Character Studies 16: The Missing Father, The Destructive Father. Part Two.

The essence of this series is not crime and crime-solving but rather friendship. The partnership of Starsky and Hutch is the one element that lifts it from the rest and makes it both special and unique. And not just a mutually beneficial working partnership, though it is that too. Rather, this series is a four-year meditation on that rarest, most precious bond of all: an intense, irrational, exclusive, unbreakable connection that has nothing to do with shared interests, compatibility, or past experiences.

It’s a bold move by writers and producers to venture into the uncharted territory of male friendship. This is not a well-understood area. Generally, men find the idea of friendship more challenging and perplexing than women. While women foster intimacy through close conversation and emotional support, men typically need structured outlets such as sports as a reason to be with each other. These relationships can be dependent on nostalgia, in the case of college buddies, or shared hobbies. “Best friends” is a girly thing, a concept lost somewhere around grade four; many men don’t think they need friends. Maybe they don’t even like each other most of the time, if towel-thwacking and competitive one-upmanship is the extent of their connection.

Where do men learn how to value and nurture friendship? Or how to be a man, for that matter? From their fathers? The typical American man coming of age in the Depression era would be remote, a survivalist, wanting their own sons to be “strong”, to hide their vulnerabilities and keep emotions under wraps. These are the role models of men born in the 1940s and 1950s, men like Starsky and Hutch. Then how are Starsky and Hutch capable of being such good friends to each other? This friendship, with its level of physical intimacy and deep intuition, is astonishing. Yes, off-time is filled with activities, fishing, skirt-chasing, basketball playing. They can be cruel to each other, dismissive too. But all that is a form of machismo theatre, a way to drain energy, and also simply a bad social habit. The friendship itself endures and deepens over time, and for all the macho bull they display great affection and sensitivity to each other. So how did this come about? Is it the influence of youth culture of the 60s? Perhaps the continual us-against-them threat as a uniting force? Maybe we can explain it away by virtue of that most elusive thing of all – a kind of kismet. Or could a large part of their extraordinary friendship could be due to the fact both men have no fathers, and are therefore free from the chains of paternal expectation and control?

The answer, of course, is all of the above. But my supposition is the first three are deliberate choices on the part of the writers and actors and the fourth is a naturally occurring but entirely unconscious precursor to those choices. For this partnership/friendship to work, neither man must have a paternal shadow hanging over their heads. Because Starsky and Hutch are not just friends, they are friends in direct opposition to the world in which they live (politically, socially, historically, and institutionally). Both abandoned their ties and struck out for the west coast, which could be seen as a mythological quest to discard the yoke of past generations (leaving only a tenuous and guilt-laden tie to distant mothers). Both have gravitated to older, higher-ranking police officers to fill in as father-figures (in Starsky’s case John Blaine in “Death in a Different Place” and in Hutch’s case Luke Huntley in “Birds of a Feather”) and both Blaine and Huntley are revealed to be shocking disappointments, further erasing and negating the father. Throughout the series fathers as a whole (even Fathers in the religious sense) are ineffectual and often perilously inadequate.

I could even go as far as to list a series of “uncle” types, those who yield undeniable power yet have a hollow core – I would count Captain Dobey, Chief Ryan in “Starsky and Hutch are Guilty”, Internal Affairs hotshot Lieutenant Fargo, creepy Mike Ferguson and even the Los Angeles Mayor himself among them. These men are to be circumvented rather than obeyed. Dobey is interesting here because he is the Big Boss and should be a totemic figure in the landscape, yet Starsky and Hutch spend most of their time trying to placate, distract, avoid, trick and occasionally outright disobey him. He is gregarious Uncle Dobey, the not-quite-serious effigy of Father, a straw man, failure at his own fatherly duties (says me) and in constant danger of buffoonery in the department.

If the Father can be seen in both the symbolic and the literal sense, then Starsky and Hutch are entirely fatherless, orphans by design and by destiny. Free of parental obligation, adrift in rootless California, rejecting the rules of Old School police work (much is made of their Serpico-like independence), politically nonconformist, denied any chance at domestic responsibility that might loosen or change their primary devotion to each other (Abby, Gillian, Linda Davisson, Terry, all gone), continually betrayed by the very institution they have pledged their professional lives to (this series ends with the greatest act of betrayal of all: the failure of the LAPD to protect or even have faith in them in their war against Arch Enemy James Gunther), all they have is each other.

“It’s who-do-we-trust time,” Starsky tells Hutch. And the answer to that is always the same: nobody but us.

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4 Responses to “Character Studies 16: The Missing Father, The Destructive Father. Part Two.”

  1. Daniela Says:

    hello again, very interesting comment and analysis, but I wonder: do you think that the authors and actors sat at a desk and worked out all these concepts on paper and then put them to action in the show?
    I mean we (here and now) are looking at the whole series and the interaction over 4 years and the way characters developed and all.
    But do you think in the day to day putting a story together, filming it, dealing with problems and deadlines and all that, there was this much thought in the creation of a social environment for these characters to move in?
    I have no idea what is involved in making a TV series, so I am just asking.
    By the way, thanks for not keeping me hanging with the rest of the analysis!!
    And also, I found one of the questions I had asked, it was in the comments to “Partners”.
    Thanks again,
    Daniela

    • merltheearl Says:

      Daniela, that’s a great question and one I think about all the time. I have no satisfactory answer to it, except to read interviews with people connected to the show, particularly William Blinn, the show’s creator, and the two leads. All three talk about how the series was born pretty much whole, as we see it. All the principle elements were there: the central importance of friendship, character traits and idiosynchrasies. It seems to me the series suffered when it began losing bits and pieces as the show went on: the gritty atmosphere of the city, some of their cherished routines (health food arguments, candy machine wars, etc). I find Season One much more developed than Season Four. Kind of a devolving, rather than evolving.

      Still, your point as to whether or not the producers and writers and actors thought much about the series as a deliberate construct as they were making it, the answer is probably not. A striking comparison can be made to Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote Sherlock Holmes. He was completely unaware he was creating one of the greatest literary characters of all time, and his “sloppiness”, his lapses and instinctual, nearly automatic writing style allowed Sherlock Holmes to break free from Doyle’s real life pretensions and conventions. It’s a kind of liberation, a blank slate upon which generations of peope are free to write their suppositions, inventions and fantasies. Doyle was a genius, but his genius lay in his subconscious mind, and that’s how I see “Starsky and Hutch”. The initial spark is wonderful, but the resulting fire is created and maintained by us (and allowing people like me to make any pretentious, inflated supposition I want!)
      Thanks again for reading.

  2. hutchlover Says:

    I don’t know that I would say John Blaine disappointed them.

    If anything he Ley Maggie down, but she seemed to know abt his bi-sexuality, and kept herself in that situation. Why? Possibly because she honestly loved Blaine, and divorcing him might’ve put him in the line of fire. Unfortunately, when he discovered he was gay (or bi), the times reflected that you suppress your natural being and do the best you can.

  3. Dianna Says:

    That was a beautiful meditation. As I continue to progress through the episodes in order, I particularly appreciate your comment that the series devolved rather than evolving. It’s rather sad.

    In Coffin For Starsky, when the doctor tells Hutch he should notify family members and “any other close friends,” I always think, “That will be quick.”

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