LIFE LESSONS No. 5: It All Comes Down to Love.

The Fix
A Coffin For Starsky
Gillian

I leave the most important life lesson to the last, the lesson for me is the heart of the series and its most durable (and unusual) legacy. And that is love – what it is, how it grows and sustains, and how it is expressed. The English language is both elastic and encompassing but let’s face it, there’s a terrible lack of synonyms for the most important word of all. Love for a child, love of life, falling in love, love for the perfect cheeseburger – love has so many degrees and variations it’s impossible to cram it all into a single word. But love is, in fact, the most important lesson I have ever learned from this series and something that informs me to this day.

Love is what sets Starsky & Hutch apart from the hundreds of other cops shows, most of which are predicated on either the individual as iconoclast, particularly in the 1970s, filled to the brim with conspicuous loners such as Baretta, Columbo and Kojack, or the Group Effort, a jumble of disparates who somehow become an effective, if eccentric team by pooling their separate strengths. Other famous duos – from Batman and Robin and Holmes and Watson to The Streets of San Francisco among many others, and a dozen of male-female alliances from The Thin Man to McMillan and Wife, play off the uneven distribution of power, the upstart assistant, clash of generations, the entertaining friction between differences. But Starsky and Hutch are a partnership of equals. This is more difficult to present and harder to sustain: in the absence of a power struggle or cute opposites, the interaction can be more intense and hermetic. Yes, they are presented quite differently, both physically and in terms of their habits. There’s a lot of both comedic and poignant material to be found in their different approaches the details of life, such as Starsky’s love of his car and Hutch’s healthy diet. But this is superficial, and the bickering and competitiveness that arises from those minor differences both amplify their affection for one another (because it allows them to mock-battle, both a life-saving way of decompressing and allowing for amusement in an often depressing world) and, in a way, distract them from it (because dependency, and as well the fear of loss, is as scary to them as it would be to us). We tend to see two as a one, two halves of a whole, and that can have uneasy connotations. “Starsky & Hutch”, in its finest episodes, doesn’t care how uneasy anyone is. Sometimes you get the feeling the series, as a whole, is daring you to redefine what it is to love. Or maybe it is more accurate to say they are daring themselves to define love in a way many people privately wish it to be. In the mid 1970s the idea of so-called heroic friendship had more or less been erased from popular culture. The ancient Greeks understood it, Shakespeare too, although a lot of it is mired in a bunch of baloney about the purity of a world without women and the ever-precarious instability of men whose political and social aims will most certainly destroy their relationship, as Shakespeare says in “Coriolanus”:

O World, thy slippery turns! Friends now fast sworn,
Whose double bosoms seems to wear one heart,
Whose hours, whose bed, whose meal and exercise
Are still together, who twin, as ’twere, in love
Unseparable, shall within this hour,
On a dissension of a doit, break out to bitterest enmity.

Whose bed, mind you, prompting guffaws today, sadly. In the 1970s, much like the decades before, male friendship had lost both intensity and purpose. It wasn’t seen as necessary or seemly. You can chart the deflation of overt affection in every aspect of culture and in daily life. The rise of a psychologically based model of human existence brought with it not only a paralyzing fear of homosexuality but a narrow definition of what it meant to be a real man, and that definition did not include making oneself vulnerable to a friend. Affectionate hand-holding of the Victorian men was quickly replaced, in a few short decades, by a stiff pat on the back. “Starsky & Hutch” had no modern template, nothing like it had been seen before on television (rarely in any other medium either). Series creator William Blinn wrote the series primarily, I think, as a way of capitalizing on the zeitgeist of counter-culturalism, basically youthful, idealistic cops free from the rigid rules of the older generation. Laudable, yes, but the relationship itself soon becomes as important, or even more so, than the storylines or even the revolutionary social aims. Credit to this goes almost entirely to Glaser and Soul, honest, intelligent and fearless actors who took a great premise and made it greater.

In “The Fix”, Hutch is kidnapped and tortured by a gangster determined to find the whereabouts of his enslaved mistress. The gangster’s minions shoot Hutch full of heroin in order to coerce the information, but Hutch’s courageous leap to freedom results in Starsky hustling him into a safe place to detox. The grimy, searing details – sweat and violence, dirty rooms and panicky fear for a vanished girl – provide the necessary masculine props allowing both men to safely show not only an emotional bond but a loving physical one as well. The tables are turned in “A Coffin For Starsky”, in which Starsky is injected with a poison for unknown reasons, and together Starsky and Hutch must find the antidote and the motive for the crime before time runs out. Both extreme situations allowed writers and actors to express themselves without being accused of sentimentality, overreaction, or worse. Both episodes use a syringe welded by a homicidal thug, both acts of violence have more than a whiff of sexual sadism. Both Starsky and Hutch are taken by surprise at night, in the privacy of their homes. Even the ostensible motive for both actions is similar: it is love, or a twisted version of it (Ben Forest wants his girl back, Professor Jennings is grieving his beloved son). Both Starsky and Hutch are dehumanized, abstracted, used and thrown away: Starsky as reprisal, Hutch as a means to an end. In both episodes the uninjured one of the pair is in fact suffering more grievously, in the role of anguished caretaker. Only together can they solve the crime and bring the criminal to justice and in so doing repair the damage each has suffered. It might have been easier to emphasize the curative power of vengeance and have Hutch seek retribution for Starsky’s near-fatal attack and the other way around, but both Hutch in “The Fix” and Starsky in “Coffin” actually bully their way into the situation (both half-dead) when common sense says they should not. The love relationship, therefore, becomes allegorical: only by joining together can we ever hope to hold back the darkness of this evil world.

In the earlier two episodes, there is a kind of literal saving of a life. In “Gillian” the saving is metaphorical: Hutch’s girl is discovered to be a prostitute in the employ of the Grossmans, a mother-and-son criminal enterprise. Threatening to leave, Gillian is killed, and Starsky and Hutch must avenge her death and, inn doing so, salvage themselves. But first, they must go through it. Together they travel through a howling firestorm of grief that is as terrible as anything ever filmed, made more painful because at the very heart of it is shame. They both know, on some level, investigating the Grossmans has made them unwitting instigators of this tragedy. (We will see this again in “Starsky’s Lady”, which has a nearly identical scene of shame and grief, Terry having been shot as a direct consequence of being Starsky’s girlfriend, except that it is quiet and deflated while this one is explosive and violent.)

This series doesn’t shy away from the complications of love either. As I mentioned before, the constant quarreling underscores, in my opinion, an itch of dread. By slapping each other away both can assure themselves that they are able to exist apart from one another. I’m not like him, the other can say. I don’t do those annoying things. The paltry list of differences are all silly and domestic in nature, half-invented or at least exaggerated anyway. In a sense Starsky and Hutch, as ultimate good in a bad world, are enveloped in a kind of nimbus as toxic as it is morally transcendent: they are indivisible, but indivisibility has its dark side, which “Gillian” illustrates. A second’s self-conscious fear of loss causes Hutch to freeze during an alley shootout, rendered helpless. Because this comes on the heels of Hutch proclaiming his deep feelings for Gillian she is implicated in his inability to cover Starsky. “For the first time I got to thinking …” he says. Then – and this is my interpretation, he actually does not finish the thought, but instead says, “I could have gotten you killed!” What Hutch got to thinking was if something happened to me I would never see Gillian again. This split second fracture of his bond with Starsky, his prime loyalty, is enough to endanger them both. “I didn’t work the way we work!” he cries out. It seems that the cosmos has similar feelings on the subject, because Gillian is permanently removed. I can’t be the only one to think that if either or both were to marry and have children – the most natural, perhaps even most desirable course of events for these young men – the partnership would be diluted beyond all recognition.

“Starsky and Hutch” is famous for many good reasons: handsome and charismatic stars, the flashy Torino, about eighty percent great scripts, a naturalistic and compassionate look at crime and punishment in the American city. But for me it’s love that distinguishes this series, love best defined by what it is not. It’s not brotherly or collegiate, it’s not made up of shared experiences like the intense bond of soldiers in wartime, although it holds within it all these elements. But it’s the very first, and last, lesson I take from this series. Love is all that matters.

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25 Responses to “LIFE LESSONS No. 5: It All Comes Down to Love.”

  1. KerryC Says:

    Thank you once more for a beautiful, moving and perfect depiction of all that these two characters, actors and men embody for so many of us who will always see the depth of magic in their relationship. Their special, unique love and unfailing loyalty to each other is hope for mankind. Your efforts and word craft is so appreciated Merl.

  2. Dona Says:

    At last, thank you! I will carefully read it as soon as possible (unfortunately this week is a hard one for me). The three you cite are undoubtedly among the best episodes, and the most meaningful examples of this last life lesson.

  3. Audrey Says:

    well said Merle.You’re a big talent no doubt about it 🙂

  4. Lynn Says:

    Merle,
    Thank you so much for this very moving and so spot on final “life lesson”. I think that Soul and Glaser would be pleased to read this tribute as they have often been quoted as saying the series was about the relationship between two people who loved one another. The car, the chases, and the girls were window dressing to the amazing relationship and love shared between these two very charming men. Their love, fierce at times and so gentle at others, inspires us to hang on to the hope that someday we too can have a relationship like that, and that as long as there are those relationships out there we will all be OK.
    Merle, I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed your labor of love in this blog, sharing your keen insights and letting us share with you as well. Words fail me in describing the amazing work that you have done here. As long as there are people like you out there who can see the love and the good in people we will all be OK.
    Thank you Merle and my sincere best wishes for your good health and happiness,
    Lynn

  5. merltheearl Says:

    I’m very touched by all your comments. We are most likely coming to the end of our journey and it means so much to me that my private little project has resonated with you.

  6. Dianna Says:

    Yes, to all of the above!

    This is a beautiful comparison of some absolute favorite episodes, although I hope that their relationship would be enriched rather than diluted if they found the right women (like Terry would probably have been).

    The relationship is absolutely the reason I watch. And watch again. It makes me feel warm and happy to know that there is at least a small group of people who sees and appreciates what I see and appreciate in Starsky & Hutch. I wish I could get more people to watch it the same way.

    But NOOOOO to “end of our journey”! I only found you and your site a few months ago!

    • merltheearl Says:

      I smiled at this – thank you Dianna. And yes, if people could ditch their assumptions and see the show as we do, it would be great.

      • Dianna Says:

        I think that marrying Starsky or Hutch would be a bit like marrying a conjoined twin. You’d better love both of them, as well as the other spouse, because they are inseparable!

  7. Dona Says:

    “end of our journey” … what does this mean ??

  8. marianrose Says:

    Thank you for the brilliant analysis and insights you shared in this blog. Of all the comments I’ve read regarding S&H, yours are ones that help me the most in understanding and appreciating all that this show has to offer. This is the most valuable writing about S&H I have ever seen.

    I learned many things about the show that I never knew by reading your blog. At times, it was almost as if you were there when they were making the show. But you not only provided important information, you also analyzed it and studied it from various perspectives with intelligence and skill.

    You are not the only one to think:

    “that if either or both were to marry and have children – the most natural, perhaps even most desirable course of events for these young men – the partnership would be diluted beyond all recognition”

    I share this opinion. I guess I think about this issue more than any other. You expressed it perfectly by saying that “indivisibility has its dark side”. I suppose that all great expressions of love have a great element of sacrifice. How interesting to contemplate the future of these characters and what they might sacrifice for their “indivisibility” vs. their development as individuals.

    Again, thank you for the terrific writing.

    • merltheearl Says:

      Marianrose, thank you for joining in the conversation. I started this project to right a wrong, and that wrong was how the series has been misunderstood and underestimated. I hope I’ve contributed something valuable. As for the bittersweet aspect to the partnership, I’m glad you agree.

  9. Daniela Says:

    I’ve appreciated the writing and the comments and the insight you have provided into a show that filled my youthful days with fantasies and beautiful sights, but also shaped my thinking, about friendship, and love and relationships.
    Not all the shaping has been good, I have to admit, but the one about friendship lasted, as my blond haired friend of almost 40 years can testify. (Yes, she was Hutch and I was Starsky)
    I appreciated reading the blog and I wish you would continue the writing.
    Some of the episodes could use a lot more insight than what you gave us, because of brevity and constraint, and I think you should start again with episode one and revisit the posts with more and more of your analysis. 😉
    Now, don’t make me take a vote! You know we are all behind you!!
    But whatever your decision is, I thank you for sharing all this work with us, total strangers who bumped into each other in blogsphere looking for information on Starsky and Hutch.
    Daniela

  10. Sabrina Says:

    I don’t think anything could ever separate Starsky and Hutch from each other. Imo, they never did get married but if they did it would have to be to someone like Terry. She’s the only woman on the entire show I found absolutely perfect for Starsky and thus for both of them.

  11. Sandra Says:

    Thank you so much for this beautiful, intersting, sometimes funny and insightful blog! I’ve read through some of it a year or so ago and then I forgot about it. When I recently found this page again by chance I was thrilled there was so much more there to read through.
    You’re right, the most important lesson S&H can give you is Love. It was about love and it’s still about love. And I’m happy to say, since I attended last xears Survival Convention with both Paul and David, that there are a lot other people who see it exactly the same way. You just can’t watch them together and not be moved by their relationship. That they are just like S&H in real life (and still are to this day) makes it even more wonderful in my eyes. There’s a friendship that lasted through all the trials of life and has obviously only deepened. We just were privileged to see it openly displayed on tv, not only in the big h/c episodes (though it’s most obvious there) but also in the knowing looks and sweet gestures (tummy pats, a hand on an arm or leg) that (like someone once said: Let’s us briefly touch the love every human craves). I’ll be ever so grateful to Paul and David to give us all this lesson of love.
    And you did a wonderful job to point it all out to us. I’ve seen so many things I missed before and found myself nodding consent on other things you noticed about episodes.
    I also would love you to start from the beginning again and dissect all those wonderful moments anew. I’m sure there will be enough to talk about a second time, lol.

  12. Bilbrey Says:

    “….. if either or both were to marry and have children – the most natural, perhaps even most desirable course of events for these young men – the partnership would be diluted beyond all recognition.”

    Personally, I see adulthood as more than marrying and having children. I believe S&H were meant to be single men without children. So then yes, their partnership would be strong for life.

    • merltheearl Says:

      My mistake, and it’s a typical one, is in the overstatement. What I meant is more according to the times in which this series was made, i.e. the seventies, and considering both Starsky and Hutch are children of the forties, it’s generationally typical to marry and have a family. Starsky’s abrupt proposal to Terry (“Starsky’s Lady”) shows marriage is something he would consider. But yes, of course adulthood is much more than marrying and having children, that’s a given. I have an unfortunate tendency to liven up my essays with definitive declarations when the reality is much more blurry.

      • Shelley Says:

        Also, remember that Starsky mentioned in “Lady Blue” that he and Helen had talked about getting married. I found it noteworthy that he asked Hutch if that was surprising. As though Hutch would never imagine Starsky getting married? Or marrying Helen in particular?

        And of course Hutch had already been married, probably twice. I’d think he might hope that there would be a third-time-lucky up ahead.

  13. Grevy's Zebra Says:

    What a beautiful summary of this most important theme of this show, and what an apt selection of episodes to illustrate it.

    I have one slight disagreement though — at the end, you mention a number of types of friendship and love that Starsky and Hutch’s friendship is not. I’d like to somewhat disagree with that statement, although not with your overall point. I instead rather see Starsky and Hutch’s bond as containing ALL those types and more, so that their bond cannot be wholly described as being any single one of those types. One of the most striking aspects of their relationship, in my opinion, is the way it is both highly familiar to the viewers (both to those who are lucky enough to have close friendships, as well as to those who are deprived of them) while also defying categorization.

  14. Bo D Says:

    Merl,

    I’ve been lurking about for the past month…revelling in your intelligent, insightful blog, and can contain myself no longer…it’s quite clear to me that I am besotted…in love with your mind…your voice…your blog..the whole kit and kaboodle. I can’t get enough.

    Having been a dedicated fan of the original series in my tender youth, (going so far as insisting to my family that our beloved pets needed to be named Starsky, Hutch and Huggy Bear), I came full circle recently when a I found it being broadcast and jumped back in heart and soul (more aptly, Glaser & Soul). It’s as if time waited for me to come to back Bay City, and I find myself rejoicing in your blog daily as I go through the episodes, finding the Ollie Report for each before pressing ‘play’. Such joy in these writs!

    In my head, I could only hope to sound as eloquent, as insightful, as dedicated to this thing that is Starsky & Hutch. I’m so glad I found you and all who drop by to share the love. I’m enjoying each and every comment, entry and opinion…I feel inspired, and hope to find my writing chops again. It’s been far, far too long and I’m so glad to be home; thank you.

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