Just in case you weren’t aware or have forgotten, television used to be absolute garbage — piping hot, steaming, damp, unmitigated garbage. And I don’t just mean because you were at the mercy of whatever the three networks decided to shovel out, whenever they decide to shovel it, I mean so much of it was absurd, idiotic crap. But, it was kinda fun crap, and, sure, in hindsight it’s baffling that a full-grown human adult would have ever said, something like “Ooh, I need to be back home by 8:30, so I can catch the latest episode of CHiPS,” but I guarantee you; That did happen. A lot. And the reason why a full-grown human adult might utter such a patently ridiculous statement is because CHiPs routinely had some of the most breathtakingly stupid and elaborately choreographed car wrecks ever committed to videotape. These were glorious automotive sacrifices to the gods of chaos, and I need to share some of them with you, right now.
For the uncultured, CHiPs was a crime drama that ran from 1977 to 1983 and followed a pair of California Highway Patrol motorcycle cops, Ponch and John, played by Erik Estrada and Erik Estrada’s blond friend, whatshisname. The show was, charitably, stupid. And the Los Angeles portrayed in the show was also remarkably, even gleefully stupid, especially when it came to the highway network and how Angelenos interacted with it.
To see the show, you might think that California Driver’s Ed Official Best Practices was contained in a pamphlet that read “When unsure of what to do, stomp on the throttle, scream, and saw your steering wheel back and forth, with the same careful precision you may use were you attempting to free your arm from a combine. If possible, clench your eyes shut. Barriers, cliffsides, and trucks should all be targeted and driven towards without fail, at maximum speed. Via these time-tested practices, you should be able to handle any situation traffic throws your way!”
The typical CHiPs traffic situation usually starts with something small, or innocuous, like a sudden stop because someone thought they saw a mink coat on the road, or a yelled slight from one car to another. Then it begins to escalate, ramping up the disaster steadily until it erupts in an orgasm of absolute chaos. It’s kind of like how (I can’t believe this is the second time today this has come up) in childrens’ author Richard Scarry’s Busytown series of books, you’ll have something like a tomato bouncing out of the back of a truck, and that starts a cascade of events that ends with a wrecking crane smashing a jam truck into smithereens.
Of course, even without the elaborate chaotic wrecks, the show still manages to be both cartoony and display a dazzling array of the 1970s California carscape. In this one clip, we get an eye-rollingly cartoonish ending and incredible shots of an old Dodge Tradesman van, a ’73 Beetle like mine, a Studebaker Champion, old Datsuns, Ford F-100s, a glorious wine-colored AMC Pacer, and so much more:
But that’s tame by CHiPs standards, look at this shit, featuring a shit-talking guy in a Mazda RX-2 rotary that escalates into some absolutely unhinged road rage, along with some impressively self-repairing linkages:
Of course, absolutely nobody is wearing a seat belt or anything silly like that. Just some good old smash-your-way-to-safety driving going on here! It’s the best!
This next clip is arguably one of the most chaotic; it’s like a Busby Berkley routine, but with flying, flaming cars instead of women dancing in kaleidoscopic patterns. Here, just watch the damn thing:
I think you can see some of the cars getting re-used here, like that RX-2 (which gets decapitated). Also, no seat belt for the cop, and note the skillful way that driver of the blue Ford truck reacts, by rapidly shitting his pants and freaking out on that steering wheel, hard. Also, how many different directions of traffic are happening here? And why are cars such good ramps?
I love this one. That lady stops suddenly on the highway because she sees – at like 55 mph – a pile of fur that she identifies not as some roadkill, but a mink coat? And then when a car plows through a truck, it also clears two other cars, improbably parked perpendicular to the line of the road, like you’d see at a monster truck stunt show?
The cars blasting through the truck were okay, I guess, but what if there were two cars that did that? And what if one of the trucks was full of explosives? And what if it was all caused by an inattentive driver in a freaking Auburn Speedster? What then? Well, you can see for yourself:
Wow. Man, LA was fucking crazy in the 1970s.
You know, sometimes you want to contain your chaos to one vehicle, just to keep things simple. And maybe you want to mix up the scenery, and really tumble-dry a couple of kids in the back of a somersaulting camper as it rolls down a hill!
All this because that Muppety dad took his eyes off the road for just a second! And okay, maybe it makes me a bad person for laughing when mom got flung out of the door, but I think I did emit an unwanted burst of laughter then. Sorry.
All that stuff flying off the roof! I’m pretty sure they later showed those kids walking out okay, because, you know, Gen X kids were used to this kind of shit. This was just like, a Saturday for those two.
Sometimes it was the little things, like having a stolen ambulance chase, but the ambulance is full of dynamite, and street cleaners don’t give two shits about ambulances driving by with full lights and sirens:
How do Ponch and John manage to show up to work every day? Why isn’t the whole next episode just them in the break room, under blankets, staring blankly at walls and muttering “the ambulance was full of dynamite?” over and over?
Was the guy trying to outrun the fire on his own, barely-connected trailer? Did anyone tell him that the truck can be driven at something other than full throttle, and you can steer without yanking the wheel like you’re trying to judo-flip a guy over your shoulder?
That actually looks like it’d be pretty fun to have done! Also, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an MG with a flame paint job, but I say it works.
Okay, okay, one last one. With kids! In a Ford LTD Country Squire, and a good lesson about why you shouldn’t keep your skateboards in the driver’s footwell when you drive:
I’m impressed the kids could hear Ponch there, yelling at them. He must really know how to project, from the diaphragm.
There’s so much more. You could view CHiPs today as a sort of dystopian fantasy of a world irrefutably harmed by being populated exclusively with people suffering from intense cognitive impairments as a result of leaded gasoline, dangerous idiots who refuse to ever stop driving, unless presented with an opportunity to drive through a truck, ideally packed with explosives.