Let’s revisit “The Specialist”

After a stray bullet kills retired special agent Alex Drew’s wife, he sets out to kill all the cops he thinks were in on the plot – including Starsky and Hutch.

Alex Drew: Joel Fabiani, Janice Drew: Melendy Britt, Arthur Cole: Charles Cyphers, Sally Hagen: Linda Scruggs- Bogart, Mr. McDermont: Jack Zoller, Carl: Michael Twain, “Flashy” Floyd: Anthony Ziggarelli, Hooker: Denise Gordy. Written By: Robert Earll, Directed By: Fernando Lamas.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

Alex Drew is portrayed as a loving, attentive husband. When he insists that he take his wife shopping for clothes she doesn’t need and doesn’t want, is this a loving act? He practically pushes her out the door.

Drew tells his wife – sharply – that he will put his suitcase in the closet. We see later this suitcase is an assassin’s arsenal, with guns and other deadly paraphernalia packed neatly in custom foam inserts. A few questions arise here about motivation and planning. It seems obvious that Drew’s wife does not know about the weapons – if she did, she’d be a lot more tense about the luggage. So why doesn’t he tell her, and why bring such an elaborate weapons stash in the first place? On the surface of things it seems as if this Los Angeles trip is a holiday, but it lasts a rather unusually lengthy three weeks, and Drew’s wife is returning to Washington on her own. What reason does Drew have to stay behind, and does it have anything to do with those guns? Given that we discover later he has been “forcibly retired”, and has suffered a breakdown of sorts because of it, is revenge on his mind already? Has he traveled to California on some kind of crazy mission to get his job back or exact revenge on the person who downsized his department? If so he has done an extraordinary job of fooling his trusting wife, which is not out of the realm of possibility for an ex-CIA operative, even one with a screw loose. But now that Alex Drew is a regular citizen like everybody else, how on earth did he get that suitcase past airline security? Things weren’t that lax in the seventies.

Starsky always gets the best parking in the place – right in front of the building.

They’re in the locker room, changing from what is probably a workout, and Hutch is worrying over his hair in a way you would never see Starsky doing. Starsky is not fussy about his appearance, Hutch is, or appears to be.

Hutch of course enjoys needling Starsky, who says he’s “thinking”. “Well, we all want to wish you beginner’s luck,” he says, and smirks off to the side as if he’s got a rapt audience for his witticisms. Starsky proceeds to blow Hutch’s mind with a series of what-if questions, and it’s fun to watch Starsky’s intense, blue-eyed gaze at his partner as he weaves an absurd alternate universe. It looks like a cobra-charmer at an Indian market. Hutch, the cobra in this instance, can’t look away. For a moment there, acting or not, he is stunned by the absurdist leaps in logic Starsky makes. When he says, in response to Starsky’s admonition that they’re going to be late, “what if we were?” we can see how much he has been secretly enjoying this conversation, and is willing to play along.

Where is Hutch’s gun? Starsky has his on. Hutch dresses in the locker room but is gun-less.

It’s ridiculous there is a gun battle in the middle of a busy street. No one shouts a caution, either, even though there is a big point made of this necessity in “Pariah”; the police simply start shooting wildly into the crowd. Only Hutch is seen trying to get people to safety. Property is simply not worth killing over, jewelry or not, a point that seems lost in this episode and every day in actual life too.

Exactly whose bullet killed Alex Drew’s wife? It’s never revealed, although it would be easy enough for ballistics to tell. The beat cops probably use .38s but Starsky and Hutch have very different guns. My money’s on Carl, rather than Mac. He’s portrayed less laudably than his partner and seems sloppier somehow.

Drew wants to bring his wife’s body back home. Dobey seems anxious to help, but then he asks Drew to not only book the flight himself, but to then report back with the airline, flight number and time. It seems like an awful lot for a bereaved husband to do, a husband whose very bereavement is due to grievous police errors. It seems to me there should have been more done by the department. A ride to the airport isn’t enough.

Do Dobey, Starsky and Hutch know that Drew is a government agent during this initial meeting? Common sense indicates they would, considering the flurry of paperwork following the shooting, but it’s never said one way or the other. When Drew makes his angry call to Washington, commandeering a plane, nobody looks shocked by that display of political pull or asks who the hell he is, making a call like that. But then, on the other hand, no one says, when Drew storms out, “I wonder if this shooting is going to get us in trouble with the feds.”

It’s neat that Starsky’s what-ifs continue in Dobey’s office. Since the whole show is about the vagaries of fate, the fact that Drew had the two other officers files ahead of Starsky and Hutch’s is the Big Coincidence never directly addressed by the show.

Sometimes – all right, fairly often – ignoring glaring procedural errors is important if you are to fully enjoy this series. It’s too easy to nitpick about rules, regulations, inconsistencies and outright transgressions, legal or otherwise. This is not a series about the law. The fact that Starsky and Hutch are police officers is pretty much beside the point; this is narrative scaffolding upon which to hang more interesting issues about identity, love, justice and the search for meaning in a chaotic and often meaningless world. This is one big allegory, Homeric in scope and capable of great wisdom and insight, if you want to look for it. I say this as a prelude to my observation that Starsky and Hutch have absolutely no right or reason to be in the meeting between Dobey and Drew. An officer-related shooting is being investigated, and they are suspects in an involuntary manslaughter, an extremely serious charge. Legally, even ethically, they should be stripped of their weapons and either assigned to desk duty or suspended with pay. They shouldn’t be anywhere near this meeting. However, let’s gloss over these tiresome facts and concentrate on the thematic significance of the episode as a whole, and Starsky and Hutch’s role in it. That life is random, inexplicably bad things happen, and a violent intercession is not a way to bring order or meaning to those events. Starsky and Hutch are the voice of reason and compassion: they are narrators of this episode rather than active participants in it. Like Drew, they are flotsam, helpless to change things. But unlike Drew – and also unlike Dobey and Cole, incidentally, who are the metaphoric architects of this disaster, Cole as head of a department which has created and then abandoned this Killing Machine, and Dobey as head of a department with such hazy, ill-defined rules regarding public shooting – they lift themselves out of chaos by acknowledging the randomness of fate. This is nicely encapsulated by Starsky’s game of What-if. You can propose as many alternative realities as you want, but that will never change things. Roll with it, they urge Drew. He does not, and cannot, listen.

If Alex Drew was downsized or fired from the CIA, as we find out later, then how can he command a special flight for the return trip to Washington so easily? He barks out the order, fully expecting to be obeyed without question. It’s not that the people on the other end know about the killing, either, and so are acting out of pity. It’s before anybody knows the circumstances of his wife’s death.

It may be correct procedure for the time, but it strikes me as odd that an old-fashioned hearse is coming for Mac’s body after the explosion. Even if it is a coroner’s wagon (although we see no official insignia) one would expect to see an ambulance, even if nothing is left of the poor man but cinders.

Mac Senior sits on the fire truck after his son’s murder. The truck is a Mack truck, which is a nice detail. When Mac Senior tells Hutch that he told Mac Junior his job as a policeman would make him come to a bad end, could he have possibly imagine this circumstance? This lovely, quiet scene shows that Hutch is unafraid of the sensitive, unpleasant jobs demanded by his profession. He has an easy and gentle way with people belied by his sarcastic, prickly exterior.

Starsky’s behavior toward Hagen is truly reprehensible. (Later, he has slaps another female officer’s behind rudely with a file, and looks disappointed when she doesn’t react). Hutch, on the other hand, is elaborately respectful, but only in an attempt to make himself look good beside his partner and not because he believes in women’s rights. (In the tag he’s as bad as Starsky, and they both call her, at different times, “child”.) This scene contains another interesting example of how Starsky deliberately sets himself up for ridicule: he says to Hutch, “have you ever wondered, Hutch, what would have happened if you’d been born charming and handsome, and I’d been born a dullard?” Of course, Hutch predictably takes the bait. “Well, Starsk, there’s just some things in this world that you don’t have to wonder about.” Is this an altruistic gesture on Starsky’s part? Is this a role he has willingly signed on for?

Ollie the mystical teddy bear is sitting on file cabinet in squad room. He’s glimpsed briefly as the guys look for suspects in Mac’s murder. There seem to be a lot of other toys around too, a Mickey Mouse doll and a plastic horse, among others. Plus the plastic piggy bank which has lived on Hutch’s desk for the whole series.

Invigorating: There are many fine moments during the Flashy Floyd sequence, and it’s one of the great strengths of the series that we get these glimpses into the eccentric debauchery of the sex trade. Of course it’s all a harmless bit of fiction, devoid of the true horror and violence, but it’s creative and enjoyable nonetheless. When they pull up to the Temple of Bodily Invigoration Hutch explains, “it means they probably appreciate a well conditioned body.” And then, with a comic’s timing, he says, “what are you looking at?” There’s a joke about the variety of customers, including a 90-pound weakling who is terrified of what’s being offered to him, and the guys make fun of the décor (Hutch says it’s “Early Nothing”) when in fact the room displays the kind of energetic set dec a viewer waits for. The striped super-graphics are mod, the clash of seventies modern with faux-Napoleonic are great. Starsky says, following the coin toss, “I’m in the mood for tails”, it could be an off-color joke.

Also, the collapse-and-drag is a great trick to getting into rooms. The whole thing has a wonderful choreography to it, and performed with such practiced ease we know this something they’ve done before. (Filming note: When they filmed the fake-collapse scene, Glaser’s shirt rode up and an assistant dashed over to tuck it in, but Glaser’s so ticklish, he collapsed for real, laughing. The rest of the day, Soul had to just wiggle his fingers at Glaser and he would burst out laughing.)

“You cops don’t even look like cops any more,” Flashy Floyd says, ingratiatingly, which is a long-running point of pride in the series and repeated fairly often.

By the time we get to the end of the sequence, and the cute pinch Starsky gets – apparently this temple is staffed by happy-go-lucky hookers – it’s difficult to remember why we’re here in the first place. The brutal murder of a police officer is nearly lost in all the fun and games.

Alex Drew changes his method of killing, deciding to poison the next one instead of rigging his car with explosives. This aggressive ingenuity, while cinematic, is exhausting and inexact. Drew, an experienced agent, should have just followed each man home in the dark and placed a quick bullet in the back of his head. Boom, over. However, logic has relatively little to do with story-telling. On a more superficial note, he shaves his moustache off and looks ten years younger, which should be a lesson to every man.

Could that be the glass that poisoned Carl Hutch is holding – sans gloves – at the bar? It better not be. And on the subject of fingerprints, Alex Drew is mighty careless when he leaves without taking his own glass with him. However, it’s possible he knows they’re on to him at this point and has ceased to care about anything but getting the job done.

Hutch shouldn’t look so surprised when it’s revealed Drew has their personnel files. It’s obvious he’s after them too, as both detectives discussed this at length following Carl’s murder.

The aptly-named Charles Cyphers as Cole, the CIA operative, has an unforgettable scene in which he is forced to explain a few Unpleasant Facts about Drew’s capabilities. He seems to pop out a sweat bead with each reluctant fact. He’s mesmerizing, as is Hutch, who goes head-to-head with him, trying to make him see the human cost of bureaucratic operations. Starsky, as usual, is phlegmatic and understated.

How often is the Torino in the shop? In other episodes Hutch makes a few disparaging comments about its continual need for tune-ups. When they both get into it, there’s a lovely moment of synchronicity when they look at each other, each thinking the same thing. “Care to take a little stroll?” Starsky says.

In the garage scene there’s a rare “swipe-edit” cut between the guys sitting in the Torino and the bomb disposal people carefully lifting out the explosive. They transfer it to the truck while the voices of Starsky and Hutch are barely heard is very creative and unusual. We join them in mid-meeting.

Neither detectives accept that Dobey is in charge of the case. “We’re living in a regular democracy, aren’t we?” is Hutch’s parting shot as they walk out of the meeting. Well, actually, the police department is not a democracy, and both Starsky and Hutch are naïve to think it ever was.

At the dingy motel, Dobey nods to the two undercover detectives scrubbing the pool. This is far more likely an undercover role than the cruise ship social directors, country music stars and dancing instructors enjoyed by Starsky and Hutch.

Hutch looks very dubious reading from the Bible in the hotel room, as does Starsky, in his dramatic legs-on-each-bed pose, watching a typical shoot-em-up TV show. Apparently both these call for a fair bit of skepticism.

Talking to Dobey, both men show tremendous humanity when saying Alex Drew is a victim like all the others.

It doesn’t seem possible Hutch would have missed Cole sitting in the corner of the restaurant, especially if he is being extra-vigilant. However, it does give Starsky the opportunity to call him “Mr. Personality”. At this point we start to wonder about the logistics of this operation. They have checked Starsky and Hutch into the motel to draw Drew away from … from what? Populated areas? The motel is fully booked, if the restaurant is any indication. And what do they think Drew is thinking as he tracks them to this place? Starsky and Hutch wouldn’t be the only ones thinking they were like a “duck in a barrel”. Alex Drew would know for certain this was an elaborate set-up, and would plan accordingly. Keeping to their daily routines, however, might have lulled Drew into a false sense of security, enabling an arrest without endangering more lives. The only explanation for this would be if they thought it looked suspicious not to go into hiding.

Soul has the best sad laugh in the business, a sort of gentle exhale. He does it when Hagen gives him the endless series of choices at the restaurant, and when Starsky compliments her on her waitressing.

It appears Hutch ate Starsky’s plain baked potato, as he mentions the two Irish plums he consumed. (The plain potatoes they both order is a weird detail – they both say they’re “counting calories”, which is so not true.) But Starsky pays him back by hogging all the pillows in room 39 at the Country Squire. Hutch has to make do with some sort of upholstered cushion. Uncomplainingly, apparently. The Nasty Hutch Game has been retired for the evening.

“Don’t scream,” Alex commands. “There’s nobody around to hear you.” But there are. Cole and Dobey are just steps away, and the kitchen must be full of staff. Alex Drew is good, but good enough to incapacitate ten, fifteen people?

Why does it apparently take at least four hours for Dobey and Cole to discover Officer Hagen’s kidnapping? It’s interesting to speculate. Perhaps Cole has talked Dobey into trying to solve this by themselves without the help of the two detectives. Cole seems to genuinely despise them in the tradition of all suit-and-tie bureaucrats who take an instant dislike for no discernible reason. Jealousy, maybe? Imagine the scene where Cole and Dobey try unsuccessfully to bring Drew in, hammering on doors and trying to get a fix on strange cars in the neighborhood and talking to frightened kitchen staff. Imagine Dobey’s growing frustration, and Cole’s unwillingness to concede defeat. Imagine when the phone rings and it’s Drew, wanting only to talk to Starsky and Hutch.

Despite all the gunfire, only two innocent bystanders are shot in the series. Both are women and both shootings involve Starsky. (“Photo Finish”, “Specialist”).

Why does Alex fire at the van from so far away? All he does is alert them to his position. An expert like him, he could have waited until they got closer and then fired from close range. We can blame is mental disintegration for all the odd choices he has made throughout.

There are more excellent climbing and high-wire acts from Hutch. Starsky draws fire not unlike how he distracts Father Ignatius at the movie theater in “Silence”; is this what Starsky is talking to Hutch about when he comments about feeling like a carnival game when he and Hutch walk along the balcony at the hotel on the way to dinner? It is an incredibly selfless and brave thing for him to do, and shows a great faith in his partner’s abilities.

Hutch asks Cole what’s important to him. He replies, “the continued strength of our nation.” (Off-camera, an exasperated “oh boy” from Starsky.) Cole adds, “And it should be important to you, too.” “Oh it is,” Hutch says, “but not at your prices.” This conversation is even more relevant today – Cole would have been in Homeland Security.

Tag: Everyone is laughing and joking about Sally Hagen, which seems mean and unfair. When she shows up, she’s subjected to even more flirting and grabbing from the guys, who pass her between them like a trophy. Yet it’s important to note the tone of this scene isn’t vindictive – again, like the scenes in Flashy Floyd’s place it has very little to do with the actual horrible realities of sexual harassment. The line between teasing and respect is a thin one in this instance; one feels certain Starsky and Hutch will cross it soon, and wholeheartedly. Plus the denouement is all having to do with their comeuppance, which is richly deserved but again without any hint of real bitterness. This particular war between the sexes is a fairly good-natured one. Meanwhile, it’s back to the joke as Sally asks them for “research” as she’s starting in Vice.
“There’s two of us,” Hutch says, taking her around the waist, “and only one of you.”
“I thought about that a lot,” Sally says, “but I think it would more fun with the both of you.”
Now, at this point, given the whole threesome innuendo, the thing to do would be to laugh it off and refuse her offer. But what do they do? Cut to Hutch’s apartment. The guys have actually agree to meet her, and Hutch has obviously added, “let’s go to my place.” Thrown hard on the floor, they groan in pain. “I don’t know about you,” Starsky says, “but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind.” Oh? What exactly did you have in mind?

This tag makes the later “Starsky Vs. Hutch” war even odder, since the guys seem to have no compunction about sharing.

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3 Responses to “Let’s revisit “The Specialist””

  1. Anna Says:

    Oh damn you’ve hit the spot again. I have spent AGES feeling frustrated and ambiguous about various old shows from the ’60s-’80s and their portrayal of sexual harassment, because while I despise sexual harassment and refuse to excuse it even in fiction (although that doesn’t stop me from enjoying shows overall even if they are marred by it), in so many old shows, including this one, even when the actions men engage in are often perfect replicas of the actions that constitute sexual harassment in real life, I am repeatedly subjected to that little whisper in my ear going “nope, you’ve seen sexual harassment, you’ve been sexually harassed, and this ain’t it.”

    I’d kinda had the suspicion that it might have been something as shallow as my bias towards the obviously sympathetic main characters of any TV show, but I think you hit the nail on the head far better: these scenes, from an in-universe perspective, actually have nothing to do with real sexual harassment. Which is actually a pretty terrible thing as far as the lessons it imparts go — it depicts men engaging in acts that, in-story, to an innocent and naive viewer, parse as being completely devoid of malice or ugliness or creepiness or harm — because they ARE devoid of it in-story, even though they are almost never devoid of it in real life; and probably gave some viewers the idea that if they do the same thing in real life, it’ll magically be just as harmless, when in real life, it just doesn’t go down that way. But on the other hand, it stops the characters from accidentally coming across as overly unlikeable and makes watching old shows far more enjoyable. An insufficient trade-off for a contemporary show, but for one that’s been off the air for almost 40 years I can’t get worked up because it just feels like crying over spilled milk. *shakes head* In fact, these kinds of value dissonances kind of make dissecting and analyzing old television that much more fascinating.

    • merltheearl Says:

      Anna, exactly. I have often wondered if my personal warm feelings for the characters have allowed me to let them off the hook, when in other circumstances I would be profoundly disappointed in any character consistently engaging in similar behavior. But you just never get really irritated at Starsky and Hutch for their casual sexism, because it’s clear they are on the cusp of great change, much like the decade they are in. Their treatment of women, in fact, was better than most, and there are many instances in which the series has portrayed women – particularly marginalized women – with great respect. Starsky and Hutch are never abusive. They are teasing, brotherly, silly, ignorant and lazy, but never abusive. In disparagement (we see a lot of that) there is only affection, misguided or not.

  2. mrsowlcroft Says:

    One thing I want to say on behalf of the callous, careless boyish behavior with a junior officer is that she does mention right off that they helped her get the transfer up and “onto the streets”. That doesn’t excuse the proprietorial air they have toward her, but it might explain part of it. And the directing in this one is just superb.

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