What can you say seriously about a TV show whose overreactive cop hero:
(a.) Gets into a car chase and accidentally sends his own vehicle over a cliff with a reporter still inside;
(b.) Gets rid of a sniper perched atop a building by blowing up the building, and
(c.) Milks a cow by shooting a gun off over its head.
Quite a bit, apparently--at least according to the creator of "Sledge Hammer!," a half-hour comedy premiering tonight at 8:30 on ABC.
"It's a commentary on nihilistic, iconoclastic heroes, showing where they would be in real life--which is nowhere," says creator and producer Alan Spencer.
Well, take "Get Smart," the 26-year-old Spencer suggests, referring to the '60s spy spoof that was his favorite show and which "Sledge Hammer!" most resembles. "When I was a youth, I thought it was about this bumbling spy. But I watch it now and I see the political comment it was making."
That philosophy is not immediately apparent to an observer on the set during filming of an episode titled "Witless," which has Sledge, played by David Rasche, temporarily in Amish country a la the movie "Witness." But Spencer does his best to explain the "two levels" at which his brainchild works.
On the one hand, there's the cow-milking scene, or the one where Sledge sees the silhouette of a nude female body through a shower curtain only to find, when the curtain parts, that it's a short Amish man.
On the other hand, there are frequent acts of violence and their non-TV-like consequences.
When Sledge whomps a bad guy over the head, he doesn't keel over on cue as he would on "Matt Houston"; he runs around screaming his head off.
"It has a reality base that we launch off of, instead of absurdity," Spencer says. Spoofs typically do not fare well on TV, he says, because of the cartoonlike approach that has "a bomb go off, and a guy's standing there with a smoky face."
So what happens on "Sledge Hammer!" when a bomb goes off?
This isn't some cockeyed view that exists only in the series creator's head. When Rasche is asked if he posed for photos with his gun, he becomes visibly upset. "Why does everybody say that?" he inquires. "Sledge Hammer!," he says between scenes, is not meant to glorify guns, and the scene in which he bazookas a building to nab the sniper "is not really a joke."
"Any other cop show, the cops bend the law and everybody cheers. People don't cheer for Sledge Hammer. He pulls out his gun and people say, 'Oh my god, what's he doing?' "
Rasche, who has appeared on Broadway and in such acclaimed TV productions as "Special Bulletin," about nuclear terrorists, has not forgotten that his new series is a comedy. But, he says, "the motivations to a spoof have to be aimed at something. I thought that the pilot was funny because the jokes came from the character and situation."
Spencer believes the timing for the series is ideal, considering the American obsession with all things Rambo-esque. "Walking into Toys 'R' Us is like walking into an artillery," he said. "I saw a water-shooting Uzi. . . . "
But "Sledge Hammer!" was actually developed in 1979, before Sylvester Stallone had become a one-man army. Spencer, who began writing at age 15 and barged into enough offices to secure a contract from Paramount by age 16, wrote "Sledge Hammer!" as a movie script. Shortly thereafter, Home Box Office decided to do a sendup of "Dirty Harry," and considered Spencer's script just what it was looking for.
When financing fell through, ABC bought the project. Now, six years after its creation, New World Television is producing "Sledge Hammer!" as a half-hour series. Directors such as Martha Coolidge ("Valley Girl") and Jackie Cooper apparently have appreciated the subtleties in "Sledge Hammer!": Coolidge directed the pilot and Cooper, at the helm for the "Witless" episode at the Disney Ranch in Newhall, was set to direct two more.
Cooper calls "Sledge Hammer!," the rare half-hour comedy to be shot on film as are hourlong action series, "a high-style show."
"I don't think it's putting down violence on television as much as putting on super- macho heroes," he said.
As of Friday, there'll be lots of both for "Sledge Hammer!" to deal with: it moves into its regular 9 p.m. time slot on Fridays opposite "Miami Vice" on NBC and "Dallas" on CBS.
Rasche suggests that the show might not be on the air at all had it not been given that killer time slot--perfect to try out something as offbeat as "Sledge Hammer!" "I'm hoping everybody won't like it," he says of the show. "If ABC is too greedy, they will insist that everybody in the world likes it, and then it will lose something."
See Howard Rosenberg's review on Page 10.