Archive for January, 2014

Character Studies 27: Do It Light

January 20, 2014

The 1970s were a tumultuous time. Despite the youth-oriented counter-cultural revolution sweeping through the Unites States during the heady 1960s, during which gender and racial equity made huge gains and antiwar protests gained strength, there was a distinct shift into what is known as “The New Right,” a kind of suburban backlash to the alienating upheaval of the previous decade (remember the ghastly “silent majority”, anyone?). As political conservatism and “traditional” family values met with a generalized post-Watergate disillusionment felt by many Americans, many people withdrew from meaningful interaction altogether, and pop culture certainly capitalized on this need for sunshiny distractions. The hippie mantra of liberty and self actualization devolved into doing whatever felt right. The political became the personal, and in many ways “Starsky and Hutch” perfectly reflects this trend. But there is genuine greatness to be found in what seems initially to be frivolous or uncomplicated. Much dismissed as unimportant or glib is revealed to be, after a long passage of time, redolent with emotional or intellectual depth (especially in all things “pop”: music, art, literature). In fact it’s often more pleasurable to find and appreciate the subtleties in the things derided or dismissed by so-called cultural pundits.

Popular culture was infected by the same virus of show business in the 1930s, which likewise pumped out seemingly brightly inane films at the same rate as the vacuous Spelling empire. The similarities between these two decades are numerous and fascinating, from fashion (those flares!) to politics to stylistic primacy of art deco. Both decades were reeling from a prior decade in which traditions were violently upended in a gush of threatening modernism. The world seemed unpredictable, even frightening, and entertainment was a balm. Bring on the pretty girls and glossy romance.

I have no idea what the writers and producers of “Starsky and Hutch” were thinking, or what conversations took place in production meetings but my assumption is they were under tremendous pressure to shape the series to fit the general pop-cultural tenor of the times: frothy, relentlessly positive, youth-oriented. As the two handsome stars became sex symbols, and the series’ widespread popularity with love-struck teenage girls and car-obsessed boys grew, certain exploitative marketing decisions were most certainly made. We lament those decisions today, but it certainly helps to take the long view, and see the challenges faced by those behind the scenes. I think many writers and most certainly the actors understood that what they were making had, at its core, something both unique and powerful; like a pyramid, the strength of “Starsky & Hutch” is at the base. They have sustained this remarkable series and it’s their hard work that makes it endure. Time has passed, fashions wane, the landscape of society changes, and what may have been the initial impetus for this series is lost. It’s up to all of us to interpret this towering cultural landmark in new and better ways, and to see it the way the people at ground-level hoped we would.