool and the show kept us entertained.
Nearly 30 years later, I don’t think the series holds up as well as I would’ve liked, though this doesn’t mean I think it’s a bad show. I do feel Woodward’s McCall comes across as less impressive than he seemed in the 1980s. Watching the show now, Woodward feels so broad much of the time that McCall borders on camp; Woodward still makes the role fun, but his histrionics can detract from the drama. It’s like he decided to play McCall ala the broadest tendencies of Michael Caine and left out the nuance.
The series’ basic “Eighties-ness” also stands out. Granted, little from that decade escapes this curse, but Equalizer feels more stuck in the decade than I would’ve anticipated. There’s a definite dated feel to much of it.
That said, the show does muster reasonable entertainment much of the time. The premise remains intriguing, and many of the episodes deliver pretty good action/drama.
The substantial roster of future – and past – notables helps. I allude to some of this during the body of my review, but I only touch on the tip of the iceberg. Any long-running series will include a fair number of folks who attained success at a later point, but Equalizer seems to have more than most.
In the end, my time with The Equalizer feels like a mixed bag. The show has decided ups and downs and doesn’t display great consistency. Nonetheless, it boasts enough drama and action to remain watchable.