Episode 68: Discomania

Starsky and Hutch go undercover with policewoman Lizzie Thorpe at a disco to try to catch a serial killer.

Sgt. Lizzie Thorpe: Amanda McBroom, Tony Mariposa: Pierrino Mascarino, Disc Jockey: Bruce Scott, Judith: Susan Duvall, Marty Decker: Adrian Zmed, Harding: Tom Tarpey, Mrs. Anderson: Bunny Summers, Rita: Deb-E Chaffin, Michelle: Paula Sills. Choreography: Eric Scott & Peter McIna, Music: Andrew Kulberg. Written By: Rick Edelstein, Directed By: Arthur Marks.


Filming notes: As usual, network television is a little behind the times, since disco was already merchandized to death, overexposed and de-fanged of its original bite by the time “Discomania” aired. Still, the brass at ABC liked this episode so much they asked for it to be shown first, despite it being the sixth episode shot. Andy Kulberg, David Soul’s bandleader and friend, chose all the music in the episode, some of it his own and played by Soul’s band. Very little choreography was necessary, as all the extra dancers were professionals. Glaser had the flu during filming, although you wouldn’t know it from his warm, subtle performance. Amanda McBroom, playing Lizzie Thorpe, is also a song-writer (she wrote “The Rose” made famous by Bette Middler) and toured with Soul at one point as a backup singer.

Here we come to Season Four and the opening credits that emphasize the kitschy and the flamboyant more than the gritty and realistic, a common theme in this last season of the series. It’s all makeup and costumes: Hutch as an overly-accessorized hairdresser, Huggy as a country-and-western promoter, Starsky singing up a storm in cowboy hat and scarf and then and overloaded with tropical merchandize, mimes and clowns, plus the two beloved moments many fans consider wonderfully suggestive: the famous “dip” from “Tap Dancing” and the blown-into-each-other’s-arms scene from “Omaha Tiger”. Only Dobey escapes with dignity intact. (For a slightly specious reading of this new title sequence please see “Rated R for Revisionism” in “Character Studies”).

The very first scene in this Forth Season, and we’re overwhelmed by a dazzling array of late 70s cultural signifiers: Hutch’s moustache, which he has for the entire season, a most excellent pukka shell and tusk necklace, the bowling shirt, the title of the self-help book Starsky is reading (which Hutch repeats with maximum disdain): “Intimidation: Controlling People for Love and Money”, Starsky’s frenetic aerobics. By the time we see evil Tony in his polyester shirt, frizzy ‘do and multiple gold chains, we have been subjected to more contemporary self-awareness than in the entire three seasons before this.

“Well, you can go through the rest of your life as a pawn if you want, but not me,” Starsky tells Hutch. Do you think Starsky really believes this or he going through a rough time?

Gloria Parkins makes a memorable, even beautiful, corpse. But how long has she been dead? “You should have danced with me, Sharon,” Tony groans. That was the night before. Now it’s morning. Let’s say no more than 5 or 6 hours have passed. I realize this is asking a lot from a show prevented from showing even the most innocuous realities of violent death, but I can’t help but note the body shows no signs of rigor mortis.

Like Madeline in last season’s “Deck watch”, Gloria also has a bracelet with a first name engraved on it.

Why is Officer Harding so nasty to Hutch? Is it because he feels proprietary about the case of the missing women?

Poor Paula Sills. This extremely pretty young lady has been the victim of murder in two episodes. This, and the earlier “Vampire”.

The Judith Tragedy: Obviously this episode reflects the massive disco wave of the time, and has many (albeit watered-down) elements of the excellent dark-side-of-disco movie “Saturday Night Fever”, including the character of Judith (an nearly identical figure is seen pawing Tony Manero’s sleeve in the film). With her unflattering haircut, oversized glasses and dumpy outfits, we’re meant to see her as a tragic, unlovable, even ridiculous character. But is she? Her opening comment to Tony, “hey, I’m a little chubby, but you’re a little old, so I figure that makes us even” is pretty funny, and also shows a cool, discerning outlook on life. Starsky’s patronizing attitude makes her roll her eyes, which means she isn’t so needy she’s willing to put up with his bullshit. She doesn’t let his negativity get her down, hitting on Hutch in no time, which is pretty brave. Foolhardy, but brave. There seems to be, in the character of Judith, a writer’s mean-spirited lesson aimed at girls: an audacious beauty is acceptable, even desirable, but audacity and self confidence in a less-attractive package is nothing but pitiful.

Starsky points out to a critical Hutch that the lady has noticed his “body language”, and Hutch says nastily, “she’s probably some weird fetish for left-handed people”. Wow, he never forgets, does he? (“Captain Dobey, You’re Dead”)

If Lizzie Thorpe is assigned undercover at Fever, why are Starsky and Hutch there? If they’re backup, then why is Hutch so shocked (and momentarily angered) by the revelation that his dancing partner is a detective? This ignorance causes a couple of issues to arise: wouldn’t Starsky and Hutch be told who is on their team? Isn’t that basic department policy? Why didn’t they have a meeting before this potentially dangerous mission? She knows who they are. Surely there are so few female detectives in the LAPD that Starsky and Hutch would know the names of every one of them (ok, so she’s Vice and not Homicide, but still). Also, why isn’t she armed? She has a badge but not a gun. This seems like poor planning when potentially dealing with a multiple murderer. Or do they just see her as bait and nothing else?

The writers of this series seem to think it’s amusing to have women pop up as equals in surprising ways: Starsky and Hutch have been blindsighted more than once by this tactic (look at Christine Phelps in “Heroes”, Jane Hutton in “Murder Ward”, Detective Linda Williams in “Death Ride”, Detective Meredith in “Black and Blue”, and on a minor note, Sally Hagen’s undercover turn as a waitress in “The Specialist”, an appearance both Starsky and Hutch react to in an “oh look, how cute, she’s doing actual police work” sort of way). Is this a lame attempt at feminism, or simply a tired sight-gag? My guess is probably both.

Hutch has an interesting moment when he asks the DJ if he’s seen Michelle, the missing girl, and the DJ says all he can see is a “room full of blank faces and blowed-dry hair”. A regular person would have smiled at this colorful turn of phrase, but not nihilistic Hutch. “And not to mention the decline and fall of the western world,” he says. It’s a blast of cynicism and quite surprising, but all the DJ does is nod approvingly.

Why do Starsky and Hutch feel the need to dance and romance their way to witnesses? Why not just ask anyone who knew the missing girl to come down to the station and fill out a statement? Wouldn’t that be more appropriate, legally? Not to mention ethically?

Lizzie is missing, yet her husband hasn’t reported her as such, and locating her car at Fever’s garage would have been the first place to start the hunt, but Starsky and Hutch don’t. They have to be told about it much later.

It’s frustrating to see Lizzie, a trained police officer, put out of action by the administration of whatever drug Tony slips into her drink. It’s another case of a woman rendered helpless and ineffectual in the height of danger, like Sally Hagen in “The Specialist” (tied up), Linda Baylor in “Fatal Charm” (knocked out), Sammie in “Manchild” (held hostage), reporter Jane in “Murder Ward” (also knocked out), Joan Meredith in “Black and Blue” (tied up and held hostage) and probably others I can’t remember right now. She seems to recover her wits somewhat, but still doesn’t seem to be able to overpower him, or escape the room. She doesn’t even try. Why not?

It’s funny when Marty Decker has the nerve to touch the piggy bank on Hutch’s desk, and he’s sharply reprimanded.

It’s a rare instance of Hutch apologizing for his temper after yelling that Starsky has gone past the address of their suspect. Starsky says he’s worried about Lizzie too. “Sorry,” Hutch says, chastened.

Sure, it’s horrifying when Starsky and Hutch leave the house, but why does Lizzie lose it like she does? She pleads and cries and generally looks pathetic. What sort of behaviour is that for a cop? Why can’t she take a deep breath, and strategize? Tony is largely bluster, and can be confused, ineffectual and mentally chaotic – just look how he just stands there, frozen, during the curiously anticlimactic arrest scene.

Tony lives in a mansion, he drives a Mercedes. Where does all the money come from? Is there any narrative reason for him to be rich, other than an excuse to show a beautiful house and a nice car? Or is this just another example of the glitz-for-glitz’s-sake problems of Season Four?

It’s very interesting how little attention is paid to why Tony does what he does. It’s as if the writers and producers are more interested in depicting the glamorous naughtiness of disco life than examining the motive behind Tony’s horrifying crimes. More screen time is devoted to callous cad Marty than much else, and the dancing scenes, while entertaining, seem to go on forever. And yet wouldn’t you say that a serial killer with mommy issues, psychotic inability to handle frustration, and a penchant for cheerful metallic streamers and expensive gold jewelery would be more fascinating? Compare Tony with other similarly creepy villains, like Artie Solkin in “Vendetta” or George Prudholm in “Pariah” and “Starsky’s Lady”, well-rounded characters whose actions result from deep psychic wounds, wounds that we see and understand because the writer took the time to tell us about them. The explanation here feels rushed, almost superficial. But it didn’t have to be.

Tag: it’s a rather sweet, harmless joke this time on Dobey. Lizzie Thorpe is not seen or even referenced in the final scene the way other female officers have been (notably Sally Hagen in “The Specialist”, Linda Baylor in “Fatal Charm”, and even exhausted social worker Sgt. Peterson in “Crying Child”). It’s too bad: Amanda McBroom, despite the atrocious way her character is written, is charismatic and photogenic.

Clothing Notes: There’s a lot to love in this episode, from Hutch’s over-the-top necklace to the outfits the two wear at their first night at Fever: Starsky in a suave all-white suit and Hutch in a very Village People leather vest. The dancers in “Fever” are glorious. In terms of set dec, Tony’s disco-torture cave, with its groovy floor and sparkling streamers, deserves a mention.

16 Responses to “Episode 68: Discomania”

  1. Shelley Says:

    I agree about the dance scenes seeming to go on forever. This show had way too much discoing and not enough story. (Although Starsky’s dancing was a pretty sight to see.) I was also disappointed at the way the show had this vice detective behave at Tony’s house. And there’s no explanation for why Hutch is even more ornery than usual through the entire episode.

  2. Grevy's Zebra Says:

    Not related to this episode per se, but Merl, if you’re inclined to speculate — what explanation (from within the narrative regarding the characters, not any real-life explanations regarding the production of the show) would you give for the drastic and inexplicable change between seasons 3 and 4?

    I like to go for the idea that something really big went down during the summer hiatus — some massive, ugly, and demoralizing case, maybe involving wrongdoing on the part of the police force, that drained most of Starsky and Hutch’s enthusiasm and good nature for the next several months, leading them to sink into depressions that left them withdrawn and exhausted (Starsky) and disinclined to take care of themselves (Hutch), and half-heartedly distract themselves with inane popular trends of the time. And maybe also involved a big partnership crisis, with one of their lives in peril and the other going crazy trying to save him, that was harrowing enough to make them freak out a bit over how much pain being so intertwined and dependent on each other could cause them and react by pushing each other away for space until the Targets Without A Badge arc brought them back around.

    How about you? Ever entertain any theories?

    • merltheearl Says:

      What an interesting question! And I like that it steers me away from what I can guess was “really” happening with ballooning egos, contractual fights and creative fatigue that pretty much sucked the life out of the series until that “Targets” arc.

      I agree with your beautifully-written scenario. It makes a lot of thematic sense, and I would emphasise the ingredient which makes such a troubling appearance in the “Starsky Vs. Hutch” episode, which is Hutch’s deteriorating mental health. I suspect he has gone into some pretty dark spaces when we weren’t looking. And how wonderful would it have been if the writers had decided to explore this complicated territory rather than allowing the sticky, glossy resin of late-70s malaise to slowly overtake the look and feel of things.

    • Dianna Says:

      Thank you GZ, your theory may help me feel a bit less depressed as I work my way through Season Four, because at least it gives things a reason for being the way they are.

    • rycardus Says:

      Your question ties in with one I’ve been trying to figure out. We know the order the episodes aired, but it’s reasonable to assume events in the guys’ lives followed a different chronology. Would this episode make more sense if it followed “Manchild on the Street” for instance, or “Starsky vs Hutch”?

      The Sherlock Holmes stories were told out of sequence and have given experts countless hours of entertainment trying to figure what happened when, I wonder if anyone has ever tried to do the same thing for S&H. Merl?,

      • Grevy's Zebra Says:

        Well, I do know some people don’t like that “Starsky vs Hutch” came after the “Targets” arc and think it would make more sense if Targets and Sweet Revenge all came one after another (although I think SvH makes more sense coming after Targets…unpopular opinion I know). But either way, I firmly believe that the *only* reasonable place for “Starsky vs Hutch” is somewhere around the end of season 4 — I refuse to believe Hutch could do such a thing to Starsky out of the blue. The only way the Kira thing makes sense for him is if he had been in really bad psychological shape for a long time before Kira came on the scene — I think the whole mess over Kira was more a symptom than a cause of their season 4-ness. Could be that Hutch was somehow convinced he needed to either punish Starsky for something, or to punish himself for something by ruining his friendship with Starsky — that “something” could very well be all the tedious/depressing/meaningless job-related shit they had to put up with in season 4, culminating in the fiasco with Lionel RIgger. The fact that Hutch was fed up with his job and had a lot of self-loathing going on (he mentions feeling tarnished by his badge in Targets) means he might have felt trapped in a job he hated due to his close friendship and partnership with Starsky.

        On thinking things over, I think the changes in season 4 were foreshadowed to some extent by “Deckwatch,” and, as you say, “Manchild” (it must have been a pretty big blow to them to lose someone who seemed to be one of their best friends outside of each other, even if Jackson DID only appear in one episode.)

      • Adelaide Says:

        What an interesting idea rycardus! I agree with GZ that the only way “Starsky vs Hutch” is at all in-character for Hutch is if it comes late in season 4 to give him some excuse of being overloaded with stress to the point of having poor mental health (also, I would really not want to sit through episode after episode knowing that the events of “Starsky vs Hutch” were still lingering — it would put a really bad taste in my mouth. If it’s near the end of the season, though, “Sweet Revenge” and/or the “Targets Without A Badge” trilogy is there to render any conflict moot).

        However, I think “The Game” would make more sense if it was somewhere in the middle of the season, rather than only the second episode. I think the disproportionate importance Hutch puts on the game of hide-and-seek (especially after he hears Starsky is in the hospital) might have worked better later in the season. The same, I think, with Starsky’s abnormally obsessive reaction to his mistake in the episode “Blindfold,” which would make more sense if he had already been plagued by feelings of anxiety and inadequacy about his inability to alleviate Hutch’s increasing depression and disillusionment throughout this season. Also, I think that perhaps a better season opener than “Discomania” would have been “Strange Justice,” to set the mood of this season as darker and grimmer, rather than lighter and sillier (season 4 has heightened tendencies in both directions, but the darker and grimmer aspects of this season are the vastly superior ones).

        In season 3, I also have thought before that the episode “Partners” is a little odd to come so close after the episode “Hutchinson for Murder One” because “Partners” seems to be all about Hutch thinking Starsky doesn’t care about him or appreciate him enough and wanting Starsky to prove he does, which is a little strange after Starsky’s incredible display of self-sacrifice and fidelity in “Murder One.” Also, if “Murder One” had been the second-last episode of the season instead, it might hint at why Hutch was in such a bad mood in “Deckwatch.”

        I suppose it is a little silly of me to want to cook up a kind of non-existent hypothetical story arc for a show that has so little explicit continuity and never had any story arcs except the Targets one, but it does makes things more fun.

  3. Anna Says:

    I’m curious: has anyone ever come up with any wild character-study-based ideas about why Hutch grew that mustache?

  4. Wallis Says:

    What the Sam Hill does Starsky need with a book like that? Since when does *he* need lessons in how to intimidate people? “intense, with an unblinking gaze”? Honey, you’re kind of the expert at that. You could teach it to *other* people. Whatever. The whole disco thing makes this whole episode feel about twice as long as the plot would otherwise be.

    So, the first episode of season 4, huh? I just binged on several season 4 episodes and a whole font of new ideas and interpretations popped up due to this blog’s influence 😉 I agree with Merl’s wonderfully shrewd assessment of the shift in tone, but I personally feel that when it comes to the biggest issue of season 4 — the friendship — then, just as the 1950s really started in 1946 and the 2010s really started in 2008, season 4 really started in late season 3, with “Partners”, not with this ep.That was the first onscreen signifier of trouble brewing, I feel — Hutch’s compulsion to do something like that and Starsky’s utter inability to comprehend it.

    I like GZ’s idea that something big went down between Starsky and Hutch in the summer hiatus. Season 4 in general has this feeling of being almost wrong, but not quite wrong…more like there’s some piece of context missing and everything would make sense if we had it. One of the things I actually kind of appreciate about their friction in season 4 is how, in the most serious episodes where the divide is apparent, it *doesn’t* feel like friendship draining away. Instead, it feels like the friendship is still there in full force, but just somehow gone wrong and turned destructive and painful and confusing. It’s impossible for me *not* to see it this way, because the vacuum left behind by their partnership’s amazing power and intimacy is such a glaring one that it automatically seems to imply the presence of some apple of discord causing frustration, tension, darkness, and pain.

    There are a few episodes that sell this darkness and this idea of love gone wrong well (I recall The Game, Ballad for a Blue Lady, maybe Black and Blue, and of course Starsky vs Hutch) and some individual scenes within other episodes, but unfortunately, instead of doing an ambitious take with darker themes and meaningful, genuinely painful episodes that showed this struggle, most episodes of season 4 has a whole lot more glitzy lightweight bullshit like this episode here, that just throws up a whole lot of filler and distraction.

    • Grevy's Zebra Says:

      I agree with this, but I don’t think the “missing piece of context” is too difficult to speculate about (though it may be impossible to definitively answer). There has been a whole smorgasbord of different theories over the years from various fans, and no way of proving which one is more valid than another, since there’s no authorial intent to validate one over another.

      My tamest guess is that they are stressed out, exhausted, and scared to death by all their near-death partnership crises and the possibility that they might either lose each other, or fuck up and bring their partner down with them, and are taking out their frustrations on each other – just as they always have, except they’re turning away from each other this time instead of reaching out to each each other, which might simply be because their psychic-link-thing-a-ma-jig has gotten static (for example, Hutch has that whole itchy love-testing thing going on in “The Game” and “Starsky vs Hutch” which Starsky is oblivious to). It’s the question *why* they developed static so suddenly when they didn’t have it before that makes me wonder if there was some crisis event in the hiatus that divided them.

      I like the observation that this issue was already there in “Partners” though. That actually does make sense.

  5. Laurie Says:

    Lots has already been said, and I have no brilliant ideas about better series order or anything.

    Just had a couple of simple comments/oddities.

    The-then missing girl was said to have come in on the previous night with Miss Red Shorts. Isn’t it a trifle odd that Red goes to a disco with a friend, friend disappears, right after a couple other girls who went out dancing have been recently found dead, and instead of being home, scared out of her mind, or worried sick, or putting up Missing posters, Red goes right back to the same dance place, apparently alone, not asking all over about her friend, apparently not really concerned about anything, but just looking to boogie down and have fun dancing with whatever stranger comes along? Okay, the 70s were decadent, but that’s a bit ridiculous.

    I wish they’d have shown us the vague sketch drawn up from Marty’s description, even though it was supposedly bad. I kept feeling like I should jump up on a chair to get a better vantage point so I could see it.

    It’s not super important, I guess, but for this one I’d like to I know a little more about the answers about who Sharon was and what happened.

  6. Seaton Says:

    Tiny thing: isn’t it weird that Tony comes home and puts on music, and starts dancing and snapping his fingers before the music actually starts? Is it just my speakers? It sounds like several seconds of footfalls and scrapes before the music kicks in. I mean, I realise that when shooting the actors don’t actually hear the track playing, and are probably just dancing to someone banging sticks together or something, but it just looks so strange. Or was it a brilliant bit of characterisation, illustrating his madness?

    • merltheearl Says:

      I suppose so, but how many of us are guilty of boogeying toward the turntable in gleeful anticipation? Asking for a friend.

      That said, this action does suggest a man incapable of curbing his appetites and enthusiasms until an appropriate moment. Which makes him both impulsive and self-pitying, a particularly loathsome combination, serial killer or not.

  7. Lioness Says:

    I agree that something major must have happened between seasons 3 and 4 that would explain the change in personalities. But it sure would have been nice to have seen it in an actual episode.

    Re: the sequencing of Starsky vs Hutch and Targets. I’ve heard that S vs H was supposed to be shown first but was preempted by a baseball game or something.

  8. jameselliotsinger Says:

    The late actor Pierrino Mascarino playing Tony (at 39 years-old) had a busy career working as the kind of character actor that doesn’t stand out. He’s believable as the kind of aging mook who hung out in discos during those years. The name Tony Mariposa and the white disco suit might be some kind of statement the writer is making about Travolta’s Tony Manero character 20 years later. Starsky & Hutch may be worried about Sgt. Thorpe but they don’t seem to care about all the victims the way they indifferently investigate the case. The disco is fairly small and a kooky character like Tony would be known to the security men but that avenue seems to be overlooked by our heroes. Titillation specialists Aaron Spelling Productions always had simplistic scripts. Police procedures and the motivations of the killers were not as important as big hair and scantily clad actresses and this episode is no exception. The disco theme was perfect for this kind of jiggle show. At least there was nothing in the way of sick graphic violence that would come 40 years later with Criminal Minds and Hannibal.

  9. S j forrest Says:

    Hello everyone, as usual merl your review on what in my opinion is one of the worst episodes of the 4th season is very beautiful. But to be honest this is not even a bad episode, it has some beautiful scenes well choreographed like, the part in the underground parking, or when s & h arrest tony. Honestly Hutch seemed a little angry to me in this episode, because to me he was very upset about all the women that crazy man was killing and also about the fact that Tony had kidnapped the policewoman. This is the first episode of this underrated season. I don’t understand why the fourth season isn’t very good for you. If it’s just because Hutch has a different and more aggressive attitude than in the other seasons it seems ridiculous to me. it seems obvious to me that in a friendship between two alpha males you have to fight, then apart from starsky vs hutch it seems to me that they get along quite well. This season has a lot of positives, like music. You have noticed that all the episodes of the fourth season have different music. And the music is also very beautiful. This is the only season that features different music. Then the direction of some episodes is wonderful. The use of choreography and lighting is beautiful and adds that dark tone to this season. I disagree that this season they only use costumes and that she is very stupid. Ok, it is true that this season has many episodes let’s say a little stupid and that they are undercover such as: (Moonshine, the groupie, Dandruff the latter in my opinion is beautiful and the golden angel) but you have to take into account all the dark episodes and perfectly made there are: The game, strange justice, the avenger, starsky’s brother, ballad for a blu lady etc .. This season in my opinion is very dark and well done.

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