Television in the '70s was cluttered with one-named detective shows, each with its own gimmick. Baretta: bird. McCloud: cowboy hat. Quincy: medicine. Banacek: insurance fraud and some kind of only-acceptable-in-the-'70s Don Juan complex. As for Kojak, it had Telly Savalas with his big bald head, his three-piece suits, his lollipops, his Greek pride, and his "Who loves ya, baby?" Kojak needed Savalas like those other shows needed their gimmicks, because whatever their other virtues—gritty street flavor, slangy dialogue, vérité location shooting—too many of them fell back on formula to pad out 20-odd episodes a year. Different names, same noisy shootouts.
The 22 episodes in the Kojak: Season One DVD set offer a hodgepodge of Manhattan-based police procedurals, with some homicide, some kidnapping, some mob-busting, and some undercover drug work. The stories are unified by post-French Connection scuzziness, apparent in the peeling pea-green paint on the stationhouse walls and the handwritten sign by the coffee maker that reads, "Clean Your Own Cup." Most of the show was shot on a studio lot, but each episode filmed at least a few scenes on the streets of New York, giving '70s pop archaeologists a chance to spot the Orange Julius stands in the background. And then there's Savalas, all cocky and marble-mouthed—sort of the Vin Diesel of his day—still smoking thin black cigarettes in the early episodes, before he picked up the lollipop habit. Savalas looks like an unlikely TV star, but he's got a quiet charisma as he sweats out each case with legitimate concern for the victims. The average Kojak is lean and well-written, with lots of chewy exchanges, like when Savalas laments a rogue cop by growling, "I pinned the gold on him myself," and a colleague replies, "Don't gouge yourself. He kept it polished."
As always, Universal blows the chance to treat its television library with due respect. The Kojak set has no special features, not even the well-regarded TV movie pilot The Marcus-Nelson Murders, or the cult classic 1976 Savalas variety special. Savalas died a decade ago, but creator Abby Mann is still around, as are first-season directors Richard Donner and Jeannot Szwarc, and special guest stars like Harvey Keitel and Hector Elizondo. It would've been particularly nice to hear from James Woods, who stars in one of the season's best episodes, "Death Is Not A Passing Grade," as a sociopath who taunts Savalas by stealing the detective's personal effects and leaving them at crime scenes. The plot's a little too much like Columbo, the premier mononymic detective series of the era (gimmick: trenchcoat, clunky French car, persistent questioning of smug L.A. rich folks), but surely no other cop show that aired that week featured a pairing like the wiry Woods and the sullen Savalas, matching wits in the roach-infested spaces of rent-controlled New York.