Welcome to TV Graveyard, a weekly column that delves into television history and remembers those forgotten shows that deserve a long-overdue celebration. From one-season wonders to under the radar gems that spanned several seasons, our aim is to dig up those television treats that deserve to be rediscovered.
The idea of a small screen Dirty Harry in amongst the myriad cop shows that have filled television schedules for decades seems obvious. Sure, you would have to tone down the ever-so-slightly right-leaning tactics of Detective Callahan and soften the violence, but the essence of the films is justice served with two fists or at the end of a gun, and audiences have always responded to the finality of that type of resolution. And so, Frank Lupo (creator or co-creator of shows like The A-Team, Werewolf and Wiseguy and involved in many other instantly recognisable series) did just that, though it took 13 years to eventually debut on NBC in 1984. Well, kind of, as it’s a show clearly echoing the Eastwood approach despite having no official link.
Hunter starred ex-football player Fred Dryer as the titular maverick L.A detective, in a first season that introduced the character as a Harry-lite, dressed in a sports coat and carrying a big gun and always ready to make a quip at a bad guy’s expense. In addition to this, he has a fractious relationship with his superiors when they show their concern at his apparently ruthless, violent tactics. Hunter can’t keep a partner and gets around town in whatever junker car the department lets him take. Oh, and he also comes from a family with ties to the mob, so is treated with suspicion as a result. In a marriage of professional convenience, in the pilot episode to get his boss off his back, Hunter seeks out colleague Dee Dee McCall (Stepfanie Kramer), his female equivalent and a cop nicknamed the Brass Cupcake, similarly inclined to solo working, and the two strike a deal to stage-manage a fake partnership. By the end of the episode they discover they actually enjoy working together and decide to keep it up.
The first season struggled in a slot up against primetime soap behemoth Dallas and gained a reputation as a violent series, and didn’t inspire any love from network bosses. And yet, supported by executive producer Stephen J. Cannell, things slowly changed.
There’s a lot to enjoy about the first season now. Its levels of eighties television violence are relatively tame now, and nothing has really changed in mainstream American police series’ fascination with their main characters acting as an executioner. The joy in that first season of Hunter comes from the performances of Dryer and Stepfanie Kramer, both blessed with an easy charisma that makes them eminently likeable. Dryer cracks wise and embodies the nonchalant, tough-guy persona of Hunter perfectly. At over 6 and a half feet tall and built like a football player used to be, he sells the various action scenes and yet can also carry dramatic weight when necessary. Kramer is an excellent partner for him, with McCall no damsel that Hunter regularly needs to save but instead a character who kicks just as much ass.
Added to this, first season shows were actually quite diverse in plot. The pilot finds Hunter and McCall investigating a series of brutal murders linked to country and western bars. A few episodes later the duo are transporting a suspect in the beating of a woman back to L.A. and run afoul of a corrupt small-town sheriff. Hunter gets framed for murder, McCall must relive the murder of her husband, also a cop. A two-parter featuring TV stalwart Dennis Franz and a cocaine ring was shown by Cannell to execs to buy more time and demonstrate the series was more diverse and intelligent than its reputation suggested. It worked, and the show would come back for a second season that refined and improved what worked in the first.
Part of this was down to the legendary Roy Huggins being drafted in as Executive Producer. Huggins had been responsible for creating the likes of Maverick and The Fugitive and co-creating The Rockford Files and this was just the touch Hunter needed. His work was marked out through compelling characters, charm, deftly applied humour and with The Fugitive, an emotional core that kept audiences coming back week after week. This is the route Hunter goes down from its second season. The humour is bolstered, the violence softened, Dryer and Kramer further develop the chemistry of their onscreen relationship and plots run from standard cop show stories to, in a remarkable episode, the rape of McCall by a foreign diplomat and the fallout for both her and Hunter that showed the series as capable of well-handled drama as action and thrills. It’s still episodic eighties television of course and so character development, whilst not totally forgotten, doesn’t carry through in arcs, instead more as reoccurring themes and returning players who callback to earlier shows. What does continue across this and the next couple of seasons is a hugely enjoyable police procedural with two all-time-great leads having fun through a strong run of episodes.
As often happens, behind-the-scenes politics and career aspirations create tumultuous working conditions but that doesn’t always reflect what eventually reaches our screens and so it was for Hunter. Season three had Dryer threaten to quit unless he got paid more and Roy Huggins would leave at the end of the fourth, with Dryer entering more influence as star (eventually he would become Executive Producer himself). Kramer would leave to pursue a music career at the end of the sixth and after working through two new partners for Hunter in the seventh, the show would come to an end. Yet the show would ostensibly ride these changes out with a consistent run of quality onscreen that, although settling into a pattern, means Hunter is one of the gems of eighties’ network television and if, you’re not always in need of the story arcs and shock endings of modern series, something to very much enjoy. At the time of writing all 7 first-run seasons are available on Amazon Prime. It’s a good thing too, as the show has never been released on disc here in the UK, and getting the opportunity to follow series like it from the beginning is something streaming is a gift for.
We also mention first-run because Hunter would return. Some four years after the series ended a reunion movie, without Kramer, would find Hunter still doling out tough justice in L.A. Seven years later, Kramer would also return for another TV movie that would relocate Hunter to San Diego and re-team him with McCall as they investigated the murder of Hunter’s most recent partner. Both films had strong ratings and a brief revival series followed headed up by another TV film and just 5 episodes before wilting network confidence and that chestnut of creative differences did for it. None of the three TV movies or that short sequel series are available at the moment but nevertheless, that original series is more than enough for now. As Hunter used to say, works for me.