1977 - United States

An acronym for California Highway Patrol, this US cop-series starred Erik Estrada as devil-may-care Officer Francis 'Ponch' Poncherello and Larry Wilcox as the more down to earth Officer Jonathan Baker.

Together the twosome patrolled (on motorbikes) the highways and byways around the vast Los Angeles freeway system where the action was divided between enforcing the law and eyeing the City of Angels' foxy ladies. Typical of its time the series downplayed the violent aspect of a policeman's lot to concentrate on the 'human interest' and humorous elements of their work although the action was beefed up with auto-crashes galore. Motor officers in CHiPs rode Kawasaki Z1-P and Z900-C2 police motorcycles in seasons 1 and 2, and KZ1000-C1 motorcycles from season 3 onwards.

CHiPs TV series

The show was conceived by Rick Rosner, a reserve deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. During a coffee break on an evening patrol shift in the mid-1970s, he observed two young CHP officers on motorcycles, which sparked the idea for a series. The production team utilized recently completed, yet unopened, freeways in the Los Angeles area. Later, when these freeway sections were finally accessible, production shifted to a short segment of the 710 Long Beach Freeway in Long Beach, California, as well as a lengthy stretch of Pershing Drive near Los Angeles International Airport.

Artistic liberties were taken with the storyline since real-life CHP motor officers rarely ride in pairs. Initially, this discrepancy was explained by placing Ponch on probationary status, with Jon serving as his field training officer. Eventually, by the end of the first season, this subplot faded away as audiences grew accustomed to seeing the two working seamlessly as a team.

CHiPs TV series

Despite using stunt doubles for distant shots and various action sequences, Wilcox and Estrada actively participated in their own motorcycle riding and performed numerous smaller stunts. While Wilcox emerged relatively unscathed, Estrada suffered several injuries throughout the series. It’s hardly surprising when you consider that prior to joining the cast of CHiPs, Estrada had no prior experience with motorcycles and had to undergo an intensive eight-week course to learn how to ride. He didn’t actually obtain a full motorcycle licence until well after the series concluded, and even then, he passed the test on his third attempt. His most severe accident occurred during the filming of a season three episode in August 1979, resulting in several fractured ribs and broken wrists. This accident and Estrada’s subsequent hospitalization were seamlessly woven into the series’ storyline.

Ponch, being the more trouble-prone of the pair, contrasted with Jon, who was generally the one trying to keep him out of mischief. Their gruff yet fatherly immediate supervisor, Sergeant Joseph Getraer (played by Robert Pine), was also a pivotal character. Michael Dorn, who would go on to find success in Star Trek: The Next Generation, starred as Officer Turner from 1979 to 1982.

CHiPs TV series

Estrada fell out with the studio over pay and was replaced by former Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner as Officer Steve McLeish, but this proved a temporary absence and Estrada returned. However, Wilcox then left permanently (rumour has it the two stars never saw eye to eye) and in 1983 the series was cancelled. However, the format was revived for CHiPs '99, a 1998 one-off made-for-television film and a sequel to the series. Both stars returned in the roles. A film remake was released in March 2017 with Michael Peña as Ponch and Dax Shepard as Jon. The film has an approval rating of 19% based on 113 reviews and an average rating of 3.7/10 on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.

In addition to its entertainment value, CHiPs (the series) also played a significant role in promoting motorcycle safety and raising awareness about the California Highway Patrol. The show even featured PSA segments at the end of each episode in the US, reinforcing important messages about wearing helmets, obeying traffic laws, and staying safe on the road. It was hardly a ground-breaking series but its combination of action-packed drama, dynamic characters and solid storylines made it an entertaining series of good old-fashioned television.

Published on April 9th, 2024. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.

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