Amid designer-superficiality like "Miami Vice" and myriad juvenile Glen Larson productions, "The Equalizer" came as a breath of fresh air when first broadcast in 1985. After many years in the wilderness, American studios recognised the intelligence of their audience and produced a well-scripted, well-acted action drama with character, depth and real bite.
The central premise was of a British military officer named Robert McCall who had served the latter half of his career with an American intelligence agency nickednamed "The Company" (although it approximated the real-life CIA) but had grown disillusioned with its methods. The series starts with McCall having resigned and decided to use his espionage, intelligence-gathering and combat skills on a lone crusade to champion the victims of crime, apparently as some form of atonement for his shady past.
But McCall could never fully escape The Company. Occasionally he needed some of its resources to help him tackle the job at hand. While his ex-superior, known only as "Control" (played by Robert Lansing), was sympathetic to McCall's reasons for quitting, he was never fully prepared to let him go, both because of his skills and the sensitive secrets he carried with him. Indeed many episodes saw McCall being drawn back into Company operations. The two men remained friends but their relationship was on a constant knife-edge (and often led to some of the series' best "stand off" dialogue moments).
The first two seasons wrought a tremendous variety in interesting story lines, had good dialogue and the performances of Edward Woodward, his regular co-stars and the often-abrasive interplay between their characters lifted the show further.
Location shooting in New York was used highly effectively and Stewart Copeland's startling, unique musical style lent the show a sparky, effervescent, slightly off-beat air.
The staging of action scenes was reasonable, though would never match the sensational jousts witnessed in Brit series such as The Sweeney and The Professionals. In fairness, though, The Equalizer trod a more realistic path in this respect.
The series' sole fault, during the first three seasons, was that the scripts became rather formulaic. With a few notable exceptions, the plots tended to revolve around a well-established, predictable pattern: McCall would receive a call from some distressed individual being terrorised; they would meet to discuss the problem at hand; McCall would then use his dubious contacts to dig up some dirt on the aggressor, who McCall would then threaten and, ultimately, end up having to kill - though all imbued with a liberal dose of pathos, of course!
The production schedule on the series was frenetic and with most scenes requiring the involvement of Woodward, it maybe shouldn't have been a surprise that he, a heavy smoker, suffered a heart attack during filming on the third season in 1987. Actor Richard Jordan was brought in to lighten McCall's load for several episodes. While a perfectly understandable move, in many viewers' minds it appeared that Jordan was taking over.
By the time of the fourth season Woodward had returned full-time and Jordan was phased out. But a necessary reduction in the strenuous exercise regime Woodward had previously followed meant he was far from the dynamic powerhouse he had once been. The show took on a new direction and embraced socially-sensitive themes. (In one episode a small boy is dying of AIDS and being harassed by frightened, ignorant neighbours.) Although audience rating were not as strong as before, they remained high...
Unfortunately CBS was apparently suffering from internal power struggles and some of its senior staff wanted to launch new series at the expense of existing ones. "The Equalizer" was axed after completing its usual 22-episode production. Neither Woodward nor a huge campaign of public support could convince CBS to change its mind.
The situation for the UK was actually worse. For reasons that have never been clear, proper peak-time screenings (on the ITV network) of the final season stalled after a few episodes. Naturally many Brits assumed the show had been cancelled mid-season. The remaining eventually aired via regional syndication in late-night "graveyard" slots with no publicity. In fact some ITV regions opted out completely, the affected editions being buried amongst repeat runs in the 1990s. It was an astonishing attitide to adopt as the show had actually been even more successful in the UK than its home country! Once can only suppose that denial of a complete network run was due to CBS.
The series had to wait for many years until it was made available on videocassette and even then only nine episodes from the first season were issued. Yet - probably to CBS' embarrassment - repeat runs continued to demonstrate the show's enduring appeal. In early 2008 the first season was issued on DVD in the US and UK. But even then problems continued. The American set has a welcome addition of an audio commentary by the series' creator Michael Sloan but the episodes suffer from several mysterious substitutions of incidental music. The picture quality on the UK set is notably "scratchy" and has been overly compressed for digitisation.
However with efforts under way to launch a movie version in 2009, there is clearly still an audience for this show... and deservedly so.