Baa Baa Black Sheep: Season 1 Vol. 1
One genre of television that has declined in popularity lately is the military drama. In the earlier days of television, those I watched in my youth, there was still a post World War Two feel to the country and the new media of TV responded. Now, there is still some nostalgic feel for series of this sort and Universal has risen to this with the release of episodes of Baa Baa Black Sheep. The series chronicles the lives of a group of men in the south pacific fighting the war against the Japanese. Marine Major Greg Boyington (Robert Conrad) was a well known fighter pilot renowned for his ability to hone in on his enemy for the kill. After being given a desk job on Turtle Bay on Espritu Santo Boyington becomes ill at ease. Not satisfied with sitting the war out he defies his orders and forms a squadron of fighters, culling them from the misfits of over fighter groups. After scrounging up some Corsairs for air power he proceeds to create a group of flying aces feared by their foes. Boyingtom was affectionately known to his men as ‘Pappy’ a little dig at his advanced age in the thirties, old in the eyes of his pilots, most of whom where still in their early twenties.
This rag-tag group of men where difficult to control. It took a good deal of social engineering for Pappy to mold them into a cohesive fighting force. There where jokesters such as Lt. Bob Anderson (John Larroquette) who could be used to lift the moral of the men. Lt. Bob Boyle (Larry Manetti) was Pappy’s go to man, always willing to do what it took to get the job done. Please note that Manetti role was undertaken after the initial two hour pilot. Of course there has to be a protagonist a bit more in Pappy’s face than the Japanese. This was achieved with the inclusion in the series of Pappy’s immediate superior officer, Col. Tom Lard (Dana Elcar). A by the book type of solider he held the group and Pappy specifically with some degree of distain. He had to balance the unorthodox tactics and off duty libations of the group with their remarkable success against the enemy. It would appear that the higher command was not as concerned with how the group acted as long as they brought in the kills.
Even when this show was first broadcast there was a lot said about how fast and loose the network played with the actual historical facts of this notable squadron of men. Of course, this was before the advent of the History Channel (which actually re-ran episodes of this series). Sure, many of the facts where distorted in this production. The men where portrayed as misfits where actually they where actually a group of highly individualistic men who preferred to work on their own. What you have to remember is this series was intended as entertainment, pure and simple and to that end it was very successful. After all what people wanted, especially in the tumultuous year of 1976 was to be entertained, not informed. This was the famous bicentennial year; a year when everybody was celebrating the greatest of the country and a series about the individualistic and quirky band of misfits was just what the audience wanted to see. After all there was more than enough real history in the one minute Bicentennial plugs that were presented between television shows that year.
One of the best aspects of the series was the archival footage of actual air battles. The swoon of the Corsair on the Japanese Zeros, coming in for the kill is nothing short of exciting. There was a sense of flying along with these aces; the camera work cut into the actual war footage put you right in the cockpit. The series balanced this action with the administrative battles fought on the ground.
Robert Conrad has always come across to audiences as the man’s man, handsome for the ladies and always ready for action which made him perfect for the male demographic. He exudes the persona of a man that is used to being in charge. He was once a professional boxer and that fighting spirit leaps off the screen in every role he has every assumed. He may not have given a historically accurate view of Pappy Boyington but he did give us one that was always entertaining. Dana Elcar has had a long and notable career mostly playing the man in charge. Often, as was the case here, he had to contend more with a rogue member of his own team. Elcar has taken this role to heights few actors could have, he plays frustration as an art form. I have always personally enjoyed the work of John Larroquette. He has a sense of comic timing matched by few actors. From his work in Stripes to his famous character work in Night Court he is a comedic actor above the pack. Here he plays his character as a man always ready for a laugh but more than capable of getting down to his deadly business when called. Larry Manetti has become one of the best side kick actors in television. Best known as Rick in the extremely successful Magnum, here he runs a variation on this theme.
This first season was very well written. It provided the right mixture of drama, action and comedy making it one of the better series of its day. The pacing of the episodes was always fast, there was a little exposition of the problem encounter in a specific episode and then they went right to the battles. It had a little something for everyone, something that is often overlooked with modern series which has become very specific in the type of entertainment provided.
Universal offers this box set as part of their classic television series. While the audio and video generally held up well over the years there are a few visual flaws that pop on the screen every so often. The mono audio was remixed to Dolby two channel mono and while nothing spectacular it does get the job done. As an extra there is a NBC interview with the real Boyington, whose book was loosely used as a basis for the series. The one fault here is Universal has split the release of the first season in two. This release contains only the two hour pilot and the first ten episodes of the twenty two episode season one. With a list price of $39.98 many fans will balk at the partial season but for fans it is a worth while purchase. I only hope Universal doesn’t wait too long before releasing the rest of the first season and that they follow up with the entire second season.