Character Studies 5: Family

Traditional family in this series is a troubling and nefarious thing, all the more remarkable if you consider only a decade before the television version of the American nuclear family was only precious and admirable but staunchly patriotic in a way. Deviation from the norm was risky, a staple of comedy, as the single girl pratfalls her way to marriage (there are exceptions, of course). In “Starsky & Hutch” family takes on another, more challenging definition, perhaps indicative of the fractured times in which it was made, but also because the writers (some consciously, some not) understood those old notions were inauthentic to begin with, fraught with disappointment and emptiness. The integrity of the partnership of Starsky and Hutch is emphasized by the fact that their main consanguinity is with each other. Here, the outside world of ancestral obligation has ceased to matter. Both men have been seriously ill or wounded and there’s never any mention of letting family members know. Hutch, particularly, during “Plague”, is very ill for a prolonged period of time but never mentions family or other friends when it seems he’s going to die. I can understand in “A Coffin For Starsky” where every second counts and it would be a major distraction to engage others (here the doctor pointedly recommends contacting family members only to be studiously ignored by Hutch). But the long days and nights during “The Plague”? What about “Sweet Revenge”, when Starsky is in the hospital, in serious condition, for weeks, maybe months? Only Huggy, it seems, and Dobey, are on the list, included and even cherished but somehow expendable, lingering on the edges of the action like cousins at a wedding.

When Starsky claims he calls his mother every week one wonders how much judicious editing is involved in his rundown of the week’s events. And, given his past – a father gunned down – I bet his mother is a bit of a nervous wreck and probably doesn’t want to hear the details anyway. Possibly they don’t have much of a close relationship, despite the impression he gives of being a loyal son. When the only close family member to either man appears it’s a bit of a shock and not a nice one: the arrival of brother Nick just brings a lot of trouble. Despite a nice rough-and-tumble quality to their interaction with each other, Nick is just a pain in the ass and everybody, Starsky included, is glad when he’s gone; he’s never mentioned again. Starsky also entertains Hutch with a series of stories about erstwhile uncles and aunts (notably won ton-making Aunt Rose) in such a colorful way one is tempted to believe these are Scheherazade-like stories not to be taken literally, Starsky’s endearing attempt to distract and entertain his partner through the rough times. The death of Starsky’s father is a pivotal point in the confusing and rather long-winded “The Set-Up”, but the details remain hazy. Fans like me can make up whatever stuff we want, but the fact is we never know Starsky’s father’s name, his occupation, or the manner of his death. It is a plot device and nothing more; as much as we want “father gunned down by the mob” to form the bedrock of Starsky’s heroic determination, it’s just wishful thinking on our part, an attempt to fill a very big blank. Hutch, on the other hand, never gives an impression of anything other than solitary: ex-wife Vanessa’s intrusion is just that, an intrusion, and an unwelcome one at that. Although there is an oblique mention of a sister (in the tag of “Starsky’s Lady”) there is nothing much to that, either. He mentions his grandfather was a farmer in two episodes, a generalized comment without any emotional significance. His only familial association outside of Starsky is with Kiko, a bond formed through a social outreach program and therefore fitted with the tight regulations and shut-off valves Hutch requires. Hutch, like Starsky, has redefined what family is.

That said, how great would it be to have a few episodes when they go back to their childhood haunts, dragging the other along; how would Starsky behave, sitting in a Minnesota kitchen with a bunch of awkward twin-set-wearing suburbanites?  And just how often would Hutch get the air squeezed out of him by voluble big-hearted aunties? One can imagine the action: murder disguised as an ice-fishing accident in one, a gangland slaying in Chinatown in the other. One partner needing the other to interpret the local vernacular, the skeptical locals against the foreigner. Baseball-cap-wearing yahoos menacing the oh-so-urban Starsky, and, conversely, Hutch lost in the fidelities and complications of the big city.

The absence of family is another insulating barrier between Starsky and Hutch and the rest of the world. Already isolated from the police department by their liberal attitudes and the politics of the New Male, unable or perhaps unwilling to forge serious romantic attachments to any number of anxious volunteers, and now turning away from the so-called traditional family, it’s basically an us-against-the-world situation. This is both a perfect encapsulation of its time and an essential element to this most unique partnership, Loners rarely come in pairs, but these ones do.

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7 Responses to “Character Studies 5: Family”

  1. hutchlover Says:

    Ah…but all these gap is what fanfiction is for! LOL

    • King David Says:

      If one is realistic, yes, it is odd that no extraneous family members turn up at times of tragedy, but it would get in the way of the viewer’s attachment and focus, so obviously has to be discarded (without even being explained adequately, if we’re honest).
      I thought that Starsky was fond of his mum, perhaps a bit indulgent of her, yet kept her in the dark as to much of his life, probably to keep her happy. I just felt that he didn’t see the need to burden her with the rigours of his sordid work situations, perhaps preferring to keep her from fretting, or more likely, so she doesn’t make a case for him quitting police work and therefore leaving Hutch. God forbid!

      (fan fiction…mmmmm…)

  2. Adelaide Says:

    *sigh* Merl, your “picture this” ideas about Starsky and Hutch visiting each other’s childhood haunts and families and having to solve suitable crimes in those locations are so perfect and well-suited to the show and the guys’ characters that I can just imagine the episodes in front of me as if they had really aired. I dare you to write them! I’m quite serious about this.

    I always found what you say about the hospital stays doubly odd given that they seem to have so many friends who fall into that zone between acquaintances and intimate friends, who pop up for one episode and then vanish never to be seen or mentioned again despite showing a genuine and believable affection and connection to them in the particular episode in which they appear. What happens to them all? The Watsonian answer, that is, not the Doylist one about the difficulty of keeping recurring actors at the ready and getting them to fit into a 45 minute episode? It seems that S & H are naturally predisposed to be friendly and make connections, but something, most likely the nature of their jobs, keeps these friendships, no matter how sincere, in a zone firmly outside their work-partnership bubble. Only Terry seems to have ever turned them, even temporarily, into a trio rather than a duo.

    If this show had more self-aware continuity, one could interpret their steadily dwindling supply of other friends, due to death, tragedy, geographical distance, betrayal, disability, or whatever other possible explanations, as one more contributing factor in their unhappiness in season 4. As another fan once wrote long ago, no matter how fulfilling their partnership is, no man is an island, and two men do not an archipelago make — not forever and ever, anyway. Even married couples with kids who have no friends are frequently unsatisfied. I like to hope that the months-long period of recovery and rehabilitation no doubt required after Sweet Revenge, which Hutch’s life would surely be just as affected by as Starsky’s itself, might give them the opportunity to make some more new friends. (Allison May comes to mind…wouldn’t Starsky be ecstatic to be reunited with his old friend who he was so sure had been dead those past decades? She might have been holed up in a safe house somewhere for the duration of Starsky vs Hutch and Sweet Revenge…)

    • merltheearl Says:

      Adelaide, you have tapped into my most secret, most bossy, wistful and reprehensibly controlling side: that is, the part of me that wishes I could rewrite (or at least edit) almost all the episodes in the canon. As I wrote that section on revisiting childhood haunts I could also picture it so clearly it was as if it really happened. But maybe that’s where it should stay, in our imaginations. Which is also why I don’t want anyone to remake this series, the way poor Sherlock has popped up in New York with a puzzling new Watson. Speaking of which I love your categorization of how we are to look at the show’s inconsistencies. I tend to err on the Doylist side (I can’t quite make myself immerse in the fantasy) and say budget cuts and writers’ indifference to continuity is the reason Starsky and Hutch’s bedsides are not crowded with well-wishers. But perhaps a better way to look at it is to somehow accept that much of the series is quasi-metaphorical, that is to say, there but not. It is a highly stylized version of events rather than the events themselves, with all the extraneous details erased. Taking this philosophical stance allows us to accept many potentially non-acceptable things: near-deserted hospital rooms, the magically reappearing Torino, gunshot wounds healing without repercussion, and the total lack of legal action against the detectives for all the damage – collateral and not – they have inflicted over the years. Perhaps “Sweet Revenge” should have ended with a fade-in to Starsky and Hutch sitting with a nervous Kiko in his dress uniform on the eve of graduation from the police academy, saying “…and that’s the way it happened.”

    • Anna Says:

      Fascinating and perceptive analysis as usual, merl. It interests me especially that this is something visible mostly only across episodes, not within episodes. As other commenters on the blog have mentioned, within episodes, they appear to have close (to the point of almost honorary-uncle-status), long-standing and authentic friendships, often with whole families, new friendships are forged, they are welcoming, open, and quick to become loyal to and embrace the people they meet. I was struck by your analysis of this aspect of their personalities in your review of “The Heavyweight” (as you may have inferred from my long-winded comment ;)) This makes me think their status as “loners” is more circumstance than a Sherlock Holmes-like personality trait.

      A thought: I had a close older family friend whose elderly father had grown up as an orphan in a (pretty good) orphanage, no family whatsoever, no stable family bedrock. In spite of this — or rather, I believe, precisely because of it — this father was one of the sweetest and most friendly, accepting, loving people we knew, welcoming anyone and everyone who he hit it off with into his home and heart, likely because he had no ingrained notions of excluding people on the basis of being “not family.” I wonder if Starsky and Hutch are anything like this. Both seem disconnected in some way from society’s “correct” channels for cultivating belonging and affection (family and marriage) and forge it outside the box instead wherever they find opportunity. Because of the time and energy limitations enforced by their partnership, the lure of their magical chemistry, and the cumulative effect of their long history of shared ordeals, it is mostly with each other.

      • merltheearl Says:

        Anna, comments like this one make my week. What a perceptive observation about how the notion of family can change depending on circumstances. I also think this disconnect from traditional relationships also may have something to do with the idea of the “new male”, the 20th century’s increasing fracturing of tradition, and the alienation between generations brought on by the societal tumult of the 60s.

  3. Sharon Marie Says:

    Apparently Hutch has Starsky’s Mom’s phone number. He said he called her to find out what Starsky’s favorite meal was (apparently pot roast).

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