Archive for the ‘Life Lessons’ Category

LIFE LESSONS No. 5: It All Comes Down to Love.

October 21, 2013

The Fix
A Coffin For Starsky

I leave the most important life lesson to the last, the lesson for me that is the heart of the series and the most durable and extraordinary legacy for a police procedural. And that is love – what it is, how it grows and sustains, and how it is expressed. The English language is both elastic and encompassing but let’s face it, there’s a terrible lack of synonyms for the most important word of all. Love for a child, love of life, falling in love, love for the perfect cheeseburger – love has so many degrees and variations it’s impossible to cram it all into a single word. But love is, in fact, the most important lesson I have ever learned from this series and something that informs me to this day.

Love is what sets Starsky & Hutch apart from the hundreds of other cops shows, most of which are predicated on either the individual as iconoclast, particularly in the 1970s, filled to the brim with conspicuous loners such as Baretta, Columbo and Kojack, or the Group Effort, a jumble of disparates who somehow become an effective, if eccentric team by pooling their separate strengths. Other famous duos – from Batman and Robin and Holmes and Watson to The Streets of San Francisco among many others, and a dozen of male-female alliances from The Thin Man to McMillan and Wife, play off the uneven distribution of power, the upstart assistant, clash of generations, the entertaining friction between differences. But Starsky and Hutch are a partnership of equals. This is more difficult to present and harder to sustain: in the absence of a power struggle or cute opposites, the interaction can be more intense and hermetic. Yes, they are presented quite differently, both physically and in terms of their habits. There’s a lot of both comedic and poignant material to be found in their different approaches the details of life, such as Starsky’s love of his car and Hutch’s healthy diet. But this is superficial, and the bickering and competitiveness that arises from those minor differences both amplify their affection for one another (because it allows them to mock-battle, both a life-saving way of decompressing and allowing for amusement in an often depressing world) and, in a way, distract them from it (because dependency, and as well the fear of loss, is as scary to them as it would be to us). We tend to see two as a one, two halves of a whole, and that can have uneasy connotations. “Starsky & Hutch”, in its finest episodes, doesn’t care how uneasy anyone is. Sometimes you get the feeling the series, as a whole, is daring you to redefine what it is to love. Or maybe it is more accurate to say they are daring themselves to define love in a way many people privately wish it to be. In the mid 1970s the idea of so-called heroic friendship had more or less been erased from popular culture. The ancient Greeks understood it, Shakespeare too, although a lot of it is mired in a bunch of baloney about the purity of a world without women and the ever-precarious instability of men whose political and social aims will most certainly destroy their relationship, as Shakespeare says in “Coriolanus”:

O World, thy slippery turns! Friends now fast sworn,
Whose double bosoms seems to wear one heart,
Whose hours, whose bed, whose meal and exercise
Are still together, who twin, as ’twere, in love
Unseparable, shall within this hour,
On a dissension of a doit, break out to bitterest enmity.

Whose bed, mind you, prompting guffaws today, sadly. In the 1970s, much like the decades before, male friendship had lost both intensity and purpose. It wasn’t seen as necessary or seemly. You can chart the deflation of overt affection in every aspect of culture and in daily life. The rise of a psychologically based model of human existence brought with it not only a paralyzing fear of homosexuality but a narrow definition of what it meant to be a real man, and that definition did not include making oneself vulnerable to a friend. Affectionate hand-holding of the Victorian men was quickly replaced, in a few short decades, by a stiff pat on the back. “Starsky & Hutch” had no modern template, nothing like it had been seen before on television (rarely in any other medium either). Series creator William Blinn wrote the series primarily, I think, as a way of capitalizing on the zeitgeist of counter-culturalism, basically youthful, idealistic cops free from the rigid rules of the older generation. Laudable, yes, but the relationship itself soon becomes as important, or even more so, than the storylines or even the revolutionary social aims. Credit to this goes almost entirely to Glaser and Soul, honest, intelligent and fearless actors who took a great premise and made it greater.

In “The Fix”, Hutch is kidnapped and tortured by a gangster determined to find the whereabouts of his enslaved mistress. The gangster’s minions shoot Hutch full of heroin in order to coerce the information, but Hutch’s courageous leap to freedom results in Starsky hustling him into a safe place to detox. The grimy, searing details – sweat and violence, dirty rooms and panicky fear for a vanished girl – provide the necessary masculine props allowing both men to safely show not only an emotional bond but a loving physical one as well. The tables are turned in “A Coffin For Starsky”, in which Starsky is injected with a poison for unknown reasons, and together Starsky and Hutch must find the antidote and the motive for the crime before time runs out. Both extreme situations allowed writers and actors to express themselves without being accused of sentimentality, overreaction, or worse. Both episodes use a syringe welded by a homicidal thug, both acts of violence have more than a whiff of sexual sadism. Both Starsky and Hutch are taken by surprise at night, in the privacy of their homes. Even the ostensible motive for both actions is similar: it is love, or a twisted version of it (Ben Forest wants his girl back, Professor Jennings is grieving his beloved son). Both Starsky and Hutch are dehumanized, abstracted, used and thrown away: Starsky as reprisal, Hutch as a means to an end. In both episodes the uninjured one of the pair is in fact suffering more grievously, in the role of anguished caretaker. In both episodes, the injured strikes out on his own in a heroically selfless attempt to solve the problem, Hutch tracking down his old snitch and Starsky ignoring orders to stay put and following Hutch up the stairs to shoot Bellamy on the rooftop. Ironically, both initially make matters worse in doing so. Mickey is a pawn for the thugs and Bellamy’s death, while saving Hutch’s life, makes the discovery of an antidote nearly impossible. It soon becomes clear only together can they solve the crime and bring the criminal to justice, and in so doing repair the damage each has suffered. It might have been easier to emphasize the curative power of vengeance and have Hutch seek retribution for Starsky’s near-fatal attack and the other way around, but both Hutch in “The Fix” and Starsky in “Coffin” actually bully their way into the situation (both half-dead) when common sense says they should not. The love relationship, therefore, becomes allegorical: only by joining together can we ever hope to hold back the darkness of this evil world.

In the earlier two episodes, there is a kind of literal saving of a life. In “Gillian” the saving is metaphorical: Hutch’s girl is discovered to be a prostitute in the employ of the Grossmans, a mother-and-son criminal enterprise. Threatening to leave, Gillian is killed, and Starsky and Hutch must avenge her death and, in doing so, salvage themselves. But first, they must go through it. Together they travel through a howling firestorm of grief that is as terrible as anything ever filmed, made more painful because at the very heart of it is shame. They both know, on some level, investigating the Grossmans has made them unwitting instigators of this tragedy. (We will see this again in “Starsky’s Lady”, which has a nearly identical scene of shame and grief, Terry having been shot as a direct consequence of being Starsky’s girlfriend, except that it is quiet and deflated while this one is explosive and violent.)

This series doesn’t shy away from the complications of love either. As I mentioned before, the constant quarreling underscores, in my opinion, an itch of dread. By slapping each other away both can assure themselves that they are able to exist apart from one another. I’m not like him, the other can say. I don’t do those annoying things. The paltry list of differences are all silly and domestic in nature, half-invented or at least exaggerated anyway. In a sense Starsky and Hutch, as ultimate good in a bad world, are enveloped in a kind of nimbus as toxic as it is morally transcendent: they are indivisible, but indivisibility has its dark side, which “Gillian” illustrates. A second’s self-conscious fear of loss causes Hutch to freeze during an alley shootout, rendered helpless. Because this comes on the heels of Hutch proclaiming his deep feelings for Gillian she is implicated in his inability to cover Starsky. “For the first time I got to thinking …” he says. Then – and this is my interpretation, he actually does not finish the thought, but instead says, “I could have gotten you killed!” What Hutch got to thinking was if something happened to me I would never see Gillian again. This split second fracture of his bond with Starsky, his prime loyalty, is enough to endanger them both. “I didn’t work the way we work!” he cries out. It seems that the cosmos has similar feelings on the subject, because Gillian is permanently removed. I can’t be the only one to think that if either or both were to marry and have children – the most natural, perhaps even most desirable course of events for these young men – the partnership would be diluted beyond all recognition.

“Starsky and Hutch” is famous for many good reasons: handsome and charismatic stars, the flashy Torino, about eighty percent great scripts, a naturalistic and compassionate look at crime and punishment in the American city. But for me it’s love that distinguishes this series, love best defined by what it is not. It’s not brotherly or collegiate, it’s not made up of shared experiences like the intense bond of soldiers in wartime, although it holds within it all these elements. But it’s the very first, and last, lesson I take from this series. Love is all that matters.


LIFE LESSONS No. 4: It Pays to Keep An Open Mind.

March 12, 2013

The Vampire
The Psychic
The Set-Up

Open-mindedness is a central theme in the series – both inside it (the characters) and outside it (the viewers). In my view, the series has undergone a rare alchemical transformation, transcending its original intention as cheaply produced entertainment to becoming a conduit for unexpressed or suppressed dreams, ambitions, and aspirations. Those who set out to deliberately make something like this, something timeless and resilient, will always fail. It’s always a happy accident, falling at the supremely personal intersection between general social disparagement and very specific personal desire. And it’s solely to do with “low” culture, denigrated by society at large, with no perceived cultural value. As well, the moment of recognition must be within one’s own private sphere. The child in the 1950s, fixed on Superman as savior and wish-fulfillment in one, thinks, as he breathlessly reads a ten-cent comic: no one in the world feels how I do. In this way, something decried by teachers, parents and social philosophers as intellect-rotting dime store junk becomes instead a life-saving, life-defining cultural touchstone. “Starsky & Hutch” suffered this categorization too, dismissed much in the way “Star Trek” was dismissed a decade earlier, Marvel comics the decade before that, Sherlock Holmes before that. Ephemera becomes eternal, if you have an open mind.

Starsky and Hutch are at their best when exiled to the margins, either because their integrity has come under scrutiny, they have been warned off or threatened, or when false assumptions have been made by everyone around them. There are many instances when Dobey or some other superior makes a presumptive or easy decision that doesn’t sit well – in “Snowstorm”, “The Committee” and “Strange Justice” they’re forced to prove a fellow officer is crooked, they’re accused of overreacting in “Iron Mike” and “Survival”, accused of being on the take (“Starsky and Hutch are Guilty”, “Rosey Malone” and others) or capable of murder and conspiracy (“Hutchinson for Murder One”, “Targets”). Shunted to the outside, stung by criticism, these are the times when they reveal their most laudable quality, in my opinion: their flexible, creative mindset.

In “The Set-Up”, Starsky and Hutch are abandoned by the state, their morality questioned. The combination of fury and indignation doesn’t result in disordered thinking or useless acts of violent retribution, as it might with your average person. Instead, it results in perfect clarity: they believe Nash’s improbable story (simultaneously, too: note the quick mutual glances while Nash talks, affirming the bullshit meter hasn’t gone off for either of them). They doggedly reserve judgment throughout increasingly bizarre events, keep a clear head, shrug off naysayers, refuse to be led astray, and in the end are proven right. This open-mindedness is seen in extreme receptivity (both have an uncanny ability to see the truth among the lies; we see this in “The Hostages”, “Lady Blue”, and the “Targets” trilogy), the cleansing effects of moral outrage and the freedom that comes with exile. Of course, gun-battles, car chases, heroic deeds and nefarious criminals was not ever going to be a part of my life. But their example sure came in handy when making my way through the maze of political fanaticism, social hazards and professional misdeeds, and maybe it was the same for you.

Both Starsky and Hutch are great role models when it comes to the unexpected benefits of nonpartisan thinking; amusingly, rarely at the same time, which means one is always in an entertaining state of eye-rolling impatience (and thus proving the usefulness of the partnership). A long-running joke is belief in the supernatural, with Starsky usually the credulous one and Hutch the realist. In “The Bounty Hunter”, there’s a marvelous conversation in which Starsky and Huggy talk about a book they both read in which “Bigfoot is supposed to be a creature from outer space left behind to spy on us” and Hutch interrupts with a perfectly dry “I thought everybody knew that.” In “The Vampire”, Starsky is quick to latch on to the idea of vampirism as a motive for murder while Hutch, true to form, thinks his partner is a moron. But Starsky’s open-mindedness leads them to a closer understanding of the case and its tragic villain. Starsky doesn’t actually think vampires exist. The garlic was mostly a joke on Hutch, with a tiny bit of you-never-know pragmatism, which is separate from actually believing. The scene in which Starsky regales Hutch with “facts” about vampires with a pile of books on his lap is telling: in “The Plague” he repeats improbable stories of longevity gleaned from National Geographic and relates dubious (i.e. wrong) statistics in “Las Vegas Strangler” and “Jo-Jo”. Starsky relies on books for his wacky information while Hutch, withering rationalist, has only common sense. It’s obvious which is a better navigational tool – the rational almost always wins out – and this rejection of authority (just look at them – scruffy hippies, basically) is summed up in this basic tenet: trust your instincts, don’t follow the herd, and you will win in the end.

In “The Psychic” it’s Hutch who is quick to accept the truth behind the visions of Joe Collins. Hutch’s excellent memory is helpful here; he remembers details about the Atlantic City kidnapping and the role Collins plays, and so doesn’t dismiss this “magic” outright. He keeps an open mind. Both have a healthy distrust of orthodoxy: Hutch pursues what is essentially an alternative lifestyle (jogging, macrobiotic food, meditation) while Starsky also skirts convention with his Heathcliffe-like brooding romanticism and stubborn proletarianism. Both are a mystery to their family members (Hutch’s ex-wife can barely keep a lid on her derision, and Nick thinks his older brother is a selfish do-gooder, and the dangerous lifestyle ensures neither has a long-term relationship – Terry excepted, possibly). Humorless Bureaucrats (good guys) and Smarmy Big Shots (bad guys) are both mired in convention, both must be outsmarted and insulted as much as possible. In fact, both Starsky and Hutch have a kind of Puckish invincibility. Youth is freedom, masculinity is power, and the partnership is the ultimate safety net. And so, in “The Psychic”, as in “The Vampire” and “The Set-Up”, we learn this: that which seems outlandish or impossible is neither. Name-calling and bullying must be ignored. Sincerity is everything. And above all, don’t make up your mind until you have proof, and until then, anything is possible.

LIFE LESSONS No. 3: You Think You Know People? You Don’t.

December 2, 2012

Crying Child
Death in a Different Place
Deadly Imposter

The appearances-mean-nothing rule is best exemplified by Starsky and Hutch themselves, as they are told repeatedly, with disgust bordering on admiration, they “don’t look like cops” (“Death Ride”, “Omaha Tiger”, “Terror on the Docks”, and said with a sigh by Flashy Floyd in “The Specialist”), meaning they look more like criminals than officers. Before Starsky and Hutch’s generation, police officers were popularly seen as uniform-wearing, rule-following humorless authoritarian figures who have long lost any fellow-feeling for those they encounter on the street, the very opposite of Starsky and Hutch. And since looking past the obvious is the bedrock of a good detective, Starsky and Hutch are adept at seeing an evil heart nestled in a gangster’s Armani suit and a wholesome one hidden by a stripper’s tassels. But when simple reversals aren’t so simple, when black and white blends into shades of gray, things get interesting – and informative.

Sometimes it seems as if Starsky and Hutch are pretty much alone, the last good guys in a world gone bad. “Who do we trust?” Starsky asks Hutch in the pilot episode, and Hutch replies, “The same people we always do. Us.” Unsaid, but implied: and no one else. This comment, repeated in slight variations throughout the run of the series, has become a treasured aphorism of fans. Yet even though Hutch’s remark shows how intense the partnership bond is, it is also is an acknowledgement of a kind of curse. Friends, allies and lovers are often (always?) people who are dishonest, morally weak, agenda-driven, and worst of all, doomed as a direct consequence of coming too close to the gravitational pull of that partnership.

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned while watching “Starsky and Hutch” are the perils of expectation and sentiment, and what happens when the desire to see things in a certain light blinds you to the truth of the matter. I remember most vividly learning this in the guise of faux-friend John Colby in “Deadly Imposter.” Here, nostalgia is blinding as John Colby plays on his past friendship by slathering on the charm, playing the victim and appealing to their strong sense of loyalty and justice. Starsky and Hutch allow themselves, with an endearing lack of hesitation, to be misled in the cruelest way as Colby uses their talents to bring him in direct contact with his elusive prey. I often find Colby’s greasy earnestness flitting into my mind whenever someone lays on the charm a little too thick, or when long-vanished people suddenly reappear in need of a favor, and in my line of work there have been many Deadly Imposters putting an arm around my shoulder, anxious to remind me of the good old days.

It may seem elementary, but “appearances are deceiving” is something many people – myself included – are forced to relearn time and time again. A good example is “The Crying Child” when Starsky and Hutch are told by an emotional and fragile woman that her ex-husband is responsible for the abuse suffered by her young son. She’s not only believable, but the long-held assumption that women are incapable of violence against their own children (a concept abandoned in this post-Susan Smith world) works to her advantage. Her ex-husband plays into these prejudices with his poorly controlled temper and imposing presence. He also doesn’t help his own case by reacting to their accusations by yelling, “I don’t need two punk cops telling me how to run my own family!” I still remember how it felt to learn the “bad” guy was good and the “good” guy was bad, and that shame has stuck with me since. As well, there’s an additional element of religion being used as both diversionary tactic and self-justification. And so we are forced to ask ourselves: how many times have we been tempted to accept something because it conforms to our assumptions, and how can we confront those latent prejudices?

You have to be made of stone not to be moved by “Death in a Different Place”, the story of decorated detective John Blaine’s secret life. Yes, the Tragic Homosexual is now considered a shopworn character, a negative stereotype many are anxious to leave behind, and rightly so. But when this episode aired in 1977 many if not most viewers at the time would have been mighty shocked, and hopefully shocked right out of their comfy preconceptions. While it would have been vastly better to have Blaine as a recurring character, making this revelation even more profound, the revelation of his private suffering nevertheless carries great social, political, and emotional weight. Again, nostalgia and assumption play an important role. Because Blaine seemed fine – wife, career, what I imagine would be a gruff, ultra-manly self-containment – his stability is taken at face value. And so the crushing realization Starsky faces – and all of us will face eventually, to one degree or another – that we have failed as a confidant, a friend, and a colleague.

One of the best things about actors who are as honest and diligent as Glaser and Soul is their determination to create characters as vulnerable as they are valiant. We can see, for example, how Hutch allows sentiment to obscure the truth, while Starsky simply blocks out what he can’t deal with. And the hard-won insight from these errors can be ours, if we pay attention. At least I did, years ago. And this is what stuck with me, all these years: skepticism is healthy, cynicism is not. Do your research. Look below the surface. You think you know people? You don’t, not by a long shot.

LIFE LESSONS No. 2: Nothing can make injustice just but mercy.

November 13, 2012

The Heroes
Losing Streak

Where I live a leafy residential street abruptly gives way to outreach centers, homeless shelters, recycling depots, and crowds of poor and often drug-addicted and mentally ill people. I’m comfortable here, due in no small part to the vivid scenes in “Starsky and Hutch” which showed me how the jumble of street life, with its colorful and sometimes wearisome diversity, is not something to be ignored, dismissed, disliked or avoided, but rather embraced, and treated with compassion and understanding. It may sound trite or simplistic but this series taught me as a young person that all people deserve respect, especially the most vulnerable members of our society. This is not as easy or clear-cut as it sounds. Starsky and Hutch aren’t cardboard Samaritans and they aren’t above brutal violence. They can be bullies, they can make mistakes. There are certain episodes trapped in the sexist assumptions of its day. But consistently throughout the series are moments of nothing less than transcendent morality, even in the smallest moments. I recall those heart-stopping moments, every one. Hutch giving the raving prophet a dollar in the pilot episode. Starsky proposing to his dying girlfriend even though her acceptance – or rejection – will bring him nothing but pain. The mutual decision to quit the force in acknowledgement of their own mistakes following the death of a “nobody”, their informant.

Starsky and Hutch themselves are consistently portrayed as being outsiders, even quasi-hippies, a far more potent political identity when the series was conceived in 1974-ish, which makes me wonder if younger viewers and fans miss the powerful implication of this statement. They are seen as ill-mannered, lowbrow, anti-authoritarian. They dress like bums, they drink beer, they go to disreputable places. This absence of social gloss is nothing less than symbolic of their genuine honor and goodness, a fact emphasized by the cultured villains in their luxury homes. Here, courtesy and social norms have nothing to do with morality, just as wealth and status have nothing to do with actual worth. Vic Rankin in “Losing Streak” is maybe the most pathetic character Starsky and Hutch attempt to help (Ted McDermott in “The Action” being a very close second; coincidentally, or maybe not, both these men have fallen victim not to drugs – the scourge, so some would have us believe, of the human race – but to gambling). Weak, dissolute, agent of his own misfortunes, he rejects their help and makes a series of life-threatening blunders. And yet it’s not just professional obligation that drives Starsky and Hutch to help him – in fact, as if to underline this, there’s little sign of the police station or Dobey or any other institutional scaffolding at all. Rather, they’re compelled to help, persist in helping, because of a moral imperative. Not only is he salvageable because he is a human being, he is also a husband, perhaps most importantly he is an artist, whose talents must be protected at all costs.

You think it can’t get lower than Vic? It does, his old friend Belinda, once a successful singer and now a down-and-out heroin addict and prostitute, proves it. Even though she betrays Vic for a measly hundred bucks, she is still seen as someone worthy of compassion and help. Which Hutch does, and in a frankly astonishing way: he gives money knowing it will be used for drugs. Relief must be had in this world for those who suffering, and it’s not always what the vast majority of people want it to be. This is also illustrated when Hutch inhabits the identity of the man he despises in order to give succor to deranged Tommy in the final moments “Vendetta”. These moments of mercy may be troubling, they may even be ethically ambiguous, and they were certainly beyond the pale during the original run of the series. But that’s when the series excels. It shows us how complicated life is.

A vastly more typical black-and-white view of society is exemplified in Chris Phelps, the reporter who tags along with Starsky and Hutch in “The Heroes”. She initially comes off as a fire-breathing liberal, shocked by what she perceives as the seamy truth of police brutality and staunchly on the side of the powerless individual. This satire of well-meaning goody-goodies who fall apart when the going gets tough is hilarious to watch and accurate too. Her world view is simplistic, conservative; basically, it is her certainty that brings her down. In philosophical terms this is a battle between absolute and relative morality, and absolutism comes away the loser here. Chris Phelps ends up demanding – begging, really – that Starsky and Hutch kill a suspect when it isn’t necessary or right to do so. I remember watching this as an impressionable young person and filing it in the back of my mind. I remember thinking: there is always a choice.

“Vendetta” is the most troubling and perhaps most ambitious example of transcendent morality. Here, we meet the manipulative Artie Solkin, who thinks of himself as a kind of omnipotent Peter Pan with his colony of lost boys. Reprehensible? Yes. Criminal? Definitely. Truly evil? Not necessarily. Despite his terrible crimes – and also inextricably linked to them – he is capable of protective, dare I say loving attachments to his “boys”. His protégée Tommy is similarly shaded in grey – a mass murderer, he is also the victim of severe and untreated mental illness. In fact, other than the truly wealthy, courteous and socially powerful mafia-types like James Gunther and Ben Forest whose sole motive is money, nearly every villain in the Starsky and Hutch canon from street thugs like Artie to deranged killers like Commander Jim to the various drug addicts, sex trade workers and ten-buck informants, there is always room for a quality (sometimes a small quality) of mercy.

LIFE LESSONS No. 1: Power Corrupts, Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.

October 30, 2012

The Committee
Iron Mike
Murder Ward

In these three episodes, and the series as a whole, murderers, rapists and con men are not the most rotten of criminals, no matter how destructive: rather, beware the influence-peddling, politically astute, wealthy and influential pillars of society who have lost their humanity through greed and ambition. In this series, corruption is everywhere. In your political representatives, your mortgage broker, your lawyer, the police officer you run to for help. I learned this early on as I watched, and actual real life has not proven this wrong.

The political cynicism of the series is seen vividly in “The Committee”, a brutal story of Starsky and Hutch seeking justice for the victims of two rapists while being hindered by their own people. Atypically, in this episode they are attacked from both sides, above and below, accused by a uniformed officer of being too lenient, and implicated by the brass in a series of vigilante killings. Vigilantism is not only tolerated by the system but actively encouraged by its most senior members, as in police veteran Lt. Fargo, head of Internal Affairs. Fargo is identical to any board member of any institution, commercial or political, with influence and leverage (even the name of his murderous thugs – “The Committee” – is a cynical take on business as usual). Fargo not only undermines the justice system, he seeks to destroy Starsky and Hutch by setting them up to take the fall for complicated reasons of his own (he could have his pick of “deserving” criminals, but he chooses those who are directly being investigated by Starsky and Hutch).

The opposite of Fargo is Mike Ferguson, whose stellar career is due to a cozy relationship with gangster Matt Coyle. In return for looking the other way, Ferguson gets the goods on hundreds of small-time crooks. Like Matwick and Fargo, Ferguson is proud of himself and refuses to acknowledge he’s part of any systemic problem. “I may not always go by the books, but I get results,” he says. Again, iniquity is compounded because it comes from both sides of the equation: Coyle also believes he is making the world a better place, insisting no one “was never bought or bribed.”

All this I watched avidly, learning. And by far the element remaining foremost in my mind is the fact that all these guys had one thing in common: all fervently believed the suffering of the individual is necessary for the rectification of a larger problem. In other words, it’s okay to inflict pain if you want to preserve order. It’s a mantra repeated by results-driven social architects throughout history. It’s why police shoot demonstrators. It’s why internment camps were invented. It’s why chimpanzees languish in cages in laboratories, awaiting death. And it’s turned me into a life-long skeptic of fanaticism of any sort. Fargo, standing before a whimpering, helpless Garner, says, “(shooting Garner) is … righting a wrong. Look upon it as a necessary evil. A greater good. This man’s life to save all the lives that would be forfeited if he were to continue to twist the law to protect the guilty scum he calls clients.” This rationale implies justice is in the hands of the individual rather than a system of law. It negates mercy, and it negates empathy. Matt Coyle insists he turned over “animals and hard cases” thus making the world a better place. In Murder Ward, Dr. Matwick delivers a passionate, self-serving speech explaining his psycho-chemical experiments. “My conscience is quite clear. The work I’m doing is of utmost importance … a few lives is a small price to pay.” He then says, “Criminal psychotics, all of them. They were quite invaluable to my research. Their lives were their only contribution to this world.”

Directly or indirectly, all three men flourished through the willful ignorance of those around them. Responsible for the death of two patients at another hospital, Matwick’s deeds were hushed up by government agencies; he was moved to the west coast and allowed to continue his work preying on the most vulnerable people. This would mean, if he published papers, hired staff, was investigated and then exonerated, that hundreds of people knew what he was doing. We see examples of this everywhere we look, from Jerry Sandusky to Wall Street investment firms. The only difference between life and television, as Nellie disgustedly remarks in “The Committee”, is that on television the bad guys get caught and in real life most evils go unchecked. And yes, here too: in all three episodes, Starsky and Hutch are triumphant in taking down the bad guys, and are helped in the crucial final moments by the right-hand man (and woman) the corrupt official has used, abused, and takes for granted. In “The Committee”, it’s Ginger, Fargo’s sometime girlfriend who turns against him. In “Iron Mike” Starsky and Hutch very cleverly enlist the help of Coyle’s lieutenant Johnny Lonigan by arousing his wounded pride. In “Murder Ward” Nurse Bycroft finally has enough of her boss’s cruel ways when she allows herself to see the anguish in Starsky’s eyes. I can still recall the thrill of sedition as each one of these characters breaks the chain of servitude and does the right thing, and vowed to myself that I too, in a similar situation, would act. I suppose this is the final part of the lesson in morality: evil exists and always will, but it is fed not by the fire of its host, but by the indifference of those around him.

Through a Glass, Darkly: Life Lessons from Unexpected Places

October 29, 2012

If the majority of hardcore Starsky and Hutch fans first fell in love with the series some time in those impressionable ages between eight and sixteen, then valuable information about how the world really worked was absorbed between the gunshots and car chases. Those years are magical: we are open to discovering things independent of – or perhaps even in direct opposition to – our parents and siblings. We are just gaining the emotional and analytical awareness to judge something as important to us alone. Everything is intense, personal; we are able to form bonds with books, art and music with an intensity nearly impossible later in life.

Depending on your socio-economic, cultural or personal background, the series was either the sole beacon of sanity or part of a network of crucial pre-adult signifiers (choose your own: S.E. Hinton novels, Star Wars, the death of a grandparent, an influential teacher). While imperfect, occasionally inconsistent or faulty, “Starsky and Hutch” can be a solid and reliable template of how to be in this world. Although a successful adult now, I suffered severe neglect as a child, and was unsafe and isolated. I found solace in my own imagination. “Starsky and Hutch” taught me – and mostly likely you, too – important life lessons.

Consistently cynical, often enlightened and always humane, the series hid its politics beneath the beauty of its two stars and the shiny chrome finish of its cars, guns and pretty girls. The next five posts will outline the Life Lessons the series has to teach us and the episodes which most strongly reflect those ideas. I will leave the best and most powerful for the last and start with something incredibly valuable for anyone negotiating their way through this troubling, complex world: the failure of The Institution to protect and serve us well.