LIFE LESSONS No. 4: It Pays to Keep An Open Mind.

The Vampire
The Psychic
The Set-Up

Open-mindedness is a central theme in the series – both inside it (the characters) and outside it (the viewers). In my view, the series has undergone a rare alchemical transformation, transcending its original intention as cheaply produced entertainment to becoming a conduit for unexpressed or suppressed dreams, ambitions, and aspirations. Those who set out to deliberately make something like this, something timeless and resilient, will always fail. It’s always a happy accident, falling at the supremely personal intersection between general social disparagement and very specific personal desire. And it’s solely to do with “low” culture, denigrated by society at large, with no perceived cultural value. As well, the moment of recognition must be within one’s own private sphere. The child in the 1950s, fixed on Superman as savior and wish-fulfillment in one, thinks, as he breathlessly reads a ten-cent comic: no one in the world feels how I do. In this way, something decried by teachers, parents and social philosophers as intellect-rotting dime store junk becomes instead a life-saving, life-defining cultural touchstone. “Starsky & Hutch” suffered this categorization too, dismissed much in the way “Star Trek” was dismissed a decade earlier, Marvel comics the decade before that, Sherlock Holmes before that. Ephemera becomes eternal, if you have an open mind.

Starsky and Hutch are at their best when exiled to the margins, either because their integrity has come under scrutiny, they have been warned off or threatened, or when false assumptions have been made by everyone around them. There are many instances when Dobey or some other superior makes a presumptive or easy decision that doesn’t sit well – in “Snowstorm”, “The Committee” and “Strange Justice” they’re forced to prove a fellow officer is crooked, they’re accused of overreacting in “Iron Mike” and “Survival”, accused of being on the take (“Starsky and Hutch are Guilty”, “Rosey Malone” and others) or capable of murder and conspiracy (“Hutchinson for Murder One”, “Targets”). Shunted to the outside, stung by criticism, these are the times when they reveal their most laudable quality, in my opinion: their flexible, creative mindset.

In “The Set-Up”, Starsky and Hutch are abandoned by the state, their morality questioned. The combination of fury and indignation doesn’t result in disordered thinking or useless acts of violent retribution, as it might with your average person. Instead, it results in perfect clarity: they believe Nash’s improbable story (simultaneously, too: note the quick mutual glances while Nash talks, affirming the bullshit meter hasn’t gone off for either of them). They doggedly reserve judgment throughout increasingly bizarre events, keep a clear head, shrug off naysayers, refuse to be led astray, and in the end are proven right. This open-mindedness is seen in extreme receptivity (both have an uncanny ability to see the truth among the lies; we see this in “The Hostages”, “Lady Blue”, and the “Targets” trilogy), the cleansing effects of moral outrage and the freedom that comes with exile. Of course, gun-battles, car chases, heroic deeds and nefarious criminals was not ever going to be a part of my life. But their example sure came in handy when making my way through the maze of political fanaticism, social hazards and professional misdeeds, and maybe it was the same for you.

Both Starsky and Hutch are great role models when it comes to the unexpected benefits of nonpartisan thinking; amusingly, rarely at the same time, which means one is always in an entertaining state of eye-rolling impatience (and thus proving the usefulness of the partnership). A long-running joke is belief in the supernatural, with Starsky usually the credulous one and Hutch the realist. In “The Bounty Hunter”, there’s a marvelous conversation in which Starsky and Huggy talk about a book they both read in which “Bigfoot is supposed to be a creature from outer space left behind to spy on us” and Hutch interrupts with a perfectly dry “I thought everybody knew that.” In “The Vampire”, Starsky is quick to latch on to the idea of vampirism as a motive for murder while Hutch, true to form, thinks his partner is a moron. But Starsky’s open-mindedness leads them to a closer understanding of the case and its tragic villain. Starsky doesn’t actually think vampires exist. The garlic was mostly a joke on Hutch, with a tiny bit of you-never-know pragmatism, which is separate from actually believing. The scene in which Starsky regales Hutch with “facts” about vampires with a pile of books on his lap is telling: in “The Plague” he repeats improbable stories of longevity gleaned from National Geographic and relates dubious (i.e. wrong) statistics in “Las Vegas Strangler” and “Jo-Jo”. Starsky relies on books for his wacky information while Hutch, withering rationalist, has only common sense. It’s obvious which is a better navigational tool – the rational almost always wins out – and this rejection of authority (just look at them – scruffy hippies, basically) is summed up in this basic tenet: trust your instincts, don’t follow the herd, and you will win in the end.

In “The Psychic” it’s Hutch who is quick to accept the truth behind the visions of Joe Collins. Hutch’s excellent memory is helpful here; he remembers details about the Atlantic City kidnapping and the role Collins plays, and so doesn’t dismiss this “magic” outright. He keeps an open mind. Both have a healthy distrust of orthodoxy: Hutch pursues what is essentially an alternative lifestyle (jogging, macrobiotic food, meditation) while Starsky also skirts convention with his Heathcliffe-like brooding romanticism and stubborn proletarianism. Both are a mystery to their family members (Hutch’s ex-wife can barely keep a lid on her derision, and Nick thinks his older brother is a selfish do-gooder, and the dangerous lifestyle ensures neither has a long-term relationship – Terry excepted, possibly). Humorless Bureaucrats (good guys) and Smarmy Big Shots (bad guys) are both mired in convention, both must be outsmarted and insulted as much as possible. In fact, both Starsky and Hutch have a kind of Puckish invincibility. Youth is freedom, masculinity is power, and the partnership is the ultimate safety net. And so, in “The Psychic”, as in “The Vampire” and “The Set-Up”, we learn this: that which seems outlandish or impossible is neither. Name-calling and bullying must be ignored. Sincerity is everything. And above all, don’t make up your mind until you have proof, and until then, anything is possible.

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