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Series / In the Heat of the Night

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"Chief, maybe you care to explain that I can and will be going into that cell block. Or anywhere else I choose, when I choose. And we'd better get another thing straight. You will not call me boy. I want to like you people, and I want you people to like me. But there can't be liking without respect, and until there is that respect you will call me Mr. Tibbs!"
Virgil Tibbs, "Pilot"

In the Heat of the Night was a 1988–95 Police Procedural series set as a distant sequel to the 1967 film of the same name, itself based on a 1965 novel by John Ball.

The TV series picks up twenty years on, with a newly-married Detective Virgil Tibbs moving to Sparta, Mississippi after his mother's death. Turns out that at her funeral he was signed on as Chief of [nonexistent] Detectives by the town's opportunistic mayor. It's the 'New South', and everyone's anxious to seem racially progressive. Except, initially at least, his old pal Chief Bill Gillespie, and Gillespie's new (not to say considerably younger and hunkier) squad of flatfoots. Also, of course, several dozen bad guys. Like the parent film it pulls no punches with Southern racism, the seedy underbelly of small-town life, and the Culture Clash between big city detective Tibbs and The Sheriff Gillespie.

The series ran for five seasons on NBC before channel hopping to CBS for a further two seasons and four Made-for-TV Movies. It was kept interesting by brilliant casting choices, including Carroll O'Connor as Chief Gillespie and Howard Rollins as Tibbs.

The TV series contains examples of:

  • The Aggressive Drug Dealer: The two-parter "A Small War" has a gang of these coming from the "big city" of Jackson (the state capital) and setting up shop in Sparta, especially among the high school kids.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: "Prisoners." When finally charged, the Knight Templar sheriff who had some inmates fatally beaten gets a big-time Villainous Breakdown, crying loudly and wrecking his office while yelling that he has no friends left.
  • all lowercase letters: The show's title card is stylized this way.
  • And This Is for...: Virgil's ex-partner comes to visit and proceeds to murder several men. Before he kills the last one, he declares "This is for my brother Paulie." note 
  • Big Eater: When polygamist JJ Jefferson is poisoned inside his jail cell in ‘’A Necessary Evil’’ finding the culprit becomes difficult because each of his six wives had arrived with a snack for him (cookies, cake, pie etc). This turns up to eleven once it turns out that None of them poisoned him and instead he died from eating his cellmates poisoned fudge after finishing all of his own food besides a little the deputies took.
  • Black Gal on White Guy Drama: City Councilwoman Harriet DeLong and Chief Gillespie date and eventually marry in season 6. Of course, this being small-town Mississippi, their union brings a lot of disapproval, drama, and death threats. Ironically, when someone actually does take a shot at them, it turns out not be racially motivated at all, but simply a case of mistaken identity.
    • In a Season 2 episode, Bubba's nephew and Virgil's niece hit it off, much to their mutual uncle's displeasure because of this trope.
  • Blind and the Beast: Discussed in an episode in which a beautiful blind woman becomes a key witness to murder; in the process she and Parker, the overweight and awkward comedy-relief deputy, become a couple.
  • Book Ends: "Raped" begins with Althea being assaulted in her kitchen by a co-worker. It ends with her finally working up the nerve to walk in there—only to find him waiting for her, ready to attack her again. This time, she's able to fight him off.
  • Chase Scene: Bordering on Once an Episode, to the extent where it's cheerfully lampshaded in later seasons.
    Chief: No high speed chases!
    Bubba: ... Well, Sweet, tell the Chief I tried.
  • Christmas Episode: "My Name is Hank" and "Blessings."
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome:
    • Junior Abernathy was dropped after Season One.
    • Joanne St. John was dropped after Season Two.
    • Wilson Sweet was dropped after Season Six.
  • City of Adventure: Sparta, according to one of the characters. "I should join the Marines...I'd see less dead bodies."
  • Cliffhanger: The final episode of the second season was "Missing" which ended with the murder of Acting Chief Tom Dugan and Gillispie still held hostage by white supremacists. Originally the third season was going to start with the episode "Anniversary" which would have resolved the cliff hanger. However it was pushed back to be the sixth episode because Carroll O'Connor wanted to have the episode "Rape" open the third season since he felt it was a stronger episode that carried important social commentary, resulting in "Anniversary" being presented as a Whole Episode Flashback.
  • Clip Show: A Christmas episode had a reporter coming to town to profile the police department, prompting numerous flashbacks.
  • Coconut Superpowers: In one episode, the villain tries to get away in a small plane, but crashes. Since they didn't have the budget to actually show that, instead we just hear the crash while seeing everyone react to it.
  • Country Mouse/City Mouse: The very title of an episode that has Bubba's nephew and Virgil's niece visiting and initially clashing because of their respective tropes (the racial difference doesn't help either) before growing to like each other.
  • Culture Clash: A big part of the series. One episode has a local girl get murdered and you see the contrast between Tibbs' big-city detective approach and the small-town life: one of the deputies cuts the girl down when she's found hanged because he grew up with her and couldn't look at her like that, and Tibbs is furious at him for contaminating the crime scene. Tibbs then shocks the part-time coroner with his totally nonchalant inspection of the cadaver's privates to check for evidence of sexual assault.
  • Daddy Had a Good Reason for Abandoning You: Gillespie had an affair with a woman who married another man and left Sparta. She was pregnant and never told him. He meets his daughter when her mother is murdered.
  • Dark Secret: A hell of a lot of these get revealed in nearly every episode. Such as a girl's suicide attempt being because her grandfather had been molesting her and had done so to her mother, etc.
  • Deep South: Played up even more than in the movie, by way of contrasting old attitudes with new.
  • Derailing Love Interests: When Virgil returns to Sparta without Althea, he tells Bill that "she hated it here, hates my work, hates her work, isn't interested in making our marriage work", etc., a stark contrast to the loving and supportive wife she'd always been. Although she had gradually become more disillusioned as time went on, hatred seems like an extreme leap to explain the character's absence simply because her portrayer no longer wanted to be on the show.
  • Domestic Abuse: One episode combines this with Parental Abandonment. A woman kills her abusive husband, flees to another city where she changes her name and gets a new life, all while she left her daughter behind in an empty house. Also the episode "Love, Honor, Obey", which deals with the typical plot of a battered wife who's too afraid/ashamed to admit to it.
    • The topic is also hinted at in several other episodes. Among them is "Triangle," where a man murders his wife and her lover after walking in on them. Throughout the episode, the man's son, upon learning that his mother is dead, tells authorities and a teacher he knew this was likely coming: He had heard his parents argue in the past and that he had threatened to kill her several times.
  • Drunk Driver: The subject of several episodes, most notably, "Forever Fifteen." In this Tearjerker episode, three teenaged girls, all members of the Sparta High School cheerleading squad, are killed when their car is forced off the road by a drunk driver, with one of the girls dying in one of the officer's arms; a fourth is left in a vegetative state and will likely die. As the town grieves the girls' deaths, the officers search for the suspect, all while being hounded by a publicity-seeking district attorney who accuses them of failing to arrest the drunk driver. Eventually, the officers realize the district attorney was the drunk driver, his admonitions being a way to cover his tracks.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • "Fairest Of Them All", a young pageant contestant kills herself over threats from a rival's mother to reveal the girl's dark secrets (that friend's mom had engineered, as it happened). Another episode has a teenage girl's suicide attempt leading to the revelation that her grandfather had been molesting her, after years of doing the same to her mother.
    • "Perversions of Justice," after a young teacher has been accused of molesting one of his students. Even though by episode's end he is cleared of the accusations and other circumstantial evidence is found to have explanations, his reputation is ruined and his chances at moving anywhere to rebuild his career are less than zero. With death threats continuing to mount and worried that he will now be told to stay away from his surviving family (his parents had died several years earlier in a car accident), the teacher locks himself in his garage and starts his car ... and only when police do a welfare check hours later will reveal the outcome.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Several episodes focus on this and how it's destroying Sparta (it was the 90's; see also Real Life Writes the Plot below). The most blatant example is probably "Cracked", wherein a clean-cut, rather naive thirteen-year-old girl tries crack, rapidly gets hooked, and dies horribly over the course of only a few weeks.
  • Fake Alibi: In "Rape", Chief Gillespie starts to suspect that Monster of the Week Ainslee, who raped Althea Tibbs, is a Serial Rapist and that his wife has been covering for him by giving him alibis for the various assaults he's accused of. He manages to guilt-trip her into fessing up and gets a warrant to arrest Ainslee.
  • Femme Fatale: "Lady Bug, Lady Bug" features Christine Tate, who seduces a man into helping her murder he husband and then kills him when he tries to blackmail her. The plot of the episode would feel very at home in a Film Noir.
  • How We Got Here: "Indiscretions" pairs this with a Framing Device. It begins with the Tibbs' and Sweet leaving a funeral. Althea begins to read the diary of the friend who they just buried and we promptly get multiple flashbacks that tell us how she came to this sad fate.
  • Knight Templar: The gang of vigilante police officers from "Brotherly Love." While they do target actual criminals like murderers, rapists, and drug dealers, they are also perfectly fine with taking out anyone who gets in their way, like nosy fellow officers, and even a little old lady witness.
  • Long-Lost Relative: Chief Gillespie's daughter, Lana. She initially hates him for Disappeared Dad reasons, but the two grow close over the course of the show, and are amiable by Season Seven.
  • Not the First Victim: Following Althea Tibbs being assaulted and raped in "Rape", after reviewing the crime scene Chief Gillespie becomes convinced that this wasn't the assailants first attack as the particulars of the crime scene suggest a level of experience. Sure enough by tracking the suspect Steven Ainslee's movements, Gillespie discovers he raped at least two other women in the previous towns he worked in.
  • Oh, Crap!: An epic one at the end of "Hello in There" when the killer is confronted by the son of the man he murdered (who was an old teammate of Bubba's), who had witnessed his murder, which had initially been ruled a suicide and who had been rendered mute by the murder. The kid walks up to him, pulls out his gold watch (which he had seen when his father was murdered) and finally says these words "You killed my daddy." Gillespie then says "The child speaks." and the villain literally looks like he's about to crap his pants.
  • The Only One: The local police force vs. FBI variant is the central plot of one episode, in which the Sparta DA's daughter is kidnapped and Gillespie's force—using their small-town savvy—competes (almost literally) with by-the-book FBI agents to locate her.
  • Noble Bigot with a Badge: Parker, the most laid back and affable of the officers, turns out to be shockingly racist towards Vietnamese people (and possibly Asian people in general) in "My Name is Hank." It turns out that he has a Dark and Troubled Past that involves being captured and brutally tortured during the Vietnam War.
  • Pædo Hunt: Deconstructed. In one episode an older male teacher is accused of molestation by a child; the Sparta PD are forced to take it seriously when it turns out the teacher has a previous conviction as a sex offender and had left a previous teaching position under unknown circumstances. Despite the lack of evidence, and partially thanks to an overzealous reporter, a witch-hunt ensues, with people harassing him and shooting at his house (Deep South, remember?) Eventually he is Driven to Suicide ... whereupon it's discovered that the previous charge was about his mooning someone as a stupid teenage pranknote , that he left the previous job upon suffering a nervous breakdown (his parents had been killed in a car accident and he never returned from a voluntary leave of absence), and the child in this case had only accused his teacher so he could spend more time at home with his father, who was raising him alone and had recently been switched to second shift at work. Tragic stuff.
    • Even more tragically, nobody wants to accept the fact that the teacher was 100-percent cleared of any wrongdoing. The school principal adamantly refuses to lift the teacher's suspension; even after she is pressed on whether she had ever done anything dumb and stupid, she is still adamant about throwing him under the bus, insisting that the teacher's indecent exposure charge from years earlier was proof of his pedophillic character, and that the matter was in the school board's hands. At episode's end, the aforementioned newspaper reporter, wanting to do a follow-up, says that maybe it was a good thing that the teacher killed himself ... after all, it surely proves he's guilty, right? Chief Gillespie quickly and angrily sets the reporter straight and tells him he was just as responsible as everyone else for ruining the teacher's name, reputation and chances for finding another job. The only one to show any remorse is the teacher's accuser, and this is only after Chief Gillespie prods his conscience and helps him understand that, in essence, the accusation such as what was made against his teacher was very serious and that, even if said accusation is proven false, his reputation could be permanently ruined. The boy begins to cry and says he's sorry, after which Gillespie takes him aside and comforts him.
  • Pom-Pom Girl: The Sparta High cheerleaders who are killed or injured by a Drunk Driver in "Fifteen Forever" are described as friendly, well-meaning girls who everyone liked.
  • Poorly-Disguised Pilot: "Just a Country Boy" and "Unfinished Business" were this for Bubba.
  • Put on a Bus: Eventually, Rollins' addiction-fueled unreliability became critical, so Tibbs became a lawyer and left Sparta to pursue his new career. He returned in the final season as an occasional guest star, having decided to join a practice in town. However further addiction-fueled trouble resulted in Rollins being permanently dropped from the show.
  • Rape as Drama: Althea is brutally assaulted by a misogynistic coworker. The rape isn't forgotten about after one episode—although she recovers and moves on, it remains a permanent part of her psyche and years later, contributes to an offscreen separation from her husband.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: An unfortunate series of interruptions in both leads' careers — O'Connor's heart surgery, Rollins' struggles with addiction — led to one or the other of their characters frequently being away at 'conventions' or 'seminars'. Given that O'Connor's son Hugh, who played Sgt. Lonnie Jamison, was also a heavy drug user (leading directly to his suicide shortly after the show ended), it's not difficult to find the apparent inspiration for the show's numerous Drugs Are Bad-themed episodes and general heavily anti-drug stance.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Gillespie delivers a memorable one to a young, overzealous editor just hired at the Sparta Herald. Already the police force and newspaper have had a love-hate relationship, although Gillespie and his staff are willing to work with the Herald to inform the public and have a grudging respect for each other. However, in "Perversions of Justice," when the editor goes too far and way oversteps his boundaries, Gillespie gives him a piece of his mind, telling him that he convicted a young teacher, accused of sexual molestation of a child but later proven innocent, without a trial or even criminal charge, and that it helped drive the man to his suicide. When the reporter says that he has a right to harm a man's reputation just because he's the press (under the guise of "informing the public"), and that he can do the same to Gillespie, the chief really blows his top: "I am legally obligated to suffer you and protect you, but I will surely fail in my duty unless I stay away from you ... AND YOU STAY AWAY FROM ME!!!" (Gillespie is so angry, in fact, that after the editor leaves, he is literally shaking as he puts his glasses and hat back on.) note 
    • He also gives a very good one to the wife of Althea's rapist, not only blasting her for her denial and blind loyalty to him, but outright telling her that she's as bad as her husband.
    "You may as well have been in the Tibbs' kitchen with your husband, holding down Mrs. Tibbs! I know you for what you are! You're a sadistic silent partner and you make me sick! You make me SICK!"
  • Red Herring:
    • In one episode, a minister's murder is believed to be because he wanted to integrate his church. It turns out to be because he was sleeping with several of the female parishioners. Further herrings included his lovestruck secretary, cuckolded wife, and the husband of one of his lovers being completely innocent despite being enraged at his behavior (and in the secretary's case, also furious that he'd never given her a second look). The killer turned out to be the equally furious father of another one of his lovers.
    • In A Necessary Evil, None of the six wives of the just outed bigamist killed him. His death was a case of Murder by Mistake when he ate some food which had been intended to poison someone else.
  • Serial Rapist: In "Rape" Chief Gillespie's hunch that Althea's rapist has done it before (he thinks the particulars of the crime scene show signs of experience) proves key to cracking the suspect's alibi. Indeed, the investigation discovers that he was accused of rape in two other towns where he taught. The common thread is his wife providing him with an alibi.
    "It's not over for Althea Tibbs. And it's not over for the next woman your husband rapes. And we both know he's going to rape someone again, don't we?"
  • Shown Their Work: "The Rabbi" gets all the relevant details about Judaism correct.
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: Averted as Althea is a social worker and many episodes involve her helping the police with talking to the family members of victims, helping the kids at Sparta High, and random people in the community. Social Services is called in (from the big city of Jackson) as the plot requires, usually in the case of abandoned children.
  • Stage Mom: The aforementioned "Fairest of Them All" features one of these so determined that her daughter win a local pageant that she arranges for someone to drug the girl's chief rival, take nude pictures of her, then threaten to leak the photos to the press unless the girl drops out of the pageant.
  • Strawman News Media: At times with the Sparta Herald, but in particular "Perversions of Justice" (when its new editor, Jethro Puller, publishes a story about a teacher being accused of sexual exploitation of a child without charges being filed), and when, after the teacher takes his life (even after being exonerated by the police when the accusations prove to be false), Puller tells Gillespie he plans to write a story suggesting the man's suicide was a sure indication that he was guilty. Gillespie tells off Puller and tells him he refuses to associate with him any longer; it is implied that Puller was forced out not long thereafter.
  • Suspiciously Clean Criminal Record: The infamous episode "Perversions of Justice," in which a young teacher is accused (falsely) of inappropriately touching a student's private parts. As a witch hunt ensues, the officers do a background check, and all they find is an indecent exposure charge... back when he was in college, said incident having been part of a drunken late-night romp. (Gillespie and his officers let it slide, as they recall their own drunken, dumb-and-stupid antics as young college-aged adults.) One other incident that comes up, however — a heretofore unexplained resignation from a previous job — wasn't even for criminal reasons: The teacher was grieving the deaths of his parents in a car accident and had a nervous breakdown in the classroom; the teacher’s former boss reveals this to an officer, Capt. Bubba Skinner. Unfortunately, neither the revelation of these facts nor the accuser later admitting the accusation was false will do anything to restore the teacher's reputation.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: In the episode "The First Girl", Sparta gains and loses it's first black female police officer within a matter of days when the inexperienced officer is killed in a shoot-out. By the episode's end, her replacement is another black female who looks very much like her.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: The Mercy Kill-driven doctor in one episode. He truly wants to end his victims' pain, and he only acts if they consent first.
  • Teen Pregnancy: one episode has a girl concealing her pregnancy and when she has the baby, throws it in a dumpster and it dies.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: In the Season 2 episode "Missing," acting police chief Tom Dugan is — in the final scene — ambused and killed by two men wearing pig masks in a secluded forest area after he is given a false tip in connection with a series of race-related murders near Sparta. (Dugan — whose character had been created after Carroll O'Connor took a health-related leave of absence — had been working undercover for the FBI to solve the case. By the number of gunshots heard just before the Fade to Black ... Dugan was shot at least 18 times; needless to say, he doesn't survive.
  • They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!: This series, naturally, does a riff on this in the pilot. A white deputy, not realizing who Tibbs is, chastises him for entering a private area of the police station - "Boy! You ain't supposed to be in there!" Tibbs promptly sits him down, with all the force of Howard Rollins' Oscar-winning intensity:
    Tibbs: I want to like you people; and I want you people to like me. But there can be no liking without respect, and until there is that respect you. Will call me. Mister. Tibbs.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: In S3E1 "Rape", Chief Gillespie delivers a scathing one to the rapist's wife who had been protecting him with bogus alibis. It shocks her enough that she finally confesses to having lied. It also doubles as an Actor Allusion for Carroll O'Connor, as it's very similar to the speech Gloria gives Edith Bunker when she expresses reluctance to report her sexual assault to the police in the All in the Family episode "Edith's 50th Birthday".
  • Throwing the Fight: Subverted in S3E10, "King's Ransom". Ex-boxer Conrad "King" Baylor told some friends a story: Mobsters approached him the night of a fight, and gave him $2,000 to throw his match. He took the money, then bet it on himself, intending to go out there and screw over the mobsters. Unfortunately, his opposition was a little better than he thought, and he wound up losing. The mobsters met him post-fight, and gave him another $3,000 "for making the knockout so real".
  • Unto Us a Son and Daughter Are Born: Virgil and Althea's twins.
  • Victim of the Week: It's a Police Procedural. That's a standard of the genre.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: After Ainslee, Althea's rapist, gets bailed out of jail, he goes and bothers Althea again at a church. Virgil storms out, beats the crap out of him, and nearly strangles him, only for Gillespie to pull him off of Ainslee and ream him out because it's not going to help and an assault charge against Virgil is only going to make it harder to nail Ainslee to the wall.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: The "Brotherly Love" two-parter with the gang of Knight Templar police officers comes off like a revamp of Magnum Force.