Archive for March, 2011

Episode 61: Satan’s Witches

March 23, 2011

While vacationing in the woods, Starsky and Hutch are caught between a coven of Satanists and the frightened locals under threat.

Joe Tyce: Charles Napier, Hank Ward: Taylor Lacher, Cabot: Robert Raymond Sutton, Rodell: Joseph Ruskin, Rachel Tyce: Patricia Wilson, Julie: Deborah Zon, Tricia: Jeri Lea Ray, Ellie Ward: Bess Gatewood, Lizzie Tyce: Lark Geib. Written By: Bob Barbash, Directed By: Nicholas Sgarro.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

This episode’s title really cracks me up. It’s overkill to add “witches” to “Satan” but the somewhat silly excess hints at what is wrong here. This is one of the episodes I have always feel has the germ of a good idea but falls apart in execution, a failure solely to do with the decade it was made in. It’s pretty toothless. The cult is outlandish but not really frightening (although Rodell himself has a rough-hewn, dour appearance that is a bit spooky); this puts it in the same camp as transvestites and polygamists, laughable terrors of perversion the average viewer could tsk-tsk at and then file away under Crazy California and go to bed with doors unlocked. Nothing to do with me. And so the kidnapping of a young girl barely registers on the fright meter. At times this episode has more in common with a 1950s B-movie than a cop drama, sans giant insects (although we do get a snake). All of this is a shame, because a vacationing Starsky and Hutch, stranded in the woods battling bad guys, sounds really, really good. Television at the time was so deeply conservative and so restrained by critics and censors this episode is doomed from the start: instead of thrilling chases through the forest and hardcore survivalists we get hot pants and campfires. It makes any viewer, even this one, crave a torture scene or some genuine blood splashing the front door of the cabin, anything to save it from its primetime cheeriness.

The cult’s raison d’être is a bit of a puzzle. Group leader Rodell seems too smart to be out in the woods chanting nonsense and exercising a bit of meaningless power. And even though supernatural fanaticism often relies heavily on drug use, and this one in particular seems fueled by both drugs and a certain barbaric carnality, we see no evidence of either, not even the inferential hints this series is often very good at – so good there are certain episodes (such as “Vendetta”) which have a whole other storyline running below script like a palimpsest. An explanation of Rodell’s beliefs would be interesting. As well, we could do with some insight into why they kidnap the sheriff’s daughter of all people. Wouldn’t that be the quickest route to extermination? If they’re hoping to avoid trouble, maybe picking a less contentious victim to sacrifice, someone who wouldn’t be missed so quickly, would be the order of the day. Or did Satan point a bony finger at Lizzie and say, “I want that one”?

Also, one wonders about the series’ preoccupation with cults and vampires and Manson-like killers. Sign of the times? The shadow-side to the permissive seventies, or just an excuse for an exciting clash of good and evil?

Throughout this episode there is a distinct feeling of rural vs urban, with small-town folks exposed as provincial, superstitious, ineffectual, and morally suspect. The cultists, the official bad guys here, aren’t really in the equation. Rather, the failure of the townsfolk to control their own prejudices and fears is held up here as the real problem. A close correlation of this would be Arthur Miller’s “Crucible”, ostensibly about the Salem Witch Trials but of course is really about the ugly politics of McCarthyism. Nuttiness (typified here by Rodell) will always exist on the extreme end of humanity, an exotic and occasionally poisonous flower with no intrinsic harm. Just as Edmund Burke said, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing, and so the bigotry and ignorance exemplified by the townsfolk is what makes the story tragic, not the Satanists dancing around in their costumes. If this is the true meaning of this story – and I’m convinced it is – why is there so much wasted time here?

The episode opens with a pan of Los Angeles on a particularly smoggy day. Is this meant to emphasize the clean air of the countryside?

Dobey is so not the type to do a spot of fishing with the family, build a camp fire, swashbuckle through the forest with a machete to clear some trails. So where did the cabin come from? It’s most likely a neglected family inheritance, one he’s reluctant to part with for sentimental reasons.

Starsky hates everything to do with this “vacation”. His complaints about “itching and scratching and the bees and the bears” litter the first few seconds of the episode. He’s made comments in the past about wanting to go camping, but now it becomes clear Starsky didn’t mean what he was saying. So why did he agree to this in the first place?

“Lotta water, lotta trees …” this whole segment is a gem. Also an interesting bit that shows their unity of thought; both of them separately say the same things about the woods at the same time.

The “Friendly Town”: It always strikes me as interesting that the first thing they do when arriving at the cabin is to turn around and go back into town. Even though Starsky and Hutch are ostensibly buying food (no doubt finding the vast, gleaming supermarkets in the city not to their liking) this is obviously sacrificing logic for narrative trajectory. Also, since when does a town in California have no asphalt? This place (and the people) seem awfully backwards with the dirt roads and faded grey timbers like a gold-rush outpost. The episode might have been so much spookier, and more believable, if filmed in an actual town and not some lazily constructed “Psycho”-era set, but perhaps there were budgetary restrictions or planning issues.

Notice how Starsky reacts to trouble brewing: he relaxes. His body language changes, it’s all alert laziness. It’s one of his most powerful characteristics, the key to his success as a police officer, and always fascinating to observe. It’s the best scene in the entire episode, and the only one not infected with implausibility. It feels stark and real, and Glaser is arresting in his few moments of isolated screen time. “It’s okay,” he tells the young woman at the gas station, “I get off on hostility”. Were any truer words ever spoken?

When danger looms, Starsky defaults to pleasantries, seems generally “nicer” and more accommodating. In the same situation Hutch can be more intense, caustic, and apprehensive. Starsky tends to go silent and rely on his keen observational skills, measuring his opponent’s threat level. Hutch tends to become argumentative, and talk his way out of a situation – or escalate it, whichever fits the bill.

Why is the guy at the gas station so murderously hostile toward Starsky in the first place? They have a glaring showdown twice as menacing as anything Starsky experiences in the Big City, even though it’s obvious Starsky is just a tourist and poses no threat. It’s possible, but unlikely, the guy is trying to frighten him into leaving for his own good, although we have no evidence this is the case.

In contrast, across the street in the general store, the sheriff’s wife is all sweetness and light, happy to have Hutch as a customer, only noticeably tightening when he mentions staying at the Dobey cabin. And her daughter’s been kidnapped! Why is she coping so well, and gas-jockey Joe there looking like he’s about to implode?

Hutch is extremely funny in this episode – Starsky is full of righteous indignation but Hutch knows he’s the agent of this comical adventure and is determined to enjoy it. He’s playful and encouraging, never impatient with Starsky’s whining and secretly plotting to make his discomfort worse. It could be said that Starsky is generally happier when working and Hutch is generally happier when vacationing. Incidentally, this is the only episode in the entire run of the series that is not connected in any way to Bay City business.

The cult, with their candles-in-skulls props and cranberry-red robes, has an interesting gender makeup: the guys are all exceptionally rough-looking older biker types, tending to downright homely, and the girls are Playboy Bunnyesque blondes. Chief Satanist Rodell’s recruitment posters must be very specific.

Starsky says the vandalism is drawn in blood, but we can see this isn’t blood at all but obviously red paint. The properties of blood, its greasy thin consistency and the fact it turns black when exposed to oxygen seems like a big clue. And Starsky is more familiar with blood than the average person. Is all that fresh air and blue skies impairing his detective skills?

It’s very funny that the moment Starsky has Hutch in a arm-lock the personal moment is interrupted by the arrival of two pretty girls. They attempt to ameliorate any notion of effeminacy by shaking each other’s hand. This nicely echoes other embarrassing moments, such as the dip interrupted by Ginger (“Dancing”) which was also canceled out by a vigorously manly handshake. The hilarity of the moment almost, but not quite, obscures the fact there was no real reason for Starsky to grab Hutch in the first place. What was he protecting him from?

Starsky, vanishes inside the cabin when the girls arrive because he’s in his underwear. But he reappears in a dirty apron – and underwear. In the time it took to find Hutch’s apron, couldn’t he have found his own pair of jeans? And while we’re on the subject, wouldn’t an apron be even more emasculating than a pair of long-johns?

Funny how Hutch, when looking for a way to trap the rattlesnake, overlooks the conveniently hanging trout net and goes for a flashlight first, then a blanket.

Sacrifices, chanting, fires, medallions, red cloaks, just what are Satan’s Witches up to, anyway? Wedding a teenage girl to Satan should imply this cult is concerned with preventing calamity by appeasing a god, or at the very least ensuring the continuation of good fortune. Satanism as a complex individualistic philosophy devoted to the worship of the carnal self among other aspects – hardly scary. Still it’s used as a conveniently spooky device here, as was “voodoo” in an earlier episode. This willingness to hold up the customs and beliefs of others as bizarre or perverse is such a widespread problem it hardly bears mentioning, but it’s a shame, nonetheless.

The two women we meet in this godforsaken town are the voice of reason. They act compassionately and logically while the men are sulky, unimaginative, and argumentative.

“Blind Man’s Bluff” is an interesting choice to make when attempting to subdue the bad guys. Starsky and Hutch, with the help of dramatic light effects, perform a series of comedic actions – a rattle, a telephone, ironic comments, silly offers – to distract and overpower the evil Satanists. It seems very lighthearted when the life of a young girl is at stake. Why the extra fooling around?

The capture and probably torture of Starsky and Hutch, as well as Lizzie, is cut short by the arrival of cop cars. The sheriff hugs his daughter and thanks the guys for their work. Question: why didn’t the sheriff act sooner, especially since it was his daughter in trouble? What would be a greater motivation than saving his child’s life? Even a threat like “don’t go after us, or your daughter pays with her life” wouldn’t stop a grief-stricken parent, especially a law enforcement officer with vast resources at his disposal.

The tag: Starsky’s waxing on about the beauties of nature while Hutch begs to leave is another example of mutable identities. The roar of a bear brings the scene to a sudden amusing halt, and the scene is so charming it seems nit-picking to mention that bears hardly ever roar or do much in the way of vocalizing at all. A growling or roaring bear is largely a cinematic invention. So, an artificial end to a largely artificial storyline. And again with cultists and bears! Remember “Bloodbath”? Does Starsky flash back to the cave again when he hears the familiar sound?

Clothing notes: mostly the guys wear weekend-camping duds, but it takes a great deal of confidence to pull off Starsky’s skin-tight red long-john outfit, complete with back panel. He wears this throughout the episode under his clothes.

Advertisements

Episode 60: The Trap

March 11, 2011

Young troublemaker Joey is trapped with Starsky and Hutch in a barn that’s about to be set ablaze by an ex-con out to get Hutch.

Joey Carston: Kristy McNichol, Delano: Anthony Geary, Trayman: Antony Ponzini, Johnny Bagley: Bill McKinney, Clerk: Pat Morita, Mrs. Carston: Ann Prentiss. Written By: Sid Green and Robert E Swanson, Directed By: Earl Bellamy.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

It’s difficult to know what the title of this episode refers to: the barn or the kid. Incredibly, this marks the third time Kristy McNichol has played a tomboy who comes into the lives of Starsky and Hutch via a crime: the first as a very young child in “The Hostages”, the second in “Little Girl Lost”. However, the effect this time is markedly different than her turn as the brutally orphaned Molly. Gone is the emotional impact of a child desperate to belong after losing everything she has. Although the story is familiar – Joey more or less running wild, with no supportive parent, finding herself in a sticky situation – her plight feels less important somehow, a distraction from the real story. In “Little Girl Lost” the father is a weak man whose inability to go straight ends in his murder. The absent parent this time is a narcissistic mother (played oh so perfectly by Ann Prentiss) whose indifference is seen as a typical, if annoying, outcome of modern times and not exactly a tragedy, although to our contemporary eyes her indifference to her daughter verges on, or maybe is, abusive. Starsky and Hutch make one half-hearted effort to remedy the situation then shrug and walk off. Joey’s interpolation as stowaway and would-be girlfriend to Starsky waters down what could have been a truly thrilling episode, because even though all the classic elements are there – revenge, betrayal, a heroic battle of wits, a ticking bomb – the episode wanders into the terrifying realm of schmaltz.

The jewelry store clerk seems to have a little crush on Starsky, allowing him to grab an expensive watch without much objection while severely tut-tutting Hutch for even daring to breathe on the glass case. Hutch, who hates being told what to do under any circumstance, mimics the clerk hilariously under his breath.

Hutch calls Joey “that kid” but Starsky, unusually, sees that kid (seemingly prepubescent, in jeans, jacket, and pulled-down cap) as a “she”, and in a split-second, no less. Can he actually smell estrogen, or what?

The Yamamoto Reflex watch has very special features lovingly outlined by Starsky: date and day of the week, alarm, altimeter, automatic depth gauge, automatic illumination, second hand points to magnetic north, stopwatch, temperature and humidity, and the button that “reminds me to look at the brochure”.

Huggy talks to Starsky, and asks if he and his “other half” would come down and talk to him. Starsky tells Hutch, “he said he wouldn’t talk to me unless you were there.” Not exactly accurate, as Huggy only wants to speak with both of them. Does Starsky’s comment allude to the fact that Huggy prefers Hutch to Starsky, and he knows it?

Starsky drives well over the speed limit, flying down the alley, on the way to a call neither detective thinks is urgent. And Hutch is out the door before the car comes to a halt. Seems to me all this dare-deviling without any kind of rationale implies a kind of existential boredom shared by both Starsky and Hutch. They don’t seem to have much on the go when the episode begins. This could also explain why they both go after the pint-sized shoplifter with the manic zeal they do, crashing into the flower shop like lunatics. Why so much effort, unless inventing emergencies in order to shake themselves out of malaise?

Starsky and Hutch seem to take Huggy’s beating lightly. They express concern but only in the most facile way, pointing out how much better a professional heavy would do, under the same circumstances. Meanwhile Huggy is grimacing in real pain, and the bar is a mess. They also joke about it when they leave. Do they suspect Huggy is malingering, are they hiding their true feelings, or do they really just not care all that much? This is while the whole scene is peppered with affection, both guys calling Huggy “old buddy” etc.

Bagley’s tie isn’t tied – it’s wrapped in a fold. I seem to remember this being a very brief trend.

The bad guys don’t use gloves when wiring the device to the radio. Sloppy, or arrogant?

Why don’t Starsky and Hutch react to that strange new male voice in dispatch?

Two guys wrestle a young girl into a car on a city street, and nobody notices.

There are some great 70s cultural references in this episode, namely the bad guys boasting to each other that “Foyt and Petty couldn’t catch us”, and Joey’s mother Mrs Carston rushing off to an EST seminar.

As the guys wait for the showdown at the diner, the camera pans past a sign that reads “1 Hour Free Parking”, and then, derisively, “BULLOCKS”. Which must give our British friends plenty of laughs.

Which timepiece is accurate? Starsky chooses his watch’s accuracy over the Torino’s dashboard clock, saying the Torino’s clock is three minutes fast. Bagley is obsessed about arriving at the coffee shop on Brady at precisely two o’clock, to the point of making an extra phone call to make sure; this would point to the Torino’s clock indeed being on the fast side.

The Torino has protected Starsky and Hutch in gunfights before; they have driven it through many a hail of bullets. Why do they abandon it for the barn, before they know the radio has been sabotaged?

Starsky and Hutch could have busted out of that flimsy barn in about two minutes. They have certainly kicked down doors stronger than those walls. And it has already been proven at least one side of the barn, the one facing the gully and the woods, isn’t covered by a rifleman. Yet they seem paralyzed, unable to figure anything out. I think that the staging of this story, rather than its narrative elements, is the thing that lets the episode down. The whole trapped-in-a-barn feels artificial. The house is too far from the barn to be really dangerous. Why not keep this episode in the city, in some steel-enforced warehouse? It would be more believable and more suspenseful than the hay-covered, badly-constructed pseudo “barn” that looks like a cast-off from “Green Acres”. The series at its best is gritty inner-city LA, so why do the writers and producers insist on dragging them out into the countryside? Cheaper and easier to film, or what?

Hutch says he put Bagley away “about seven years ago” for “pushing, pimping and porno” – but there’s no mention of Starsky being part of this arrest, even though they were together during training and while in uniform. It’s likely they knew each other, and were friends, but did not work together until promotion to detective.

Bagley is like Prudhome from “Pariah” and “Starsky’s Lady” and the professor from “A Coffin for Starsky”, someone harboring a murderous grudge against a cop for the death of a loved one, in this case Bagley’s brother, who died in a warehouse fire. Instead of taking an easy shot to solve the problem – as graphically demonstrated by Trayman in the van by cocking a rifle – all these guys prefer a slow, creative form of death hoping to reenact the death of the person they have lost. “… you die,” bellows Bagley from the house, “the way Ernie died!” Even though this trope has been seen before it always feels to me to be a genuinely human response to unimaginable grief. And, like Prudhome and Professor Jennings, Bagley is eventually brought down by the fact he has forgotten that Hutch is not a Single, but a Double.

“This is one hell of a mess you got us into, Hutchinson,” Starsky says to Hutch (echoing Bagley’s use of the full name). Interestingly, this isn’t an accusation but a joke. Starsky is being ironic, and this faux-accusation tells Hutch that he is not responsible for the events, and is, in fact, an innocent victim. In the world of masculine friendship where teasing is a cover for affection, this reverse statement is a sincere form of absolution.

Two hours to think about it? Doesn’t Bagley think Hutch can figure out a way to escape in that length of time? Maybe he’s right, because a full hour passes before either Starsky or Hutch come up with anything concrete. I have made a strenuous effort to enjoy this series as presented, and abstain from the impulse to rewrite and reimagine, because revisionism is not my role as a documenter and analyst. Having made that rule I am now going to break it, and suggest that if the time signature of this episode had been accelerated, like it is during “Deckwatch” for instance, the episode might have been vastly more thrilling. “You have two minutes to think about it!” See?

Starsky really does handle the whole girl-crush thing beautifully. He never talks down to Joey, managing to be flirtatious with a pre-teen without being creepy, an incredibly difficult feat. In fact his flirtatiousness has the effect of maintaining her dignity rather than lessening it, causing her to feel stronger, more in control, and braver. Does his flirting seem less “real” because Joey is dressed like a boy the whole time, and is boyish in general, and does that tough tomboy veneer make all the talk of “looking older” and “dates” seem so innocent than it would be otherwise? Or is it because Starsky is such a sterling character you just can’t believe he’d ever do anything even remotely questionable? Starsky does not act paternally or lasciviously, but I am having difficulty putting a word to how he does act. The closest parallel I can come up with is how a generous movie star might act toward a young fan. There’s a performative, remote, but strangely genuine rendering of romance rather than romance itself. He is acting the role she has dreamed up for him.

Joey could have been a lot faster running down that gully if she didn’t have to worry about her hat. I wonder, too, what happens to her. They’re out in the rural suburbs without backup, and a twelve-year-old girl shouldn’t be hitchhiking. Do they think she’ll find her way back into the city, or do they hope she’ll just hide out until it’s safe? Nothing more is mentioned about her, even when the bullets are flying out the house and into the woods.

Starsky’s half-delirious stories of Uncle Myron and Uncle Alphonse – both uncles succumbing to spectacular deaths – seems more like Starsky being inventive than honest. If so, then his stories are classic narratives, used throughout time from Homer to Scheherazade as a way of providing comfort or distraction under stress. Ironically, it is Starsky who’s in danger and not Hutch, and yet Starsky feels he needs to comfort his partner (unless his rambling is a way of distracting himself). This is reminiscent of the other times he provides entertaining family stories in times of trouble, such as Aunt Rose in “Coffin” and (possibly the same) Uncle Al in “JoJo”.

I’m not sure why they don’t use the tractor to get to the Torino and get the hell out of there. Nobody disabled the car, so escape is possible. Is this a case of neither one wanting to let it go, or run away from a situation, no matter what the cost?

I love when Hutch tells Starsky “This is the best plan I ever had” and manages to make it sound like a boastful fact when actually it’s rushed and improbable. Confidence is half the battle.

Earlier Hutch was derisive when Starsky shows him all the things the watch can do, setting the alarm etc. But when the chips are down, Hutch takes the watch out of his pocket (which Starsky, touchingly, has made him take when it looked as if things weren’t going their way) and proceeds to set the alarm exactly as Starsky showed him. Which meant he was paying close attention, even when it seemed as if he wasn’t.

The episode heats up when the action moves to the house, but even then these have to be the worst criminals in the series. There are too few bad guys to make it seem like a real siege – Bagley’s men are half-blind dimwits who ca’t even check a tiny bathroom properly for a hiding Hutch. One is brought down by a sore toe. He’s too dumb to notice Starsky is weak and badly wounded and that making even a half-hearted grab for that gun might work. There’s far too much shouted information passing between them which is easily overheard.

David Soul’s perfect body language is highlighted in this scene – he is most graceful when in survivalist mode, and you can actually hear him thinking when the idea of setting the watch alarm occurs to him.

Starsky picks a mock fight in the adrenaline-fueled moments after the arrests are made, and it’s easy to see how this discharges the last of the predatory intensity. The energy is released, and both reenter the human world of phone calls and paperwork.

Sartorial notes: There is a brief clothing blooper as the tractor breaks out of the barn and the stunt men riding in it are clearly wearing slightly different clothing than Starsky and Hutch. Starsky seems to be wearing the plaid shirt from “Heroes”. Hutch is a star in jeans and a blue military-style jacket. His hair is longer than normal.