I first came to hear of Baa Baa Black Sheep while watching a YouTube upload of Battle of the Network Stars. An episode in which its star and Captain of ‘Team NBC’, Robert Conrad, suffered irreversible damage to his legendary ego when Gabe Kaplin (Welcome Back, Kotter) impressively out-sprinted him.
When I saw that Via Vision Entertainment was releasing the short-lived series, I jumped at the chance for yet another deep dive into 70s television, triggered by my post-COVID-19 memories of watching The Streets of San Francisco; also released by Via Vision.
Baa Baa Black Sheep is a dramatization of the Black Sheep Squadron, more so the antics of its misfit Marine fighter pilots, who were tasked with fending off their corner of the Pacific from the Japanese during World War II – under the command of Major Greg “Pappy” Boyington, played by Robert Conrad.
I’m going to say right off the bat, that I enjoyed Baa Baa Black Sheep, but it’s a series with quite a few flaws. What is abundantly clear, is that we have a show that not only called for, but demanded a big budget, and unfortunately, it wasn’t there. However, it was produced during a time when there were still plenty of air-worthy WWII planes available for use in both film and television and the aerial combat scenes are executed well, despite the many recycled shots. Archival war footage is used heavily for portraying the ‘mission of the week’ and is often poorly mismatched with newly shot material, which tends to deflate an otherwise great episode.
Having said all that, the backbone of Black Sheep is its characters, which as you would expect are a colourful variety, who share a bond and trust with their commanding officer, Pappy. All of the group excels in good old-fashioned corruption, primarily to maintain their supply of booze.
Robert Conrad was television’s answer to John Wayne and while he is portraying a real-life figure, the role of Major Boyington feels very tailor-made, and contrary to his below-average height, Conrad was a larger-than-life personality who had considerable influence over his projects. His wingmen, so to speak, include James Whitmore Jr. as Jim Gutterman, a temperamental but jovial second-in-command, always ready to throw hands at the drop of a hat. Whereas Robert Ginty as T.J. Wiley is your relatable everyman type, and then there’s a pre-Night Court, John Larroquette, who always manages to stand out, regardless of screen time.
Towards the end of season one, Red West enters the fold as the very disagreeable ground mechanic, Sgt. Micklin, and I quote Kurt Russell in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood when I say, “I don’t dig him, and I don’t dig the vibe he brings on set”. West was a personal friend of Conrad’s and the show did begin to change from that point, and after several noted the supporting cast members did not return for season 2, the series took somewhat of a nose-dive (no pun intended), with an emphasis on T&A to put it simply.
- Feature-length pilot: Flying Misfits
- From the NBC News Archives: Interviews with Major Gregory Boyington
VIDEO AND AUDIO
Much to my surprise, Baa Baa Black Sheep, has been on DVD in Australia before, which I would be very curious to inspect as this set from Via Vision seems to have been assembled from more than one source. Disc 1 appears to be very much ‘on the level’, whereas Disc 2 has come from “greattvshows.com” – which is an active website, but I doubt it’s the original. Either way, I advise against checking it out as it looks a little suspect.
Presented in 4:3, the picture quality is decent, bolstered by NTSC formatting. There’s a sharpness to the image, though it looks a little messy at times. This is a first-generation SD master, which is a shame as I think the series underwent a restoration, but that’s probably up to the U.S. rights holders.
2.0 Mono is fairly consistent in terms of volume, but there is some distortion during flight sequences and during a couple of episodes on the set’s second disc, the audio sounds inverted; meaning that background noise is abnormally loud while dialogue is an effort to hear. However, I don’t think this is a fault with the disc, more so an issue that stems from the source material. English HOH Subtitles are included for Season 1 only.
Baa Baa Black Sheep came to rather an unceremonial end after only 36 episodes, but overall, I think it’s better than history has given it credit for. Enthusiastically billed as a “manly” show for the male demographic, the writers still had the good sense to explore some valid themes such as trauma, superstition, and loss, while often commenting on the futility of war and the mutual respect shared among pilots on both sides, which comes across as very bittersweet in retrospect.
Available on DVD in an 8-disc collection, you can purchase Baa Baa Black Sheep online at – viavision.com.au
BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP
(1976-1977, creator: Stephen J. Cannell)
direct dvd screen captures