Character Studies 4: Environment

Accidentally or not, the “look” of the series is one thing producers and writers got absolutely right. You get the feeling this could be set in contemporary times without too much of a stretch. Aside from a handful of throwaway remarks about Watergate and old movie stars (Starsky, in “Death Ride”, reaches for the name of an actress and comes up with “Helen Hayes”), there really isn’t a lot to mark this series in its own time period. The only politics are inter-departmental and insular, such as a continual but vague intrusion of federal agents into local police matters. The mayor is not named – neither is the President, for that matter – and the enduring relevance and popularity of 1970s culture, its language, dress and political agenda, ensures the series magically, and against all odds, retains a look that can seem very now. After all, people still wear leather jackets and jeans, a candy-apple-red Torino is a sweet ride, and murder, last time I checked, is still very popular.

By design or default, keeping the more clownish or transient aspects of pop culture to a minimum has worked very well. Other than Season Four’s understandable obsession with disco dancing (most likely due to executives demanding the series be “relevant”) and unlike today’s television when the indie rock song interlude is a kind of cheap emotional shortcut, the only music-added scene is in “Huggy Can’t Go Home”. There is a definite lack of product placement in the scenes and a near-total absence of chain stores or recognizable landmarks. The writer Dorothy Parker once described Los Angeles as “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city” and among those anonymous, polluted enclaves is Bay City, a collection of seedy bars, parking lots, sad tenement hotels and mom-and-pop eateries. By being both specific and fictional, this invented borough has a spark of believability as it clings to the city’s underside, out of time, out of reality, a microcosm or perhaps a magnification of California itself, with its celebrity wrestlers, desiccated palm trees, various rogues and weirdos, ratty beach culture, blistering heat and the walled-off mansions of criminal emperors.

We are only occasionally treated to anachronisms – “Discomania” is replete with gold chains and polyester, for example, and the fashions in “Groupie” are the worst the decade had to offer – and it has always strikes me as ironic that the first three seasons look more contemporary than the last. The hulking sedans and unwieldy transmitters seem to blend into the general dilapidation of the neighborhood, although someone of a younger generation, unused to these appliances, may notice them more and guffaw at the predicament of finding a telephone booth to make an emergency call. But by avoiding many pitfalls of attempting to be hip or trendy, “Starsky and Hutch” remains essentially timeless. The feeling we get is one of dislocation and reinvention, that everyone is from someplace else, including Starsky and Hutch.

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