Chicago's finest at their baddest: 'M Squad' returns

June 11, 2010

Hold on to your fedora: A jazzy, moody, violent film noir detective series set in Chicago -- and partially shot on location here in the late '50s -- is about to blast its way onto local television again.


Lee Marvin as Lt. Frank Ballinger
 

It's "M Squad," the half-hour cop show starring Lee Marvin that aired on NBC from 1957 to 1960. Starting next week, it'll be seen again -- for the first time in ages -- at 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and at midnight Sunday on Me-Too, the Weigel Broadcasting home for classic dramas.

M Squad refers to a "special detail of the Chicago Police Department" that assists other units in fighting crime and going after murderers, gangsters and assorted scoundrels by any means at their disposal. (No doubt Jon Burge would have felt right at home with this group.)

"In 'M Squad,' Lee Marvin played Chicago police lieutenant Frank Ballinger, a tight-lipped cop on a violent beat," wrote Harry Castleman and Wally Podrazik in Watching TV. "As in Jack Webb's 'Dragnet,' there was a deadpan voice-over narration to explain the story, but unlike that show, 'M Squad' emphasized physical beatings, frequent car chases, and constant gunplay."

Mayor Richard J. Daley was said to be so incensed at the depiction of Chicago as a crime-infested city (and his police department as a haven for bribery) that he banned production of any other TV series and all but a few movies for the remainder of his time in office. Ironically, the real-life Summerdale police scandal, which revealed internal corruption far worse than anything portrayed in "M Squad," broke wide open in 1960 -- just after production on the series had ceased. I recently watched the entire first season of "M Squad" on DVD and found myself mesmerized by the unsentimental brutality of its hero, the pulp-fiction hipster lingo of its characters, and the stark beauty of Chicago in all its black-and-white glory, including evocative nighttime shots of Michigan Avenue, the Loop, the Gold Coast and familiar landmarks all over town. The Wrigley Building appears in practically every episode.

"M Squad" also became famous in its day for its cool jazz score and, starting in the second season, its opening theme composed by Count Basie. "The Music From 'M Squad,'" an album from the soundtrack of the series, was a big seller in 1959.

Decades later "M Squad" would serve as the inspiration for the team of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker to create their "Police Squad!" and "Naked Gun" comedy spoofs. If you want to see the real model for Leslie Nielsen's Lt. Frank Drebin character, look no further than the opening credits of "M Squad."

Me-Too can be seen over the air on Channel 48, with a digital tuner and antenna on WCIU-TV 26.3, and on Comcast 247, RCN 22, WOW 171 and AT&T U-verse 48.

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