In format, the '50s cop drama M Squad was more or less a clone of its long-running predecessor Dragnet, only set in Chicago instead of Los Angeles. Over the course of each 25-minute episode, dogged police detective Lee Marvin would pursue every lead and clue until he solved a crime, all while narrating his steps for the television audience. Even more than Dragnet, M Squad's earnestness and slangy tough-talk served as the model for the '80s cop-show spoof Police Squad!, right down to the brassy score and the protagonist named "Frank." M Squad was as square as an LP jacket, and just about as old-fashioned. But it was also more action-packed and gritty than the average TV procedural of its era. M Squad was like one long docu-realist film noir, carved up into 117 episodes over three years.
Every one of those episodes is now available on M Squad: The Complete Series, a DVD box set that makes up in exhaustiveness what it lacks in video and audio quality. Most of these episodes look and sound murky, but at least they're all here: every single M Squad case, taking viewers from hoochie-coochie bars to university dormitories in a full survey of '50s urban crime. From the establishing shots of snowy Chicago streets to the tours of drug dens and seedy brothels, M Squad sports a down-to-earth verisimilitude that helps it overcome the conventionality of its storytelling. The show is also elevated by Marvin, a flat-faced macho man who didn't go in for the robotic professionalism and morally righteous anger of Dragnet's Jack Webb. On M Squad, Marvin's detective showed flashes of fear and frustration, and would even confess in voiceover, "Sometimes I feel like giving my job up to the first guy who comes along." The Chicago underworld hated him, and his bosses rode him hard. But before each half-hour was up, he'd put another bad guy behind bars.
Key features: None.