LIFE LESSONS No. 3: You Think You Know People? You Don’t.

Crying Child
Death in a Different Place
Deadly Imposter

The appearances-mean-nothing rule is best exemplified by Starsky and Hutch themselves, as they are told repeatedly, with disgust bordering on admiration, they “don’t look like cops” (“Death Ride”, “Omaha Tiger”, “Terror on the Docks”, and said with a sigh by Flashy Floyd in “The Specialist”), meaning they look more like criminals than officers. Before Starsky and Hutch’s generation, police officers were popularly seen as uniform-wearing, rule-following humorless authoritarian figures who have long lost any fellow-feeling for those they encounter on the street, the very opposite of Starsky and Hutch. And since looking past the obvious is the bedrock of a good detective, Starsky and Hutch are adept at seeing an evil heart nestled in a gangster’s Armani suit and a wholesome one hidden by a stripper’s tassels. But when simple reversals aren’t so simple, when black and white blends into shades of gray, things get interesting – and informative.

Sometimes it seems as if Starsky and Hutch are pretty much alone, the last good guys in a world gone bad. “Who do we trust?” Starsky asks Hutch in the pilot episode, and Hutch replies, “The same people we always do. Us.” Unsaid, but implied: and no one else. This comment, repeated in slight variations throughout the run of the series, has become a treasured aphorism of fans. Yet even though Hutch’s remark shows how intense the partnership bond is, it is also is an acknowledgement of a kind of curse. Friends, allies and lovers are often (always?) people who are dishonest, morally weak, agenda-driven, and worst of all, doomed as a direct consequence of coming too close to the gravitational pull of that partnership.

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned while watching “Starsky and Hutch” are the perils of expectation and sentiment, and what happens when the desire to see things in a certain light blinds you to the truth of the matter. I remember most vividly learning this in the guise of faux-friend John Colby in “Deadly Imposter.” Here, nostalgia is blinding as John Colby plays on his past friendship by slathering on the charm, playing the victim and appealing to their strong sense of loyalty and justice. Starsky and Hutch allow themselves, with an endearing lack of hesitation, to be misled in the cruelest way as Colby uses their talents to bring him in direct contact with his elusive prey. I often find Colby’s greasy earnestness flitting into my mind whenever someone lays on the charm a little too thick, or when long-vanished people suddenly reappear in need of a favor, and in my line of work there have been many Deadly Imposters putting an arm around my shoulder, anxious to remind me of the good old days.

It may seem elementary, but “appearances are deceiving” is something many people – myself included – are forced to relearn time and time again. A good example is “The Crying Child” when Starsky and Hutch are told by an emotional and fragile woman that her ex-husband is responsible for the abuse suffered by her young son. She’s not only believable, but the long-held assumption that women are incapable of violence against their own children (a concept abandoned in this post-Susan Smith world) works to her advantage. Her ex-husband plays into these prejudices with his poorly controlled temper and imposing presence. He also doesn’t help his own case by reacting to their accusations by yelling, “I don’t need two punk cops telling me how to run my own family!” I still remember how it felt to learn the “bad” guy was good and the “good” guy was bad, and that shame has stuck with me since. As well, there’s an additional element of religion being used as both diversionary tactic and self-justification. And so we are forced to ask ourselves: how many times have we been tempted to accept something because it conforms to our assumptions, and how can we confront those latent prejudices?

You have to be made of stone not to be moved by “Death in a Different Place”, the story of decorated detective John Blaine’s secret life. Yes, the Tragic Homosexual is now considered a shopworn character, a negative stereotype many are anxious to leave behind, and rightly so. But when this episode aired in 1977 many if not most viewers at the time would have been mighty shocked, and hopefully shocked right out of their comfy preconceptions. While it would have been vastly better to have Blaine as a recurring character, making this revelation even more profound, the revelation of his private suffering nevertheless carries great social, political, and emotional weight. Again, nostalgia and assumption play an important role. Because Blaine seemed fine – wife, career, what I imagine would be a gruff, ultra-manly self-containment – his stability is taken at face value. And so the crushing realization Starsky faces – and all of us will face eventually, to one degree or another – that we have failed as a confidant, a friend, and a colleague.

One of the best things about actors who are as honest and diligent as Glaser and Soul is their determination to create characters as vulnerable as they are valiant. We can see, for example, how Hutch allows sentiment to obscure the truth, while Starsky simply blocks out what he can’t deal with. And the hard-won insight from these errors can be ours, if we pay attention. At least I did, years ago. And this is what stuck with me, all these years: skepticism is healthy, cynicism is not. Do your research. Look below the surface. You think you know people? You don’t, not by a long shot.

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5 Responses to “LIFE LESSONS No. 3: You Think You Know People? You Don’t.”

  1. June Says:

    The violent mother and the closeted cop. On TV today, it doesn’t rate a mention as a plot. But in the 70s, it was brave to do so. I’m not sure if Glaser played Starsky as slightly homophobic or as if he wasn’t totally surprised by Blaine’s truth. (I had to look up Susan Smith and then I remembered seeing her as the model for Kathryn Erbe’s killer mother role in OZ. Nasty.)

    Not knowing someone else, their reactions etc., is one thing but I have been pleasantly surprised and depressingly disappointed by some of the thing I myself have done: things which the me I know didn’t align with the me of reality.

    I’ve got a “what if” to add to Starsky’s list. What if Glaser and Soul hadn’t become tired of the “monotony” of the series and they put as much into the latter seasons as they did to the former?

  2. Daniela Giangrande Says:

    hi Merle! Happy belated new year!
    Any more posts??
    I hope so, it’s been too long!
    Take care,
    Daniela

    • merltheearl Says:

      Daniela, it’s so nice to hear from you. Yes, I’m planning to write more posts and it has been far too long. Not only do I need to complete Life Lessons, but several episodes require further speculation and evaluation. I have been recently been overwhelmed by life events.

  3. Susan Says:

    I LOVE your blog. I just found it today and I can’t stop reading it. More to come, I hope? It’s really awesome.

    • merltheearl Says:

      Thank you so much, Susan. Just when I think I’ve exhausted the subject there is something new to consider. But honestly, I think I am nearing the end of new content. I hope to revisit some episodes soon, though.

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