Let’s revisit “The Committee”

After Starsky apparently takes the law into his own hands, leading to a staged breakup with Hutch, he is invited to join a vigilante group of cops led by Internal Affair’s own Lieutenant Fargo.

Lt. Fargo: Alex Rocco, “Dirty” Nellie: Helen Martin, Ginger: Angela May, Sam Garner: William Bogert, Willits: John Ashton, Billings: Michael MacRae, Off. Knight: Bill Cort, Off. Williams: Tony Young, Millie: Muffi Durham. Written By: Robert I Holt, Directed By: George McCowan.

I’m in a particularly pessimistic frame of mind these days and it’s cathartic to revisit one of the most astute and cynical episodes in the canon. We see it all here in spades: the fascist broom sweeping away society’s “undesirables”, the surging anger of the white working class convinced his world has been irreparably damaged by so-called liberalism (in this case uniformed officers suspicious of long-haired detectives), back room deals made by powerful but unseen forces, the perverse belief in reactionary short cuts to justice (mainly by executing those who step out of line), the poisonous hatred inside the institutional elite. I see this episode as a political fable. Evil grows when those in power use expediency to solve problems, when they have lost their humanity, when they see criminal acts as the disease itself rather than as symptoms of a larger and more complicated afflictions of poverty, ignorance and mental illness (all of which are rectifiable, at least in part, if we really want to get serious about it). We cannot build walls and shoot those we feel have failed us, and we cannot squash the rights of the people to achieve our aims, however laudable they seem. We also must retain our humanness, quirks and all – emblematic of Starsky’s pet rock – if we are to survive.

As is typical, the first scene keeps it overtly casual, even humorous, while covertly laying out the thematic intent of the episode with the brisk precision of a lawyer’s writ. Here, Starsky and Hutch’s off-hours are soured by the trembling rage of a slightly-drunk Officer Knight (the drunk part is solely my supposition) who not only does not see or understand that the two detectives are actually strategizing, and is convinced their unconventional (read: hippie) ways undermine the very fabric of a law-and-order society. It’s quite a shocking intrusion out of nowhere, and by Starsky’s laconic pleasantries we can see that this has happened more than once. Knight, who has been watching Starsky’s playful interaction with Huggy for the last twenty minutes or so (and irritated, no doubt, by Hutch’s errant cue poking into him) accuses them of “goofing around” instead of making the streets safer, then demands to know how they would feel “if a 78-year old man died in your arms after you’d been mugged by some junkie with twenty-three priors”, as if Starsky and Hutch are somehow responsible for – no, have actually somehow worsened – this situation. This long-standing grudge has a back story that I would love to see.

Are Starsky and Hutch on the clock? Does Knight have a point, however misplaced it may be?

One wonders why Huggy doesn’t even touch the milkshake delivered to him, since it’s probably free (“He’s chocolate, I’m strawberry,” says Starsky, with a grin), but maybe the real question is why they’re drinking milkshakes at all in this tough cops-only hangout where tequila shots are probably the way to go. Incidentally a place not normally frequented by Starsky and Hutch. What are they doing here? Is The Pits temporarily closed, which explains why Huggy is out of his comfort zone? Will they ever be allowed back again after exposing the members of the committee, obviously longtime regulars of the place? And why is Huggy dragging around a carpet bag worthy of Mary Poppins? Not very cool.

I was at a loss to explain what game Hutch is playing, which appears to be table shuffleboard, as there are pucks, or shuckles. The use of a cue threw me until an eagle-eyed viewer named the game as Bumper Pool.

The cop-bar must be located in the basement of the suburban-looking restaurant.

“This makes us even for the information on the drug bust, huh?” Starsky says, accepting the pet rock Huggy sells him. It’s funny that Hutch is so caught up in his sarcasm about pet rocks he doesn’t seem to see the transaction for what it is, a payoff for information, which is proof once again that Starsky knows how to play, and Hutch, who is ironically playing a another game by himself, doesn’t. Instead, he razzes Starsky about coming over to his place to buy old 78 records. Which of course leads to another question: what’s he doing with 78s? Isn’t that a little old fashioned? So many questions.

Nellie’s absurdity amuses Hutch to no end, and it’s sweet to see how affectionate he is with her. And there’s a couple of gems hidden in the whole pet-rock exchange: one, that Huggy has been hawking his rocks there before. And two, that Nellie’s little comment – “it bit me” smacks of a joint venture in salesmanship, the plant in the audience who adds legitimacy and urgency to the pitch. Are Nellie and Huggy a team?

More on this fascinating opening scene: Knight’s accusation that Starsky and Hutch spend too much time goofing around and not enough time busting heads is an interesting – and rare – glimpse into what some of the boys in blue think of the plainclothes detectives. There seems to be jealousy, resentment, and a lot of willful misinformation about the way Starsky and Hutch work. The idea is echoed later when Starsky is called up to Internal Affairs and remarks to Hutch that “we’re not exactly their favorite team.” In the earlier episode “Snowstorm” the collective antipathy of Burke, Kolwitz and Corman was more overtly about the generation gap; here, it’s more political. It would be fun to see a “third-party” episode from the point of view of the regular cops on the beat, watching Starsky and Hutch from a distance. It seems as if, post-“Pariah”, their reputations have not improved too much. Later on, during the fake-fight scene, we see tables of uniformed officers witnessing the strife and yet not one officer stands up to defend Hutch or to calm down the scene. Is this because nobody wants to be involved, or do they just not care that much? This is not at all like the respectful relationship with the uniforms we see in other episodes, with Starsky and Hutch on first-name basis with those they work with.

The number 78 has an odd recurrence: Hutch’s records, the old man mugged. Something worn out and down to a bad end, maybe?

It’s also fun to watch what Starsky does when confronted with people who try to intimidate him: he slows down, acts casual, almost sleepy, while Hutch is immediately, and dangerously, defensive.

I would like to know how “Dirty” Nellie got her nickname. I hope it has nothing to do with the state of the bathrooms in her bar.

It’s Dobey himself on the radio telling them about the screams coming from the warehouse. I wonder what it is about the scene that tells him the situation relates to the case Starsky and Hutch are working on. Perhaps a witness gave a description of the two men.

Chasing Willets and Billings, Starsky holds his gun in his usual unusual way: fingers between barrel and body of the gun, not useful if sudden shooting is required.

Doppelganger moment: Hutch goes after the blond, Starsky goes after the dark-haired assailant. Also, I’m a bit surprised the rape victim seems to understand Starsky, when he goes to her, is a good guy and not a bad one. If it had been me, I’d be punching and biting if he tried to touch me.

It’s an old story about what real justice is, in terms of the law. Lawyer Sam Garner taunts the two detectives by saying their desire for moral rectitude comes close to vigilantism, and they counter by saying the system is too strict and inhumane. Neither of them, strictly speaking, is correct – it’s only when objectivity and humanity are in balance can we be a truly just society. Too much of one, and empathy is lost. But too much of another, and we run the risk of impartiality. I think Starsky and Hutch, on a better day, would accept this to be true. But this is not a good day.

In the office with Dobey, Starsky shows his best side when he calls the escaped Billings a “sicko” and says he should be in jail, or a hospital. Even in this small instance we can see that both Starsky and Hutch are aware of the role that mental illness plays in criminal behavior.

After confronting Willets in the courtroom, Starsky changes from his “court” jacket (corduroy with elbow patches) to his old leather jacket. Hutch stays the same.

In the apartment when the two rogue cops are given their assignment, there are several points of interest. A new gun is given to an officer, which makes sense in terms of ballistics, but where is the officer’s regular firearm? Also, that officer handles the holster with its gun, turning it up and down as if to stretch out the leather holster, and the image is suggestive of an erection. Which, if on purpose, is genius. Also, we get our first glimpse of pouty Ginger, who stares out at … well, at us. Fourth wall broken. It’s very strange.

Consider Hutch’s frame of mind when he orders Starsky a tuna burger with lots of mushrooms. It takes a lot of forethought and imagination to be that mean, and one wonders how much of Hutch’s conscious life is dedicated to inventing ways to either annoy his partner or distract him from his woes. On the same subject, he replies with “who cares?” when Starsky says his rock is “igneous” (which he pronounces, charmingly, “ignatius”). That is, formed by lava. Starsky looks at him and says, “you know, you’re very hard to get along with, sometimes.” Hutch pretends not to know what he means.

Sam Garner says he thinks the person responsible for gunning down three wanted men might be a cop, and he’s ready and willing to do anything he can to blow the lid off of a fraudulent investigation – note Lieutenant Fargo nervously chewing on a knuckle, hearing this, and starting to make ugly plans in his head. Confronted by his obnoxious personality, it seems as if Starsky and Hutch don’t listen or care about his suspicions, but later we see that Hutch has weighed this very carefully in his mind, which does him credit.

“Sorry Starsky,” says Lieutenant Fargo, “but I thought you should hear what the man had to say.” Starsky is the sole focus of the attention, both in Fargo’s office and later in Dobey’s. Why? It was Hutch who arrested Willets, who later claimed to be roughed up. Why the attention on Starsky? Yes, he makes a passionate speech in the hallway of the courtroom about justice, but it’s obvious Hutch shares his feelings. Still, everybody seems to really want to pin the blame on Starsky. What does this say about the attitudes toward Starsky as a person and a cop, as opposed to Hutchinson? Do people in and around the Metropolitan Division see Starsky as somehow more violent, or impulsive, than his partner? Similarly in “Snowstorm” the three older cops zero in on Starsky and call him “pushy”, wounding his feelings. If anything, Starsky is less likely to lose his temper than the notorious intemperate Hutch, and also less likely to do anything that might be construed as unconventional or renegade. As for Fargo bringing together accuser and defendant in his office, this seems like a grievous breach of conduct, procedurally speaking.

I think it’s interesting that Hutch tells Fargo, “You probably brought the man in here just to see Starsky’s reaction would be.” Hutch has terrific instincts, and his instinct in this case is to suspect something’s afoot. Hutch allows himself to be mollified by Fargo’s manipulative speech, and bonus points for that suggestion of a wink and a grin, the “secretly I know you’re one of the good guys”. Everyone wants to believe they’re understood and appreciated, and Hutch is no exception.

Starsky is hilariously fidgety when Hutch uses the phone. “Come on, this is Sunday!” he cries out. Another instance of Starsky’s holy-weekend position toward working, although they’re working anyway so why the impatience?

“You’re thinking what I’m thinking?” Hutch says to Starsky about one second after the shooting of Willets. Starsky looks shocked, then thoughtful. So, let’s break it down: within one second after a car chase and shootout Hutch has come to the conclusion that this chase was too odd, and likely set up by someone – probably within the police department – by telling Willets that Starsky and Hutch were about to hunt him down and kill him. Precipitating his flight, and the suicidal action of firing on Starsky. So this is a set-up, and a complicated one at that. From within the department. To get both or one of them called a vigilante, in order to distract attention from the real vigilantes. Who are most likely other police officers. No other explanation for why Willets is running. All this passes through Hutch’s head in a second. And in Starsky’s too, a second later.

It’s chilling to hear both Starsky and Hutch use the word “buddy” in contempt to each other. Hutch, the alarmingly good villain, is even more horrible in his sarcastic use of the word.

This episode’s power is predicated on one thing: how grievously transgressive it is to break up the partnership. This is manipulated by the decision to leave us in the dark as to the ulterior motives for the fight. Interesting, though, that the other cops are so quick to assume this is, in fact, real, that the pair have destroyed their relationship over a difference in opinion. Do they really think Starsky and Hutch are just like everyone else, and therefore have essentially the same utilitarian working arrangement as they do? Don’t they see them as having a deeper, more substantial bond?

The horrible fight the two have at Nellie’s bar is painful to watch, but it’s worth noting Nellie’s intelligent, watchful face as the drama unfolds. You can see that she’s taking everything in, and not accepting anything at face value. This is one canny bartender. Also worth noting is Starsky’s fleeting expression of concern and regret as he leaves (when seen in hindsight, of course).

Dobey says Willits has no convictions, yet he is listed as an accomplice on Billing’s arrest record.

Ginger was arrested, Hutch remembers, four years ago. According to her police record, she was also arrested about a year ago. Did Fargo get her off of that charge as well? Also, how in hell did Hutch remember her? The entire operation – from bar fight to dinner plans – has taken less than an hour, and Hutch has to pull one face out of tens of thousands in his memory banks.

Starsky’s apartment is stellar. It has great original art plus Matisse prints and others, lots of books, great textiles of all kinds, camera, plus lots of fruit for Dobey (he must be home some time to have fresh fruit); it’s all very urbane and sophisticated, in an earthy sort of way, cozy in a way that suggests Starsky enjoys his home. The tree stump side-tables are very fashion forward. Starsky appears to be a more domesticated sort than Hutch, or at least more deliberate in his decorating.

There’s a uniformed officer guarding Willets in Starsky’s bedroom. The way I see it, Starsky, Hutch and Dobey are united in the belief that cops are behind the spate of vigilante-style murders, so I would love to know why this particular officer has their trust. And let’s face it, Starsky is being very generous when he allows Willets to lie in his bed. He’s going to launder those sheets several times afterward to get rid of the stink, both literal and figurative.

It takes Starsky a moment to choose the wine for Ginger. That means he has a few bottles. When he finally brings it over she pours it and then says, “You have good taste.” If Ginger really does have a taste for wine and isn’t just making an obsequious, flirty comment (which is likely, I admit) this is in startling opposition to Starsky’s reputation as an unsophisticated rube.

Angela May playing Ginger is duplicitous and scheming. So, apparently, is Angela May in real life. She seems like a particularly miserable creature with her bee-stung pout and cringing, intensely squirming sexuality. That Pekingese-flat face and big weepy eyes are oddly compelling, and Ginger as a person isn’t all bad – she pulls back at the last second and urges Starsky to get out. (Angela May filed a paternity suit against David Soul several months later, but it was disproved.)

“Starsky,” Ginger says. “What is it. Polish?” “Something like that,” Starsky says, in the same offhand taciturn way he says to Nancy’s mother in “Terror on the Docks” when she asks if he’s Catholic and he says “no”.

Ginger mentions “maternal instincts” prompted her to kiss Starsky – which is really, really off-putting. But she isn’t the only woman to feel that way: Dr Kaufman in “The Plague” had a similar response, as did Kira in “Starsky vs. Hutch”.

Wouldn’t Starsky, Hutch and Dobey, when hatching the plan to catch the vigilantes, to bring the guy from top in on it from the beginning? Yet they don’t, staging the “show” in Dobey’s office at the beginning of the episode seemingly for Fargo’s benefit, showing they didn’t trust him even from the beginning. Yet, why wouldn’t they trust him, when he made such a passionate and convincing speech about being a cop for twenty-five years and still fighting for justice, etc? Seems to me there’s a missing scene in here, the one where the guys sit in the Torino and talk about how Fargo, despite all evidence to the contrary, reeks of something nasty.

Clues to just why Starsky and Hutch withheld their suspicions from Dobey can be seen in the fact that Dobey tells Fargo some details about the undercover case. He precedes this with the statement “No secrets between friends.” It’s a major tactical error. Hutch is far more comfortable in the role of undercover – coolly telling Fargo they have nothing on Ginger, while Dobey is nervous acting against IA and makes it clear he’s a weak link in the investigation by spilling information he shouldn’t.

What exactly does Hutch want Dobey to do when he hands him the phone? Give Fargo some fake name, drawing attention away from Ginger and the ongoing investigation? He thrusts it at Dobey with such authority I always immediately put myself in Dobey’s shoes and break out into a sweat thinking, “now what do I do?”

One of the main frustrations with the show is the lazy habit of casting the same actors in very different roles, sometimes only months apart. What, did they think no one would remember Alex Rocco when he shows up later as the hit man Callendar in “The Plague”? He’s a distinctive face and voice, and a noticeable so-deadpan-it’s-almost-wooden acting style, and it’s a shame the producers don’t consider how disillusioning this is. (Helen Martin also has another memorable appearance as Mrs. Fellers in “Manchild”, but at least both roles were relatively minor ones). The other really bad instance of this is casting Karen Carlson as both Gillian Ingram and Christine Phelps. Only Season Hubley doesn’t bounce back after “Starsky’s Lady” as a perky waitress or a gangster’s girl.

The sunset when they take Starsky to pick up Garner is really spectacular. And the fact it hasn’t changed when they exit the apartment shows you how fast they film.

Why are Williams and Knight planning a kidnap and murder while in uniform, and driving a squad car? I can see why from a cinematic standpoint, but from a practical one it makes no sense. Why not do it on their days off, in regular clothes, in a stolen car? Garner’s hair and possibly blood evidence is all over that squad car now, and sand in the tires would be traceable to the tunnels.

If I were Knight I wouldn’t be so quick to accept Starsky as a fellow committee member, not after working in his vicinity him for so many years, watching his bleeding-heart liberal hippie ways. Yet Knight is so sure of himself and his cause that he brings him in with all the pompous self-righteousness of the true believer.

Paul Michael Glaser is truly extraordinary in the tunnel sequence, and for the reason I admire him so much as an actor: he says very little as shocking, inexplicable, and truly sadistic facts become real to him: that he is expected to murder an innocent man, that the people he trusts and believes in – fellow officers – are really and truly a part of this, and that Fargo himself not only is involved, but knows of Starsky’s opposition to their plans and intends to torture and humiliate him to become “one of us”. Glaser’s face is relaxed, even slack, throughout, but we can read his emotions as clearly as if it is subtitled on screen. His eyes widen, then soften in bewilderment, then become hard as facets as he comes to a resolution about what he must do.

At the very end Hutch’s attitude toward the pet rock is nicely improved. Starsky is panicked: “I lost my rock,” he says, and dashes off into the darkness of the tunnel. Dobey is confused. “What’s he talking about?” Hutch’s reply is friendly, amicable. “He lost his rock, captain,” he says, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, worthy of sympathy, but also amusing himself by downplaying the absurdity of the situation. Where is the cynicism? With Starsky not in the picture, there’s no need for it, and besides it’s more fun pretending to Dobey that he’s the crazy one for not knowing the score.

Tag: The episode ends abruptly, and without a joke, the clock simply running out. It’s great that Garner is not reduced to apologizing or making a speech about how he’ll change in the future or how the law needs to be responsive to victim’s rights, he simply reverts to his old irritating stuck-up ways which makes me love him even more and wish he’d popped up in other episodes. This series is not interested in sermons, and neither Garner nor the detectives give us one, but all the same there is a persistent optimism here and in other episodes that tells us that good will always triumph. I like how Hutch looks for a place to put his wrapper and then shoves it under Dobey’s phone. Dobey recommends them for a medal of valor for their work in this case, and he does that shy smile that shows how uncomfortable he is with soapy scenes.

Clothing notes: strikingly, Hutch wears a crushed-velvet black turtleneck in the scene in Starsky’s apartment. He’s also beautifully decked out in a blue turtleneck early on that makes his eyes turn to sapphire. Both wear leather jackets and Starsky wears a favorite burnt orange shirt with the white patch. Otherwise, all is usual, with the exception of Starsky wearing a nautical black-striped shirt in the tag (quite possibly the same one he wears in “A Long Walk”). In the hair department, Starsky’s is truly luxuriant, especially in the tag.

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4 Responses to “Let’s revisit “The Committee””

  1. rycardus Says:

    I’m reluctant to impose an interpretation on the text without any real evidence to support it, but I often wonder if the antipathy towards Starsky has its origin in antisemitism. If this is the subtext, it would explain why the character is reluctant to respond to that ‘Polish?’ question. It also explains why Hutch seems more acceptable to his obviously racist (bigoted?) colleagues.

    I don’t insist on it, and being Jewish myself, I may be seeing something that isn’t there, but it’s worth considering.

  2. Sharon Marie Says:

    This episode harkens back to the movie, Magnum Force, David Soul starred in with Clint Eastwood about a group of vigilante cops hunted down by one of their own (Eastwood). Soul was the head bad cop.

    The game Hutch is playing in the bar is called “Bumper Pool.”

    I don’t think Hutch really has ’78s at home. He was just joking.

    The music entering the scene as Starsky and Hutch walk into the squad room prior to getting called to IA sounds like 70’s TV game show popcorn music. When I heard it, it made me think of the old Match Game show.

    Starsky complains to Hutch that it’s Sunday to get him to hurry up after Hutch calls Garner’s office. “He’s not in, but the secretary’s gonna try and reach him.” Wow. A secretary working on Sunday. That’s dedication!

    They have Soul in a black turtle neck and black leather jacket when he pretends to turn on Starsky. Has an affect.

    Starsky was so quick to take Ginger home for dinner, it made me flinch for a minute and think about crazy Nurse Diana. Hide the knives.

    Continuity alert: At the beginning, Starsky has a drink of water from Dobey’s water cooler then when seeing there is no place to dispose of his paper cup, asks Dobey when he’s going to get a trash can. In the tag, Hutch has a drink and, when done, looks around with his wadded up cup. Not finding a trash can he slips it under the speaker on Dobey’s desk.

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