I’d never heard of Chiefs, a three part 1983 US television series, until recently.
But a recommendation from Overland Magazine deputy editor Jacinda Woodhead got me interested. Her pitch, which wasn’t too far off the mark, was that it has definite similarities to the recent hit series, True Detective.
Chiefs is about three generations of police chiefs in a small southern US town called Delano, each of who tries to solve a number of murders of young white men stretching from the early twenties to the early sixties.
Will Henry Lee (Wayne Rogers, better known as Captain John McIntyre from the hit show, MASH), is the town’s founding chief. A former farmer who can no longer make a living off the land, he is a decent, progressive small ‘L’ liberal and acts in his new job accordingly. Not long after his he takes the job, the body of a young white boy is found near train tracks on the outskirts of Delano. The boy was raped and there are signs he’d been beaten with a truncheon similar to that used by police. Soon, rumours surface about the disappearances of other young white men in the town’s vicinity.
The second chief is Sonny Butts (Brad Davis from the 1978 film, Midnight Express). Butts is a violent bigot who essentially lands the job because he was a hero in World War Two. The third chief, Tyler Watts (Billy Dee Williams), is another ex-army man and Delano’s first black police chief.
Two other characters are particularly important. Charlton Heston is Hugh Holmes, one of the town’s founders, its moderate ruling class patriarch and the head of the local bank. He is in all three episodes and his voice over provides the main cross-generational continuity for the story. Keith Carridine plays Foxy Funderburke, a World War One veteran and racist gun-totting recluse who is viewed by the majority of the town as nothing but a harmless oddity.
Plot-wise, the most interesting aspect of Chiefs is how it is strongly inferred who the murderer is in episode one (Funderburke) and confirmed in episode two. Lee has his suspicions Funderburke is involved in the murder of the first young man whose body is found but before he can do anything about it, he is shot by a black man who is delirious with malaria. Butts stumbles across some of his predecessors’ old paperwork in an abandoned roll top desk, realises Funderburke is the killer, confronts him but is shot dead by his suspect and buried on Funderburke’s property.
Watts is recruited from the military police to the job as chief by Will Henry Lee’s son, Billy, who has come home from World War Two, studied to be a lawyer and entered politics. A progressive and an anti-segregationist, Billy rises to the top of the state’s politics under the patronage of Holmes. He does not know until the very end that Watts is actually the son of the man who killed his father.
Meanwhile, Watts has to go up against the local Klan and the town’s racist establishment, in order to prove that Funderburke is the killer. He eventually gets permission to search Funderburke’s property. Funderburke is shot resisting arrest and over forty graves are unearthed.
Chiefs is similar to a lot of the big budget, sweeping historical sagas that graced out television screens in the eighties. It exudes Pax Americana and is full of virtuous, benevolent white males (and a few women in supporting roles) standing up for what is right, including a free market version of racial equality.
Parallel with this, however, is a nightmare world in which a lone man is able to get away with murder over several decades, partly because he is white and partly because the local police are either too busy either trying to keep down the town’s black population or fighting the town’s entrenched racism just to do their job. Also, and this is where the show is very similar to True Detective, Funderburke’s murder spree goes unnoticed because nearly all his victims are poor, powerless drifters. No one knows who these people are. No one cares.
While director Jerry Logan (who helmed Shogun in 1980 and Hogan’s Heroes a couple of decades earlier) plays down the homosexual aspect to Funderburke’s killings, the racial undertones to the story are vividly presented. One can also read into the show a fairly strong undercurrent of domestic blow back from America’s participation various wars.
There is a clear indication that Funderburke’s experience in World War One has somehow influenced his subsequent behaviour. While Billy emerged from World War Two a decent, socially liberal man, Butt’s has been warped by his service and views the job of policing Delano as akin to pacifying enemy territory.
Unfortunately, Chiefs is not available on DVD, meaning you’ll have to get creative if you want to see it. Make the effort, it’s well worth it.
Chiefs was based off of a Stuart Woods book. I never saw the miniseries but I remember reading the book 20+ years ago and really liking it then. I don’t know how well it holds up, but a lot of what you describe from the miniseries I remember from the book.
This is based on a novel by Stuart Woods, also entitled Chiefs. Which Wikipedia says continues with a series. I haven’t read the novel, have just been planning to for a while. I would love to see this mini series.
I didn’t know there was a book. I’ll have to chase it down.
Funny that I picked it as the ‘spiritual antecedent’ to ‘True Detective’ without knowing that was how it was recommended to you. The nature, and the largely disinterestedpolicing of crimes against the powerless was one parallel. Another is that both series focus on the crime plot and the relationships between men with equal interest.
Like you, I recommend the series as the sort of program that plays on your mind long after watching it.