Archive for April, 2015

Let’s Revisit Our Character Overviews

April 15, 2015

The long view is always illuminating.

Part one: Hutch

So much of what we understand about Hutch we glean through a briefly-glimpsed shadow side, choices the actor makes with body language and tone of voice. Often Hutch is snappish or abrupt and just as often he is gentle and empathetic; often he is clumsy and sometimes exceptionally graceful. Very often in Season Four he works alone, very often he is the one to make the rational decision rather than the instinctual one. He likes to mar his beauty with brash undercover personas and grotesque disguises while his partner emphasizes his with cartoonishly magnified romanticism. He expresses an interest in computers, he is witty, he is emotionally variable. He is a Midwestern boy with a Swedish heritage, athletic and smart. He has married and divorced (how often we don’t know; like Starsky’s geography, this essential detail is not clear). These things we know. What we do not know, what is never told to us, is how he came to be here, in dusty, gritty Bay City, and why a man with his extraordinary good looks, intelligence and professional success is so angry so much of the time, and why has someone with so many markers for introversion let himself to be so inextricably linked, in life and career, to his colleague, partner, and friend David Starsky. And it’s these whys and hows I’ll attempt to answer here. My observations are built on quicksand, and that is both the joy and the frustration of it. I’m guessing, pure and simple, falling into the unknowable waters of the intemperate, brave, resolute and complicated Kenneth Hutchinson.

Calm, controlled, disciplined, serious by nature and predominantly conflicted. Easily hurt, quick to anger. The child of possibly upper-middle-class parents (there is something patrician about Hutch that no serape, rubber nose or dented Ford can quite disguise), with a sister. A conspicuous risk-taker (cub scouts, sea scouts, lifeguard, first aid, wrestling, championship dart-playing, and all manner of daredevil sports) and a preoccupation with self-reliance that does much to build a portrait of a man who is trying to stabilize or even reform himself. Doesn’t like being on his own, and yet finds difficulty in forming bonds. Is prone to saying and doing things without completely understanding his own motivations, such as the perennial teasing of Starsky which verges on cruelty but which is actually a mechanism to keep himself safe. Likes to play the superiority card, which performs three tasks: it’s a distancing tactic, a test of fidelity and an unconscious ploy to be relied upon or needed (Let’s ask Hutchinson, he has all the answers!). Has difficulty getting close to people – continually questioning those who profess to like him – and may be more invested in this partnership/friendship than Starsky is, if only because he feels he has fewer options. It’s possible what he dislikes most about himself is his own profound dependence on Starsky, believing it makes him vulnerable to exploitation, to an inevitable let down, and in low moments wonders if he’d be better off alone. Hides the depth of his feelings through condescension, the opposite of Starsky, who hides his through banality. When relaxed, can be wonderfully self-deprecating, but when pressured becomes proud and unapproachable. Is a very good fabricator, which makes him a great undercover cop. In fact it could be that it’s all fake, to some extent: the superiority, the cavalier attitude, the arrogance, the pushiness. Used to being the best-looking guy in every room, which is both a bane and a source of pride. He protects and bolsters his looks while simultaneously satirizing them, which may explain the strict diet, the jogging, the tidy and occasionally flashy or silly sartorial choices. Has an affinity for the Woody Guthrie-esque wrong side of the tracks, the lowlifes and country music bars and the open road he believes is truer and more authentic than his own reality of suburban ranchers and liberal-arts degrees. Is obsessed with concepts of truth and authenticity because of a feeling of alienation but in reality is intelligent, perceptive, creative, honorable, loyal and brave. Throughout the four years we are fortunate enough to know him, he travels down the same path as Starsky: the path of self-knowledge, which rightly ends with himself as hero and savior, his fullest and best self revealed. For four years he has been struggling with choices, making the wrong or hurtful one as often as the honest or courageous one. His struggles are ours. He has been cruel when he should have been kind, thoughtless when discipline was called for, but haven’t we all? And in the end he makes the ultimate choice – to go forward, to face the fear head on, to keep going when all around him tell him to stop, to allow himself to admit that what propels him, what defines him, and what gives his life meaning, is the thing he has not always wanted to acknowledge.

Part Two: Starsky

What we know about Starsky will fill a thimble, what we think we know about Starsky is immense. Like Hutch, the facts of his biography, sprinkled through four years of uneven scripts, are few and also inconsistent. The writers have chosen to make him as east coast as Hutch is west coast, which is, in American stereotype, meant to imply he is tough, bossy, urban, practical, forthright, possibly Jewish and possibly merely “ethnic” in a vague melting-pot way, possibly anchored by a large and boisterous multi-generational family unit and possibly not (those numerous aunts and uncles are awfully abstract, and the loss of a father can mean a broken or peripatetic family). We know his mother is alive, far away, probably in New York with his volatile, resentful younger brother. We do know that he is easy-going, confident, on the quiet side, and we know that he is less likely to feel the need to prove himself than his sometimes-brittle partner, which may imply a stable and strong sense of self. We know that he is emotionally centered, romantically successful, charming, and imaginative. Hutch calls him a hedonist and we have no cause to doubt it. These things we know because we observe them often. But what we don’t know is how he came to be this way, since the Facts are in opposition to the man. The facts are that Starsky’s father was murdered in something connected to the mob, a deeply fracturing event that would shatter the psyches of most people. And while I always have the feeling both Starsky and Hutch are on the journey toward enlightenment, which is why this series has such a profound sense of importance, Starsky appears to be a little further down the road than his complicated partner. Exactly why, I have no idea, but it may have something to do with a lack of weighty baggage, the sense you have that Starsky really is free in a fundamental way, what the Buddhists may call śūnyatā. And so without the aid of canonical facts, here I go into the dark:

Composed, explosive, confident, physically graceful, deeply loyal. Like Hutch, the “inside” does not match the “outside”: in Starsky’s case he is more concerned with the corporal, the factual, and the immediate than with suppositions or abstracts while outwardly advocating for the absurd and the childish. Intense, emotionally present, flirtatious, easily angered, easily calmed. “Crummy,” to use a phrase by Hutch, in his choice of clothes but exacting and neat in his private spaces.  Neat and, one suspects, neatly compartmentalized. Has the unusual ability to be comfortable in both solitude and in groups; a team player but good on his own. Optimistic by nature and rational, and can be conventional in his thinking, a strong sense of right and wrong. Can also be myopic and stubborn, lightened by a great sense of humor. Quick to blame himself, to the point of martyrdom, a trait shared by his partner. Less in need of external cues than Hutch. Doesn’t feel the need to explain himself, which is the mark of a masterful, confident man. Has a healthy, seemingly indestructible ego (ironic, since Hutch, quick to lord everything over Starsky – social standing, intelligence, etiquette, lifestyle and choice of cars – secretly harbors feelings of low self-worth). Is more natural and effortless with displays of love and loyalty than Hutch is. Withdraws when attacked. Unusually, he can be at his best when angry: his anger is majestic and controlled rather than rash or erratic, and is also almost always altruistic in nature. Put another way, he is more likely to become angry on behalf of others, or perceived injustice, rather than for his own needs and purposes. Is also sentimental, given to enthusiasms, and likes things like stuffed animals and toys and token objects, like cars and watches. Is sensitive to emotional tenor, is watchful and thoughtful. Uses charm to get what he wants, the hallmark of a favorite child (which may explain his brother’s insecurities). Seems to viscerally understand the mechanics of friendship and love, and is continually working, on some obscure and covert level, to keep that friendship working smoothly, even if it means subjecting himself to teasing and criticism. Despite seemingly to be more casual about emotions than Hutch, he is in fact deeply sincere and “in touch” with them. The more emotional he feels the less he shows it, often hiding the negative emotions, fear and anger, under a smooth veneer of cracking jokes and acting cool (while Hutch is more liable to revert to sarcasm or tension in the same situation). Loves to flirt, is simultaneously facile and oddly sincere in flirtation, a ploy to get what he desires (chiefly female approval) as well as a method of avoiding confrontation, serious conversation, or to hide social embarrassment. His balanced and durable self allows him to be, at the end of this journey, the goal of that journey. Stay with me here. He falls, and Hutch must catch him in time. He becomes, then, the rock that is thrown into the air. That rock is both weapon and instrument, object of self-preservation and empowerment as Hutch moves through the stages of bewilderment, loss, rage and finally resolution. This is the perfect last act of Starsky: his stability and selflessness is given its purest expression as he lays motionless in a hospital bed, allowing himself to be saved, and in turn, saving his partner.

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Character Studies 31: Children

April 5, 2015

Children are prominent in many episodes, both as characters and as important metaphors for innocence, the bewilderment of loss as well as inevitable change. They are either the center of the story (“Little Girl Lost”, “The Trap”, “Crying Child”, “Manchild on the Streets”) or are memorably parallel to the story: Little Brother Kiko in “Running” and “The Trap”, the children in “Starsky’s Lady”, old-before-his-time huckster in “Huggy Can’t Go Home Again”, little Meg in “Hostages”, Stevie in “The Heavyweight”, Bobby Marsh in “Survival” and Richie Yeager in “The Plague”, Dobey’s children Rosie and Cal in “Captain Dobey”, the tragic Lonnie in “Pariah” and Joanna in “The Psychic”. As well, we see many characters approaching adulthood who are childlike, either because they are developmentally delayed or socially and emotionally immature and therefore in need of protection: Lisa in “Nightmare”, the pack of thieves run by Artie Solkin in “Vendetta”, exploited Mickey in “Bust Amboy” and to this list I’ll throw in Chicky in “Deckwatch” and dim-witted Mousey, also in “Nightmare”, as well as Larry Horvath, middle-aged but struggling with mental and physical challenges that have him naively stealing candy like a eight-year-old.

“Survival” is an excellent episode that features children in a variety of interesting ways. There is Bobby Marsh, the 12-year-old whizkid who helps Starsky with his ham radio, and there are the two teenagers who ruthlessly plunder the belongings of severely injured Hutch. Both Bobby and the lawless teenagers are dispossessed in some way, the suggestion here is they are cast out into a world of their own making, alienated from parental controls and surviving as Hutch must survive: by their wits, through sheer determination. When neglected they degenerate, and when loved they are self-actualized – even Hutch, briefly helpless as a child, goes through this traumatizing experience, only to be saved by his partner at the last moment.

Ninety-nine per cent of the children in this series are orphaned, acting alone, or in a single-parent home. This is no surprise, as this is a cop drama and happy families enjoying picnics have no part in that. I mentioned earlier that children are emblematic of change, both positive (transformation or innocence) or negative (grief and loss). But it is more personal than that: I think I remember the episodes featuring children so vividly because, like many fans of the series, I was a child myself when watching for the first time. Because of severe parental neglect I felt a strong connection to these scrappy orphans and streetwise tough guys, longed for rescue, and watched with a mix of jealousy and disappointment (boy or girl, who didn’t wish they were trapped in a barn fighting the bad guys with Starsky and Hutch?). These feelings of alienation are certainly not original – most children, especially the outsiders, the weirdos, the kids stuffed into lockers because of their haircuits or their teeth or some invented bit of cruelty, felt forsaken and misunderstood. In the 1970s the gap between child and adult was both vast and dark. Parents were aloof and strange, their lives indecipherable, children spent most of their time running wild in fantasyland. Popular psychology was just beginning to recommend having an empathetic relationship with one’s child, to see and understand the world through their eyes and give advice more productive than “he hits you because he likes you” or “boys don’t cry” but progressive parenting had a long way to go before filtering down to the average household. I don’t know many parents who approved of television generally and “Starsky & Hutch” in particular; the show was made for and intended for adults but it was mainly the secret province of teens and preteens, watched and loved and remembered with the particular intensity of those years. Sometimes I wonder if the inclusion of child characters was a way for series producers to acknowledge, and by proxy include, the majority of their fans.

But there is something even more important: these children, or childlike adults, allow Starsky and Hutch to rewrite the definition of heroism. From antiquity to the 19th century the Warrior Hero was admired for overcoming – with single-minded, steely zeal – those impediments to God or State, but by the 1970s the corrosive horrors of war and a general feeling of cynicism had a marked effect on the definition of heroism, from slashing and beheading your way through obstacles for Crown and Country to something much less definable, and much less “noble” in the traditional sense. Starsky and Hutch perfectly personify this new stateless hero. They have no external object of worship, are led astray by authority (“The Committee”, the “Targets” trilogy, among many others) and their private motto, “me and thee”, tells us they know very well that those in power can be as iniquitous as the criminals they chase. (They are not, however, anti-heroes. For all their independence and skepticism they are not self-interested, and never fully disengage from or believe they are better than those institutions employing them.) This new model of hero, then, is someone capable of rejecting power as well as embracing it, someone who can break down, who can cry, who expresses love, who protects the weak, whose vision is complicated by shades of grey rather than black and white. The presence of children, both as victims and little helpers, allow Starsky and Hutch to become true heroes in this way: ethical, protective, creative, empathetic, and nurturing.

But it’s their very different approaches to children that make the subject so fascinating. Simply put, if there was a conference table of in the boardroom of life, Hutch would sit across from a child and discuss matters reasonably, and Starsky would crawl under the table and make a fort from the cushions. Both methods are equally successful, both require insight and rapport. Both get the job done, depending on the circumstances. And above all both these approaches emphasize each man’s fundamental outlook on life: Hutch as rationalist, Starsky as fabulist. So while Hutch documents, Starsky invents. He magnifies pain (“Coffin”) and minimizes it too (“Shootout”). He uses humorous anecdotes as a way of consoling his partner, and also as a way of clarifying his version of reality (“Coffin”, “Plague”, “Golden Angel”, among others). A perfect example of this is in “Nightmare” when Hutch talks honestly and forthrightly to Lisa while Starsky distracts her with playtime. Even within the partnership Starsky can lapse into playfulness that suggests childishness, allowing Hutch to be the stern adult. For example, Starsky fondles money, Hutch slaps his hand (“The Psychic”, “Las Vegas Strangler”, “The Action”). This ritual seems to be a stress reliever for the both of them, and if I crawl onto a psychological branch here (unstable and unsupported) I might suggest that both are getting what they were denied in earlier life: Starsky lacking a father to support and direct him, Hutch’s natural inclination to be caring (and controlling) negated or ridiculed by others. A strong partnership such as theirs not only allows them to flower into what we now understand to be heroic, they are allowed to reclaim what has been lost in their own childhoods.