Character Studies 25: Tags (when they work, when they don’t)

Largely forgotten now, the tag was common during the 1970s, the final short scene following a commercial break just before the credits. The tags from this series work the best when economically resolving the few dangling issues left over from the episode, such as in “The Committee” and “Running” when a few short lines of dialogue puts the story to a dignified rest. For me, the top two tags in the series are “Starsky’s Lady” and “Death in a Different Place”. Both are marvelous in their own way: the former for its searing emotional content and the latter for its hilarity and sweetness. But half the time tags are inserted with the sole purpose of joking and teasing us back to equanimity. It’s a spoonful of sugar, an insinuation that television is not a serious endeavor, certainly nothing to get worked up over. See? Everything’s fine again! Sometimes these small moments do bring a sense of closure, but other times they are patronizing, facile, or irritating. That these tags work at all is due to the loose, improvisational quality the actors bring, the sense that the rules have been suspended, however briefly, allowing a glimpse into a unscripted moment (whether joyful or serious) that has nothing whatsoever to do with producers, schedules or contractual obligations. In fact, the series ends on what many consider to be the best tag of all, the scene in Starsky’s hospital room when the quartet of grim episodes filled with enormous stress and pain dissolves into a beautiful, transcendent moment of euphoria.

Here are a few examples when an idea either hits the mark or misses it entirely:

Let’s Have A Party!
Hit: “Death Notice” Miss: “The Shootout”
“Death Notice” is one of the few times in which sheer exuberance does not get in the way of sincerity. We have a raucous party, a reunion of characters we have grown fond of, and a genuine sense of relief the harrowing case has come to an end. Plus, there is also a private toast between the two partners that is both touching and life affirming. “The Shootout” also has characters coming together to celebrate but the whole things goes awry when what should be celebratory becomes hysterical, as Starsky puts on a frenetic and unfunny musical-comedy act for his new bemused friends. Blame Starsky’s medication, maybe.

Hutch Picks Up the Pieces
Hit: “The Fix” Miss: “Gillian”
“The Fix” is a rare example of a grim, ambiguous tag in which Hutch divests himself of Jeanie Walton following the arrest of gangster Ben Forest. There is a lot of subtle emotion here, all of it painful: regret, guilt, anger, grief. It’s beautifully underplayed by all the actors and a fine end to an extraordinary episode. An attempt of light-heartedness, even if the reasoning behind it is sound, doesn’t cut it in the tag of “Gillian”. The episode is just too harrowing to be ended with Hutch trying to put mend his shattered psyche with a bit of harmless flirtation at the bowling alley. Also, it seems a little cavalier for Starsky to bring his friend back to place loaded with so many memories, narrative neatness aside.

Cutting a Rug
Hit: “Tap Dancing” Miss: “Discomania”
Nothing quite reveals the differences in the earlier and later seasons than these two tags. Both come at the end of murder cases set in and around dancing. In “Tap Dancing”, the tag sequence is a fan favorite and a joy to watch. Hutch gets his comeuppance for mocking Starsky but there is only affection and a little bit of daring in the way Starsky grabs Hutch and sweeps him into a fearless dip to prove his point. In “Discomania”, Dobey’s presence changes the dynamic somewhat – there is far less of a focus on the partnership. Talk of disco strikes a dated note in the way the more generalized ballroom of the previous episode does not. Starsky and Hutch pretend to teach Dobey but instead it’s a ploy to expose him as a buffoon (albeit a charming one). Instead of physical intimacy we get a roomful of chuckling detectives, and the joke rings hollow.

The Perils of Fame
Hit: “Murder on Stage 17” Miss: “Cover Girl”
Both these episodes reveal in different ways how being famous isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In one, an unhinged ex-actor and a supermodel feel their lives have been unfairly stolen from them by a twist of fate, and both act out in dramatic, even eccentric or entitled, ways. The tags of both episodes are satirical takes on the idea of celebrity, but in “Stage 17” Hutch’s spoiled pouting when his small role is edited from the film makes him look hilariously pathetic. We are meant to laugh at the idea Hutch thinks he’s a star when in fact his contribution to the film is negligible. In “Cover Girl” the guys are drawn into a glossy magazine photo shoot, and even though they appear embarrassed, it’s still a triumph to be recognized and treated like a celebrity.

Starsky Plays a Trick
Hit: “Iron Mike Ferguson” Miss: “Blindfold”
Starsky and Hutch have a long history of playing tricks on each other. Sometimes it’s a welcome light moment in a very dark episode, as in “Iron Mike” when Starsky pretends not to understand chess and enrages his friend by calling the pieces funny names. It’s a lovely, quiet tag where a discussion about ethics flows naturally from a fair bit of silliness, and we get the sense both men are enjoying their time together. In “Blindfold” Hutch agrees to test his negotiating skills. Although we should be admiring his excellent visual memory, instead we’re subjected to a horrible, potentially dangerous fall down the stairs. This meanness is out of character for Starsky, and in fact undermines what the episode is trying to tell us about the courage to adapt and the importance of friendship.

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One Response to “Character Studies 25: Tags (when they work, when they don’t)”

  1. Shelley Says:

    Best tag: “Starsky’s Lady.” Worst tag: “The Shootout.” The “Starsky’s Lady” tag is almost like a story within itself . . . it could stand alone, as it does in “Partners.” The tag for “The Shootout” is so awful it’s embarrassing. If I were going to watch that episode on dvd with somebody, I’d stop it before the tag and pretend that was the end.

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