Archive for April, 2010

Episode 31: Nightmare

April 26, 2010

A young, mentally handicapped woman is raped and her attackers may go free when their case may not hold up in court.

Lisa Graham: Diana Scarwid, Nick Manning: Gerrit Graham, Mitzi Graham: Karen Morrow, Mousy Loomis: Zachary Lewis, Ass’t DA Sims: David Knapp, DA: Jim Gruzalski, Al Martin: Carl Weathers, Mr. McDevlin: Jerome Guardino. Written By: Steve Fisher, Directed By: Randal Kleiser.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

This is a compassionate episode about a rape and its terrible aftermath, and the triumph of the often fragile human spirit. It’s also a story about the dehumanizing, desensitizing nature of fundamentalism, in which rules must be followed no matter the cost (we see this in the court scenes). Both these are recurring themes throughout the series and addressed in depth in other episode summaries, so let’s investigate another long-running idea that is much less flashy and entertaining but still important: the perils of nostalgia, or specifically, what happens when we rely too much on sentiment or a rose-colored view of the past, or fear change too acutely. “Nightmare” is a wonderful example of how people are caught up in their own assumptions and ideals, even at the cost of real growth.

“Starsky & Hutch” is and was very modern in its approach. It marks a significant change in the way popular culture was presented to the masses. Brash and bold, it upturns old assumptions left and right and shows us how contemporary life (as seen through the lens of network television, mind you) has profoundly changed in the last decade, and largely for the better. The series tackles tough political and moral issues, shows men being emotional and caring toward one another, and casts a cynical eye on the once-immovable concrete foundations of the old elite – bankers, politicians, lawyers and even the police themselves. Starsky and Hutch are part of the new breed of idealistic, sensitive, skeptical heroes whose moral compass necessarily points far to the left. And as if to emphasize this point the series repeatedly goes out of its way to show us that the old ways weren’t as great as they seemed, and reliance on old-fashioned “ideals” do not work well in these times.

I would say “Nightmare” is a perfect encapsulation of this, and it begins with a beautifully-written and acted set-piece about Starsky diligently searching out an old toy store he remembers from childhood in order to find the perfect present for their friend. The two argue about memories and changing times, with Hutch calling out Starsky for his persistence in finding something that is no longer there (the scene includes Starsky doing a delightful Harpo Marx-like trailing of a pretty blonde walking down the street). Uncle Elmo, once purveyor of children’s toys, is now selling adult novelties – a fact that has many thematic ramifications. It tells us change is inevitable, and it tells us that change, whether social or biological, turns the innocent to the mature. It tells us, frankly, that change can sometimes make us queasy, or disappointed, and finally it foreshadows the angelic Lisa whose developmental and intellectual delays keep her permanently in little-girl stage while her body grows into adulthood, asking: do we accept that change, or do we see it as part of that which is queasy and disappointing? The answer, I hope, is the former.

This episode shows that change can be a malevolent force as well as a positive one, bent on destroying innocence. But it can also be a mistake – sometimes a fatal one – to continue to act as if nothing changes. “You know what they say, don’t you,” Hutch comments. “You can never can go home again.”

When Hutch suggests they go to another toy store, making the sensible remark that the owner would know Lisa, Starsky accuses him (not for the first time) of being a man without a heart. “There is a thing called loyalty”, he fumes, which of course means he’s more or less faking this display of temper, because if Hutch understands anything, it’s loyalty. (It’s also in stark contrast to the scene in “Las Vegas Strangler” where Starsky says he’s “sick” of Hutch’s extreme sense of loyalty.)

In one of the finest and funniest scenes in the entire series, we see the laundromat bust, a high-spirited, perfectly performed set piece which necessitates, to fans’ delight, Starsky undressing. “Of all the high falutin ideas,” Starsky gripes, even though Hutch’s idea to walk directly into the line of fire is a brave and practical solution to an urgent problem.

Hutch’s acting skills are showcased once again – he’s totally convincing when he walks, whistling, into the hold-up. Both guys show a remarkable willingness to adapt to the situation and adopt unconventional ideas and techniques. Note how his cowed reaction gives the thug with the gun an ugly flush of power, which is a great little detail. In fact the whole scene is filled with amazing details: the old lady with no teeth, the towel found on the clothing line, the “drop it, sweetheart,” shouted by the beat cops at Starsky. It has both brutal realism and cinematic flair.

Although nothing emphasizes how times have changed more than when Hutch goes into his pocket for his badge and the two uniformed cops do not start blasting away.

Starsky and Hutch are not in their regular beat because they don’t know the whereabouts of the toy store, and the uniformed cops don’t recognize them following the arrest in the laundromat when surely every cop in the neighborhood would recognize the infamous duo (they do in “The Fix” when Hutch is spotted running down the street by the squad car). And they’re not familiar with Uncle Elmo’s new adult book store either. But it is Starsky’s childhood neighborhood, despite the fact we are told in several episodes that he was raised in New York. This could mean Starsky was born in Los Angeles and then moved east with his family to New York at a fairly young age, perhaps around the age of ten or so – he mentions later to Lisa that when he was ten he played in his back yard. Although his tale could be either a fabrication or judiciously altered (“I played on the fire-escape/dirty stoop/grimy storeroom” not being entirely appropriate for his purposes) people tend not have a back yard in New York. In “Shootout” Starsky mentions he lived over an Italian restaurant in an apartment. My speculation is Starsky came out to Los Angeles on summer holidays, perhaps to visit his uncle’s family (“Snowstorm”, “Jo-Jo”), and got to know this particular neighborhood very well.

In this episode, as in the series as a whole, Hutch is clear-eyed and cynical, Starsky is more likely to be stubbornly sentimental. Hutch lectures Starsky on how things inevitably change, speculates the singing goldfish grew up and their voices changed. He also comments the bratty kid at the toy store will grow up and Lisa will stay sweet. “Kids grow up…the world marches on.” With Hutch, Starsky seems to revel in a certain kind of childishness. He quotes outlandish “facts” from books, appears credulous and trusting, tends to dislike change and is more conventional, sulks when upset and is cheered by silly things like ducks and toys. Hutch may act impatient at his partner’s ways (and Starsky may exaggerate for effect) but the dichotomy allows him to be the protector, the parent, teacher and sage. It also allows Starsky to relax and be himself. With his wholehearted affections and fetishistic objects, and the childlike wonderment in spite of the violent, dangerous world he inhabits, Starsky is not just a sentimentalist. He is a complicated character whose quirks and compartmentalizations are every bit as self-preserving as Hutch’s prickly exterior.

His being ingenuous, however, is somewhat dispelled by the intensity of his concentration when he plays with the trains. He really is enjoying himself, and not like a serious train-collector either, but immersively like a child. When confronted by little Tommy saying, “this is for kids. You’re not a kid. Starsky replies easily, “I’m buying a present for a kid. I’m going to a birthday party.” Amusingly, he isn’t actually buying anything: Hutch is in the background, diligently looking at proper girly presents for Lisa. One imagines a few moments before this scene opens, indulging his partner. The all right, play with the damn trains. Later the kid says, pointing, “are you with him?” Meaning Hutch. “Yeah,” Starsky says, with obvious pride, quirking a smile, as if acknowledging the question is that your dad? “He’s my partner. We’re policemen.” “Policemen” being a phrase like “fireman” or “astronaut”. A word a child might use, Starsky inhabiting, briefly, that marvelous space between past and present.

“Having problems, little boy?” Hutch says, when things go wrong. As ever providing the sarcasm (here, gentler than usual) for his own complicated reasons.

Hutch later comments that things will be all right, that by next year the boy who makes trouble for Starsky at the toy store will have outgrown both the train-set and Lisa. Starsky, who has obviously not outgrown anything, still makes an effort to concede to Hutch’s need to instruct. Who’s the adult now?

Two points of interest in the story thus far: we are never tipped off that Lisa is not a child, and for all that kid’s peevishness in the toy store, notice how he too accepts Lisa for exactly who she is on the inside.

One of my favorite little exchanges occurs when Hutch relates the doll’s attributes to Starsky, beginning with, “You punch her in the stomach she says ‘ma’”. Now, I may not know much about dolls, but punch her in the stomach? “You pull a string in the back that says ‘don’t touch me I hardly know you’”, continues Hutch, making this up. All this is highlighted by a very annoyed woman watching two men fuss with a doll. The whole scene is starting to look like a metaphor for their undercover work with hookers, junkies and abused women. The kicker is Hutch holding up a pink gingham dress. “How does this look, huh?”
“I like you better in red,” says Starsky.

Filming notes: Glaser and Soul reportedly went crazy while shooting the scene in the toy shop, putting rattlesnakes down people’s backs and having a peashooter war.

How do Starsky and Hutch know Lisa and Mitzi? The relationship seems very mature, as if they’d all gone through something together. Given their record of volunteering with youth, could be it be that they knew her through some kind of outreach or school program? And yet other cops, especially Dobey, are especially invested Lisa, and seem very fond of her. Dobey has gone to the trouble of buying a gigantic panda bear, despite his admonishing the guys about soft-hearted cops ending up broke. Was Frank an ex-cop, maybe, or one of the support staff? Heart-attack at fifty-four sort of thing?

Nick and Mousey wait for Lisa to come by. Nick seems to know Lisa because he remarks “she’s fair game, just like any other girl.” He knows she’s different and wants to capitalize on it, knows her daily routine. It seems their paths have crossed in and around the bus Lisa has ridden every day for two years, because he tried to steal the cash box from that bus before. But why does Lisa catch the bus at the lot, rather than the stop? The driver senses they shouldn’t be there before he knows of trouble, so obviously there aren’t a lot of pedestrians.

The buses in the lot say RFD but the driver’s hat says MTL.

I’ve been thinking recently about the terrible prescience of having Lisa’s rape take place on an empty bus. A bus is a critical detail here. Not only is it the one form of transport that brings together all kinds of people, a culturally and socially rich environment enabling all kinds of unlikely meetings to take place, in car-centric Los Angeles particularly it is a mode of transport largely for the poor, the disadvantaged, the very young. But it is the spate of recent rapes on buses that makes this scene even more horrible than it already is. In many countries in which women are denied the ability and the right to drive, a bus is a life saver and a death trap all in one. Women are harassed, stalked, and otherwise bothered on buses all the time; in many restrictive countries a bus is the only place a woman interacts and is dependent on her (male dominated) society. In rural Mexico, a self-styled vigilante who calls herself Diana the Hunter rides the buses, killing men who rape women on buses. As I write this, I hear on the news that a young Turkish woman was raped and murdered by the driver as she was the last one on the bus in the evening.

Back at the station, the guys are wrapping Lisa’s present, and from the sight of Starsky’s exaggerated yelp of pain when Hutch ties the bow around his finger, and Hutch’s equally exaggeratedly irritable, “Keep your finger there, will you?” this is a comedy routine that has gone on for several minutes before we join them. One can imagine the other cops’ private reaction to the undercover detectives clowning around and wasting time in the squad room. It most likely runs the gamut between “what a coupla great guys” and “fuckin think they’re movie stars”.

The bus driver picks out “Robert Emmett ‘Mousey’ Loomis” from a large mug-shot book containing thousands of photos and Hutch not only knows who he is, he knows the guy’s habits and tendencies. This is impressively knowledgeable. Both Starsky and Hutch pick up on the “they” when the driver complains about the cash box “they” tried to steal and Starsky reveals the same encyclopedic knowledge of small-time hoods because he immediately knows who Mousey’s partner is. There is a small procedural slip up though, when the driver remembers the pale curly hair and Starsky gives him a mug book with only one photo on it showing a man with similar hair, which could be seen as leading.

Hutch says it doesn’t make sense when bus driver identifies Mousy as a rapist. Hutch comments, “From what we’ve heard from the joint from the time that he spent in there, he has a tendency to go the other way.” Hearing about Mousy’s sexual preferences, at least while in prison, is fairly detailed information. How much information do Starsky and Hutch get from the joint anyway? Huggy is usually pictured as the snitch-above-all-other-snitches, but there are a lot more that we never see, which is too bad. An episode in which the detectives visit a prison would be really great.

There are seat belts in the Torino but they’re never used.

I understand the kind impulse, but that is way too much for a girl to endure in one day. I’m surprised they all thought it was a good idea, and that the doctor actually recommended it – severely traumatized, then a birthday party. All the adults involve show a great deal of emotional tone deafness to Lisa’s anguish. They are trying to jolly her out of something that should have been understood and acknowledged, which is another example of a kind of fear of change that can prove paralyzing. Lisa has changed. But no one wants to admit it.

There is perhaps no more touching and heartfelt statement than when Hutch tells Lisa they may want to hurt her attackers but they never would because it would make them no better those they detest. “We’re policemen, you know?” he says gently. Given the current state of police-related violence throughout the United States, this attitude is both heartening (fiction is always a panacea) and bitterly ironic.

I try to see each episode without what I sometimes call enlightenment bigotry, a judgmental discomfort that extends from smoking in hospitals to blatant sexism. But even so, I cringe every time I see Huggy’s latest enterprise, the sad, dimly lit pet store. I hate to think where he got these poor animals and how he can possibly adequately care for them, and what happens when he loses interest or too much money and moves on to something else. Still it’s amusing when Huggy refers to a crow or raven as an African canary. But thinking about this scene, if Huggy’s so anxious to bust the “scum”, why does he wait for Starsky and Hutch to find him? A phone call would have been quicker.

Mousey Loomis has a low intelligence and is easily manipulated. In a sense, he’s as much a child as Lisa, once can easily imagine him as poor, uneducated, probably from a troubled, violent home, with undiagnosed learning problems, kicked out of school and easy pickings for an amoral predator like Nick Manning. As an aside, I’m always astonished at the manhandling Starsky gives him – Glaser really goes to town with an exhibition of physical power here, dragging 150-lb Loomis along like he was nothing.

Loomis says Manning plans to kill Lisa so she can’t identify him for the crime. This might not have saved Manning at all, since Lisa was examined at a hospital and even in the late 1970s there was such a thing as a rape kit, with careful collection of blood, semen and other samples that could have led to prosecution. I’d also like to think Lisa bit him, which would have also been useful too. Plus there was the bus driver as witness. Later, uber-evil Assistant DA Sims suggests no jury would convict, but there is a strong possibility they would. With a mountain of psychiatric evidence, character witnesses for Lisa, plus Lisa’s own affecting testimony and the lengthy criminal record of Manning (plus his grotesque smirk, which I bet he can’t hide even under duress) I tend to believe they could win their case. I also think Mousey is the weak link here – with the proper interrogation, a few incentives, he could be the key to the whole trial. It’s really a shame trying to turn Mousey isn’t part of the story here.

Starsky holds his gun in his unusual way: palm over the top, fingers loose and high.

Lisa alone in the house: why 911 was invented.

Because rape is such a contentious and unremitting horror, it’s always interesting to see how the it’s portrayed throughout the decades. Here, we see how the victim of the crime is revictimized on the stand, with lawyers relentlessly chipping away at her dignity and self esteem, cruelly twisting truths into lies and questioning the moral character of someone who has been raped by suggesting it was encouraged or consensual. I believe the title refers not only to the act of rape but the experience of not being believed or taken seriously by those in authority.

The fact that this is a pretrial rather than a trial is an interesting one. Perhaps the parties involved are assessing Lisa’s ability to be cross examined, or maybe there are numerous issues to be resolved before trial can begin.

The role of comforter and protector are shared equally between partners, as Starsky does the dirty work during the arrest and Hutch goes to Lisa. This changes when Starsky coaxes Lisa from her despair during questioning, talking her gently about how great it is to be ten, and the “Doodletown” of his childhood, with Hutch at a respectful distance. Notice, though, Hutch’s comfort of Lisa consists of gently-administered Hard Facts (they can’t beat up her assailants because that would make them just as bad, and besides, they’re Policemen and have to follow rules) while Starsky’s consists of a distracting fantasyland that makes the real world go away.

I always find it interesting that Mitzi allows Starsky to take over the immediate care of Lisa. It shows a woman who has learned to relinquish control if necessary for the good of her daughter. She calls herself “selfish” a little later on but this is a practiced, even specious joke I’m sure she’s made often as a kind of justification for her choices. Truly, though, I think Mitzi letting Starsky take over at this moment is about as unselfish as it gets.

I love Dobey’s crooked grin when admitting that the guys could bring Nick Manning in on another charge. He’d been laying back while the whole assaulting-the-lawyer scene went on, and now he pretty well gives his blessing for anything slightly illegal the guys might do. Which brings up the issue of how Dobey views his reckless detectives and their methods.

If he isn’t calling the station but rather a personal number, Huggy calls Starsky, not Hutch, with the tip. How often does he seem to favor one over the other?

It’s nice to see a young, handsome Carl Weathers, looking like he’s about to go to the opera in both his scenes.

When a beaten Manning makes his accusation, nothing much is done about it, not even by DA Sims, who acts like he believes it’s possible Starsky and Hutch might be guilty of assault. It’s possible their hands are examined for wounds, their alibis checked, but we never see it. A serious accusation like that should have at least caused them a visit to Internal Affairs.

Oh, the exemplar of masculine power: Starsky and Hutch breezing past a secretary crying out, “You can’t go in there!”

“What do we know about law and order and graphs and charts?” Starsky says, when the he and Hutch have been left waiting over an hour, both chewing hard on gum (which, in itself, is unusual; what, was there a dusty pack in Hutch’s pocket just in case of long, frustrating waits like this one?) Which is a bit ingenuous, because they both can be very analytic and contextual in their thinking although this sentiment does drive home the idea of being outside the norm.

Is there no moment more thrilling than when Dobey says “Go get ‘em” and Starsky and Hutch burst out of the room like they’ve been shot out of a cannon? Interestingly, though, this is one case that doesn’t depend on Starsky and Hutch gathering evidence, making deductions or tracking down the bad guys. All that had been done in the first fifteen minutes of the episode. Rather, they spend most of their time hampered by regulations and made to wait.

“Fioremonte Bail Bonds” is an inside-joke on location director Gene Fioremonte’s name.

How much of Mitzi’s statement that she loves being a mommy and is glad Lisa will never grow up a real feeling or a rationalization for circumstances that can’t be altered? While nothing would be gained by Mitzi mourning the loss of something that will never happen, her speech to Hutch as they sit at the table still seems a tiny bit saccharine in an episode that is, elsewhere, very honest.

Two gifts from earlier in the episode reappear: the puppy from The Ark and the train set, which Tommy, the bratty kid at the toy store, insisted no girl would ever want. I wonder, though, if giving Lisa a puppy has more weight to it than the scene might suggest. It might imply that Lisa is in fact older now, these experiences, as horrible as they were becoming ushering in a new kind of maturity, causing her to be capable of taking care of something even younger and more vulnerable than she is.

Of the four major players in this episode – Lisa and her mother, Starsky and Hutch – Lisa herself is the only one who acknowledges that change, even unwelcome change, is inevitable. She does it when she asks Hutch if she was raped because she looks older than she is, when she cuts her hair in order to destroy her beauty, and also when she overhears the callous Sims talking about “mental deficiency” and cries out, “It isn’t something I don’t already know!” All these things point to a level of self awareness that does her credit. Instead of frankly acknowledging the dichotomy of experiencing the world as a ten- year-old while looking twenty, the adults around Lisa are intent on keeping her safe and happy and to a large extent insulated from any hint of adulthood. Understandable, even laudable, but Lisa herself is capable of handling both realities simultaneously.

You can read Hutch’s mind when Mitzi talks about the joys of having a child who never grows up. “How about two children?” says Hutch. “He’s all yours,” says Mitzi, and Hutch laughs. It’s one of the most charming tags in the series, allowing us to see just one of many sides to Hutch’s complicated feelings about his partner, in this case paternalism mixed with a kind of exasperated fondness. In his own way he is as sentimental as Starsky, only less overtly. Would he ever want Starsky to grow up? My guess would be no.

Clothing notes: of course, no clothes are the best clothes when Starsky does the take-down at the Laundromat. The guys looks great in the court ensembles, Harris tweed jacket and emerald turtleneck for Hutch, a great corduroy jacket and jeans for Starsky. They both don their iconic leather jackets in the final confrontational scenes.

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Episode 30: Vendetta

April 17, 2010

Artie Solkin, a felon who recruits teenage boys for criminal acts, is investigated.

Artie Solkin: Stefan Gierasch, Tommy Marlowe: Gary Sandy, Lloyd Herman Eckworth: M Emmet Walsh, Abigail Crabtree: Ann Foster, Jimmy Shannon: Gregory Elliot, Andrea: Ginny Golden, Sergeant: J Jay Saunders. Written By: Don Patterson, Directed By: Bob Kelljan.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

“Vendetta” is one of those episodes that show how truly great this series can be, and how high it can reach. Dark, violent, complex and emotional, it is also ambivalent and compassionate, as the definitions of victim and perpetrator are shaded in gray. Again we see the scourge of mental illness, and the pitiful cluster of poor, sick, marginalized and vilified people huddled together for survival. We also see Starsky and Hutch at their finest, as compassionate and rational human beings, particularly Hutch, who must overcome a deep personal hatred (his own unspoken and unexplained vendetta) to help someone in crisis. Don Patterson’s script is also noteworthy: it’s complex, filled with tantalizing holes, genuinely scary in places, and layered with resonant meaning.

Abby tickles a sleeping Hutch with the fakest looking flower in the world. Couldn’t she just pick a blade of actual grass, which would seem more realistic? What could the set dec person be thinking, anyway?

Later, Abby complains to Starsky’s girlfriend she and Hutch didn’t get to pour the wine. Starsky’s girlfriend pouts, “We didn’t even get the cork out.” If this picnic was supposedly a prelude to an intimate encounter – let’s forget the fact it’s a double-date, strangely – the guys don’t seem at all bothered about it as they get into the Torino. Hutch is remarkably sanguine about being pulled away from Abby, leaping to answer the call with something approaching eagerness. They’re already geared into the case by the time they confer at Starsky’s car and don’t look back at all as they roar off. Work trumps both girls and time off. Why?

What does Abby do for a living that she can be at a park on a Wednesday in the middle of the day? She must have driven Hutch there, as I can see no sign of the Ford. Maybe Hutch had a premonition he wouldn’t be needing his car for the rest of the day. She’ll have to drive Starsky’s unnamed date home, too.

The first scene with Tommy staring at the bare bulb while lying on the bed is one of those scenes that’s impossible to forget. There is no other character in the series – not even Commander Jim or Sonny McPherson – who is as mentally ill as he is. The detail of looking right into a bare bulb as amaurotic transcendence is unique and memorable. Perhaps you have a different reaction, but I find it impossible to either hate this boy or even find him amoral or predatory in the same way I’d have an extremely negative reaction to someone like Jo-Jo or Don Widdicombe from “Blinbdfold”, villains who actively and consciously move into the darkness. He’s a frightening character, yes, but because he appears to have no ability to monitor himself or have any insight into his own violent behavior, and therefore becomes unpredictable. Tommy is, in a sense, an empty vessel, whatever intelligence or self knowledge eaten away by illness; he’s also, unlike Jo-Jo for example, acting out of positive impulses. He does what he does because he wants Artie to like him. He follows orders, he is trying to preserve himself. He has lost the ability to empathize or rationalize, listens only to the dull throb of impulse beating away in his brain: do what he says, do what he wants.

“Tommy? Can you hear me?” Artie says, unconsciously repeating The Who’s lyrics. I wonder if this is deliberate on writer Don Patterson’s part: perhaps he wants us to think of Tommy as that “deaf, dumb and blind kid” whose actions are governed by very little information or understanding.

Artie’s sexual involvement with Tommy – and the other boys – is all between the lines. It’s never said but the implication is always there. Tommy’s question – “you aren’t still mad at me, are you” speaks of a lover’s quarrel. Artie puts his hand on Tommy’s chest in a very proprietary way. There’s an astonishing tenderness between them, despite how sick it all is. Hutch calls Artie, “Faygeleh,” Yiddish for “little bird.” It is also slang for a gay person. Although, to be specific, Artie would qualify as more a pedophile, since all his “conquests” appear, to me anyway, as being more boy than man, plus Artie seems to want to infantilize them. Faygeleh also, interestingly, sounds like “Fagin”, the leader of the boy pick-pockets in “Oliver Twist”. Hutch’s makes reference to this when he says later: “Fagin, Faygeleh, what’s the difference, you’re vermin.”

Why was Jimmy Shannon killed? There’s no reason given for it. Artie is hired to kill or maim, so who hired him to kill a seemingly-innocent kid like Jimmy? Later, Hutch emphasizes this point when he remarks, “something doesn’t make sense … who’d want to pay a nickel for Jimmy Shannon?”
There is evidence – slight, but interesting – that Jimmy’s murder was a bit of independent-thinking on the part of deranged Tommy. “Are you still mad at me, are you?” Tommy asks Artie. “We can live with it,” Artie says grimly. This may imply Tommy killed Jimmy, possibly out of jealousy, or maybe as a way to “move up” in the Solkin hierarchy, replacing Jimmy as Artie’s right-hand man.

During their examination of Jimmy’s effects, Starsky reads out Jimmy’s list of injuries and Hutch says, “sounds like an epidemic.” “Three in thirty days,” replies Starsky. Four similar beating deaths in the same general area is a whole hell of a lot, and when we come to know Artie Solkin and his methods we have to wonder: why take such big chances in a relatively small area of the city, why the sudden influx of “clients” wanting these gruesome services, and how did Artie become the go-to person for bumping somebody off? Artie isn’t totally stupid. He’s a survivor, and survivors are good at calculating risk. Perhaps greed is the undoing of even the toughest sewer rats.

If Jimmy Shannon had no wallet, how was he identified so quickly? An answer might be hidden in the dialogue. The police officer says as the cold drawer is pulled, “Found him lying in an empty warehouse, two days before we got him.” It could mean the body was in the morgue for a long while, with the usual attempts to identify and notify next of kin before the case came to the attention of law enforcement.

When the Torino pulls up in front of the Hotel Bremin, the actors’ doubles get out and walk in even though this is not really worthy of a stuntman. Why the no-show? Day off, maybe? Or perhaps these “out of the car, into the building” shots are penny-pinching second-unit jobs.

One of the best and most interesting aspects to this fine episode is the unsaid backstory. This feeling that there’s more to the story than we’re being told allows the episode to have a richer and more complex feel than it otherwise would have. We never learn the history between Artie Solkin and Hutch but it’s profoundly there and whatever it is, it’s long and very, very bad. “Forget the history all right!” Artie shouts. We know that history is more than Starsky’s list of crimes and misdemeanors. Hutch’s revulsion for Artie is so palpable it’s almost visible, an oozing, foul presence in the room and just watching David Soul breathe life into this most abstract element of the story is thrilling to watch. When Artie comes into Jimmy’s room to speak to “the cops” he obviously wouldn’t know who those cops are, specifically. When Hutch slams the door behind him Artie freezes in horror. The title of the show doesn’t refer to Jimmy Shannon or the case at all, it refers to Artie having a past problem with Hutch: a vendetta is a prolonged private feud rather than something spontaneous or explosive. Therefore, that vendetta is Hutch’s alone.

Stefan Gierasch is incredibly good as the sweaty, scheming Artie Solkin, curled up and tense as if tormented by his own skin. He’s also costumed brilliantly in quasi-uniform, like a valet or usher. He clings to this outfit like man who desperately wants to be an air force captain or a police officer and imagines this cheap burgundy jacket will cause him to be powerful and important when he is neither.

Starsky tells Artie that Jimmy Shannon “died like a man in pursuit of happiness.” A strange way to put it, so why does Starsky choose this phrase? Irony? As usual, Starsky’s thinking here is impossible to decipher. Hutch then lies to Artie, saying Shannon had some last words, and they were “tell Artie not to worry.” Risky, but a good hunch on Hutch’s part, because Solkin believes it and you can see this idea eats away at him. Hutch’s choice of words implies Jimmy cared enough about Artie to want to reassure him, furthering my supposition that Jimmy was just getting little too close to Artie for Tommy to take. It also clarifies our hunch that Hutch understands Arnie and his foibles more intimately than is ever said aloud.

Hutch calls Artie “vermin” and “scum”. He stares at Artie an intense look of hatred that rivals his glare at Al Grossman. “You make me sick,” he says. “Right down from the rancid black grease you wear in your hair to your two-tone shoes.” Note that at this point Starsky draws Artie away from Hutch, perhaps trying to avoid a charge of manslaughter that is most certainly coming. He’s not wondering about the source of his partner’s rage. He knows exactly what it is, and his elaborate disregard of the situation that is very telling. Typical Starsky, when on high alert, he’s as casual as can be. “I can’t take you out any more, Hutch,” he says, flipping through a few magazines, “You keep insulting my friends.”

What is Starsky putting in his mouth while Hutch is asking about Jimmy’s mother in Cleveland? It looks as if he’s testing something for its illegality.

Tommy attacks Eckworth with a baseball bat, which is a symbolic match for an ex-player. Are all his instruments of violence similarly metaphoric?

Eckworth gives “the tramp” a dollar or more for a drink, which surely shows what a decent guy he is, all in all. Not so the next guy, who gives him a mean, combative look, and refuses him. Why would Artie bother hitting up the next guy, anyway? He knows Tommy has will get Eckworth in a few seconds, if that’s their signal to each other (“hit the guy I talk to, no one else”, one can imagine him saying).

Note that Starsky is parked the wrong way in front of the metropolitan police department.

There’s a lovely little detail when Hutch walks into his apartment and says, “hello, plants.”

Hutch actually completes the call to Starsky (you can see him punch in seven numbers) as the brick comes through the window. What is Starsky hearing and thinking on the other end of the line? Why doesn’t Hutch phone the police?

Also, one wonders why Artie and Tommy deviate from their methods when dealing with Hutch. Usually they break legs, a brutal yet simple calling-card. Here, it’s all menace, with no physical contact. Even the bomb has a remote, impersonal quality to it. Is Artie so deathly afraid of Hutch he refuses even to let Tommy near him?

“Why don’t you get yourself something to eat,” Hutch says to Starsky in the aftermath of the incident. “I’ve got some great new goodies in the icebox.” He does this only because Starsky is cavalier to the point of insensitivity (“nice neighborhood”, for example). If he’d been more in tune to Hutch’s fear and not trying to downplay the event with a lot of posturing, Hutch may not have done what he did. But if Hutch were better at communicating he wouldn’t have had to resort to immaturity to get his point across. Still, the moment Starsky sees the rat they’re on equal ground again.

Hutch tells Starsky he is worried about a person being able to get in his front door. Is he thinking of the key he leaves on the door frame, possibly the dumbest hiding place of all?

Hutch’s reaction to Starsky putting Eckworth at ease with his knowledge of baseball is interesting: he seems momentarily astonished – “how’d you remember that?” – then happy. Perhaps thinking, in his over-analytical way, how good it is that they have two very different skill sets. Starsky is usually better at communicating with “average” people, that is, middle-class, largely innocent bystander-types than Hutch is, he is more natural and warm. Hutch, on the other hand, excels with the mentally ill, the disenfranchised, and the lonely, and the traumatized.

It’s wonderful how Starsky uses psychology to jog Eckworth’s memory of the attack, lulling him with a detailed positive memory and then abruptly asking him to describe his attacker. Bathed in the glow of nostalgia, Eckworth starts remembering suppressed details. Hutch looks impressed and backs off, letting Starsky do his magic.

Eckworth is telling his story. “…wack and I’m looking at this ghost swinging a sawed-off baseball bat in my face”, which is exactly what Artie calls Tommy a day earlier when he throws a sandwich at him and says, “eat something, you look like a ghost.” Which infers Tommy is a ghost. He’s already dead. Later the young kitchen worker Billy confirms this when he refers to Tommy as a “The Spook”.

The explosion scene is perfectly done and never fails to make an impact. It’s fast and authentic, right down to the look of a severely burned hand and the immobility of genuine shock – neither Starsky nor Hutch do anything for the longest few seconds of the whole series. They just stand there in amazement until the pain hits and Hutch goes down.

“No private parties!” Dobey cries out. Starsky and Hutch have had these private parties for years, often acting independently and even against orders. They have done many things that would get other cops in deep trouble. Is Dobey making a request he knows won’t be obeyed? Does he even really care?

Dobey tells the guys that Eckworth remembered the two-toned shoes. It’s Starsky who says, “Grease in your hair and wings on your toes,” to Hutch, saying loud and clear that he not only heard Hutch’s menacing remark to Solkin, he remembered it wholly.

But if Eckworth didn’t want to give up the information – as evidenced by his dishonesty during a line-up – why mention the shoes?  It’s the detail that leads them definitively to Solkin. If Eckworth hadn’t said anything, they would have been stumped. Is Eckworth acting out of guilt? Or did he get frightened later, sometime between giving this tip and a visit to the station?

Why does Artie Solkin have a bouquet of fresh flowers in his room? He must buy them himself. Along with the portrait of General MacArthur, the dresser begins to seem more like an altar to American heroes than a random assortment of objects. The whole Kennedy-Jackie-MacArthur set-up is a little strange, and never commented upon.

Eckworth’s philosophical speech about not recognizing the face of the man he gave a dollar to hints at a man in the midst of an Arthur-Miller-style midlife breakdown, a sort of “what have I done with my life” crisis. As with the best peripheral characters, he’s got his own complicated story going on, only we don’t get to see it.

As the guys leave after the disappointing line-up, it’s good to see Hutch touch Starsky gently around the waist in compensation for the realization that Eckworth may not be an exemplary human being after all.

Why do the guys talk about the case with Abby, especially the scary part about the rat in the refrigerator, sure to make any girlfriend nervous? It doesn’t seem like a good idea to me, and in fact may be against police procedure. Even less logical is the fact Abby then suggests a romantic dinner at Hutch’s apartment after hearing it was the target of some maniac.

Why is Starsky fasting? It’s obviously involuntary, because he looks at Huggy’s sundae with something approaching panic.

Starsky again shows his gentle, confidential manner when he questions young Billy Ryan at the restaurant.

“It would be smarter just to kill her, right?” Tommy says. But Artie won’t hear of it, he has something more elaborate in mind. At this point in the story his obsession overtakes whatever shred of reason he may have. If Hutch had not been involved in the investigation of Jimmy Shannon’s murder Artie may have gone on for years without being caught.

What was in the little wrapped gift Abby placed on Hutch’s plate when she cooked dinner for him at his place? Hopefully not a watch, saying, “Forever Abby.”

Starsky’s finding of the JFK ’64 dollar shows again his incredible eye for detail (he was also the one to spot the gum wrappers in “Terror on the Docks”).

Thank you, script writer Don Patterson: the dialogue here is authentic and chilling, and twice as intense because of Soul’s spot-on delivery. “I’m gonna go upstairs now and give your boyfriend a shock treatment,” Hutch says in a frightening low tone as he throws Artie against the wall by his neck. “And then I’m going to come down here and talk to you. So put some coffee on and pour us a drink.”  He lets go, Artie scuttles away.

I like how Artie’s lunge for the telephone is halted by Starsky’s quiet voice. The series is always at its best when precision meets understatement, as it does very often in Season Two.

“I brought the picture back for you!” Tommy whimpers, thinking it’s Artie. It’s odd that he would snatch a trophy when he may never have before, even though he is a creature of habit. Seeing this, Hutch’s rage immediately subsides. He knows psychosis when he sees it, and finally he is able to see Tommy accurately for the first time. He may also sense Artie’s hatred of him may have an erotic undercurrent to it, as evidenced by Tommy feeling compelled to snatch a photo. This photo is an offering, a beseeching, slinking gesture, the way a beaten dog might bring a bone to his owner. Hutch then does one of the most compassionate things we ever witness: he adopts the guise of the man he hates more than any other in this world in order to calm the frightened Tommy. “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. You can keep it (the photo). It’s all right.” You’d have to be made of stone not to get a catch in the throat, watching this.

Unfortunately, the tag seems rushed, an afterthought. Abby has been Hutch’s longest-running relationship (seemingly six months or more) and its ending deserves more than a quick goodbye in a public park. Still, it is interesting Abby talked to Starsky and told him her plans before she talked to Hutch as a way of ensuring Starsky is prepared to step in when the break is made.

Clothing notes: in the beginning, Hutch wears the top of green tracksuit he’ll wear in “Starsky’s Lady”. Starsky wears his cruise-worthy cut-offs and striped tube socks and a snazzy blue tracksuit top, the zip much lower than Hutch’s. Hutch wears his green leather jacket and guitar shirt, and, in the tag, changes to the bottoms of a blue tracksuit in the tag. Clothing allowance withdrawn for this episode, perhaps?

Episode 29: Tap Dancing Their Way Right Back Into Your Hearts

April 12, 2010

Starsky and Hutch go undercover as teacher and student at Hollywood legend Evans’ dance studio, where instructors Stearns and Starger run an extortion ring.

 Marsha Stearns: Sondra Currie, Carl Starger: Devren Bookwalter, Marianne Tustin: Veronica Hamel, AC Chambers: Liam Sullivan, Ginger Evans: Audrey Christie, Mrs. Dodsman: Dorothy Shay, Diedre: Nora Marlowe, Officer: Nicholas Stamos. Written By: Edward J Lakso, Directed By: Fernando Lamas.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

This is a light-hearted episode that could use a little bit of darkness to improve it. The broadly-drawn characters of Charlie and Ramone, while charming, keep the script from being its best. A bit more edge – more grime, maybe, more toughness, a deeper expression of sympathy for the victims in this story – could have elevated this script, but instead things are kept relentlessly airy throughout. The original script does not have the hot dog stand conversation, Starsky’s pinch, or the dip scene back at headquarters (the whole tag was to take place while they were seated at their desks), all of which are, frankly, the best parts of this episode and most likely more proof of Glaser and Soul’s unsung contributions. And while filming, ever in the spirit, Glaser more than once broke into a tango whenever the director called action.

Starsky is not sporting a real moustache although he’s certainly capable of growing one; you can see the gleam of spirit gum in most of the scenes and he’s quick to rid himself of it during the dockside arrest. While he could have been called to this undercover operation before he could properly grow one, days and even weeks have passed since. Wouldn’t he be worried about this faux facial hair slipping? And in the same lines of inquiry, did he have to take extensive dance lessons in preparations for this undercover assignment? He’s been shown to be an enthusiastic dancer, yes, but the intricacies of the tango and the foxtrot would demand certain educational standards.

I like the opening scene in which Dierdre is basically ordering Starsky to engage in erotic talk with her, taking control of the situation while pretending to be in his thrall. Starsky is similarly wonderful in that he catches on with her little act and willingly – dare I say respectfully – goes along with it, causing her shivers of delight. Hers is the first line spoken in this episode and it charmingly echoes the last of the episode as well: she asks, “Ramone, when do we dip?” And then, mischievously, “You do dip..?” Oh yes Dierdre, he does. An older, somewhat matronly woman’s strong libido is not something we normally witness in series television, even now, which is worthy of a round of applause for writer Edward Lasko, for she is not represented as either silly or embarrassing but rather just a regular woman with an interesting hobby. One wonders if she’s just naturally hot to trot or if her tango teacher is bringing out a new side of her personality. We also see that Claire Dodsman, another lady of a certain age, has had sex with Starger – setting her up for blackmail. Somewhat off-topic, we rarely, if ever, see an accurately presented forty- or fifty-something female character; this series, as many others, appears to assume women go from nubile youth to stately pensioner (“Photo Finish” could be called an exception, with Nicole Monk as a sexually-rapacious wife). It could be purely a marketing decision, as mature women were not expected – or really intended – to be in the audience.

This criminal operation, which is basically luring rich folks into compromising positions and then blackmailing them, would be far more interesting if the story concentrated only on older, vulnerable women like Dierdre and Claire. The fact that the police investigation has begun after the murder a recalcitrant male victim – Ted Tustin – is just an easy way to include Starsky and Hutch in the undercover operation, with Hutch as another possible target. It’s never quite believable that Tustin, powerful, rich, and on the younger side of middle age, would gravitate toward a fuddy-duddy establishment like Ginger’s Tango Palace. A guy like that would be far more likely to flash his cash at a strip joint or the bar scene.

It’s hilarious when Marsha inquires what the stench – or rather the “aroma” is, and eager Charlie says proudly, “That’s toilet water.” I understand the somewhat old-fashioned term, but it still cracks me up.

“Somebody pinch me,” Charlie gushes when he’s told he’s invited to “terpsichore” at Ginger’s “soiree”. Starsky, who’s been watching this burst of character-acting from his partner with an expression on his face that could be called affectionate bemusement, obliges.

It’s interesting that Hutch is willing to blow their cover – obviously well thought out, and carefully executed – for a silent alarm call. And watch for another in a series of long-running jokes about Starsky never being able to eat when he wants to, as he is denied a bite of the hotdog when duty calls.

It’s a cool little detail when Starsky lets the Torino shut its own door when he drives off.

The whole take-down at the grocery store is very neatly done. The guys exhibit great psychic skills and inventiveness: the spider distraction, a paper-bag explosion, and some misplaced shoes. Atypically, neither pulls a gun, preferring instead the unexpected-punch method of subduing a criminal, which implies great strength. When the cop arrives all the robbers are handcuffed together – one hopes the guys get their gear back – and the joke is wonderfully dry. The cop asks who did this and the store owner says, “You won’t believe this. It was a blond cowboy and an Arab with funny shoes.”

Marianne Tustin says regarding her brother’s affair with Marsha, “Ted’s one failing. He loved his wife, adored his kids, but he loved to play.” The very next thing she says is, “My brother always had a very bad temper, I mean a really bad temper.” Does Marianne not consider this a failing? Or having grown up with him, doesn’t take his temper seriously? Do you think his wife and children feel the same?

Occam’s Razor: Marianne makes a mighty big leap when she says, regarding Marsha, “do you think this girl was trying to blackmail him?” She doesn’t say anything like, “so you think this girl’s boyfriend got jealous enough to hurt my brother?” which would be the more obvious explanation.

After Marianne’s remark that Starsky must be posing as “the doorman”, (a humiliating misnomer Hutch chuckles at, of course) Dobey comes through the door saying the credit check on “Charlie” has gone through. He says this right in front of Marianne, and this is classified undercover information. This is sloppy police work, and it makes me cringe every time I see it. Neither detective seems unduly worried about it but no family member or anyone should ever know details of an ongoing undercover investigation. It ends up putting everything at risk, and blowing the whole case.

But at least Marianne proves herself to be determined and resourceful, and she might have made a good police officer if she was willing to drop into the middle class. But her ambitions make her less laudable, as one has to question whether she is really motivated by the death of her brother or just living out a fantasy.

Ice-queen Veronica Hamel is slightly miscast as the avenging sister. She’s altogether too composed and arch, and does much better next season as the unfortunate Mrs. Hutchinson. You don’t quite believe her version of Marianne would go out of her way to help anybody – if that is, in fact, what she’s doing. Personally I feel Marianne is having just a little bit too much fun, and her shopping habits prove it – there is no way she came to Los Angeles with that red dress in her suitcase.

Still, Marianne is right about one thing: putting a blackmailable woman on the case is probably a better bet. I suppose it’s too much to expect there to be any woman on the force over the age of forty who could slip into the role; Marianne is far too young and assertive – verging on aggressive – to really be an attractive victim.

Hutch’s (intentional, mostly) clumsiness is put to good use in this assignment, as is Starsky’s natural grace.

Claire Dodson leaves the office, obviously upset, and both Starsky and Hutch are remarkably diffident about it even though they know the reason why. Yes, the chances of her admitting anything is remote, given the extreme embarrassment she must be suffering and what it might cost her if she admitted her affair to her husband. Why not discreetly approach her the following day, out of her husband’s sight, just in case she’s willing to make a statement? They don’t even try. Likewise, they never attempt to draw Ginger into their confidence. Ginger has been hoodwinked by Chambers, and surely would be angry enough – and strong enough – to exact revenge in a useful way. After all, this is her good name on the line. This is a story about older women being victimized because of their romantic yearnings. These are lonely, alienated, frustrated women who have taken a huge risk – and this includes Ginger, because she was a long-forgotten movie star offered a chance to shine again. The fact that the script does not sensitively explore this issue, preferring to concentrate on the Tustin murder and pretty young Marianne’s involvement, is a misstep.

Gold Star for Villainy: As he leaves Chambers’ office following the extortion demand, we see Devren Bookwalter’s Starger as just the most evil, smug, self-satisfied bad guy ever. Don’t you just want to slap the smirk right off his face?

If Huggy knows Hutch is undercover when he shows up at the mouse races with Marsha, how was Hutch able to impart this information to Huggy beforehand? More importantly, why would he jeopardize the whole case by coming here in the first place? Surely Huggy would have more than one bar regular coming down, and there’s a very good chance someone in the crowd would recognize him. If Hutch wanted to prove to Marsha he was a betting – and a losing – man, who not just take her to the horse races? It’s more impressive than a bunch of mice in a cardboard enclosure, and much less likely he’d run into trouble. Does he come to the mouse races because he’s experiencing symptoms of loneliness, trapped in the character of the Loathsome Cowboy for days on end? Does he just long to see a familiar face? Or, more complicatedly, does he want to see himself as a stranger in a strangely familiar situation – recognized but not acknowledged – as a way of proving something to himself? Or does he simply wish to show off to Huggy his rather impressive acting skills?

Also, note how Soul enjoys his cheroot smoking in this scene. He’s puffing away like his life depends on it.

Hutch calls himself “Hutchinson” when he scolds himself. “Hutchinson, you sure picked a winner,” he says about Diana in “Fatal Charm”. In this episode, deep in Marsha’s lair, he asks himself under his breath, “What did you get yourself into, Hutchinson?” Is it too much to speculate that, on some dark level Hutch believes he is alone in this world, hence the stern self-talk? What do you think Starsky refers to himself under similar circumstances – or does Starsky never engage in the sort of disassociative behavior Hutch does?

“Seems almost a shame to charge him money,” says a sleepily pleased Marsha to her colleagues in crime. Okay, okay, this raises a bunch of questions, none of which can be answered but must be posed anyway. How much of that tape did Marsha play? It would seem mighty strange, if you ask me, if she played the whole tape to her two male co-conspirators, including her own complicit moaning. Also, I guess this encounter went all the way – or did it? Could Hutch, as a police officer, really have sex with a suspect just to get a conviction? How is that legally possible? How would that tape be introduced into court, anyway? What sort of licentious police department is this?

Back in Dobey’s office, there is more self-congratulation. “Do you think they taped you last night?” Dobey asks. “If they didn’t, they should’ve,” Hutch replies.

“I’m sure you’ll solve this case before I compromise my virtue,” Marianne tells them. That is to say, Hutch’s virtue is moot. This is comically understood by all as glances go around the room.

At this point one begins to wonder what exactly Starsky is contributing to this undercover operation. He told Hutch earlier he let it be known he was corruptible, but as an outsider, an unknown quantity, none of the blackmailers are willing to risk letting him in on their game, and why should they? Starger is the gigolo here, they hardly need another. As if he has figured this out long ago, Starsky is distracted throughout, preferring dancing to detection. As for the series’ tendency to put its stars in the roles of cowboys, hairdressers, country music singers and other exaggerated characters, could it be a case of producers trying to keep their stars happy by dangling the chance for buffoonery in front of them like keys dangled in front of a fussy toddler?

Hutch is amazing undercover in the scene in which he’s given the tape and blackmailed. Throughout he’s been convincing all the way as Good Time Charlie, and clearly enjoying himself to the point of shamelessness (grabbing Ginger, for example, and doing the worst imitation of dancing, and in front of an audience, no less). But at the moment of being blackmailed, he plays the right mix of rage, embarrassment and bewilderment, never seeming to be false.

Dobey reminds the guys extortion is tricky to prove, and Hutch says impatiently, “I know that.” A few things about the arrangement don’t seem to add up. It’s the morning after, so to speak, when Hutch arrives at the dance studio. He knows he’s going to be hit up for money – if not that day, then very soon. And yet he’s not wearing a wire when he goes into Chambers’ office. Therefore, whatever happens is going to be hearsay by the time it gets to the justice system. Especially since this is an episode about wiretapping, not to use the technology at their disposal puts the police department in a troublesome situation.

Also, when asked for money, why does Hutch refuse to bring it to the office, naming a freighter by the docks instead? It’s a far less stable environment than the office at the studio. More things can go wrong. If he just made out a cheque in Chambers’ office the following day, and had Chambers take it, couldn’t be have shut the whole operation down at that second, and be done with it? Why the mess of a second location, and marked bills? And how does Hutch know about that freighter in the first place?

Chambers is awfully assured of victory when he says all they have to do is kill Hutch before the drop. He doesn’t seem to think there’s any hard evidence against them, and isn’t fazed by reports of two cops and the Chief of Detectives having a meeting. There’s no sweaty panic, no realization his carefully constructed empire is about to fall. Starger is right when he says they should just cut their losses and run.

Why does Chambers have Marianne’s hotel phone number memorized? He dials it without reference or hesitation.

Marianne makes the stupidest move of the year when she accept’s Stanger’s anxious-sounding but vague invitation to an unknown location. She doesn’t alert the police and leaves without hesitation and without any sense at all. Perhaps there is an element of sexism hidden in the script after all.

“Hutch,” Starsky says, “take it up.” He’s referring to the forklift. “Okay, Charlie,” Hutch says, deftly transferring his undercover persona onto his partner.

Dobey, as is usual when allowed in on a bust, makes things worse by losing his cool during the arrest.

Do Starger and the heavy really think they’re going to be dumped into the ocean? It seems a little gullible to believe the cops are capable of cold-blooded murder. If they had the sense to calm down and demand a lawyer the whole enterprise would have fallen apart.

Why does Marianne kiss Starsky when he releases her from the trunk of the car? I don’t buy the just-glad-to-be-alive spontaneity. It seems like something a socially inept or immature person would do. Like not knowing how to tell a guy you like him, then doing something dumb, like throwing a punch or lifting up your dress.

Tag: It’s a relief that Ginger Evans is proven innocent of any crime. She’s a lovely character: tough-minded, charming, and likeable from the moment she appears.

Starsky tells Hutch regarding the tango, “I’ll lead” because he is teaching Hutch. In other shows Hutch teaches Starsky to play chess, to meditate, to play golf. Starsky rarely, if ever, actively teaches Hutch something.

Hutch is resistant to being taught to dance, but when the guys link arms and prepare, Ginger knocks on the door. Now, the guys are basically caught in each other’s arms, but instead of being embarrassed – leaping apart, making excuses – Hutch actually throws his arm around Starsky’s shoulder and keeps it there.

Double mockery: Hutch mocks Starsky’s sexy reputation with the clients at the dance studio and then Starsky, instead of resuming the dance lesson, skips to the end and throws Hutch into a dip – and a really good one at that – and says, mocking Hutch’s two-time use of the phrase, “if you got it, flaunt it”, to which he adds, in mimicry of Hutch’s southern accent, “boy.” This is one of the most-loved little scenes in the canon and an all-too-rare case of the guys having a goofy good time with each other while showing, once again, how remarkably at ease they are in each other’s company.

Character Studies 11: Rated “R” for Revisionism

April 8, 2010

Distance distorts, and that’s very true in the way people view Starsky and Hutch now as opposed to when it originally aired. The point of this blog is not to point out the various archaisms or the cardboard-and-packing-tape quality of seventies television but to illuminate the emotional heart of the series and give it the respect and admiration it deserves. In order to do so, it’s useful to reflect upon what was happening in society when the show was being made. Among other elements, we can point to the oil crisis, the surge of suburbanization in Los Angeles, the rise (and leveling-off) of feminism, as well as the societal changes brought by the formerly marginalized and now mainstream disco “counterculture” and its effect on the concept of masculinity. One might say the mid-to-late 70s was the peak of American hedonism, engendering a kind of apolitical “anything goes” mentality very different from (but clinging to the ideals of) the socially-aware, utopian-minded 1960s. Starsky and Hutch were meant to embody this new kind of male hero: anti-bureaucratic, independent, progressive, unafraid of emotions. With guns. Big guns.

During its run “Starsky and Hutch” was heavily criticized for its violence. It was the one issue every critic, politician and parent ever talked about. To many, it embodied all that was wrong in a world reeling away fast from the televised suburban conventions of the 60s. Young minds were being corrupted by the weekly gravel-spraying car chases and bloodless fall-down shootings. But times have dramatically changed, and brutality and gore is so commonplace nobody notices it any more. To criticize “Starsky and Hutch” for violence is laughable when anyone can watch artery-spurting dismemberments on CSI.

Violence may be passé – and the bar for acceptability is continually being raised, but sex never is. And here we come to what the show is judged for now, as opposed to then. We seem more uptight than ever about any hint of homosexual content, real or imagined. Take this energetic summation on the opening credit scenes from season two onward, by Paul Cullum in his essay for the online site Museum of Broadcast Television:

 This apparent secret agenda is perhaps best demonstrated in the opening credits themselves. Initially, these merely comprised interchangeable action sequences–Hutch on the prowl, Starsky flashing his badge. But by the second season, the action footage had been collapsed into a few quick images, followed by split-screen for the titles. (he goes on to describe each stacked image in the sequence with some loaded editorializing). The entire sequence takes exactly one minute, with no single image longer than five seconds. And each scene is entirely explained away in context. Yet in the space of 60 seconds, these two gentlemen are depicted in at least four cases of literal or figurative transvestism, four cases of masculine hyperbole (encompassing at least two of the Village People), several prominent homosexual clichés (hairdresser, Carnival bacchanalian), a sendup of one of filmdom’s most famous all-male couples, a wealth of Freudian imagery (including the pointed metaphor of fruit), two full-body embraces, two freeze-frames defining them in both homoerotic deed and dress, and one clearcut instance where the oral stimulation of a man prevails over the visual stimulation of a woman (note: this refers to the blow-on-the-cheek moment at the Jungle Club in “Bounty Hunter”). This would seem to indicate a preoccupation on the part of someone with something. (And this doesn’t even begin to address their dubiously named informant Huggy Bear–a flamboyant and markedly androgynous pimp.)

The tone of all this is uniformly playful, almost a parlor game for those in the know (not unlike Dirty Harry, whose most famous sequence–the bank robbery–is bookended on one side by Clint Eastwood biting into a hot dog, and on the other by a fire hydrant ejaculating over the attendant carnage). Meanwhile, the rather generic storylines consistently play fast and loose with gender.

The menacing “secret agenda” Paul Cullum is so titillated by is, of course, is homosexuality, or the threat of it. This may come as a surprise to a 1970s audience largely oblivious to any sort of gay connotation – case in point: back in the day, my friend’s father, a highly-decorated Navy captain, said the only pop song he could tolerate was the Village People anthem “In the Navy”, because it was a “great tribute to our men in naval service”. Even Huggy doesn’t escape Cullum’s revisitionist disapproval (although androgynous? Surely not?). If such allusions were intentional on the part of writers and producers with an agenda, it would be a sophisticated conspiracy on par with “Capricorn One”. Most likely most of the allusions are just silly fun, a reflection of the heady times, all that cowboy-and-stripper glitz the result of William Blinn’s artistic ambition losing out to the candy-coated jiggle-fest that was much of TV at the time. But what if it isn’t? What if there is a shadow-side to all that blatant chicks-in-bikinis heterosexuality? When is a mustache more than a mustache? Does it even matter?

Apparently it does. I would be far less insulted if critics (and a certain brand of fan) were like those of yesteryear, provoked by the violence, the sight of dead bodies, the masculine pleasure in guns. I am not advocating for ignoring the subtext here, in fact I am encouraging it. Humans are fluid, complicated creatures and in art even more so. But distilling something, anything, to its base elements does a grave disservice to the relationship and the series as a whole. Mr. Cullum’s pseudo-shocked views are symptomatic of a larger issue: the titillation that reveals a deep, unsettling unease with sexuality in a society that has simultaneously lost its sensitivity to human cruelty in all its forms.

Episode 28: The Specialist

April 3, 2010

Alex Drew is portrayed as a loving, attentive husband. When he insists that he take his wife shopping for clothes she doesn’t need and doesn’t want, is this a loving act? He practically pushes her out the door.

Drew tells his wife – sharply – that he will put his suitcase in the closet. We see later this suitcase is an assassin’s arsenal, with guns and other deadly paraphernalia packed neatly in custom foam inserts. A few questions arise here. Does Drew’s wife not know there are weapons in there, and if not, why wouldn’t he tell her? Why bring such an elaborate weapons stash, and why hide it from his wife? What exactly are they doing in Los Angeles anyway? The trip lasts a rather unusual three weeks, and Drew’s wife is returning to Washington on her own. What reason does Drew have to stay behind, and does it have anything to do with those guns? Given that we discover later he has been “forcibly retired”, and has suffered a breakdown of sorts because of it, is revenge on his mind already? Has he traveled to California on some kind of crazy mission to get his job back or exact revenge on the person who downsized his department? And now that Alex Drew is a regular citizen like everybody else, how on earth did he get that suitcase past airline security? Things weren’t that lax in the seventies.

Starsky always gets the best parking in the place – right in front of the building.

They’re in the locker room, changing from what is probably a workout, and Hutch is worrying over his hair in a way you would never see Starsky doing. Starsky is not fussy about his appearance, Hutch is, or appears to be.

Hutch of course enjoys needling Starsky, who says he’s “thinking”. “Well, we all want to wish you beginner’s luck,” he says, and smirks off to the side as if he’s got a rapt audience for his witticisms. Starsky proceeds to blow Hutch’s mind with a series of what-if questions, and it’s fun to watch Starsky’s intense, blue-eyed gaze at his partner as he weaves an absurd alternate universe. It looks like a cobra-charmer at an Indian market. Hutch, the cobra in this instance, can’t look away. For a moment there, acting or not, he is stunned by the absurdist leaps in logic Starsky makes. When he says, in response to Starsky’s admonition that they’re going to be late, “what if we were?” we can see how much he has been secretly enjoying this conversation, and is willing to play along.

Where is Hutch’s gun? Starsky has his on. Hutch dresses in the locker room but is gun-less.

It’s ridiculous there is a gun battle in the middle of a busy street. No one shouts a caution, either, even though there is a big point made of this necessity in “Pariah”; the police simply start shooting wildly into the crowd. Only Hutch is seen trying to get people to safety. Property is simply not worth killing over, jewelry or not, a point that seems lost in this episode and every day in actual life too.

Exactly whose bullet killed Alex Drew’s wife? It’s never revealed, although it would be easy enough for ballistics to tell. The beat cops probably use .38s but Starsky and Hutch have very different guns. My money’s on Carl, rather than Mac. He’s portrayed less laudably than his partner and seems sloppier somehow.

Drew wants to bring his wife’s body back home. Dobey seems anxious to help, but then he asks Drew to not only book the flight himself, but to then report back with the airline, flight number and time. It seems like an awful lot for a bereaved husband to do, a husband whose very bereavement is due to grievous police errors. It seems to me there should have been more done by the department. A ride to the airport isn’t enough.

Do Dobey, Starsky and Hutch know that Drew is a government agent during this initial meeting? Common sense indicates they would, considering the flurry of paperwork following the shooting, but it’s never said one way or the other. When Drew makes his angry call to Washington, commandeering a plane, nobody looks shocked by that display of political pull or asks who the hell he is, making a call like that. But then, on the other hand, no one says, when Drew storms out, “I wonder if this shooting is going to get us in trouble with the feds.”

It’s neat that Starsky’s what-ifs continue in Dobey’s office. Since the whole show is about the vagaries of fate, the fact that Drew had the two other officers files ahead of Starsky and Hutch’s is the Big Coincidence never directly addressed by the show.

If Alex Drew was downsized or fired from the CIA, as we find out later, then how can he command a special flight for the return trip to Washington so easily? He barks out the order, fully expecting to be obeyed without question. It’s not that the people on the other end know about the killing, either, and so are acting out of pity. It’s before anybody knows the circumstances of his wife’s death.

It may be correct procedure for the time, but it strikes me as odd that an old-fashioned hearse is coming for Mac’s body after the explosion. Even if it is a coroner’s wagon (although we see no official insignia) one would expect to see an ambulance, even if nothing is left of the poor man but cinders.

Mac Senior sits on the fire truck after his son’s murder. The truck is a Mack truck, which is a nice detail. When Mac Senior tells Hutch that he told Mac Junior his job as a policeman would make him come to a bad end, could he have possibly imagine this circumstance? This lovely, quiet scene shows that Hutch is unafraid of the sensitive, unpleasant jobs demanded by his profession. He has an easy and gentle way with people belied by his sarcastic, prickly exterior.

Starsky’s behavior toward Hagen, and later to the officer who delivers the files, is truly reprehensible. (Later, he has slaps another female officer’s behind rudely with a file, and looks disappointed when she doesn’t react). Hutch, on the other hand, is elaborately respectful, but only in an attempt to make himself look good beside his partner and not because he believes in women’s rights. (In the tag he’s as bad as Starsky, and they both call her, at different times, “child”.) This scene contains another interesting example of how Starsky deliberately sets himself up for ridicule: he says to Hutch, “have you ever wondered, Hutch, what would have happened if you’d been born charming and handsome, and I’d been born a dullard?” Of course, Hutch predictably takes the bait. “Well, Starsk, there’s just some things in this world that you don’t have to wonder about.” Is this an altruistic gesture on Starsky’s part? Is this a role he has willingly signed on for?

Ollie the mystical teddy bear is sitting on file cabinet in squad room. He’s glimpsed briefly as the guys look for suspects in Mac’s murder. There seem to be a lot of other toys around too, a Mickey Mouse doll and a plastic horse, among others. Plus the plastic piggy bank which has lived on Hutch’s desk for the whole series.

Invigorating: There are many fine moments during the Flashy Floyd sequence, and it’s one of the great strengths of the series that we get these glimpses into the eccentric debauchery of the sex trade. Of course it’s all a harmless bit of fiction, devoid of the true horror and violence, but it’s creative and enjoyable nonetheless. When they pull up to the Temple of Bodily Invigoration Hutch explains, “it means they probably appreciate a well conditioned body.” And then, with a comic’s timing, he says, “what are you looking at?” There’s a joke about the variety of customers, including a 90-pound weakling who is terrified of what’s being offered to him, and the guys make fun of the décor (Hutch says it’s “Early Nothing”) when in fact the room displays the kind of energetic set dec a viewer waits for. The striped super-graphics are mod, the clash of seventies modern with faux-Napoleonic are great. Starsky says, following the coin toss, “I’m in the mood for tails”, it could be an off-color joke.

Also, the collapse-and-drag is a great trick to getting into rooms. The whole thing has a wonderful choreography to it, and performed with such practiced ease we know this something they’ve done before. (Filming note: When they filmed the fake-collapse scene, Glaser’s shirt rode up and an assistant dashed over to tuck it in, but Glaser’s so ticklish, he collapsed for real, laughing. The rest of the day, Soul had to just wiggle his fingers at Glaser and he would burst out laughing.)

“You cops don’t even look like cops any more,” Flashy Floyd says, ingratiatingly, which is a long-running point of pride in the series and repeated fairly often.

By the time we get to the end of the sequence, and the cute pinch Starsky gets – apparently this temple is staffed by happy-go-lucky hookers – it’s difficult to remember why we’re here in the first place. The brutal murder of a police officer is nearly lost in all the fun and games.

Alex Drew changes his method of killing, deciding to poison the next one instead of rigging his car with explosives. This aggressive ingenuity, while cinematic, is exhausting and inexact. Drew, an experienced agent, should have just followed each man home in the dark and placed a quick bullet in the back of his head. Boom, over. However, logic has relatively little to do with story-telling. On a more superficial note, he shaves his moustache off and looks ten years younger, which should be a lesson to every man.

Could that be the glass that poisoned Carl Hutch is holding – sans gloves – at the bar? It better not be. And on the subject of fingerprints, Alex Drew is mighty careless when he leaves without taking his own glass with him.

Hutch shouldn’t look so surprised when it’s revealed Drew has their personnel files. It’s obvious he’s after them too, as both detectives discussed this at length following Carl’s murder.

The aptly-named Charles Cyphers as Cole, the CIA operative, has an unforgettable scene in which he is forced to explain a few Unpleasant Facts about Drew’s capabilities. He seems to pop out a sweat bead with each reluctant fact. He’s mesmerizing, as is Hutch, who goes head-to-head with him, trying to make him see the human cost of bureaucratic operations. Starsky, as usual, is phlegmatic and understated.

How often is the Torino in the shop? In other episodes Hutch makes a few disparaging comments about its continual need for tune-ups. When they both get into it, there’s a lovely moment of synchronicity when they look at each other, each thinking the same thing. “Care to take a little stroll?” Starsky says.

Fernando Lamas, the handsome “Latin” star of the 80s, cut his teeth doing some pretty inventive directing. Here, there’s a rare “swipe-edit” cut between the guys sitting in the Torino and the bomb disposal people carefully lifting out the explosive. They transfer it to the truck while the voices of Starsky and Hutch are barely heard is very creative and unusual. We join them in mid-meeting.

Neither detectives accept that Dobey is in charge of the case. “We’re living in a regular democracy, aren’t we?” is Hutch’s parting shot as they walk out of the meeting. Well, actually, it is not a democracy, and both Starsky and Hutch are naïve to think it ever was.

At the dingy motel, Dobey nods to the two undercover detectives scrubbing the pool. This is far more likely an undercover role than the cruise ship operators, country music stars and dancing instructors enjoyed by Starsky and Hutch.

Hutch looks very dubious reading from the Bible in the hotel room, as does Starsky, in his dramatic legs-on-each-bed pose, watching a typical shoot-em-up TV show. Apparently both versions of reality call for a fair bit of skepticism.

Talking to Dobey, both men show tremendous humanity when saying Alex Drew is a victim like all the others.

It doesn’t seem possible Hutch would have missed Cole sitting in the corner of the restaurant, especially if he is being extra-vigilant. However, it does give Starsky the opportunity to call him “Mr. Personality”. At this point we start to wonder about the logistics of this operation. Obviously they have checked in Starsky and Hutch into the motel to draw Drew away from … from what? Populated areas? The motel is fully booked, if the restaurant is any indication. And what do they think Drew is thinking as he tracks them to this place? Starsky and Hutch wouldn’t be the only ones thinking they were like a “duck in a barrel”. Alex Drew would know for certain this was an elaborate set-up, and would plan accordingly while keeping to their daily routines might have lulled Drew into a false sense of security, enabling an arrest without endangering more lives. The only explanation for this would be if they thought it looked suspicious not to go into hiding.

Soul has the best sad laugh in the business, a sort of gentle exhale. He does it when Hagen gives him the endless series of choices at the restaurant, and when Starsky compliments her on her waitressing.

It appears Hutch ate Starsky’s plain baked potato, as he mentions the two Irish plums he consumed. (The plain potatoes they both order is a weird detail – they both say they’re “counting calories”, which is so not true. There’s really no reason to eat a plain potato.) But Starsky pays him back by hogging all the pillows in room 39 at the Country Squire. Hutch has to make do with some sort of upholstered cushion. Uncomplainingly, apparently. The Nasty Hutch Game has been retired for the evening.

“Don’t scream,” Alex commands. “There’s nobody around to hear you.” But there are. Cole and Dobey are just steps away, and the kitchen must be full of staff. Alex Drew is good, but good enough to incapacitate ten, fifteen people?

Why does it apparently take at least four hours for Dobey and Cole to discover Officer Hagen’s kidnapping? It’s interesting to speculate. Perhaps Cole has talked Dobey into trying to solve this by themselves without the help of the two detectives. Cole seems to genuinely despise them in the tradition of all suit-and-tie bureaucrats who take an instant dislike for no discernible reason. Jealousy, maybe? Imagine the scene where Cole and Dobey try unsuccessfully to bring Drew in, hammering on doors and trying to get a fix on strange cars in the neighborhood and talking to frightened kitchen staff. Imagine Dobey’s growing frustration, and Cole’s unwillingness to concede defeat. Imagine when the phone rings and it’s Drew, wanting only to talk to Starsky and Hutch.

Despite all the gunfire, only two innocent bystanders are shot in the series. Both are women and both shootings involve Starsky. (“Photo Finish”, “Specialist”).

Why does Alex fire at the van from so far away? All he does is alert them to his position. An expert like him, he could have waited until they got closer and then fired from close range. We can blame is mental disintegration for all the odd choices he has made throughout.

There are more excellent climbing and high-wire acts from Hutch. Starsky draws fire not unlike how he distracts Father Ignatius at the movie theater in “Silence”; is this what Starsky is talking to Hutch about when he comments about feeling like a carnival game when he and Hutch walk along the balcony at the hotel on the way to dinner? It is an incredibly selfless and brave thing for him to do, and shows a great faith in his partner’s abilities.

Hutch asks Cole what’s important to him. He replies, “the continued strength of our nation.” (Off-camera, an exasperated “oh boy” from Starsky.) Cole adds, “And it should be important to you, too.” “Oh it is,” Hutch says, “but not at your prices.” This conversation is even more relevant today – Cole would have been in Homeland Security.

Tag: Everyone is laughing and joking about Sally Hagen, which seems mean and unfair. When she shows up, she’s subjected to even more flirting and grabbing from the guys, who pass her between them like a trophy. The tone of this scene isn’t vindictive – again, like the scenes of Flashy Floyd’s place it has very little to do with the actual She asks them for “research” as she’s starting in Vice.
“There’s two of us,” Hutch says, taking her around the waist, “and only one of you.”
“I thought about that a lot,” Sally says, “but I think it would more fun with the both of you.”
Now, at this point, given the whole threesome innuendo, the thing to do would be to laugh it off and refuse her offer. But what do they do? Cut to Hutch’s apartment. The guys have actually agree to meet her, and Hutch has obviously added, “let’s go to my place.” Thrown hard on the floor, they groan in pain. “I don’t know about you,” Starsky says, “but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind.”
Oh? What exactly did you have in mind, Starsky?

This tag makes the later “Starsky Vs. Hutch” war even odder, since the guys seem to have no compunction about sharing.