Character Studies 31: Children

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.


Tags: , , , ,

7 Responses to “Character Studies 31: Children”

  1. Blunderbuss Says:

    As usual, a beautiful perspective, that a particularly unique and modern (by their contemporary standards) side of Starsky and Hutch’s heroism is showcased by their interactions with children. As you sum up so well, more emphasis on the heroic qualities of flexibility, communication, and compassion (more feminine than masculine too, another type of model behavior they subvert, in addition to the hero-model.)

    I would personally only halfway agree with your claims about the partners’ different approaches, though. Aside from the example with Lisa, Starsky seems just as likely to treat kids rationally as he is to play on the kids’ level (thinking of how he interacts with Junior and Bobby and the proto-gangster kid, and without interacting, how he’s totally un-indulgent about Kiko’s snubbing of Hutch. His way of dealing with Joey has a bit of both categories, where he plays her game but does so by elevating her to his level of adult rather than the other way around). Unless, of course, I am misunderstanding you. Hutch seems to have a harder time “getting under the table” as you so aptly put it than Starsky has in “sitting across the table.” I am also going on an unsupported shaky branch here, but I can very easily see Hutch as being the kind of kid who would absolutely *loathe* having adults try to trick and bedazzle him with playacting and fantasyland instead of giving him the Straight Facts, and find that sort of behavior automatically suspect. He’s suspicious enough of that kind of thing in adulthood to suggest that it could be an aversion that started early.

    I really love your observation that nearly all the children come from broken homes or at least homes that are somewhat lacking. It gives a layer of purpose to Starsky and Hutch’s interactions with kids, stops most of the kids’ role in the plots from being too “prop-like.”

    • merltheearl Says:

      Blunderbuss, I enjoyed this comment, and I appreciate being called out for overstating my case about Starsky’s approach to children. You’re right, of course; my conclusions are based on what I conjecture he might do under similar circumstances rather than what he has done, or is seen to have done. I am guilty on occasion for being too firm about things I actually know nothing about! But that said, I might add that in my mind Starsky’s dismissal of Kiko, “the kid’s not worth it” type of statement, is more kid-like than adult-like, having the decidedly unfiltered bluntness I associate with ten-year-old boys. But I do get your point, and I like it.

      • Blunderbuss Says:

        Oh, I that’s a more accurate perspective on Starsky’s reaction to Kiko! I was thinking about it as Starsky judging him according to adult standards of behavior (you’d expect him to react that way to a flaky girlfriend of Hutch’s or something) rather than going ah, well, he’s just a kid. But your interpretation fits better.

        And obviously, with this show, sometimes a single data point is all we *have* to draw conclusions from 😉 Work with what we’ve got, I guess.

      • merltheearl Says:

        Absolutely. We’re all on that shaky branch. But the view, at least, is spectacular.

  2. Anna Says:

    Great post. I always thought Starsky and Hutch’s interactions with kids were very satisfying, but never analyzed their role in the show. I also think kids are a unique opportunity for Starsky and Hutch to act more teacher-ish when they help. With most of the innocent down-and-out adults they interact with, they are careful not to lecture them or control them over their poor life choices or habits. But kids are a bit different.

    A what-the-hell sort of question – how would you think of Vivian from Black and Blue in this framework?

    • merltheearl Says:

      Oh yes, I forgot about the wonderful Vivian. She certainly belongs in this post, one of those tragic instances of a neglected child who has slipped through the cracks and co-opted by malevolence (of course she could have two weepy, guilt-ridden parents somewhere, but I can’t imagine it, can you?). But there’s an unrepentant hardness to her that reminds us she has been mistreated on all fronts in a way no other child in the series has been: let down by (presumably) her family, society and those who claim to have her best interests at heart, she has also had her anger fueled by racism. And the result is an unrepentant fury that makes her such a memorable character. I will have to amend my post, thank you!

  3. DRB Says:

    Vivian breaks your heart as evidenced by Hutch’s bewildered explanation for not shooting her: “She was just a kid.” This short moment was the highlight of the episode for me. Hutch feels likes he acted irresponsibly in not following procedure during the confrontation in the hallway; he is almost apologizing to Starsky when Starsky finds him. But how he could he intentionally fire at a kid? This is such a good contrast to “Pariah” when Starsky unknowingly shoots a teen about the same age as Vivian. If Vivian had been masked, she would also be dead. A coincidence on the writer’s part? Or a just a plot point? I don’t suppose we’ll ever know.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: