Character Studies 14: Keystone Cops

Both David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser are natural comedians, influenced by silent film greats such as Chaplin and Keaton, which strikes a welcome and rather unexpected note in a show intended to be a hard-headed police drama. There are many nifty little Chaplinesque moments in the series: Hutch’s pratfalls, Starsky’s candy-machine wars, loaded looks and double-takes, the many creative ways the two get entangled in each other in the rush to either give chase or attempt inconspicuousness. David Soul in particular has moments of sheer genius, deft bits of physical tomfoolery enriched with pathos, as Hutch falls victim to hubris time and time again. I’m thinking of his scene in “Ninety Pounds of Trouble” as he attempts to get into character as a hit man, “Stage 17” when he complains about being edited out of the movie, and in “Long Walk” when he struggles with stage fright while Starsky cheers him on. Plus the hundreds of wonderful small reactions, those wounded looks and raised eyebrows when he thinks people are acting foolishly around him (particularly his partner). These are rich, beautifully realized goofball moments and every one of them is precious.

But there are many more instances where humor becomes less subtle and more heavy-handed, resulting in a general sense that the show has lost its way. A kind of giving-up, a lack of self-respect, like wearing pajamas to the grocery store. For me, there are just a tad too many lady wrestlers, Playboy bunnies, voodoo curses and biplane chases. “Tap Dancing”, “Playboy Island”, “Dandruff”, “Satan’s Witches”, the entire first half to the two-part “Murder at Sea”, “Huggy Bear and the Turkey”, “Omaha Tiger”, “Murder on Stage 17” and “Photo Finish” are basically superficial, despite the presence of crime. “Dandruff” and “The Groupie” are campy nonsense, pure and simple; not even burglary and murder make a dent into the sparkles and plastic. For every harrowing episode like “The Fix” or “Gillian” there is a bit of fluff like “Foxy Lady”. Even more consequential episodes like “The Vampire”, “Ninety Pounds of Trouble” and “The Las Vegas Strangler” are marred by a hollow, gratuitous jokiness. I may hazard a guess, too, that the wacky undercover personas Starsky and Hutch adopt (the variety of gum-chewing Texans, swishy hairdressers, sanitation department party-boys and hard drinkin’ cowboys) might well be a symptom of a refusal on the part of the series’ creators to accept the possibility of television becoming a transformational or important medium. The goofiness becomes a kind of apology to the viewing public, an ingratiation, an insistence on lovability or at least inoffensiveness. Look, we mean no harm. It could be a response to the criticism of the violent content, it could a nervous dilution of the natural intensity both actors bring to the depiction of their relationship. It could be the general tenor of the times. But whatever it is, it’s also a shame. Hack and Zack are charming, but how much better could this show have been if there had been fewer “songs and laffs” and more of the blistering, uncompromising power in “Coffin”, “Vendetta” or “Strange Justice”?

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One Response to “Character Studies 14: Keystone Cops”

  1. Dianna Says:

    “Look, we mean no harm.” Interesting thought. It could also be, at least partly, a result of having different writers for different episodes, or simply a lack of ideas that would result in the amazing harrowing blistering episodes.

    It must have been hard to strike a balance between the strippers & car chases that studio executives were confident would boost ratings, and the depth and emotional power that have given the series its staying power.

    To your list of “nifty” moments, I would add the constant food wars, in all their variations.

    I would also note that for all that we love about the intensity and depth of Starsky & Hutch’s relationship with each other and their devotion to their job, sometimes their thoughtlessness toward their allies is appalling, such as when they leave Huggy struggling to get out of a straitjacket, or when they dump trash on Dobey’s desk. Sally Hagen is the only one I have seen get back at them at all!

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