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Airwolf - Season 1

This is going to sound a little weird and possibly creepy, but the first time I remember being “sexually attracted” to a woman was because of “Airwolf”. No, I didn’t have a thing for Santini’s man-boobs. In the pilot episode Sinjin Hawke’s babe of the week ends up half naked and chained in the desert, writhing around in the sand. It’s one of those moments that sticks with you, just for the sheer sexual ferocity of it. When I saw that, something inside me moved. I probably didn’t even know what it was back then, but that scene stuck with me, and popped up again in my head during puberty. I’m not sure what it says about me that I was so in to seeing a woman bound up in chains, but I think it had more to do with her bikini than her captivity (let’s hope). Luckily that pilot episode is included in the “Airwolf - Season 1” box set, giving me the opportunity to revisit my first overtly heterosexual moment all over again. It still feels pretty good. “Airwolf” isn’t really all about sex, though among the others of its similar 80’s ilk (Knight Rider, A-Team, MacGyver) it is the show that seems most intended for more mature audiences. It’s violent (TV violence, no blood folks) and hits on some pretty heavy themes. A lot of time is spent on what were then fairly touchy subjects, like missing POWs in Vietnam. But mostly, “Airwolf” was all about flying around in a really cool helicopter blowing stuff to hell. That’s the sort of thing that really holds up.

The premise, by today’s standards is a little ridiculous. A retired test pilot and ex-Vietnam vet named Stringfellow “Sinjin” Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent) comes into the possession of a secret government attack helicopter, a prototype called Airwolf. He hides the super-powered helicopter and uses it as collateral to blackmail the government into finding his brother, whom he believes is still being held prisoner somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam. In the meantime, he agrees to fly special missions for a shadow branch of the government run by a guy named Archangel. Mostly though he sits out at his mountainside cabin and plays the cello. When he gets lonely, he drives into town to hang out with his mentor and only friend Dominic Santini, played by the great Ernest Borgnine.

In today’s more jaded world we’d expect the government just to pick up Sinjin and lock him in a box at Guantanamo until he coughs up the location of the helicopter. In the 80’s, I think people still believed that the government was somehow their friend, and thus was willing to put up with being blackmailed by a civilian so long as it served the greater good. What suckers. To watch it today, you’ve just got to accept it. Try putting on some legwarmers or driving around in a Delorion before watching. It might help get you in the 80’s frame of mind.

Aside from having simultaneously the strangest and yet somehow coolest name on television, Sinjin is a quiet and brooding character. Before he destroyed himself on drugs, Jan-Michael Vincent had a strange sort of stoic charisma. How many shows open with a guy sitting outside playing the Cello? Jan-Michael sells it, making Sinjin a fairly unique character on television… the guy has a ton of hidden depth and it’s none of our damn business. A gravelly voiced loner might have left the show a little flaccid, so he’s paired up with the Ernest Borgnine as a warm, funny, fatherly sidekick. Though they’re polar opposites, the dynamic between the two really works, and might have carried the show further had they not in later been forced to bring in replacement players for both the main characters.

But you want to hear about super-attack helicopters. Again, by today’s standards I suppose Airwolf isn’t that impressive. The army has bigger and better equipment already in the air over Iraq. So ok, maybe the technology is a little shaky, but damned if that chopper isn’t beautiful. They spare no expense on the flying either. Today shows like “JAG” recycle old military footage from other sources, but every episode of “Airwolf” in season one is packed with new, spectacular flying maneuvers. Even standing still, the chopper is a real beaut.

“Airwolf” isn’t exactly a television landmark, but it holds a unique little place in television history. What could have been a hokey subject is approached with a surprising amount of depth and maturity. Also, they have Ernest Borgnine. As a kid this was the show my parents didn’t want me to watch, so it’s fun re-watching it now right out in the open. Most of my memories of it involve me hiding somewhere late at night with a TV. The good guys aren’t always good, people have a tendency to get shot, and oh yeah there’s more than a few hot chicks writhing around in bikini’s. It’ll make you um… pop a sunburst. This is a DVD set that doesn’t even have the show’s signature theme music playing over the DVD menus. Cheaply put together doesn’t begin to describe it. The discs are flippers, so they didn’t have to bother with any artwork. The box is made out of the cardboard equivalent of balsa wood, so don’t expect it to hold together more than a few minutes. The discs at least are in two, nice hard plastic cases so I guess I’ll give them a little credit for that. Other than digitally transferring the shows onto DVDs I’m not sure what other effort they’ve put into this.

The menus are horrible; they look like the screens off the old Airwolf NES game, only perhaps not quite that good. They are however easy to navigate, but that’s only because there aren’t many options to click on other than “play the damn show”. You can play all of them at once, or play one at a time. That’s what passes for special features in “Airwolf – Season 1”.

I guess you can’t really blame Universal, after all the show wrapped after two seasons and Jan-Michael Vincent became pretty much an incomprehensible walking corpse. We’re lucky it exists on DVD at all, owed mostly to a bunch of 80’s kids like myself who used to sneak out into the living room late at night for a taste of the forbidden. Maybe they should have made the helicopter talk.