Archive for the ‘Character Studies’ Category

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.


Character Studies 30: Divisible and Indivisible

December 27, 2014

As an observer, I know little to nothing about the production details of the series, especially how this most miraculous casting was achieved, that mix of luck and genius that had producers taking a chance on these two highly skilled but marginally successful actors. It seems obvious now – we can’t imagine anyone else in these roles, but let’s think about how fortunate is it that the powers that be played upon the ideas of contradiction and contrast without making it the sole focus and plot contrivance of the series. Instead the differences here are less obvious, more mutable, variable over time and inconsistent in a way that is both realistic and entertaining. Can you imagine if they had decided to gain a cheap and easy attention by casting a black and white actor, or a male and female actor, and trot out all the tiresome tropes which insist that one needs the other to be completed in some way? Imagine the the subtle but damaging ideas (ideas that we have and will see in fatiguing abundance) that a woman needs to learn how “to have fun” and “loosen up”, just like a man needs to “have respect” and “articulate feelings”, and also that “aren’t we clever?” upsidedowney pairing of an elegant, overly intellectual black man and his goofy partner, (so different from the racist past!) in which the black man must “tone down” and “get along” while his white partner learns to raise his game and admit his admiration of the “other”. We see this over and over, from “In the Heat of the Night” to “I Spy” and “Moonlighting” and so many more that a doctorate thesis would be necessary to detail the soul-destroying details

I have made the point many times that Starsky and Hutch are essentially the same person despite their many and celebrated differences. Those differences, blond and dark, brain and brawn, aesthete and hedonist, are simply exceptions proving the argument. Differences disguise unity, and both Starsky and Hutch employ those differences to their advantage as police officers throughout the run of the series. A beautiful example of this is in “Hutchinson for Murder One”, in which Starsky seemingly plays along with institutional regulations while hatching a truly transgressive plot against that very institution. Similarly, they pick a public fight in “The Committee” as a way of secretly working together, and do the good cop bad cop thing fairly often. This playing up differences is also an useful internal structure, allowing one partner to take umbrage (usually over something trivial) as a way of healing or regrouping in a safe and practical way. Thus, Hutch goes on a tirade aimed at Starsky in “Lady Blue” and Starsky does the same to his partner in “Coffin”, each peacefully allowing themselves to stand in the way of the storm. The ultimate expression of this is in the horrifying aftermath of Gillian’s murder in which Starsky allows Hutch to physically and emotionally brutalize him as a way of quickly moving through the stages of grief so justice can be sought and won.

When this mechanism does break down, it breaks for a very specific and fascinating reason. It is when one of the partners has gone through a prolonged undercover operation alone. When they are undercover as a pair the episode is often light-hearted, verging on goofy, with Hack and Zack or versions thereof romping through the scenery. There are also other times in which one is undercover but the other shadows the action closely, allowing both men to regularly meet and re-establish their partnership (“Quadromania”, “Class in Crime”, etc). Somewhat off-topic but still similar is the uneasy separation in “The Game”, when Hutch allows his undercover self to resist Starsky’s urgent attempts to recall him. Here, they come back together in a most intense and unusual way by figuratively getting into each other’s heads during a meditation exercise, a “game” every bit as conjoining as the previous one was divisive. But when circumstances dictate that one should go and the other stay, bad things begin to happen. The huge personal cost of undercover work is one of the most realistic aspects of the series, as many police departments report drug and alcohol abuse, divorce and depression as common hazards. A good undercover detective has to undergo a dissolution of self to integrate convincingly. They must isolate themselves from all that is familiar, and become a new person, and this dissolution and isolation has a profound and ugly impact on both Starsky and Hutch. I believe separation from each other is an unnatural state for them both. The closeness of the partnership is not a crutch or a convenience. It doesn’t feel stifling or stunting, like identical twins with their own secret language, who, once separated, are crippled by insecurities. It has nothing to do with dependence at all, and it’s not a matter of utility. It doesn’t even have to do with compatibility or expediency. It is nothing less than lifesaving, and life-giving, and without it they both begin to falter and fail.

Every solo undercover operation – or any action one takes which is in direct opposition to the work routine of the other – the partnership suffers. Sometimes it’s really nothing, as in “Running” in which Hutch tentatively questions Starsky’s involvement with Sharman but overall supports him, or in “Survival” when the two light-heartedly bicker over who gets to be the flamboyant buyer of illegal goods. Besides, who wants to watch two people get along perfectly all the time? Arguments, missed opportunities, misunderstandings and somewhat male-specific silences are what make a partnership interesting as well as dynamic. But the longer the separation goes the worse the fallout, the deeper the cracks. Starsky is isolated from Hutch when he is involved in a civilian shooting in “Blindfold”, in “Rosey Malone” he is working alone for perhaps a week or ten days, and in both instances the two erupt in a violent argument over Starsky’s role as a police officer. The same thing will happen when Hutch is involved in a prolonged undercover operation in “Ballad for a Blue Lady”, and there is a resulting fight for very similar reasons. In “Starsky vs. Hutch”, although both are involved in the case they work separate aspects of it to the point of not conferring at all, leading to an extremely painful moment in which they briefly but genuinely despise one another, or more precisely, the person they both believe the other has become.

In all incidents both Starsky and Hutch make the mistake of alienating themselves from the partnership by including the other, however obliquely, in a bitter criticism of the undercover operation. They blame the job for turning them into “hypocrites,” as Starsky says in “Rosey”. They view the other as the enemy, a personification of the dehumanizing bureaucracy that has brought them so much pain. Starsky lashes out at Hutch for wanting to bring him to the station to discuss the case in “Rosey”, and Hutch likewise views Starsky with blood-curdling contempt in “Starsky vs. Hutch” for exactly the same thing. In “Ballad” Hutch snaps at Starsky to get off his case when Starsky tries to get him to bring in Marianne. Starsky says to Hutch: “You’re a cop.” He means this to be comforting, a re-establishing of authenticity – but Hutch takes it as a slap in the face, (mis)interpreting the word as a crushing responsibility rather than a safe haven. It’s interesting to see in “Ninety Pounds of Trouble” Hutch, undercover as a hit man, coolly “kills” Starsky, whom he calls the cop, to prove his authenticity. This could serve as a metaphorical murder, the act of someone who is walking away from his old identity – and if Hutch was in the role for much longer it might have taken on a greater and possibly tragic significance.

“Cop” is not always a negative: in “The Plague”, when Hutch tells Starsky he is a bad liar except when undercover, Starsky understands this as both a compliment and absolution, because at this moment the partnership is strong and intact, they are united in one aim and he is thinking rationally. But separation from one another erodes rationality. The chilling solitude becomes masochistic, an act of self-harm. It’s similar to the way an adolescent will alienate himself from family, believing no one understands his pain. He thinks the things he once loved or caused him to feel safe are not real. When Starsky and Hutch fight it has a similar feel of immaturity, a regression into brute emotionalism rather than intelligence, and it serves as a glimpse into what might happen if that separation was permanent. I believe there is an oft-hidden but palpable bitterness underlying the personality of both Starsky and Hutch, partly due to the misery both witness daily as police officers but partly, I think, due to the memory of loneliness, the sense of incompleteness, both felt before meeting one another, and the ever-present fear that the partnership might end, one way or another. The solitude of an undercover operation must feel in some ways like a Dickensian peeping into an alternate reality. And it is not a happy one.

Because of script limitations we never see the partners reunite or cement their bond after these temporary breakdowns, so we have to content ourselves in what the the final episode shows us: the bond is finally and completely indestructible, defeating even death itself.

Character Studies 29: Marvelous Minnie

October 4, 2014

Police officer Minnie Kaplan, played by Marki Bey, has more cameos than any other actor, as far as I can figure, and her all-too brief appearances are striking, not only because of Marki Bey’s beauty and charisma (both of which are considerable) or even the terrific lines of dialogue her character gets. It’s because she is inserted into an episode for a specific reason: to magnify the action in some way. Sometimes she gives voice to an unspoken issue, sometimes her very presence is a catalyst. Minnie, as a character, is a kind of pixie in the folkloric sense, immune to spears and arrows, whose appearance heralds – or identifies – trouble. She is both tangible and a little unreal. Even her name is cartoonish. Never out of uniform, keeping her hair short and wearing heavy black framed glasses, of indeterminate cultural and socioeconomic background, she is neither particularly (what this series likes to think of as) feminine, nor is she masculinized. Instead she is both, and neither. She’s unpredictable, deftly dodging our assumptions and our categories, a jokester, a jester and a confidante, an unexpected treat in every episode she in which appears.

We first meet Minnie as a meter maid – sorry, traffic coordinator – being hit on by Starsky and Hutch in “The Collector”, hit on, not for a date, but for a dicey undercover operation they are trying launch without official approval. Minnie’s friendship can be bought with coffee cake, but not her sensibility; she rejects their offer with a wry joke about being snowed. She’s on to them, it seems, she knows their devious ways. Rejected, they pout a little but she is unmoved. It’s a while until we see her again, in “The Avenger”, in perhaps her funniest cameo as Minnie dancin’ her way to self defence with her one-woman kung fu disco dance party. It doesn’t seem as if Hutch recognizes her, and she doesn’t know him either (she calls him “sir”). This moment is significant for many reasons. It’s the only light moment in a bleak and brutal episode. The suddenness – bam, there she is, lunging and screaming alone in the forensic lab – is in shocking contrast to the previous scene. Unlike Monique who is using men as both salvation and a kind of murderous indemnification, Minnie doesn’t even turn the volume of the music down when talking to a superior. By having fun by herself, making the best of long, boring shift, she then can be seen as troubled Monique’s exact opposite: a woman who in charge of her own life, who doesn’t need a man to feel whole, and who uses dancing not to ensnare or victimize men but to take charge of her own safety, her own sense of self. All this in a scene that lasts less than two minutes.

In “Cover Girl” Minnie has achieved the promotion promised by Starsky and Hutch, and is a fully fledged police officer with computer expertise and a crisp, no-nonsense manner enlivened by a gleeful zest for life. Starsky overtly checks out her figure and makes a suggestive comment and Minnie is unfazed. She is neither much flattered nor insulted, but breezily dismissive. She later helps Starsky with a vital clue involving the post office, and when Starsky offers to let himself into her place and “have a fire going”, the sexual banter is capped off by Minnie concluding (to herself, as he has left the room), “you’re a trashy boy, Starsky.” This is said not with either disgust or admiration, but rather with insouciance so broad it’s comic. Minnie and Starsky are play-acting. The flirtation may be real, but you always get the sense Starsky isn’t particularly serious – he isn’t interested in dating her (she might be too sassy for him, I think). His flirting is much like her teasing in this easy-going prefeminist world – it conveys respect rather than desire, it is code for “you’re one of us”.

Minnie has her smallest part in “Birds of a Feather”, but again it’s replete with meaning. She arrives to take horrible Gertrude down to get booked. Gertrude is suspicious but Starsky assures her, saying “Minnie never lies.” This is a pretty substantial comment and implies again that Minnie is more important than her brief appearances may suggest. In “Ninety Pounds of Trouble” Minnie is again prankster and know-it-all, pretending innocence as she tells Starsky “someone” won’t talk to anybody but him to report “a hit and run.” The hit and run, of course, is Minnie’s joke on Starsky: she knows all about Joey’s wretched puppy love. “Ta dah!” she says happily, throwing open the door to certain misery. In medieval times a jester was able to make pointed or political statements disguised as jokes, the only one allowed to take a poke at the king and get away with it, and Minnie, who never lies, can be seen as a similar truth-teller and king-poker.

In her last appearance in “Starsky vs. Hutch”, Minnie appears in the squad room as Starsky wearily sits, marking time, late at night. Sympathetically she hands him a cup of coffee and asks where the “beautiful blonde sergeant” is. Hilariously, she could be referring to either Kira or Hutch, implying, in her mischievous way, the factors in Starsky’s love life are pretty complicated. Reading Starsky’s discomfort she proceeds to needle him a little, trying to make him confess his feelings. This time, however, Starsky doesn’t rise to the bait and simply leaves. “Hmm, guess that answers that question,” Minnie says to herself, again commenting on the scene like she did in “Cover Girl”, electing herself as an ironic Greek Chorus. Minnie is amused by his behavior, but not in a mean or judgmental way. She understands there is tension simmering and goes on her merry way, no doubt to tease and torment someone else.

In all these encounters we note the same factors. Minnie has friendly, or sexually-loaded interaction only with Starsky but does not engage with Hutch, who is more cerebral and intemperate, although she likes him (interestingly, their one scene together in “The Avenger” is not personal in any way). She is either disruptive, insightful or supportive, never bland or invisible. Remarkably, in a series with a complicated and not altogether laudable relationship with its female characters, she is completely unfazed by flirting, appearing to give as good as she gets while absolutely not inflaming or even participating in the seduction. This is an important distinction because it’s Starsky who sexualizes their encounters, who half-heartedly but inventively makes his play: Minnie does not play, not even a little. Her appearances are always work related, no after-hours fraternizations. Minnie Kaplan is enigmatic but earthy, smart but inscrutable, teasable but untouchable. How I wish we could see more of her.

Character Studies 28: Rethinking “The Psychic”: Mysticism, Magic, and the Lost Wig Theory

May 2, 2014

“Starsky and Hutch” is, by and large, a hard-hitting police drama. It takes place in and around Los Angeles and brings us a variety of hardened criminals and tough survivors, family men in trouble, lawyers on the take. When people think back to this series they remember the gun battles and squealing tires, the close partnership. But, as unlikely as it seems to the casual fan of the show, there is a consistent thread of what might be called “magic” in the series, moments in which the veil is seemingly lifted, ever so slightly, to glimpse (or imagine we glimpse) a light coming from the other room. In that room is a whole mess of coincidence and divinity, absurdity and ambiguity, signs and portents. The 1970s was a time in which the metaphysical and occult – for centuries known only by a select few – had exploded in popularity, spurred on in part by mass-marketed fascination with so-called ancient wisdom and the explosion of youth culture. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough for the Hierophant to jealously guard his sacred books. UFO hysteria and fetishistic fads like Pyramid Power and Scientology joined uneasy hands with pharmaceutical “trips” and Eastern philosophy; everyone wanted in, they wanted to find themselves, get somewhere that wasn’t here. In this series, this kind of salad-bar approach to mysticism is charmingly satirized by Starsky, whose reciting of supermarket tabloids – and put-upon gullibility – is precisely calibrated to irritate his skeptical partner.

In keeping with the times, there are many episodes playing with the theme of the supernatural. The talismanic dog in “Snowstorm”, the visions suffered in “The Psychic”, cults and magic in “Bloodbath” and “Satan’s Witches”, various psychics – charatan and not – in “The Hostages”, “The Shootout”, and “The Psychic”. “Survival” is riddled by magical coincidences. Commander Jim in “Lady Blue” communicates with aliens. “Voodoo Island” is replete with curse-throwing vodun priests, and it could be said Monique is “possessed” in “The Avenger” as Rene is likewise posessed in “The Vampire”. There are devil worshippers in “Terror on the Docks” and “The Vampire”, and “Satan’s Witches”, and one spectacular instance of sixth sense in “Sweet Revenge”, when the doctor listens to his inner voice and tries once more to revive his patient. There are only three traditional religious figures in the series and none are up to snuff: the discomfiting padre in “Terror on the Docks”, the complicit nuns in “The Set-Up”, and the murderous bokor Papa Theodore in “Voodoo Island”. There are also impersonators who borrow the collar’s cache to get what they want in “Silence”, “Murder on Stage 17” and “Little Girl Lost”.

But it is important to note, with the possible exception of Joe Collins in “The Psychic”, there is not a single instance in which we are shown unequivocally that magic or mysticism is either genuine, profitable, or helpful. Rather, the series shows us, time and time again, supernatural beliefs are either a way of coping with extreme stress, the byproduct of mental illness, or purely mercenary (and murderous) in nature. Starsky and Hutch themselves dabble in occultish guesswork as a way of engaging the other in the loving mockery that so often defines male friendship – Starsky tries out his ESP in “Black and Blue” and Hutch guesses his partner’s biorhythms in “The Game”. The series casts a clear-eyed, hard-hearted look at the concept of slavish devotion to a faith or ideal: even the potions of Voodoo Island are more medicinal than mystical. The two charismatic cult leaders in the series – Rodell in “Satan’s Witches” and Marcus in “Bloodbath” – are sociopaths with inflated egos, who most likely control their all-male lieutenants with the promise of lecherous dominion over female followers, and even the most minor satanist, pathetic druggy Slade, uses his “beliefs” to get young girls into bed. Blind faith of any kind falls into the Institutional Evil category, and Starsky and Hutch are shown as iconoclastic, individualist, their morality not bound to orthodoxy or any sense of belonging at all. If they belong to anything it is to each other, solely. In the remarkable and tricky episode “Survival” – an episode playing with the idea of chance, coincidence, and the presence or absence of an Organizing Principle (my vote is on “absence”), when an injured Hutch cries out into the brilliantly starry sky for help, his own voice echoes back at him.

What of Joe Collins, then? This single instance of a genuine psychic throws a spanner into the works. “The Psychic”, as we recall, is tells the story of a high school girl held hostage by three desperate men. It features a vivid and unforgettable performance by Allan Miller as a man who finds only pain and regret in his extraordinary gift. Before the kidnapping is even known to police, Starsky and Hutch are led to Joe Collins by their friend Huggy, who tells them a dead body needs investigating. And who has seen that dead body? It’s a psychic in hiding from a tragic past, who at first vehemently denies any knowledge of the crime and then reluctantly helps the two detectives. He is subjected to explosive, uncontrolled visions that at first baffle and then begin to help Starsky and Hutch zero in on the kidnapped girl. For years I accepted this as true. I wanted to believe it, much as Starsky and Hutch do. But it is possible, though, that Joe is not psychic at all, but rather an unfortunate victim of circumstance.

The first clue comes when Huggy gives a colorful version of what he heard Joe say: “Where giant happy wheels climb into the sky and pretty dead horses grazing in the sun, that’s where you’ll find the last of the remains.” When and why Collins has said this is not clear – he certainly isn’t interested in repeating it or even sharing it with people who might actually be helpful. Does he cry out in a trance, does he mutter it to himself within earshot of our nosy friend? Whatever the delivery, it’s not as if Collins gave a truly remarkable instance of clairvoyance. He does not say “a girl has been kidnapped”. Rather, he says, “a guy I know is lying dead at the fairgrounds.” What the “last of the remains” means is unknown; if it means Joe thinks only one person will die in this case and it’s Julio, he could be wrong, as it’s likely the kidnappers die in the car fire. And yet this isn’t exactly what Collins says. The baroque language isn’t his: Huggy has embroidered this statement to the point of outright invention. If anyone here is a mystical poet it’s him, which adds a fun extra layer of skepticism onto this story. (Huggy, as the self-proclaimed “sorcerer’s apprentice” muddying the waters for his own entertainment.) Anyway, back to the action. The dead man Joe Collins acknowledges he has glimpsed in a vision is Julio, who comes into his cafe regularly. There are many hints in the story that Julio an essentially good man with a gambling habit and a crumbling conscience, and with that comes the strong possibility he blurted out some kind of confession to the severely, even pathologically empathetic Joe, whose capacity to take on the suffering of others overwhelms him from time to time. Joe internalizes Julio’s moral agony, and unconsciously relates it to his “visions”. After all, the Atlanta case that made Joe famous left a lot of people skeptical and angry, and the fact Joe tearfully denies involvement does not mean he wasn’t involved on some level.

The episode could make a case for the supernatural, as Joe’s highly detailed and exact visions blast seeming from nowhere, with an appropriately spooky soundtrack. The scrapyard hiding place could have been chosen spontaneously by the kidnappers, which would make Joe’s “rose” image truly psychic in nature. But a kidnapping takes detailed planning, and weeks of reconnaissance. Julio would most likely know about the truck. With his employment at the garage, which may mean he regularly takes abandoned vehicles to be scrapped, he might have been the one to find it. A single instance of drunken mumbling, with Joe distracted by work and not consciously listening, would be enough to lodge those images in his brain. Also, Hutch remarks that the kidnappers have done this same thing before, in Philadelphia. As a transient club magician, Joe might have been in that city during the crisis, and read all about it in the newspapers. Joe Collins may be unconsciously implicit in all that happens, his “talents” more to do with an extraordinary compassion rather than second sight.

There is only a single instance of “what the – ” in the episode, and that is Joe’s foreknowledge of the “211” down the block. It comes out of nowhere and does not even have a tangential relation to the case. But there is a fascinating coincidence here that bears remarking upon. “The Psychic” opens with the wonderful take-down of a repeat offender by the name of Fireball, who is disguised in women’s clothing and loses his wig in the chase. The armed robbery in the bar down the street is an exact replica of that situation, with the “old lady” getting her wig snatched off by Starsky, who is shocked to see a man. This is unusual enough to get us thinking. Both criminals not only use disguise, but gender-bending pretense. In both situations most people are fooled by that disguise, which is used for ill-gotten gains. Both are unmasked by Starsky and Hutch as agents of justice. The exposed reality is somewhat pathetic and sad (Fireball begs to be shot to avoid jail time). It’s a possibility we are supposed to understand this as a metaphor for the episode’s approach to supernaturalis, that which is ostensibly given by God and separate from nature, is, beneath its wig, prosaic and mundane.

This doesn’t explain why Joe was able to “see” the 211, but perhaps there are some mysteries which are better off unsolved. As with the series as a whole, the episode takes a pragmatic, humanistic approach to the idea of the ineffable. And casting this wonderful, perceptive, beautifully written episode in a skeptical light – perhaps in the light it was intended to be seen in – helps us to appreciate it all the more.

Character Studies 26: Five Unsolved Mysteries

July 24, 2013

“Starsky and Hutch” was not created for the PVR or the DVD. I can’t imagine the writers and producers wasted much time worrying about the audience revisiting the series time and time again to freeze a scene at a pivotal frame in order to examine continuity, or speculating about an obscure line of dialogue. The scenes were shot and in the can in a brisk, efficient way, with as much attention to detail as was considered prudent at the moment, leading to small errors with props, stunt doubles, and other tricky bits and pieces. While many people find enjoyment pointing these out, I always feel there are larger and more interesting mysteries to puzzle through, mainly gaping holes in logic, missing explanations and philosophical conundrums which have no easy answer. The real reasons for these ambiguities vary: rushed editing, narrative opportunism (“let’s give Starsky a brother!”), network conflicts, poor script writing, budget constraints, all of which are rational explanations for the head-scratchers to follow. But finding contextually-appropriate explanations is much more fun. However they came to be, the presence of these mysteries, large and small, adds a splash of piquancy to the mix. Here are five that make the shortlist.

1. The Invisible Man
Who invented Terry Nash?

“The Set-Up” is a sprawling two-part episode with so many quirky elements it’s the literary equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine. Sure it can fly, but it looks ungainly and ridiculous doing so – and that’s the fun of it. After two hours of duplicitous nuns, biplanes and Black Barons and machine guns in castle turrets, we are left with many more questions than answers (the exploding Torino, the fresh fruit in an apartment abandoned for weeks, etc). But the most troubling mystery is who Terry Nash really is, and why so much trouble was taken to recruit/kidnap him in order to pull off what would be a fairly straightforward assassination.

This is ostensibly a story about dueling criminal empires. Joe Durniak is going to testify against his rivals. After law enforcement officials carefully hide him in the back of a rig for his cross-country journey, Durniak is inexplicably deposited in a large, unsecured hotel to await the trial, leaving him vulnerable to a hit. There are fifty relatively easy ways to do the deed without going to the expense and trouble of researching and then selecting an innocent victim and subjecting him to weeks of brainwashing and hypnosis to turn him into the perfect assassin. No, the killers did not know Durniak would end up in a hotel, but it seems there were extraordinarily complex plans in place no matter where he was. This sort of sustained and imaginative cruelty is not really the mob’s style, as they tend toward the more brutal and efficient concrete-based solutions to their problems. So, okay, now we’re not dealing with warring mobsters. Instead, we now have an unknown enemy with unlimited financial resources and a fascination with psychological torture, whose mob-style businesses Durniak knew about – and was ready to testify against – were merely a fundraising arm of a much larger organization. Which means Durniak’s testimony at most would chop one tentacled limb off the beast without hurting the whole entity. So was the execution of Joe Durniak using a dehumanized Terry Nash all an experiment, rather than a means to an end? If so, then why leave Terry Nash alive, the dangling thread that could prove troublesome if he ever got his memory back? Do we ever find out his identity? Do the masterminds of this caper sit back and think, yeah, that was all worth it? We will never know.

2. Forgotten Victim
Who killed Jane Elexy?

“Murder on Stage 17” is an homage to the waning era of the western and echoes of the tragic story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, comedic star of the silent era whose career – and life – was ruined after being unjustly accused of rape after a wild party (and there are minor references to the infamous 60s social circle “Rat Pack” as well). Wally Stone (Chuck McCann), like Arbuckle, is a rotund comedian whose life and career are destroyed by a scandal. Thought to be dead, he has been methodically murdering every member of his former Wolf Pack cronies in retribution for … well, that’s up for debate.

Even though Steve Hanson says “nobody proved” who murdered Jane Elexy by throwing her from a ten story window, Wally still went to jail on charges that are never explained in the episode. One has to speculate, therefore, Wally might have been charged with rape (carrying the Arbuckle comparisons to their logical conclusion), and her subsequent fall could not be proven a crime. Wally says he “took the rap” for Steve – meaning he truly believes it was Steve Hanson who killed her. Neither Starsky nor Hutch ask him to clarify this, nor do they treat Steve Hanson as a suspect or attempt in any way to investigate the charges – or even go to the newspapers to look at microfiche. Wally also says “they turned their backs on me”, meaning he killed the other Wolf Pack members as retribution for their apathy – a pretty thin reasoning for mass murder, if you ask me. It’s clear Wally is not only psychotic, but disorganized, illogical and childish. It’s left up in the air whether someone capable of five murders, maybe six (Jane’s husband is also dead following a suspicious car accident, although why Wally would kill him too is unclear) could also be capable of Jane’s murder. Are we to believe his story is a straight-up lie? Is this some nutty performance art Wally Stone is engaging in, a desperate last attempt at immortality? Or are we to accept that Steve Hanson got away with murder? My own version of the story goes like this: a bunch of immature, drunken idiots were all implicit, in one way or another, with the rape of poor Jane Elexy at that party, and she either fell by accident or Steve Hanson, in an attempt to restrain or “reason” with a hysterical or intoxicated Jane, fought with her and she fell. It’s either that or Starsky and Hutch knowingly let a killer go free, which is unthinkable. In the end, Wally Stone is captured, Hanson is safe, the film is finished, but there is no justice for the woman whose death set the story in motion.

3. It’s all Academic
What motivated Professor Gage to commit murder?

Allan Richards, car salesman, and Jack Morris, owner of the dealership, attempt to blackmail Professor Gage when they “discover” he’s a professional hit man. In turn, they are both killed by Gage and his femme fatale Mickie. Hutch goes undercover as a student in the professor’s class on criminology in order to lure Gage into a confession. Hutch tells Gage he was in on the scheme the entire time, and wants Gage to pay. Mickie has her gun sights trained on Hutch but Starsky takes her down instead.

This is the story, but let’s just ask the big question: what if Professor Gage is not a hit man? What if this is all a gruesome fantasy played out for kicks? What if he simply picks out his most imaginative, vulnerable students and plays with their heads, much in the same way he hones in on Hutch and berates him in front of the class? This seems far more likely to me than if he really was some kind of international assassin, flying off to jobs on the weekends or taking a sabbatical to bump off a Cabinet Minister. Making stuff up is more in line with someone as intellectually inclined as this cardigan-wearing academic, a sexual kink he shares with his equally messed-up girlfriend. Richards and Morris simply take it to the next level, upping the ante through blackmail, thereby unknowingly instigating the very thing they thought was real all along. If not for their threats, and their provocative taunting that they will get the better of Gage, none of this would have happened. Gage would continue to bask in the lurid glow of rumor, he and Mickie would fantasize at length over candlelight, and nobody would ever die. It’s very possible that the activities of the two former students gave life to what was an academic exercise. Yes, Gage and Mickie’s cool demeanor following each murder marks them as “professional”, as Hutch remarks, but it seems to me this is more about luck and relentless visualizing than actual skill.

Following this argument, how would Morris and Allan know Gage was a killer? Gage is not an official suspect in any crime, and a true professional would never leave evidence behind. It’s more than likely they wanted very much to believe the worst about their creepy professor, perhaps because they were awarded low marks for their tests, or humiliated in front of their classmates, or maybe because their mutual obsession with crime and criminals (which is why they signed up to the class in the first place) had gotten out of hand. Maybe they feverishly “investigated” some recent shootings and came up with their own conclusions. Rather than going to the police to report their suspicion, they reveal their own criminal nature by confronting Gage himself. He could have laughed it off, patted their shoulders and urged them to get some sleep, but maybe he thought it would be amusing to lead them on. And then, when irritated by blackmail and perhaps urged on by an increasingly bored Mickie, murder seemed like a natural evolution from theory to practice.

4. The Puppet Master
John Colby and the leopard’s spots.

In “Deadly Imposter”, old police academy pal John Colby appears as a serviceman desperate to track down his ex-wife so he can see their son. You see, he’s been a prisoner of war for years, as good as dead to family and friends, deserted by his wife who is now marrying another man. Colby is sad but understanding. He knows she deserves a good life. All he wants, he says, is to see his son one more time. He begs his former best friends to help him, and of course they do. They express deep, unshakable faith and trust in Colby, and the towel-snapping and mock-insulting shows how much affection they have for him. But of course Colby is a conscienceless killer, and counting on their friendship to unknowingly lead him to hidden witness Warren Karpel, due to testify against mob boss Nate Garvin.

The mystery here is how John Colby went from beloved pal to conscienceless killer, when it happened, and who helped peel away any last strands of humanity he may have had. A clue may be in the fact he claims to have joined the Air Force rather than pursue a career in law enforcement. What if he didn’t? We only have his word about his subsequent military career and his word means nothing; anyone can scrounge up an impressive uniform. And you can bet neither Starsky nor Hutch checked his story with the DND. You have to wonder, too, how they could be so friendly with someone who turns out to be a stone-cold killer. Did Colby exhibit a psychopath’s charm throughout that time, or was he really, at one point, likable enough to secure the affection of the detectives? Is this the case of blinding nostalgia rather than an accurate recollection? Are they in fact glossing over the memory of their old pal’s strange silences and suspect views, the chilly core of the man? Both Starsky and Hutch have been known to overlook severe personality issues in those they have anointed as heroic – look at Hutch’s blind spot with mentor Luke Huntley. John Colby most likely had the same problems he has today, at least in part: a lazy opportunist, always looking for the easiest way out. Ethically suspect, treating women poorly, switching from genial to cold at the slightest provocation, feeling superior, liking absolute control, pouting to get what he wants or adopting a poor-me attitude when things don’t go his way. These are the building blocks of a man such as John Colby. The idea that he changed significantly after leaving the police department doesn’t hold water, unless the military subjected him to the same brainwashing techniques as those practiced on Terry Nash. I would have loved to see a prequel to this episode, with the Three Corsicans at the academy, and two of them uneasy as the third one casually stomps on an escaped mouse during a daytrip to the psychiatric institute.

So, John Colby had at least a smidgen of those ugly personality elements while a youth in the police academy, elements Starsky and Hutch saw and chose to ignore. But who took those elements are refined them? Instead of the Air Force, might Colby have joined the CIA? He certainly has the skills. If he did, is accepting the job from Nate Garvin a ruse? Colby shows absolutely no fear of the notorious gangster, is rude and insubordinate. Maybe he’s taking Garvin’s money but is actually acting for a greater, more nefarious organization. Maybe. We’ll never know.

5. Who Remembers “Medical Center”, Anyway?
The Case of the Missing Statuettes.
The final mystery is why “Starsky and Hutch” never received an Emmy Award for its extraordinary actors, writers, and directors. Of course, these institutional gestures are deeply suspect, and fairly meaningless, but recognition is warranted all the same.

Character Studies 25: Tags (when they work, when they don’t)

July 8, 2013

Largely forgotten now, the tag was common during the 1970s, the final short scene following a commercial break just before the credits. The tags from this series work the best when economically resolving the few dangling issues left over from the episode, such as in “The Committee” and “Running” when a few short lines of dialogue puts the story to a dignified rest. For me, the top two tags in the series are “Starsky’s Lady” and “Death in a Different Place”. Both are marvelous in their own way: the former for its searing emotional content and the latter for its hilarity and sweetness. But half the time tags are inserted with the sole purpose of joking and teasing us back to equanimity. It’s a spoonful of sugar, an insinuation that television is not a serious endeavor, certainly nothing to get worked up over. See? Everything’s fine again! Sometimes these small moments do bring a sense of closure, but other times they are patronizing, facile, or irritating. That these tags work at all is due to the loose, improvisational quality the actors bring, the sense that the rules have been suspended, however briefly, allowing a glimpse into a unscripted moment (whether joyful or serious) that has nothing whatsoever to do with producers, schedules or contractual obligations. In fact, the series ends on what many consider to be the best tag of all, the scene in Starsky’s hospital room when the quartet of grim episodes filled with enormous stress and pain dissolves into a beautiful, transcendent moment of euphoria.

Here are a few examples when an idea either hits the mark or misses it entirely:

Let’s Have A Party!
Hit: “Death Notice” Miss: “The Shootout”
“Death Notice” is one of the few times in which sheer exuberance does not get in the way of sincerity. We have a raucous party, a reunion of characters we have grown fond of, and a genuine sense of relief the harrowing case has come to an end. Plus, there is also a private toast between the two partners that is both touching and life affirming. “The Shootout” also has characters coming together to celebrate but the whole things goes awry when what should be celebratory becomes hysterical, as Starsky puts on a frenetic and unfunny musical-comedy act for his new bemused friends. Blame Starsky’s medication, maybe.

Hutch Picks Up the Pieces
Hit: “The Fix” Miss: “Gillian”
“The Fix” is a rare example of a grim, ambiguous tag in which Hutch divests himself of Jeanie Walton following the arrest of gangster Ben Forest. There is a lot of subtle emotion here, all of it painful: regret, guilt, anger, grief. It’s beautifully underplayed by all the actors and a fine end to an extraordinary episode. An attempt of light-heartedness, even if the reasoning behind it is sound, doesn’t cut it in the tag of “Gillian”. The episode is just too harrowing to be ended with Hutch trying to put mend his shattered psyche with a bit of harmless flirtation at the bowling alley. Also, it seems a little cavalier for Starsky to bring his friend back to place loaded with so many memories, narrative neatness aside.

Cutting a Rug
Hit: “Tap Dancing” Miss: “Discomania”
Nothing quite reveals the differences in the earlier and later seasons than these two tags. Both come at the end of murder cases set in and around dancing. In “Tap Dancing”, the tag sequence is a fan favorite and a joy to watch. Hutch gets his comeuppance for mocking Starsky but there is only affection and a little bit of daring in the way Starsky grabs Hutch and sweeps him into a fearless dip to prove his point. In “Discomania”, Dobey’s presence changes the dynamic somewhat – there is far less of a focus on the partnership. Talk of disco strikes a dated note in the way the more generalized ballroom of the previous episode does not. Starsky and Hutch pretend to teach Dobey but instead it’s a ploy to expose him as a buffoon (albeit a charming one). Instead of physical intimacy we get a roomful of chuckling detectives, and the joke rings hollow.

The Perils of Fame
Hit: “Murder on Stage 17” Miss: “Cover Girl”
Both these episodes reveal in different ways how being famous isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In one, an unhinged ex-actor and a supermodel feel their lives have been unfairly stolen from them by a twist of fate, and both act out in dramatic, even eccentric or entitled, ways. The tags of both episodes are satirical takes on the idea of celebrity, but in “Stage 17” Hutch’s spoiled pouting when his small role is edited from the film makes him look hilariously pathetic. We are meant to laugh at the idea Hutch thinks he’s a star when in fact his contribution to the film is negligible. In “Cover Girl” the guys are drawn into a glossy magazine photo shoot, and even though they appear embarrassed, it’s still a triumph to be recognized and treated like a celebrity.

Starsky Plays a Trick
Hit: “Iron Mike Ferguson” Miss: “Blindfold”
Starsky and Hutch have a long history of playing tricks on each other. Sometimes it’s a welcome light moment in a very dark episode, as in “Iron Mike” when Starsky pretends not to understand chess and enrages his friend by calling the pieces funny names. It’s a lovely, quiet tag where a discussion about ethics flows naturally from a fair bit of silliness, and we get the sense both men are enjoying their time together. In “Blindfold” Hutch agrees to test his negotiating skills. Although we should be admiring his excellent visual memory, instead we’re subjected to a horrible, potentially dangerous fall down the stairs. This meanness is out of character for Starsky, and in fact undermines what the episode is trying to tell us about the courage to adapt and the importance of friendship.

Character Studies 24: If “Starsky and Hutch” Was Made Today

June 6, 2013

Things change, television evolves, and all for the better. But if “Starsky and Hutch” was made today, would it be a better series?

It would be tougher, more graphically violent. When people get shot with Hutch’s trusty Python they will explode backward in a bloody heap rather than merely lying down on the ground. Most scenes will play out in darkness: in pre-dawn Los Angeles, in a police station blanketed in the deep indigo of pulled shades, closed doors and whispered dialogue. (William Blinn, creator of the series, based his idea on a newspaper article about two detectives who worked only at night; he was drawn, he said, to the idea of darkness and urban isolation. Sadly there was not the film technology – nor the executive enthusiasm, I’m guessing – to make this a reality.) Gone will be the artificial blare of even lighting and clearly enunciated speaking.

Storylines grow longer, it takes months rather than an hour to solve a case, multiple threads will complicate and enrich the narrative. The tag is gone, history; episodes end on an ambiguous, depressing note as a moody song from an indie band plays. There are no more tropical holidays, no more rural witches and definitely no more mimes. Cell phones and text messaging means Starsky and Hutch will spend a lot less time waiting for information and a lot more time urgently reading it aloud to each other while running down hallways. The Torino will be excised from the series completely, not only because a department-issued Crown Vic is more authentic, but also the cultural obsession with flashy automobiles seems to have largely disappeared.

The pace will pick up, scenes will be shorter and dialogue spoken faster. No more script inconsistencies, fewer gaps in logic. There will be more ethnic and gender diversity, female police officers will not be stuck wearing skirts and issuing parking tickets. The cast will grow to include a patrolman with rage problems, a female officer whose ambitions make her at once bitchy and back-bitey and also emotionally vulnerable, and a black mayoral candidate with a deadly secret. Dobey, newly svelte but still cranky, won’t be Harold, but Harriet.

And while we’re talking casting, Starsky or Hutch will be played by actors who appear less mature, a few years younger, just out of the academy and itching to make a difference. Ruggedness will be replaced by a sort of sculpted homogeneity. Quirks are more obvious and somehow more generalized, out of the Handbook of Eccentricities – Hutch’s fuse even shorter, his obsessions hovering near the OCD range, Starsky’s sunny geniality masking a deeply buried trauma from a stint in Afghanistan. There will be no physical touching, no me-and-thee, more interdepartmental politics, and a lot more paperwork.

And lastly, the peculiar innocence exemplified by this series (in spite of all its toughness, its unflinching social truths, there is innocence here, which owes as much to the earnest humanitarian agenda as it does to the pre-internet parochialism of seventies television), that innocence will be replaced by cynicism. The modern Starsky and Hutch will be brave and heroic, yes, because we will always need heroes. But corroding the relationship will be a kind of self-conscious acknowledgment of that heroism, a subtle but relentless undercutting of the idea of heroism, as well as self-referential jokes about bromance and we’re-not-gay-not-that-it-would-matter-if-we-were sort of joking meant to exorcise the merest whiff of homosexuality. The new Starsky and Hutch will never be alone against the world. Behind and around them the machinery of proper, credible procedure presses in.

Realistic, yes. But better?

Character Studies 23: Five Great Soul Scenes

August 23, 2012

While Paul Michael Glaser’s David Starsky is steady and consistent (even when he explodes, it usually comes after a prolonged simmer which telegraphs his actions far in advance of his making them), David Soul’s Kenneth Hutchinson is far more of an unpredictable and mercurial presence in this series, and Soul’s portrayal is a tour de force. Hutch is both vain and anxious, sarcastic and genuine, deeply invested in his professional and personal relationship with Starsky and determined to upend it by being a complete jerk. Despite extraordinary good looks and a privileged background – or maybe because of these things – he can be contrary, sharply disapproving of conventionality and drawn to fads, alternative lifestyles, junky cars and damaged women. Part of him is a psychological mess and part of him is steadfast, brave, thoughtful, and rational. All of him is charismatic. Soul leaps into the challenge on day one and never disappoints in the four years he portrays this magnetic, bad-tempered, loving, deeply moral individual. I’ll probably overuse the word “emotional” but that’s what David Soul does best: he’s an actor with great depth and dexterity, and there’s nowhere in the prickly, dense, scary underbrush of the human condition he’s afraid to go.

Here are some of his best characteristics and the scenes that embody them:

Alienated: irked by rules and regulations in “Lady Blue” (written by Michael Mann) There’s nothing better than Hutch frustrated by the mechanics and confines of modern society. Any other actor given these diatribes would wear out our patience and perhaps lessen our allegiance, but Soul’s sparkling wit and energy gives these speeches a special piquancy which approaches – but never quite steps into – comedy. You just never tire of them. You laugh and feel sad at the same time. They give us access to his complex personality, a man who feels thwarted and misunderstood despite an overabundance of natural gifts. In this instance, anger over car troubles sends Hutch on a hilarious rant against phones, corporations, numbers, numeric systems and issues of personal identity, and it’s a joy to watch. Soul keeps it tight, never tips it into caricature, and easily reins it into drama a moment later.

Patient: negotiating with a psychopath in “Bloodbath” (written by Christopher Joy, Wanda Coleman, Ron Friedman) Beautifully filmed, Hutch’s two interrogations with Simon Marcus are unremittingly intense and show us the intellectual, patient side of this emotion-driven character. Hutch is forced to control both fear and antagonism in order to find information necessary to save his partner. Very often the series uses threat to the partnership in order to bring out the best in both characters, and here it’s perfectly played out as Hutch understands his baser instincts are no match for someone with nothing to lose.

Kind: being a true friend in “Starsky’s Lady” (written by Robert Earll) The beautiful tag on the end of a harrowing episode in which Starsky’s girlfriend is murdered is a showstopper. Hutch is alternately funny, warm, silly and wrenchingly grief-stricken. This scene is made more difficult by the fact both are drunk, and intoxication is notoriously difficult to act convincingly. Alternately goofy and serious (at the same time), tears swim in his eyes as he reluctantly faces his own grief and responsibilities while opening the letter and gift from Terry. In this scene, as in many others, we’re aware of his unusually expressive voice, and how he uses it in subtle ways to convey deep emotion.

Indomitable: the ransom run in “The Psychic” (again written by Michael Mann, who knows a thing or two about dramatic escalation). Yes, I have gone on about this scene more than once, but it does sum up the remarkable gifts of Mr Soul, whose speed and endurance is front and center here, and much missed after a skiing accident in the third season reduced him physically for the remainder of the series. I imagine extreme exertion and an acting performance are normally mutually exclusive, but here Hutch is not only running hard and bursting through the doors of bars and booths and Laundromats, he’s conveying fear, determination, and rage. Every second of the ransom run keeps you on the edge of your seat, and at the end you’re nearly as exhausted as he is.

Volcanic: Coming upon the murder scene in “Gillian” (written by Ben Masselink and Amanda J Green). Mere words can’t describe the devastating impact of this scene, and Soul’s incredible acting range in this and other moments of this episode (the “freeze” scene in the alley, for example). He goes from confusion to dawning realization, from horror to violent rage and finally to sobbing grief within minutes. There is not a false note or hesitation here, from his expressive voice to his extraordinary fearless body language – and all of this matched point for point by note-perfect Glaser. There has never been more painfully acute depiction of what true friendship really means. It’s ugly, raw, redemptive, astonishing. It helps this was reportedly filmed in one take, giving the actors a rare chance to let it flow naturally, and the result is very difficult to watch, but even more difficult to turn away from.

Character Studies 22: Five Great Glaser Scenes

August 16, 2012

Paul Michael Glaser is an interesting actor: understated, perceptive and nuanced. If he were a painting he’d be an Edward Hopper: realism without sentiment, able to reveal deep insight in what many might see as the mundane or everyday. In a sense he has not been given as meaty a role as David Soul has, or, to be more precise, the substantive part of the character has always been intended to be the physical one. One can easily imagine network executives insisting, “Hutch is the thinker, Starsky’s the doer,” a dichotomy that was broken down very neatly by Glaser early on (although amusingly restated by Hutch himself late into the series when he claims, “I am the brains of this operation, and you are the not-too-inconsiderable brawn”). Starsky is thoughtful, dependable, self-contained, not given to many emotional displays – if anything he tends to clamp the lid down pretty hard – and his internal thermometer pretty well stuck at a sunny 72. If pushed, he goes quiet. Like Soul, Glaser can be very funny, and his natural physical grace lends itself well to comedy, especially those wonderful moments I think of as fundamentally Glaser-made: a kind of self-aware, deft muscularity we see in his numerous chase or fight scenes, which he plays with a mix of intensity and joy that is very rare and special.

In this way it can be difficult to isolate “big” moments in the series even though he is a powerful, at times overwhelming presence. He is warm, generous and attractive, yes, but he’s so much more as an actor. Very often his technical skills – the moments you say “wow, look at that!” – are so finely tuned, so subtle it’s possible to miss them the first time around. He has explosive scenes, occasionally loquacious ones too, but for me the most electrifying moments can be as small as a hooded look or suppressed smile, or his choice to remain silent when another actor might make a lot of noise, letting energy build up around him until you can feel it. This is his particular genius. And here are five elements that make up this extraordinary character:

Persuasive: A speech to the troops in “The Plague” (written by William Douglas Lansford). This is a great example of how Starsky is able to imply emotion without giving any out; he does this with Roper later in the episode as well. He keeps his feelings in check while barking out orders to the assembled police officers about to look for an escaped hitman in the California desert. He appeals to their duty, not their passions or prejudices. He doesn’t look anyone in the eye. He asks for empathy, not sympathy (“good partners are hard to find”). He keeps it short, but there’s a cadence to his speech – an actor’s instinctive rhythm – that gives it a gritty majesty. A similar example of this is in “Lady Blue” in which he convinces Dobey to let him investigate an ex-girlfriend’s murder.

Intelligent: Reminding his partner who’s boss in “The Game” (written by Tim Maschler) Throughout this conversation, which begins while playing pool, continues in the car and ends in the police station’s locker room, Starsky shows us how genuine authority isn’t always obvious. Hutch is certainly the dominant one here, but watch how Starsky actually engineers – and controls – the entire situation. It starts with a calculatingly mild insult (“you couldn’t find a beer in a brewery”) and ends with an irrefutable declaration (“I know how, where, when you eat, walk, sleep, talk, who you know, what you know and how you know it, and there ain’t no hiding behind that”). Hutch of course takes the bait, hook, line and sinker. The magic of this scene is not in the script, as good as it is. It’s in the way Glaser uses the dialogue in a way that can only be called sly, managing to infuse his biting words with powerful affection.

Romantic: A master class in flirtation in “I Love You, Rosey Malone” (again written by Tim Maschler, who seems to have a special connection with the character). Narrowing down moments of Starsky’s breathtaking self-confidence with women is difficult (so, so many of them!), but the scene with Rosey in her gallery is noteworthy because Starsky starts out on the wrong foot and must overcome many obstacles in a short amount of time – and he does. In spades. He wins the trust of a nervous, rather high-strung young woman by performing the Starsky Special: calm to the point of remoteness, with a splash of humor. It’s terrific fun to watch but it takes repeated viewings to really appreciate Glaser’s acting choices, that unsmiling deliberation that would seem off-putting or intimidating in any other man, but which is, in fact, spellbinding. Any other actor, I’m sure, would try more, and succeed less.

Resolute: A friend in need in “The Fix” (written by Robert Holt). Words like resolute, loyal or trustworthy don’t quite measure up to the depth of friendship evidenced in the marvelous scene that begins twenty-nine minutes into the episode. It would be easy to be overshadowed by David Soul’s shocking performance, but Glaser is the necessary anchor here. Another actor might turn this into bathos, but Glaser is perfectly composed, unflinching. In a sense this is all body language. Starsky holds onto Hutch’s arms, hugs him and gently slaps him in a loving way that would be completely revolutionary to the average viewer of the time.

Creative: Scaring the daylights out of a suspect in “The Shootout” (written by David P. Harmon). The interrogation scene with Harry Sample is is basically a comedy routine, as Starsky veers hilariously – but perhaps not so hilariously – between frustration, rage, limpid-eyed promises of amnesty, and skin-prickling menace. How ironic this is perhaps the greatest variety of emotions we ever see from him at one time, and it’s all faked. In reality, he is not given to big displays. The more something gets to him, the less he is inclined to share it. But give him a role to play and he goes whole hog (as The Fan in “Long Walk” and “Moonshine”, the Instructor in “Tap Dancing”, the photographer in “Groupie”). It occurs to me now this may be a comment on the asininity of acting – a sentiment Mr. Glaser may endorse – but I’m going to leave it there.

Character Studies 21: In Praise of Steven Keats and Albert Paulsen

February 3, 2012

There are some performances in the Starsky and Hutch canon that snag in the mind like a briar, refusing to let go. Case in point is Season One’s “The Shootout”, written by David P. Harmon and directed by Fernando Lamas, in which the two out-of-town killers Joey Martin and Tom Lockly terrorize the denizens of an Italian restaurant as they wait to ambush mysterious mafioso Vic Monty. The sheer power of the actors’ performances is enhanced by the fact the episode is mostly confined to only two rooms, enabling both to dominate nearly every scene.

The clash of contrasts is always fun, and in this episode it’s pretty spectacular. Albert Paulsen’s Tom Lockly is controlled, compressed, intellectual and verging on suave, with a dignity and aloofness that is quite aristocratic. Fastidious and calculating, he’s a loner, a miscreant who prefers books to people and his own vastly superior company to any other. He finds Joey’s rambunctiousness distasteful and tiresome, and keeps him on a tight leash like an untrained dog. Albert Paulsen, an Ecuadorian-American with a mature, stony face, is ideal for this role. His accent is ambiguously “European”, his eyes hooded and expressionless, and he never overexerts himself, instead playing it cool the entire time. Wearing a tie even when in bed at the motel, Lockly is able to convey a great deal of chilly power with simple, quasi-polite sentences, such as “you’re not going to make it, friend” when comic Sammy attempts to back-pedal out the door to freedom. Lockly is so menacing he doesn’t even need a gun to be truly terrifying. His careful planning in ruins, he never lets his increasing worry show: instead, you see it smoldering under all those dark layers. Such a quiet performance is truly marvelous to watch. In an episode saturated with showy characters, Lockly could get lost, but Paulsen ensures he doesn’t – instead he is even more unnerving in stark contrast to everyone else. Mr. Paulsen had a long and distinguished career and passed away from natural causes in 2004.

Joey Martin is a perfect foil for Lockly’s icy calm. Jumpy, energetic, tempestuous and erratic, he’s the powder keg in this situation. He can’t keep his mouth shut, and is alternately sinister and facetious. His initial scene in the motel room is telling: simultaneously drinking, reading the paper (or slamming the pages around), pacing and shouting at the radio, his excitement is cut short at Lockly’s condescension. Joey’s eyes go dead, and his clumsy attempts to wound (“Mister smart-man, mister intellectual”) are typical of an insecure bully driven to destroy what he doesn’t understand. His highs and lows are extreme – one minute drunk on power as his victims cower before him, the next fearfully lashing out when things go awry. Steven Keats plays Joey as loose, bouncy, nearly comic, flipping the switch between jokey guy and sadistic murderer so fast it never fails to thrill. Physically, he’s wonderful: his face expressive and mesmerizing, that big wide gap-toothed grin always surprising with its force and queasy charm. Joey could easily be a caricature, but Keats never lets it get that far. He reins it in when he needs to, as in the scene in which he’s shocked into silence watching Starsky’s pain. Like Paulsen, Keats is lucky to have a wonderful script to work with, but it’s his nearly supernatural instincts as an actor that give his monstrous character so much complexity. For instance, look how he sprawls with his feet up on the table in marked contrast to Lockly’s neat posture. The episode is so jam-packed with perfect, seeming improvisational choices like this it would be easy to write a whole book on the subject. I would love to have the opportunity to express the depth of my admiration to Steven Keats, but sadly Mr. Keats committed suicide in 1994 at the terribly young age of 48. It is a great loss to all of us.

The series has many remarkable performances (see “Character Studies 12: Five Great Guest Appearances”), but to me Steven Keats and Albert Paulsen stand out from the rest and deserve their own spotlight. The cliché is “a perfect storm”, and normally I avoid clichés like … clichés, but this time it fits perfectly. “The Shootout” is a rare combination of great writing, emotional intensity, and beautiful performances.