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ONE PERFECT EPISODE / CHiPs: “Roller Disco 1 & 2” / Michael Dean Clark


Picture this: It’s summer, 1979, and Venice Beach is awash in fit, young guys and girls roller discoing their way through another cloudless sun-bleached day. An impromptu dance circle forms and several mostly clad women roller figure skate to a typically strong, horn and bass-heavy Alan Silvestri score.

Cut to a restaurant up the boardwalk where three roller skating smash and grab artists—two of whom are played by Fred Williamson and Jim Brown (!)—perpetrate an elaborate mugging and frantic getaway through local side-streets on 4x4s.

Meanwhile, an unsupervised 12-year-old Mark witnesses their crime and imitates it, snatching a handful of a woman’s change off the payphone she’s using and escaping by grabbing onto the back of a car that ends up towing him onto, ostensibly, the 405 Freeway only to be rescued by Officer Jon Baker (Larry Wilcox) and Sgt. Joe Getraer (better known as Chris Pine’s dad).

All of this is merely the INTRO of “Roller Disco 1 & 2,” the one perfect episode of seventies buddy-cop archetype, CHiPs. I’m cheating slightly given this is a two-parter, but hear me out: not only is this the best episode of the series, but it’s likely the pinnacle of the light-hearted 70s dramedies genre CHiPs existed in. Unlike M.A.S.H. and its ilk, CHiPs leans more heavily on clean resolutions and nonsensical interludes, like the time in Season 1 when Officers Baker and Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (Erik Estrada) pull over a fully-costumed H.R. Pufnstuf and let him off with a warning because Ponch is a fan.

            What sets “Roller Disco” apart are the ways it balances all the elements that underpin every episode of the show, creating, in total, the most fully-realized single version of them all. Also, I’m fairly certain the production blew its entire season’s budget for guest stars on just these two episodes, which deserves an award in and of itself. More on that later.

First, coming to this conclusion bears briefly reviewing the CHiPs formula, which consists of a singular theme, three seemingly divergent but actually connected storylines, and a funny ending, usually at Ponch’s expense.

The A storyline focuses on some serious and over-the-top criminal activity that stretches over the entire episode, generally solved by the end of the hour.

The B Line generally rides on Ponch’s follies—though sometimes Baker gets in on that action—and acts as comic relief. Side note: the failure to make either Ponch or Jon the straight man in the 2017 CHiPs movie is a primary reason it suuuuucked.

The C Line, then, is a loosely-connected pop culture-driven motif about a trend Ponch and/or Jon are inexplicably already proficient at—bronco busting, karate, skateboard windsurfing—that tricks the viewer into seeing the pieces as cohesive. Truthfully, this more often leads to non-sequiturs and continuity challenges in most episodes and more than a few in this perfect one. But that lack of linearity was a feature of this form rather than a bug, often played for both comedic and serious effect.

            “Roller Disco” nails every element of the formula, but does so in more challenging ways than typical episodes. This two-part story, built around a cliffhanger, opened the third season of the show and demonstrated that the general narrative templates of the first and second seasons were now the DNA of the show’s storytelling without yet becoming tired and expected as they would in seasons 4 & 5. Timing, as much as anything, determines which episode best represents a series overall.

The theme of “Roller Disco” explores the ways partners impact each other’s lives. This plays out in not one, but two stories along the A-Line. The first follows the gang of roller thieves whose escalating Venice crime spree on skates that, inexplicably, the CHP rather than LAPD must stop. And stop them Ponch and Jon do, but only after confirming their swinging bachelorhood by taking two young women they meet out on a date under the pretext of “getting to know the neighborhood.”

The second crime storyline is a series of traffic collisions caused by a guy with severe whiplash bent on taking revenge on tailgaters. This provides the requisite multi-car pile-up and high-speed chase every episode required.

The B-Line also braids two narratives. One centers on troubled teen heartthrob Jimmy Tyler—played by OG troubled teen heartthrob Leif Garrett—firing his manager Balford to take control of his overwhelming career. Ponch and Jon, coincidentally, meet Jimmy after he is injured after whiplash guy and his partner irrationally and intentionally cause his limo to crash.

Meanwhile, Ponch is attempting, poorly, to collect celebrities for a CHP-sponsored Skate with the Stars charity benefit. In typical fashion, he’s done little work and has zero commitments the night before the event, which angers Getraer and ties into the running series-long gag of his perpetual paternal disappointment in Ponch. However, Ponch and Jon help Jimmy and Balford rekindle their professional and personal relationship, which inspires them to invite their celebrity friends to the benefit as a token of their gratitude.

This last minute save, along with the C-Line story of SoCal roller skating culture, leads to arguably one the most 70s scenes in TV history – the charity skate extravaganza. The event opens with a cameo roll call of what seems like 70 percent of the TV celebrities of the day, all of whom get roughly two seconds of screen time each and only turn out because Jimmy asks. After a gratuitous roller beauty contest—this was 70s TV after all—Jimmy performs his creepy, girl-you-know-you-want-it hit song “Give In,” and then reunites with Balford for an ultra-happy, hug-it-out ending.  

It’s not a stretch to say this episode is all CHiPs ever tried to be: late 70s network TV camp with a heart, affable good guy crime stopping, and a touch of cultural zeitgeist all wrapped in a tight package that had people tuning in every week to see what Ponch and Jon would get into next.

Michael Dean Clark is an author of fiction and narrative nonfiction whose work has appeared in publications such as Pleiades, The Other Journal, Angel City Review, and Relief among others. He is also the co-editor of Creative Writing in the Digital Age and Creative Writing Innovations, both from Bloomsbury Academic. He lives and works in the Los Angeles area.