Character Studies 27: Do It Light

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.

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3 Responses to “Character Studies 27: Do It Light”

  1. merltheearl Says:

    My apologies in advance to all of you who read the title of this post and instantly have “Shadow Dancing” in your heads the rest of the day.

  2. Dianna Says:

    I don’t think Spelling-Goldberg Productions particularly understood what they had created. They may have intended it to be as fluffy as Charlie’s Angels, with a similar level of “jiggle.” (“What’s shakin’, Pepper?”) but somehow deeper levels of meaning kept sneaking in. How else can we explain a series that contains both artistic masterpieces like Survival, examinations of contemporary angst like The Specialist — along with complete drivel like Murder on Voodoo Island and pieces of garbage like Satan’s Witches?

    (Or is it drivel like Satan’s Witches and garbage like Voodoo Island? I can’t decide!)

    As a modern parent, I admit I am regularly horrified to see the repeated emphasis on ogling women’s bodies and our heroes’ revolving door of fleeting superficial sexual relationships, and I wonder how my own development was affected by watching it in my teens.

    Back then, we thought of it as normal.

    It has also crossed my mind to wonder how many of the LA police officers who were involved in the 1991 beating of Rodney King had decided to join the police force after watching some of the rather violent encounters between Starsky & Hutch and various bad guys, especially in the first couple seasons of the show.

    It is sad that the “sunshiny distraction” is all that most people remember of the series because, as those of us who congregate here know well, it provides plenty of food for thought.

    • merltheearl Says:

      I agree completely, Dianna. I would be interested to know how the general population really does view the series (kind readers, survey your siblings). If people remember it from their younger years so searing episodes like “The Shootout” and “The Fix” tend to stick in the mind more than, say, “Dandruff”? If you asked a hundred people who saw the series in its first run and haven’t thought about it much since, I wonder what they would say. I’m guessing – hoping – it would be “two tough cops and plenty of guns, girls and cars” with other elements – diamond heists, witches, and voodoo – long forgotten. Although I bet John Saxon’s Vampire still gives a few people nightmares.

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