Character Studies 1: On the Outside

When the series was made between 1974 and 1979, television was not considered an art form, especially network television, and this is no exception. Experimental cable shows aside, the aim of 99% of television was to entertain and inform, and very often reflect the biases of the conservative bureaucrats running the show. This series may have begun in glitz and superficiality (“let’s make em hot!” shouts Aaron Spelling from across a quartz-top desk) and it could have been sloppy and careless, pointless and frustrating, and yes, bad decisions were made throughout (the Turkey?), shortcuts taken, and okay there are mistakes, ad libs, repeated and pasted scenes, bad casting, lazy writing, and by the forth season the engine sputters badly. But that’s the magic of it. It’s not overwritten or over-produced. There are unexplored allusions and innuendos, holes and spaces. The intention always overshadowed the product – it’s these spaces, these holes, that become a mine of riches, allowing us to enter into imagination and extrapolation. 

Compared to the tightly scripted, music-laden, tougher and generally much better television today, Starsky and Hutch can be a bit of a bewildering mix of the astonishing, spontaneous, haphazard and earnest. The actors are fearless and instinctive rather than calculated or self-important. It may never have occurred to either Glaser or Soul they were making anything approaching greatness. If anything, you get the feeling it was the most modest form of alchemy – how to make make lead less leaden. Yet they take control of their characters from the first scene and never let go. Dialogue is improvised or altered, including uncredited changes to pivotal moments, like “The Fix” and in “Gillian”, when the confrontation following her murder (arguably the best single moment in the entire series) was extemporaneous. The tags are almost always ad-libbed on the spot. All this marvelous invention, this what-the-hell approach, gives the energy between the two lead actors a crackling electricity that is almost never seen any more. And add to this the thousands of subtleties –  looks, touches, grins and personal in-jokes (the “Paul Muni type”, the Stan and Ollie moments) – they work into the scenes. Who today would be allowed to alter a script so often and with such impunity? Union crack-down, anyone? Despite famous stand-offs and threats and contract problems – and flaring egos, particularly Glaser, the despair when the integrity of the show began to crack and split at the edges – they still care enough to imbue their characters with subtlety and consistency. There hasn’t anything remotely like it before, or since. Making what many at the time considered trash, what I suspect the producers, actors and directors might have considered – in their darkest moments – as trash, they were making something unique, complex, and surprising. 

The stuff on TV in the seventies was, in many ways, like the parentless, reckless landscape of childhood at the time.  We were running free, without constraints. Nobody much cared what we were doing as long as we were home by dark, much like nobody much cared whether Starsky and Hutch were partners for seven years previously, or five or four, or whether there was actually a tape recorder in the room when Simon Marcus made his statements, or whether the actors stumbled or made up lines or walked into the wrong shot. TV was loose, glittery, productions waved into being by a bunch of amoral executives in air-conditioned offices. In the seventies, we did what we wanted. We made do. We were alone in our little worlds, no social networks to connect us. A hand-turned crank of an antenna brought in the signal from another city, bedroom door closed against another smoke-filled dinner party. Neighbors molested children, a hookah sat in the living room, we cut the gum out of our own hair. If you were a fan you wrote to the address on the back of a teen magazine and waited for eight agonizing weeks until your stapled-together booklet and signed photo arrived in the mail. There was nobody to care for us.

What Glaser and Soul did, as best as they could, was to care for their characters to make up for the shocking lack of it from above them (I’m not implying everyone didn’t have the same level of commitment the actors did; there were many wonderful writers and directors and crew members who obviously thought highly of the series and who are responsible for much of the glory of it. I’m saying the general climate of the times was not conducive to quality, and the necessary supports were not there.) The actors gave their characters layers of nuance, pushing the emotional boundaries between men, doing the best they could while deafened and distracted by the screams of teenagers. Watching now, it all seems rushed and disorganized, existing only as a tally at the end of the month, high ratings for producers and diamond bracelets for the wives, middling grades for wild children, white socks and Easter baskets, parents and television executives completely ignorant of the craziness raging below the surface.

And us, the lonely kids at the back of the room, dreaming of Starsky & Hutch, the show mingling uneasily with banging lockers and hormonal storms, that creeping sense of alienation and awkwardness, and maybe the only people who understood you in the vast and broken universe were two unlikely fictional cops from some dusty fictional suburb of a city you would never visit.

7 Responses to “Character Studies 1: On the Outside”

  1. phaedrablue4 Says:

    I think we must have been neighbors!

    • King David Says:

      We took our television seriously back then. The ‘Fonz’ was more influential than the US President, the bad guys were black-and-white and we knew they were bad guys, and the good guys gave us hope that there were good guys out there who would save us. The tag in S&H, and others, always plastered over the cracks of whatever nasty sore was opened in the main block, we breathed a sigh of relief, and put our faith in people like S&H to always behave in a way that made us feel good about feeling good about them.

      I can see, in their twilight years (many years from ‘now’) S&H playing lawn bowls and Hutch bossing Starsky about how to throw.

  2. Joan Says:

    In every post, you manage to blow us away, not only with new insights and details about this one-of-a-kind show, but with letting us ponder all over again, with a continually renewed sense of their importance and human character, the old truths about this show that everyone knows so well.

    Sometimes I wonder if you would ever, sometime in the future, wish to try to write a long essay condensing pieces of this blog into one definitive authorized work. I was recently very taken with one such deeply personal yet analytical essay on another old show, the Andy Griffith Show, which is of course very different from Starsky & Hutch, but has a similar indescribably powerful effect on the memory of people who grew up watching it, and it reminded me of the incredible mix of personal love and perceptive appreciation in The Ollie Report:

    • merltheearl Says:

      Joan, thank you so very much, I’m humbled by this comment. I read the essay and was very moved by it – it was so lyrical and evocative, and I love that he drew so many classical and contemporary parallels to his examination of this gentle series. The overall theme of mourning I found especially wonderful, an unexpected deep reading of material I thought I already knew so well. What really struck me is Andy Griffith’s polite rejection of myth status, and his good-natured but obvious discomfort with some of the convictions of the show’s fans. I think sometimes that one of my secret motivations with this blog is to write something that would not cause either Mr. Glaser or Mr. Soul – or anyone connected with the series – to cringe.

      As for your suggestion of condensing all this into a single essay, well, it’s a tall order but something I might consider down the line. It would be a good way to broadcast these ideas more widely. Again thank you for taking the time to write, and direct me to the wonderful essay.

      • Joan Says:

        You are so welcome! I had a feeling you would like it if you were familiar with the show.

        Deep readings of straightforward and simple-seeming material is a great love of mine, and attracted me to your site. After reading your blog I personally think you would be capable of writing an essay on Starsky & Hutch worthy of submitting and publishing professionally as a freelance op-ed, although I highly doubt there’s a market for such a thing right now. And after all, things that attract mainstream attention and are good at the same time are rare and often overrated, and even when they are not overrated they often attract attention for stupid distorting reasons, which is why I’ve grown to love the democracy of the internet so much over the years. There’s a great freedom and clarity to writing for yourself and flinging your ideas into cyberspace as an afterthought for anyone else who may enjoy it.

  3. Marianne Ewing Says:

    hey ,I’m here today just in case you check back in from time to time
    Essay found by serendipity(or magic) I am not alone! My parents kept a tight lead on me-never saw the real dirty world til college in1975-S &H literally got me thru my late teens & it was quite an education=when I stumbled they were there =I was always too naive= they set my moral compass-Thank you so much for this site and now my new lessons will begin=be still my beating heart

    • merltheearl Says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m glad you’ve found this site and I hope my project brings illumination and enjoyment into the watching of this fabulous, life-altering series. They set my moral compass as well, and I think they did that for so many fans, especially those at an impressionable age. You carry that flame into adulthood and it informs so much of who you are and how you see the world. To me, it’s a frustration and a shame that the show is not seen in the light it deserves – which is why I began this blog in the first place.

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