George Clooney’s Pre-Fame TV Show ‘Sunset Beat’ Is So Bad It’s Great


Everyone has to start somewhere. The best surgeon in the world was once a frightened first-year resident. The best lawyer in the world spent a few summers getting coffee and making copies. This is especially evident with actors, because even their earliest roles leave a footprint. We saw Jason Alexander in a McDonald’s commercial and Leonardo DiCaprio in Growing Pains before they made it big, to name two. There are plenty of other examples. It’s a fun YouTube rabbit hole to tumble down.

It also brings us to our topic: Back in 1990, four years before he would land his star-making role on E.R., George Clooney scored the lead in a short-lived series called Sunset Beat. The show aired a two-hour pilot that year, then was shelved, and then ran for seven more episodes two years later. (Imagine that “Previously on…” segment.) We’ve discussed Sunset Beat at least once before. We might discuss it again. We are definitely going to discuss it now, though, because two things have happened since that first post:

  • After I complained loudly and repeatedly about not being able to find the two-part series premiere anywhere, a reader named Seth tracked down an old VHS copy on eBay and put it on YouTube.
  • George Clooney mentioned the show himself during his recent sit-down for David Letterman’s new Netflix show.

The time has come to discuss Sunset Beat.


The first thing you need to know about Sunset Beat is that George Clooney plays a Harley-riding undercover cop named Chic Chesbro who moonlights as the lead guitarist in a rock band called Private Prayer and wears a leather jacket over a denim jacket despite living in Southern California. You can tell he’s good at guitar because people are always asking him how he played and he always replies “Great. I always play great.” All of that is true, I promise, as is the fact that his ex-girlfriend used to be the group’s lead singer before she got hooked on drugs. She storms the stage in the opening scene. A riot breaks out outside the China Club. As she is getting arrested, she says — I’m almost sure of it — “Don’t be a hero, nosewipe” to the cop. Sunset Beat was a good show.

(There are lots of one-liners like that in the show, with my favorite being Clooney-as-Chesbro’s response to an FBI agent’s question about why he has long hair: “I have long hair so I don’t get confused for guys like you and Dan Quayle.” Find me one person who has ever confused George Clooney for Dan Quayle.)

And we will get back to the trials and tribulations of Chic Chesbro and Private Prayer in a moment, but first: A tractor-trailer is barreling down a winding cliffside road. Its driver is lost and confused and looking for a person he’s supposed to meet, who will arrive in a helicopter. He follows the road around a tight bend and then h-


Whoooaaaa we got a helicopter explosion. I think I should note here that we are less than 10 minutes into the episode. You know you’re watching a good show if there’s a rock riot at the China Club and a helicopter explosion before the first commercial break. And I should also note that the tractor-trailer is filled with somewhere north of a billion dollars in cash, which we learn when Chic Chesbro stumbles across the scene moments later and a massive pile of money tumbles onto him.

“But wait,” you say. “Why was Chic Chesbro out on this cliffside road anyway? Was he just, like, driving by?” I’m glad you asked. He was there because, in the aftermath of his ex’s antics, he had decided to rip up a picture of her and heave it over the cliff and into the ocean. You know, like everyone does.

I feel like I’m underselling just how much money was in the truck. I think a visual aid will help. That flop of hair is George Clooney.


So anyway, Chic Chesbro calls it in, which is nice because a) it proves he is a good, honest cop; and b) it allows me to introduce you to the other members of this rogue undercover biker unit. It also allows me to tell you that the leader of the unit is played by James Tolkan from Top Gun and everyone calls him “Coach.” Does Sunset Beat ever explain why everyone calls him Coach? I am pleased to inform you it does not.

The team:

JC: JC looks like a cross between George Michael in the video for “Faith” and Scott Hall from the nWo and before we see his face we are treated to a 30-second montage of him doing sick dirtbike jumps through the woods, because apparently the people who made xXx owe the producers of Sunset Beat a lot of money.

Kelly: Kelly is the son of a famous doctor. He dropped out of med school to join the unit and he hasn’t told his parents yet, which leads to an awkward dinner that he wears a hat through in an attempt to hide his new long hair. At one point in the episode, he puts mayonnaise on a hot dog and defends it by saying that he loves mayo because it is “like an egg smoothie.” This is the most disgusting thing I have ever heard.

Coolidge: Coolidge is a pretty boy who lives in a mansion that he can afford because — again, I promise this is true — his grandfather was Charlie Chaplin’s agent. He briefly has a teenage prostitute named Debbie living with him, which is fine, probably. Fun fact about Debbie: She ran off and became a prostitute because her dad told her she couldn’t be on the cheerleading team if she didn’t keep a B average. So there’s that!

Tucson: Tucson is the lone black member of the team. I was going to say that he didn’t have much to do in the premiere, but then I remembered he kicked in the window of a drug dealer’s Ferrari and then sped down a busy Los Angeles Street next to the car on his motorcycle because his foot was stuck when the dealer tried to flee. Says a lot about this show that I almost forgot that happened.


But about the billion dollars in the trailer. The money belongs to a villain named Peter Schmidt, a once-wealthy heir who blew most of his family’s fortune and is now trying to earn it back by helping cocaine dealers move money. We know he is evil before we find any of that out though, because the first time we meet him he is staring out a window and grilling subordinates by way of long, winding stories that he delivers with an accent of indeterminate European origin. That’s not just me being ignorant about the intricacies of speech, either. He calls the mayor’s office at one point to inquire about the money and the person who answers the phone literally says “he sounds European.”

Another thing about Peter Schmidt: He is a freaking lunatic. The shows drives this home by informing us he spent time in an asylum after he tried to convince people he was Hitler’s illegitimate son. And after the city confiscates the money in the trailer, he tries to threaten the mayor into returning it. When that doesn’t work, these are his next moves:

– He poisons three elephants at the zoo. This is the first thing he does. I like to picture him at a meeting with his underlings where they’re all suggesting, like, sending a threatening letter, or putting something in the newspaper, or even kidnapping someone, only for Peter to stroke his chin in thought for 90 full seconds before announcing, “No, ve must poison ze elephants.” Again, good show.

– He kidnaps the deputy mayor and tattoos “We want the money back” in Technicolor letters on the guy’s chest, which is also notable because the deputy mayor is played by David Paymer, who you might recognize as the hotel inspector from Ocean’s 13 who is terrorized with bed bugs and other atrocities, meaning David Paymer has been getting physically tormented in George Clooney-starring projects for almost three decades.


– He sends an associate into a news station to take a weatherman hostage on live television. I know I keep saying “I promise this is real,” in large part because if I were in your shoes I would be questioning all of this too, but… yeah. This is real. Here, look.


– He kidnaps JC and throws him out of a helicopter and onto the stage where Chic Chesbro and Private Prayer are playing a benefit concert that the mayor is attending. Rest in peace, JC. Hopefully heaven is a dirtbike track.

We should pause here, briefly, to discuss the nature of this unit. We are told on a number of occasions that they are undercover. We never find out what their cover is. Honestly, they don’t appear to have one. Chic Chesbro arrests people in broad daylight wearing the same outfit he wears to perform with a locally famous rock group. The clothes are the only thing remotely undercover about them, and even that’s a stretch. One nice thing about their clothes, though: A uniformed cop roasts them and their bad attitudes by saying “First you go undercover, then you get motorcycles, then you get your ears pierced, then you turn into John McEnroe.” Solid 1990-related burn.

But back to the concert.


So after Schmidt and his goons throw a cop out of a helicopter in the middle of the afternoon in front of thousands of witnesses, a group of Crips they hired stands up with automatic weapons and begins spraying bullets everywhere. The cops swarm the amphitheater and Chic Chesbro runs off after the helicopter, which is heading straight for the docks where the mayor has apparently delivered the trailer full of money to end the elephant-killing, weather-interrupting reign of terror.


Chic Chesbro catches up to them just in time and leaps off his motorcycle to grab onto the trailer. It lifts up toward the sky with him hanging on for dear life. I have made this illustration to help you understand what I mean.


Now, there are a few ways we can go from here. I see at least three options.

OPTION 1: Chic Chesbro climbs all the way up into the helicopter and takes over the controls.

OPTION 2: Chic Chesbro cuts the trailer loose and splashes to safety on it while the police track down the helicopter.

OPTION 3: Chic Chesbro empties his gun into the helicopter’s gas tank, causing a massive fireball and giving the premiere the rare exploding-helicopter bookend set.

Did you pick Option 3? I hope you did.


And then, after the day is saved and the money is recovered and the bad guys are blown to smithereens by an “undercover cop” who just sprinted off a stage in the middle of a packed concert full of people who saw his face, and after a brief scare where the rest of the team thought Chic Chesbro was dead until he came splashing up out of the water, Chesbro dumps JC’s ashes off the roof of a planetarium and the credits roll.

One last time: I promise I am not making that up.

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