THE HAT SQUAD. CBS / Stephen J. Cannell Productions / Columbia Pictures Television, 1992-1993. Cast: Don Michael Paul as Buddy, Nestor Serrano as Rafael, Billy Warlock as Matt, James Tolkan as Mike Ragland, Shirley Douglas as Kitty Ragland in the pilot, replaced by Janet Carroll when the show became a series, and Bruce Robbins as Darnell. Creator & Executive Producer: Stephen J. Cannell. – Executive Producer: Bill Nuss. Supervising Producers: Jo Swerling Jr. and Charles Grant Craig.

   Stephen J. Cannell is best remembered for his work on THE ROCKFORD FILES, but he is also responsible for some of the worst TV series ever to air. Remember BROKEN BADGES? I reviewed it here.

   Cannell was a popular and successful producer from 1970s-90s, specializing in over the top fantasy hero with a gimmick.

   THE HAT SQUAD was a fantasy cop drama about a detective squad of three adopted brothers who wore hats. Each of the brothers came from a different set of parents -– all victims of violence. Growing up they had been inspired by the stories of the LAPD’s Hat Squad told to them by their adopted father Police Captain Mike Ragland.

   There really was a “Hat Squad.” The four huge men (Max Herman, Clarence A. “Red” Stromwall, Harold N. Crowder and Edward F. Benson) were not related but all were best friends. They worked in the Los Angeles Police Robbery Division in the 50s-60s, and were respected and feared by criminals and remain legends in the LAPD. Each was over six feet tall and 220 pounds. They wore fedoras and expensive suits to add to their intimidating look.

   I recommend you click and read the LA Times article (March 29, 1987) interviewing two of the surviving members. It is a little thick on the hype but it is more entertaining than any of the TV episodes linked below.

   The movies took the characters of The Hat Squad and made MULHOLLAND FALLS. TV writer/producer Stephen Cannell made them perfect heroes. Then in typical 90’s Cannell style, he created a cheesy fantasy where the boys grow up and create their own Hat Squad with their adopted Dad as their supervisor.

PILOT. September 16, 1992. Written by Stephen J. Cannell/ Directed by Rob Bowman. GUEST CAST: Sam J. Jones, Stacy Edwards and Darlene Vogel. *** The Hat Squad goes up against a super villain Victory Smith who is visiting Los Angeles to rob a bank. While he makes his plans, he terrorizes the public and escapes the attempts of the Hat Squad to catch him.

   The pilot made several unwise choices in setting up the TV series premise and characters. The most damaging was making the villain more intimidating than the Hat Squad. Having the bad guy kick the Hat Squad butt repeatedly might have followed proper heroic drama format rules (hero loses until all hope is lost then defeats evil), but it was not how the real Hat Squad got famous. When a bad guy showed fear to Buddy when he put on his hat I laughed out loud, and even the actors looked embarrassed by how stupid the moment was.

   Looking back at Cannell’s work it is sadly disappointing how cartoonish and absurd his writing could get. The way Cannell has the Hats capture the villain in the pilot was more appropriate for a bad movie serial of the forties than network prime-time TV of the nineties.

   LA Times Howard Rosenberg was one disgusted TV critic. You can read the entire review of the pilot here.

   Rosenberg’s first line was right on the mark. “THE HAT SQUAD is prime time’s new propeller beanie, an example of just how comically infantile and moronic television can get.”

   The pilot episode aired September 16, 1992, Wednesday at 8pm to 9:30pm (Eastern). According to “Broadcasting” (September 28, 1992) THE HAT SQUAD finished in 43rd place in the Nielsen ratings. NBC’s UNSOLVED MYSTERIES was 12th, and SEINFELD was 30th, ABC’s FULL HOUSE was 44th and HOME IMPROVEMENT aired two episodes, the first finished 27th and the second episode (opposite SEINFELD) finished 3rd, and FOX’s MELROSE PLACE finished 74th.

FAMILY BUSINESS. October 28, 1992. Written by Stephen J. Cannell. Directed by Kim Manners. GUEST CAST: Ron Ely and Mark Pellegrino. *** Darnell’s encounter with a bully at school leads the Hat Squad to a family gang that specializes in violent crime.

   This episode aired on Wednesday at 8-9pm. Nielsen ratings (“Broadcasting” November 9, 1992) had NBC UNSOLVED MYSTERY at 11th place, ABC WONDER YEARS at 33rd and DOOGIE HOUSER at 37th, FOX BEVERLY HILLS 90201 at 59th, and THE HAT SQUAD at 74th.

   According to “Broadcasting” (August 9, 1993) Cannell blamed the failure of the series to CBS programming it at 8pm rather than 9pm or 10pm. The cause of the series failure was more due to Cannell, but CBS did not do THE HAT SQUAD any favors with its scheduling. The series had three different time periods. From the pilot airing September 16 until November 11 the series aired on Wednesday at 8-9pm.

REST IN PEACE. December 9, 1992. Written by Charles Grant Craig & Bill Nuss. Directed by Bruce Kessler. GUEST CAST: Rebecca Staab, Pat Bermel and Gianni Russo. *** Buddy heads to Vegas to get the proof a local mobster killed his father.

   TV series with multiple leads usually have episodes featuring one of the leads while the others stay in the background. This episode belong to Buddy as we got his back-story and he got to “meet cute” a gorgeous blonde by having their cars bang into each other.

   This episode was the only one of the series to air at 9pm on Wednesday. Ratings were better, finishing 51st (“Billboard” December 21, 1992). ABC’s HOME IMPROVEMENT finished 5th and COACH was 15th. NBC’s SEINFELD was 38th and MAD ABOUT YOU ended up 56th. FOX with BILLBOARD MUSIC AWARDS finished 61st.

   The next episode would not air until January 2. 1993, when THE HAT SQUAD moved to Saturday at 10pm and back to last place in its time-period. ABC had THE COMMISH and the better Cannell series out-rated HAT SQUAD every week. With few exceptions THE COMMISH would win the timeslot and NBC’s SISTERS finished a close second. Fox did not (and still doesn’t) program for the 10pm time period.

   Production values and directors aided and abetted the series over the top style. They loved their fog machine, or since this was Los Angeles, their smog machine. The music was by Mike Post, who was admired for his work then, but today is more a source of earworms than music. This is the 90s so there were silent scenes illustrated by some awful pop song.

   The cast gave forgettable performances burdened by stereotypical characters defined by role rather than any real human characteristics, such as Kitty the boys’ adopted Mother, a character who only existed as the old fashioned Mom who would tell her grown son to get a hair cut (he does) and give them hugs when they were sad.

   The exception was James Tolkan who played the father Mike, a man devoted to family and a strong set of values. Tolkan is best known for his many roles as an authority figure that is a jerk. It was a nice to see him give a strong performance as a softer nicer character.

   The three members of the Hat Squad were miscast as badly as their characters were written. The real Hat Squad was made up of gentle giants that terrified people by just walking into the room. The three adopted brothers were more average looking guys that looked silly rather than threatening wearing fedoras.

   The oldest son, Italian-American Buddym was overprotective and bossy of his younger members of the Hat Squad. The middle son, Puerto Rican Rafael, behaved like Pepe LePew around women. The youngest of the Hat Squad, Matt, was the cute one who was studying to be a lawyer. There was a fourth adopted brother Darnell, a black teenager who kept this angelic family rainbow approved.

   The last episode of THE HAT SQUAD aired January 24, 1993. That left two of the filmed thirteen episodes unaired. One of those episodes was “FRANKIE STEIN.”

   This episode has an ironic twist the writer probably did not intend. Of the real Hat Squad, three were lawyers while they were cops. Max Herman quit the force before he had earned his pension to become a defense attorney. Reportedly, Herman handled over thirty murder cases and none were convicted of the original (more serious) charge. The other two (Stromwall and Crowder) that had become lawyers would end up as judges.

FRANKIE STEIN. Never Aired. Written by David Greenwalt. Directed by Kim Manners. GUEST CAST: David Morse, Sondra Nelson and Linda Darlow. Matt questions his desire to become a lawyer. The Hat Squad has to deal with a violent criminal who was let out of prison early after he had agreed to be a test subject for some government experiments.

   This was a fantasy cop drama, the good guys are pure at heart and obey their Mother and Father, and bad guys are pure evil who would steal a little boy’s baseball card. The fantasy plots could only happen in the make believe land of Stephen Cannell, where everything is simple including the stereotypical characters, cliché motives, hokey dialogue, over the top action, and the bad guys who get all the breaks until a happy ending where comic book justice prevails.

   As a former professional TV critic in the late 70s and 80s who admired Cannell’s work in such shows as TOMA, CITY OF ANGELS (my review here ) and TENSPEED AND BROWNSHOE, I am finding myself embarrassed as I re-watch Cannell’s old series now. It is like looking at a picture of you in the past, seeing yourself in the stylish clothes and hair of the day and wondering, “What was I thinking?”