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Got a problem? Odds against you? Call the Equalizer.—newspaper advertisement.
An action-adventure television series originally broadcast on the CBS Network between 1985 and 1989. It starred British actor Edward Woodward as Robert McCall aka 'The Equalizer', a retired spy who assists people in need by way of atoning for his past actions as a premiere agent of the... er... 'Company'. Yeah, that's the ticket.
The character's past is never fully revealed to the audience, but is implied to be full of amoral shadows and secrets. He is a ruthless and pragmatic man, a killer many times over -- but also a sensitive and honourable man, whose humanity has somehow survived years of terrible disillusionment. The series' expert juxtaposition of all of these elements -- and the flat refusal to apologise for or justify any of them -- is what has made it a cult classic. (Well, that and the cool Stewart Copeland soundtrack.)
In keeping with this dedication to the grey areas, the Equalizer's clients are usually average New York citizens seeking protection from stalkers, neighborhood hoodlums, abusive husbands, corrupt politicians, crooked businessmen and other largely untouchable villains. His fees are nominal and frequently waived altogether, while his services inevitably go far beyond simple bodyguarding.
A standard episode generally begins with the Equalizer convincing his reluctant client that hiring what appears to be a Brit-accented Charles Bronson is a good idea -- or, in a few notable instances, explaining why 'just shooting them all' is not the answer -- and ends with the execution of a complex (and often cruelly ironic) extended mindgame that leaves his opponents so crazed that they're either sobbing for mercy or forcing McCall to shoot them in self-defense. There is not a lot in the way of redemption, on this series, and what there is has been hard-earned.
He is helped in his investigations by contacts acquired during his intelligence years, ranging from scientists to mercenaries. Notable among these -- more so in later years, when health problems forced actor Woodward to slow down -- is recurring sidekick Mickey Kostmayer (Keith Szarabajka), a junior agent who doesn't quite understand what drives McCall's crusade but is ferociously loyal anyway (it's stated in one episode that Mickey had been convicted of Fragging his superior officer, and McCall proved his innocence). McCall also reluctantly does assignments for his former boss, known only as Control (Robert Lansing), who in payment turns a blind eye to this wholesale 'borrowing' of Agency personnel.
This show contains examples of:
- The Atoner
- Badass Grandpa: While Robert McCall has a son who is about 20-25 years old, he doesn't seem to have any grandchildren. Regardless, he is still definitely a Badass Old Guy.
- Badass Longcoat
- Batman Gambit. McCall is a master manipulator and uses psychological warfare very effectively.
- Brainwashed and Crazy: Mickey, at least temporarily, after the Mind Rape below.
- Calling the Old Man Out: McCall's estranged son Scott doesn't hesitate to express how he feels about his dad being gone for most of his life. Neither is he impressed when he later finds out what McCall did for the Agency (like helping set up brutal dictatorships).
- Cool Car: McCall drives a black Jaguar XJ6, much to the dismay of clients who naturally assume his services are expensive.
- Defictionalization: Sometimes while on location on the streets of New York, Woodward would add money to parking meters that he noticed were about to expire, to save complete strangers a ticket -- an act that some NYC officials called (mildly) illegal. He would often leave a small card marked "Compliments of The Equalizer." Once the show became a hit, Woodward was also approached for assistance by so many people he started carrying leaflets for organisations that could actually help people in trouble.
- Dramatic Chase Opening. Subverted. The opening credits are a collection of dramatic chase openings, but they're so many that they get switched before the actual chases begin.
- Drowning My Sorrows: Notably by McCall in one episode.
- 555. The phone number on the Equalizer's newspaper advertisement. Spoofed on the Late Show when David Letterman rang the number and ends up talking to a woman in Information.
- Floorboard Failure: Comes up as the Equalizer is being menaced by the villain on a building site. He warns the villain not to come any closer because there are broken boards between them; of course the bad guy doesn't trust this, so steps onto the broken boards and falls to his death.
- The Gunslinger: Several characters, but notably Kostmayer, who always carries a handy Uzi or Ingram submachine gun.
Mickey: So why can't we just bust in there and start shooting [the kidnappers]? Take 'em by surprise.
McCall:: Mickey, there is a five-year-old child in that room!
Mickey: Oh, yeah. [lowers Micro-Uzi sheepishly] I, uh, forgot.
- Government Agency of Fiction: McCall's former employer is only referred to as "The Agency" or "The Company", both well-known nicknames for the CIA. Not actually calling it the CIA gets around the issue of how the mysterious Agency can legally operate inside the United States.
- Handguns: McCall carries a stainless steel Walther PPK/S with Pachmayr grips. He's also seen using the .357 Desert Eagle, and the Uzi in its SMG or pistol variants.
- Hey, It's That Guy! / Hey, It's That Voice!: The series featured a large number of guest stars, some of whom would go on to achieve fame in later years such as Macaulay Culkin, Christian Slater, Kevin Spacey, Steve Buscemi, Laurence Fishburne, and Stanley Tucci. Then there's Keith Szarabajka, who kicked off an amazingly extensive genre career with this series.
- Improvised Weapon: One episode has McCall accidently held hostage, whereupon he proceeds to kill the terrorists using a coat-hook screw rammed through the jaw and stranglation with a tie.
- Karmic Death (actually more Karmic Punishment as those villains who die are usually just shot by McCall): Examples include a man who was robbing deaf people temporarily losing his hearing after McCall blasts him with a sound weapon, and a slum landlord almost losing his life in a fire set by his own hired arsonists.
- Mad Magazine: The Tranquilizer.
- Mind Rape: A favourite tactic of McCall's. Also used to brainwash Mickey into (almost) assassinating him in one episode.
- Never Be a Hero: Scott sometimes tries to copy his father's methods, but usually ends up making an idiot of himself.
- New York City: The location shooting, and access to the Big Apple's wide pool of acting talent (including actors who were appearing on Broadway at the time) certainly didn't hurt this series.
- Police Are Useless: Albeit presented sympathetically as hamstrung by the larger justice system.
McCall: Who runs this city?
Detective: We do.
McCall: When your backs are turned, who runs this city?
- Private Detective, Spy Fiction, Vigilante Man: The series draws on tropes from all of these genres.
- Shoe Phone: Subverted as all the spy gadgets used by McCall are available commercially in real life.
- Shout-Out: McCall's troubled past clearly draws on Edward Woodward's title role in the 1967-72 British Series Callan about a reluctant killer in the murky world of espionage; as well as issues raised by the trial of 'Subway Vigilante' Bernard Goetz and the movie Death Wish (as seen in a Mad Magazine spoof where Goetz, Charles Bronson and the Equalizer argue over who should shoot a subway mugger). His Walther PPK is an obvious reference to that most famous British spy, James Bond.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: An in-depth exploration of this is pretty much the entire point of the series.
- Spiritual Successor: Try watching Burn Notice after watching this show. Just try.
- The Spymaster: Control.
- Suspiciously Similar Substitute: After Edward Woodward suffered a heart attack that forced him to cut down on his acting for awhile, the 'Equalizer' role was temporarily shared with Richard Jordan and Robert Mitchum (also playing former members of the Agency).
- Title Drop: In the classified ad, as well as people who answer the ad when they first meet McCall
- Vigilante Execution: Averted. McCall never shoots anyone in cold blood, as noted preferring to use psychological warfare to inspire a confession or attitude-adjustment (though quite a few villains conveniently pull a gun at the climax so McCall can kill them in self-defense).
- Vigilante Man
- Wall of Weapons: Hidden behind a tool board in his apartment's workshop.
- Warrior Poet: McCall is a man of culture and education.
- We Help the Helpless
- Where Does He Get All Those Wonderful Toys?: The question of how McCall can afford his Cool Car, expensive New York apartment, and equipment is lampshaded several times, but never answered directly. It's implied that McCall was in a position to make (or perhaps skim) a large amount of money during his time with the Agency.