Watching an old episode of CHiPS on a nostalgia channel prompts no one to say: “Gee, what a great show.”
Its 1970s popularity, in fact, seems in retrospect almost impossible to comprehend, even to those (like myself) who must have watched it when it was a highly rated network program.
I say must have, because like all good Americans, I availed myself of the miracle of television as much as possible, but revisiting the show today gives me the eerie feeling that any residual fondness for the original must constitute some form of Stockholm syndrome. To modern eyes, it looks hilariously primitive — shot with one camera, apparently in one take, with the actors crammed awkwardly into the frame. Also, hands down, the worst chase scenes ever staged — filmed at speeds approaching 25 m.p.h.
The network appeared to spare every expense, and in fact let star Larry Wilcox walk, until he was replaced by some guy who may have been Farrah Fawcett Majors. Later, the Olympian then known as Bruce Jenner had a role, and made it clear that acting, or motorcycle riding, was not a component of the decathlon.
All of which is to say that the new movie version of CHIPS (they have capitalized the ‘I’ for some reason) is smart to have jettisoned just about everything about the original, except the basic plot (it’s still about officers in the California Highway Patrol) and broad ethnic outlines — a white motorcycle highway patrol cop (Dax Shepard) paired with a Latino partner (Michael Peña).
And even that is repolarized. Jon (Shepard) is a hotshot rider but a hopeless meathead, on hand for comic relief. Ponch (Peña) is the closest thing to a straight man, though not very.
The new CHIPS is a very raunchy R. There is some action and a lot of off-color comedy constructed around sexually explicit banter, including Ponch’s ongoing lack of comfort with displays of male nudity and masculine physical contact.
The plot? There are a couple of crooked cops on the CHIPS force, and Ponch and Jon work to expose them. Shepard, who wrote and directed, pitches everything toward bawdy jokes, mostly at his own expense, which is sportsmanlike. His character is trying to make it on the force to impress his ex (played by real-life spouse Kristen Bell). Have the couple been hounded by paparazzi? If so, Shepard uses an elaborate chase scene to get comic revenge.
And, of course, the references get an update, as well: Users of selfie sticks become the butt of slapstick jokes, and CHIPS finds the oversexed Ponch getting in trouble with sexting and Instagram.
This will not turn into another lecture about social media being a waste of time. Wouldn’t be right, coming from someone who spent his teenage years watching CHiPS.