45 Years Ago: ‘CHiPs’ Bridges the Gap Between ’70s and ’80s TV
In film and TV, the '70s were the decade of renegades with mustaches and hairy chests (think Burt Reynolds), tough stories about cops cleaning up the mean streets (think Dirty Harry) and absurdist comedies about a world gone wrong (think M*A*S*H).
The '80s, on the other hand, tended to feature heroes with a goofy twist (Kurt Russell), action movies with a comedic edge (Die Hard) and comedies about a world in which everything would work out OK at the end (Cheers). If you're curious about how we got from one to the other, you could do worse than look back at CHiPs, the charming motorcycle cop dramedy that first aired on Sept. 15, 1977, and bridged the two decades about as well as any other show.
CHiPs was the brainchild of producer Rick Rosner, who later developed The New Hollywood Squares and is such a television junky that he once made a portable TV satellite dish in conjunction with DirectTV. The show starred Larry Wilcox and Erik Estrada as a pair of California Highway Patrol motorcycle officers named Jon Baker and Frank "Ponch" Poncherello, along with Robert Pine as the sergeant in charge of them.
Watch the Opening of 'CHiPs'
In each episode, Jon and Ponch would discover some criminal enterprise, investigate and eventually defeat it. There was also always a subplot or two that were usually a bit more lighthearted than the main story. This is to say that it was a pretty standard '70s cop show in most ways, full of bad guys being brought to justice, and with plenty of action scenes and high-speed chases.
But where CHiPs started to veer into the territory of the '80s was with its wacky, fun-loving tone.
This went further than just lighthearted banter, and at times it became just plain silly or even absurdist. And it was usually at the expense of Estrada's character Ponch, whose lovable goofiness soon made him the show's star. CHiPs didn't take long to set up this dynamic. In the closing credit sequence of the pilot, Ponch signals a slightly crazy old woman to pull over her car to the side of the freeway. She does so but doesn't quite understand that he's asking her to stop, so she just drives right off the road, down the embankment and into a boulder. And then she turns out to be related to a police big-wig, and oh, boy, is Ponch in trouble!
Watch Jon and Ponch Meet Each Other in a Flashback
This zany tone extended throughout the show's six seasons (there was also a reunion TV show in 1998) and came to be epitomized by the frequently over-the-top car crashes and pileups that occurred in nearly every episode. These were filmed on highways in the Los Angeles area – such as Interstate 210 and State Route 2 – under construction, which meant that the dedicated viewer could often spot the same background scenery in numerous different episodes. Despite this, like the crashes that populated the similar romp The Dukes of Hazard that would debut two years later and was heavily influenced by CHiPs, the crashes became audience favorites and grew more and more spectacular as the seasons progressed.
And the fact that the show often made little attempt at realism was another sign of the way that it represented the shift from the gritty '70s to the more fun-loving '80s. Jon and Ponch, despite foiling crimes for six seasons, were never shown drawing their guns. And although Rosner had some experience with real cops – the idea for the show purportedly came to him when he was working as a reserve deputy for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department and saw a couple of young officers with their motorcycles – the series took many happy liberties, starting with its title.
As any Californian can tell you, no one uses the term "Chips" to refer to the California Highway Patrol riders – it's always C.H.P., pronounced as an acronym. And C.H.P. officers didn't ride in pairs at the time. The show got around this by having Ponch be on probation – and under Jon's supervision – during the first season, but then just dropped this trope and had them ride around as a pair for the rest of the run.
Watch a Classic Car Crash Sequence From 'CHiPs'
The show did have its troubles. Stars Estrada and Wilcox didn't get along, and by the last years of the show this feud, along with the actors' egos, started to make it impossible for CHiPs to survive. Estrada went on strike during the fifth season over his cut of syndication money and was replaced for seven episodes by Bruce Jenner. The following season, Wilcox quit the show entirely after growing angry at what he saw as Estrada's larger role in it and was replaced by Tom Reilly.
But through its ups and downs, the show remained popular enough that it influenced programs stretching from Magnum P.I. to Simon & Simon to The A-Team. In this way, the crime and humor formula of CHiPs helped pave the way for the new, lighter wave of cop and detective TV shows and movies that would dominate the '80s.