Posts Tagged ‘70s TV show’

Let’s Revisit “Photo Finish”

August 24, 2015

Starsky and Hutch mingle with the beautiful people to find a killer when Starsky’s girlfriend finds trouble after possibly taking a picture of the suspect at a party.

Marcie Fletcher: Brit Lind, Basil Monk: Graham Jarvis, Greta Wren/ Dora Pruitt/Who Knows: Sally Kirkland, Paula: Lois Areno, Nicole Monk: Shera Danese, Landlady: Fran Ryan, John Reinhart: Hank Brandt, Troy Braddock: Jayson Kane, Secretary: Anne O’Donnell. Written By: Robert E Swanson and Michael Wagner, Directed By: Sutton Roley.


I have watched this episode many times and the more I see it the more extreme and more mixed my response. I like and dislike it in ever-increasing intensity, and the fact that this episode has the ability to do that is at the heart, I think, of the magic of “Starsky & Hutch” as a series. The more attention you pay to it, the more it reveals. If you want to see “Photo Finish” as essentially a piece of classic narrative (beta male kills alpha male in a spike of sexual jealousy) that’s fine. If you want to use this episode as an example of how the series has declined over its run, that’s fine too. Both these approaches do work. But this is the episode that will haunt you if you let it. It’s not as obviously campy as “Dandruff” and not an archetypal crime-drama like “Strange Justice”. It floats somewhere in the middle, a police procedural that has the thematic ambitions of The Great Gatsby – it puts forth the notion that the American pursuit of happiness has decayed into simple desire for gratification, that wealth is ultimately corrupting, that love and fidelity have lost their meaning, and that these terrible and sad facts can only be understood through the eyes of an outsider, someone who may desire what he sees (Starsky) but who understands that it is merely a façade (Hutch). The Gatsby correlation, genuinely deserved for 95% of this episode, crashes and burns in the last 5%, as the tag merely reinforces that wealth and status – or the imitation of it – is laudable and admirable, a reward for its own sake. This is why “Photo Finish” is so haunting. It constructs its purpose very carefully, but that construction is revealed to be both flimsy and expendable as the writer’s hand abruptly crumples it up and throws it away. Whether this is a forfeiture of the narrative or the clever upending of our assumptions is left to you to decide.

There’s something timelessly intriguing about outsiders (in this case tough street smart cops) infiltrating the nutty world of celebrity-obsessed American aristocracy. And I like the fact that the answer to the case lies in a tiny technical detail (the close-up of a photo). But what I have a problem with is the fact that from the start we see Starsky and Hutch tripped up or made to look foolish. Mostly little things, and centered around Starsky’s tuxedo and the implication that he is either too clumsy for, too unlucky for, or somehow doesn’t deserve, whatever it represents (social power, I presume). It’s irritating because it’s so patently unfair, and unfunny too, to see him subjected to such embarrassment. It’s not just that pesky rental tag that has all those ladies and gentlemen laughing, but the frog toy that rebounds into Hutch’s face, the brief second when the two detectives enter the News World foyer and go the wrong way, the whole doorbell stupidity in which they repeatedly get the wrong apartment. As well, they are belittled by their suspects and witnesses, who either shrug off their questions while leaving (Marcie and Nicole Monk), blatantly lie to their faces (Basil Monk and Dora Pruitt) or keep them waiting (at the News World offices). There is very little menace or breathtaking flashes of power, and the result is they are reactive rather than proactive, distracted by the specter of wealth displayed by the various spoiled, quirky characters around them. Yes, their motives for going to this party in the first place are good – Starsky up for an adventure, and Hutch anxious to make the acquaintance of the one “with the legs”, curiosity and libido always admirable – but times have changed. Only a year or two ago they were counterculture heroes whose youth, socially fueled anger and cynicism marked them as lefty hippie-types. Here, no one ever says “you two don’t look like cops”. Instead, dressed in freshly rented tuxedos, they seem a little too at ease with the kind of people they once viewed with distrust.

So here we go, watching Starsky and Hutch enter high society, with string quartets, endless champagne and barely disguised kinks of the well-to-do. This is probably the first episode in the Fourth Season to fully exploit this new “softer” direction, and it’s as glossy as you’d expect it to be, with a curiously empty denouement and plenty of unanswered questions. The director’s stylish idiosyncrasies permeate every scene, adding some interesting layers to what could be seen as heading-into-the-80s blandness, although honestly, the few seconds of Paula, “the one with the legs” striding  purposefully toward Hutch at the party has so much erotic punch I am always caught off-guard, sure that this is some kind of intense foreshadowing of something (nope, it’s just director Sutton Roley having fun). There are fine parts to this episode, particularly the unusual female assassin and the imaginative, dangerous idea of someone getting killed in a roomful of people. As well the photography is a good aspect to the story although it isn’t explored as fully as it might be (I wonder if Swanson and Wagner were inspired by the film “Blow-Up”; similarities include a glimpse into wealthy eccentrics, the art scene, sexual shenanigans, disappearing negatives, and a surreal lack of resolution). I don’t mind the mature sexual content but I do mind the stereotypes: the bespectacled villain whose frail appearance implies a weak character, the amorous “neglected” wife, the egocentric artist whose work is impenetrably weird. It would have been interesting to change it up somehow.

Sutton, You Dirty Dog: note the salacious slow pan from Starsky’s feet to his legs and up his midsection as Starsky stands in front of the mirror trying on a tuxedo, which seems as close as mainstream television ever gets to pornography. Only better.

In the church scene commencing “Terror on the Docks”, Starsky is odd man out. Here, it’s Hutch who has no business being in the clothing store watching his partner try on tuxedos. So why is he here? For the sheer enjoyment of providing commentary?

When Hutch strips his jacket off, revealing the imposing gun in its holster, the clerk gives a most delightfully subtle double-take. It’s safe to assume Starsky is likewise armed, that both are either on their way to work or just getting off shift. If so, how Starsky manages to resist taking a shot at Hutch, who’s been making cracks about how his partner resembles “a waiter”, and that he’d look good in “Lounge-Lizard Monthly”, is a mystery. He does make a comment about how Hutch looks like a “small tip” in his tuxedo – both a waiter joke and, I think, something murkier – which I think is pretty funny if somewhat oblique.

Despite his disparaging remarks, Hutch is in his glory in this party. He gets to demean his partner, play the superior one, and insult the upper class while mingling with the cultural elite he feels, secretly, are his equals. He also has a great line: Starsky comments that the rich are “really different” and Mr. Cool replies, “sure, they pay less taxes.” Later, he advises Starsky to “suck in your cheeks and take tiny steps” in order to fit in.

Why are Starsky and Hutch allowed at this party in the first place? A photographer at a society event should never bring a date, and adding someone else is beyond the pale.

This is an episode featuring an artist, apparently the biggest thing “since Warhol”, but why all the cheap insults about modern art? Starsky and Hutch gaze at a small sculpture consisting of two cans. Basil Monk, after staring at the sculpture with a peculiar expression on his face which could be greed or morbid excitement or some combination of the two, says with undisguised scorn, “My wife paid twenty thousand (for that)”, a remark which only serves to reinforce the general fear of middle-class American society that conceptual or modern art is fraudulent and ridiculous, and the people who make it (i.e. Troy Braddock) are pompous twits who are better off dead. Writers, you’re better than that.

Braddock (referring to himself in the third person) is portrayed as a blowhard and an unrepentant womanizer. He pulls down the curtain to reveal his latest “masterpiece” which either looks like the crappiest poster in the world or a contemporary John Currin portrait. Currin really is the biggest thing since Warhol and it’s fun to think that Braddock’s moony-eyed reclining lady is a similarly creepy commentary on the insular idiocy of the rich and beautiful.

Troy Braddock is shot. Hutch goes to the victim, Starsky goes to … the victim too. Why doesn’t he turn around and see who the shooter might be? Chances are good he could have glimpsed something. Instead, he wastes time watching Hutch check for a pulse.

A man is killed. What do Starsky and Hutch do? Talk passionately about the rip in Starsky’s tuxedo. I remember when, not too long ago, murder was a tragic event, a cause for righteous anger, even if the victim is unlikable or in the wrong. Remember the solemnity and dignity afforded low-life Packrat, in “Running” (Season Two) and Ginger in “Death Notice” (Season One)? In those instances, Starsky and Hutch felt a great deal for the marginalized and the lost. Where did that empathy go?

Marcie, following the shooting, is making a run for it in order to develop her now-precious photographs. Starsky, trying to hold her back, doesn’t seem particularly surprised by her selfishness; rather, he asks for her help in a quiet and professional way and continues to have a relationship of sorts with her. Throughout this episode Marcie is every bit as morally deficient as the Monks, with dollar signs dancing in her eyes. Her success as a photographer and the resulting fame is more important to her than justice. Starsky should call her on her total lack of humanity, but never does; in fact, in the troubling tag, her ambitions are celebrated.

Sutton, You Dirty Dog (Part 2): the hot dog lands in Starsky’s lap.

“A marriage counselor with a gun” and “an accountant with a gun,” are two phrases Starsky uses (here, and later in “The Groupie”). Of the two, Starsky might be far more cynical than Hutch regarding official institutions. He’s just quieter about it.

When Nicole Monk makes her sexual come-on to Starsky and Hutch, suggesting the desirability of their knees and openness to a threesome, Starsky and Hutch glance at each other’s knees with something like amusement. It’s nice to see this relaxed indifference to someone trying hard to be shocking; not only does it highlight their seen-it-all maturity, it echoes a joke earlier in the series when we see their willingness to both go over to Sally Hagen’s place for a similar reasons in “The Specialist”, and their later (admittedly ambiguous) declaration to Kira that it’s double or nothing (“Starsky vs. Hutch”).

The as-yet unnamed saboteur goes through Marcie’s negatives. Why make such a mess, ripping down strips and dashing jars on the floor? Wouldn’t nimble fingers make more sense?

It’s amusing when Reinhart demands they “drop the Farrah cover” because he has something more enticing. It’s a rare glimpse into contemporary culture this series usually avoids.

Among the unanswered questions in this episode – and there are a lot of them – is who called the police when Marcie’s apartment was broken into. And if a call was made to the police, why do Starsky and Hutch – homicide detectives – find out about this generic-looking break-and-enter in the first place, and why are there are no signs that other police officers have been there? Marcie yells, “What are you doing here, don’t you need a warrant to break down a door?” when she finds Starsky and Hutch in her apartment. Can police come into your house to investigate an obvious break-in and burglary when you are not home, and without permission? Starsky’s excuse was the door was unlocked. Was Marcie’s response to call her attorney a good one, and if it was, why did Starsky and Hutch feel they had the right to physically restrain her from calling that attorney?

The mystery here is not why the saboteur/Assassin is so desperate to find the photograph negatives in the first place. Of course she is looking to see whether or not Marcie accidentally got a good photograph of her and therefore could link her to the murder, even though she was in disguise at that party and would not be easily recognized as a known criminal. Since Starsky and Hutch went through the photographs already and talked to all the witnesses and staff, she would know she was not on anybody’s radar at all even if, stupidly, she allowed herself to have a memorable interaction with a guest just prior to the shooting when she stuffed money down her blouse. The fact that the guest was a cop would make her actions, in hindsight, even less professional. (There is a lot of stuffing-into-bras in this episode, incidentally.) No, the larger mystery is why she shot Braddock when she did, with the photographer standing right in her line of sight with the camera directly aimed at her. I mean, come on. We see the photograph later when Marcie makes the blow-ups of “Not-so Adorable Dora” standing in full view with her tray and the silencer.

So we eventually find out that the Assassin knows she has been photographed at the moment of the murder. She suspects this might be the case, and so ransacking Marcie’s apartment seems sensible, but why attempt to run down Marcie in the car and kill her? It makes no sense at all, not from a logical standpoint and not from a technical one either, as professional hit men (and women) do not act in such impulsive, emotion-laden ways. They are studied and methodical. If Assassin wanted Marcie dead, she could have easily just hid in her apartment, waited for her to come home, and shot her with a silencer. Then she could have searched her for whatever negative was there.

Marcie complains when Hutch asks her to make an enlargement in her darkroom from the negative. Why does she still have the negative in her possession? Starsky made it clear it was police evidence and should be at the police lab. If nothing else, there are safer places to keep it than Marcie’s bra. Contact with perspiring skin would have ruined it in seconds.

Again, we see that Starsky is not outwardly upset at Marcie when she obstructs police business. Not only does she treat him poorly, she outright lies to him. She also assumes it was Starsky and Hutch who broke up her place. These aren’t the actions of a real girlfriend.

The poster of Robert Redford in Marcie’s apartment is distracting. One wonders, if she likes blond mustachioed guys, whether her swift urging of Hutch to come to the party with her and Starsky really is less innocent than it appears.

Note assistant director Eldon Burke’s turn as the silent patrolman Burke, assigned to keep an eye on Marcie.

Why does Starsky call Basil “Funk”? Does insulting your prime suspect by forgetting his name really aid in the questioning, or is Starsky letting his distaste of the man show too much, especially after the “gamey” comment?

Basil Monk doesn’t drive, it scares him “to death.” And yet he has no problem driving the police remote control car all over the table, symbolic, perhaps, of a man who is more comfortable around artifice than he is with reality, gleefully controlling the police. Writers Robert Swanson and Michael Wagner go for the easy insult when they present him as a cringing bow-tie-and-glasses nerd with a major virility deficit. Imagine how much more interesting it would be to play against our prejudices, rather than revel in them. This leads us to another mystery. Earlier in the episode Nicole Monk says she “learned the hard way” that her new husband was a dud in the sack. This doesn’t ring true, as you and I know within fifteen seconds of meeting him that Monk is an unpleasant, greedy, twisted man with zero charisma or romantic aptitude. So what exactly is “the hard way”? Is Nicole just exceptionally stupid, or is she trying to convince Starsky and Hutch that she married Basil Monk for love, or the potential of it, rather than simply for his money? Why bother with the lies as it’s so patently obvious she’s in this for the dough?

Harvey, Basil Monk’s butler, is constantly being ordered about. Contrast the symbolism of Basil telling Harvey to “show the gentlemen out” as the camera focuses on the cymbal-clapping monkey toy Basil winds up. The toy has the same yellow vest and dark arms Harvey has on.

“Greta” breezily says Troy Braddock was a “gorgeous man, particularly in extremis.” This must be a slip of the tongue – she more or less confesses she was there, because otherwise why would she use that phrase? (Unless she’s referencing photographs of the body, which she could not have seen either, something Marcie should have picked up on). And even if she found him so, or found the idea of a corpse romantic rather than repulsive, shouldn’t she keep that sort of thing to herself?

Starsky and Hutch appear to have wandered into the magic forest of the rich: not only do they attend a party in which cans are art, and artists are amoral rakes, and people who buy art are childish misfits with weird pastimes, but they now enter a wealthy publishing empire in which plants have names and publishers are murdered behind their desks.

The scene in the publishing house is perplexing on many levels. Why the loud construction, the dust flying, actors having to shout at each other over the din? One interpretation (although the cynic in me wonders if on-set carpenters were there already, prepping the soundstage for “Barnaby Jones”) is that it fits in with the modus operandi of Assassin, who now has twice used loud sound to mask the act of murder. Firstly the champagne cork, and now hammering and sawing. But again this is directly in conflict with what the secretary says, that Reinhardt comes in late and works all night. I can’t imagine there are many people in the building at that time, at best a security guard reading a magazine down in the lobby. The secretary has just come in when Starsky and Hutch arrive to question her, so this is what, 8:30-9 am? So Reinhart has probably been dead at least since midnight. So that noise plays no part in his death. Why, oh why, do writers Swanson and Wagner needlessly complicate the narrative in this way? All they had to do was have the scene take place at noon, with the secretary saying Mr. Reinhardt is in his office, attempt to phone him, get no answer, and then enter the office to find him dead. Cue the fainting. And then she comes to and cries, “I don’t know … I was only away from my desk for a moment … who would do a thing like that?”

And if that wasn’t enough of a puzzle, we are also faced with the problem of why Starsky and Hutch do not simply badge the receptionist and demand to see the publisher right away, like they have a hundred times before. He’s a key figure in a murder, there’s no need for them to wait patiently, flipping through magazines. Again, this is a major issue I have with this episode, apart from the story holes. It’s the idea that Starsky and Hutch seem toothless here, ineffectual, and it’s much more disturbing (to me, anyway) than the narrative hitches, such as when Reinhart was killed.

Hutch tells Dobey about Basil Monk, “We ran a bank check on him. We had a warrant, don’t worry.” Dobey shoots back, “You always say you have a warrant.” Do Starsky and Hutch have a history of getting information without warrants? Has this caused the obvious problems later in court? Or is Dobey crabbing for the sake of crabbing? Monk’s account seems to be a great place to start an investigation, so why is Dobey peeved?

When Starsky tells Dobey and Hutch, “Any clown could have put on a black jacket and gotten into that party,” is he unaware of how easily he is setting himself for Hutch’s nasty, “Well, it worked for you, didn’t it?” Or is he aware of his self-set-up, and providing Hutch with a little fun?

Starsky and Hutch consistently ring the wrong apartment number when trying to reach Dora Pruitt. As mentioned before, this can’t possibly add anything like “realism” to the episode. It only makes them appear more disinterested than they already are.

Strangely Brazen Dora: she puts gun in holster on upper right thigh, then spreads out on bed in front of Starsky and Hutch, hiking her robe up to what could be an inch from disclosure without breaking a sweat. When Dora makes her sexual come-on (this episode seems soaked in this sort of thing) she doesn’t seem to worry about getting the wrong kind of attention. She puts on quite a show, to the point of actually nauseating both detectives (and how different is this scene from the earlier scene in “The Heroes” when Roxy basically acts in the same way and both Hutch and Starsky treat her kindly and without judgment?). Is she just lost in her role, or she driven to reckless behavior because of mental health issues?

When Starsky tells Dora “we have a couple of more questions for you” (emphasis mine) we know for sure that they already questioned her that night. Further proof that she should have left well enough alone rather than try to run down Marcie in the car. If she had simply pulled up stakes and left – she has already been paid, because we know Monk has taken $30,000 in cash from his account – and disappeared, how on earth would anyone ever find her? Without the messy burglary, the attempted murder by car, and the constant attempts to wheedle the photograph from Marcie, it’s unlikely Starsky and Hutch would have been inspired to study that photograph as carefully as they did, doing blow-up after blow-up until they saw the hidden silencer. “Dora Pruitt” is a pseudonym, she is not a suspect, and a vanishing waitress would be an irritant but not a major one for the police. Of course the answer is “Because, plot” since half the episode is depending upon these ever more desperate measures, but there could have been a better way to go about it.

Hutch throws Starsky to the wolves (or more specifically, the wolf) when he backs off from Dora’s invitation saying he’s a family man, but his partner likes to “mess around”. Hutch, earlier, made similar sport of hapless Basil Monk. Hutch has an excess of negative energy in this episode: in every scene he’s itching to hurt someone.

Again, Marcie is reluctant to really help as she complains about the cost of developing more photographs. This brings up an elemental problem: why isn’t the police lab doing this work? Making a civilian do this kind of crucial evidence gathering is downright illogical.

A note about photography: not articulated but nevertheless implied is the idea that a photograph is both factual evidence (the shot of Braddock) and a sneaky, sometimes-wrong interpreter of fact (the final scene in this episode, in which everyone is caught in poses of wealth and airs – along with a smiling “butler” – while actually possessing no wealth at all.)

Assassin leaves her wig and padded brassiere behind when she leaves. How dumb is that?!

Hutch asks the landlady (played by the wonderful Fran Ryan, in her third and last appearance in the series), “You got a permit for that cannon, Lady?” She says she doesn’t, but also can’t get ammunition for it. Is the lack of ammunition a moot point, in terms of a permit? The landlady seems to think so.

Starsky and Hutch set the Assassin up, even though we don’t see them coaching Marcie. Which is why, when she answers the phone (and says loudly “it’s her!” which makes me cringe every time I see it) it appears that she herself has invented this set-up. But it couldn’t be – Starsky gives her a congratulatory kiss on the cheek when she completes the call. Again, as with nearly every scene in this frustrating episode we are led to a secondary problem: just why Starsky and Hutch make this dangerous move when they aren’t even in place to protect Basil Monk, who is going to be in the direct path of a Very Dangerous Felon. The time signature is unknown here – Assassin talks on the pay phone during daylight, but goes to Monk’s mansion at night. But the detectives wouldn’t know that for sure.

It seems to me, and I admit this very reluctantly, that here Starsky and Hutch are guilty of two grievous errors. One is procedural and one is moral. They take a real chance Assassin won’t get there first and kill Monk. Two, and worse, they knowingly subject Monk to a terrifying experience for what could only be malicious fun at his expense. Basil Monk, reprobate that he is, does not deserve the pants-wetting terror of a home invasion.

Dora/Greta/Whoever wears a disguise when she breaks into Monk’s house even though they have had contact previously. She may just get her kicks out of looking nightmarish, or it could be that she has never revealed her real face to him for security reasons. Then she calls herself “the Snow Queen” which is perfect in this context, as Monk is very like a child, someone as corruptible as Peter from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Basil is alone in the mansion and sees the Assassin approach (that seems really improbable in a house that big, but whatever.) Notice that he’s wearing sunglasses at night. Why on earth is he doing that?

Motive Mystery: Hutch points out to Basil Monk, and Starsky, that Monk has purchased a lot of Braddock’s artwork. Shortly afterward, Monk comments about how an artist’s death increases the value of his work. Is this the motive behind Braddock’s murder, rather than the more obvious one of the cuckolded husband getting revenge against his wife’s lover? I ask this because it seems extremely unlikely that Basil Monk would be a blindsided by jealousy. He knows exactly who he is – a unlovable, weak little man whose vast fortune is the one reason Nicole married him. He knows this because it’s impossible for him not to know it. He may be deeply flawed but he isn’t stupid – he’s a shrewd businessman who knows he has spent his life acting like a child and profiting from childhood itself. He has shown no interest in Nicole as a woman, but rather a possession like all his other toys. Given his conscious decision to languish in mean-spirited immaturity (he’s a bully, a sulker, and a brat) I rather doubt that he has any sexual interest in her at all. Other than injury to his pride, he may not even care that she’s unfaithful to him. He may be well aware that she has been unfaithful many times, with many men. So did he kill Braddock because he was sleeping with his wife, did he kill him because of the value of his artwork, or was it just a happy coincidence the two motives intersected at this party?

Starsky and Hutch make the double arrest with all the intensity of ordering a cup of coffee, and lead their prisoners out of the room making small talk about what they have on for that evening (Hutch making a literal joke in response). We know they’re not going to worry about it, so we have to. So, motive. Jealousy might make some sense, Monk taking the risk of such a public hit, wanting to hurt his wife by forcing her to watch her lover die, although we see later this is an utter failure, as she’s disturbingly unmoved by it. While ignoring the improbability of someone as shrinkingly fearful as Basil Monk (“I’m a professional coward!” he whines) orchestrating a hit in a well-lit room filled with witnesses and a photographer, maybe Monk was playing at murder the way he plays with his toys and his expensive games of backgammon – the hobby of a psychopath bored by his trinkets and tired of being publicly shamed by his philandering wife.

Setting up the toys to make distractions is a cool way to get Assassin to use up her bullets, but that’s a staging trick and nothing to do with the trajectory of the narrative. One is reminded here of three other instances in which complicated trickery is used by Starsky and Hutch in order to exhaust or distract a shooter: in “Satan’s Witches”, “Silence” and “The Groupie”.

I rarely succumb to the temptation to rewrite scenes, even if they warrant it. But I can’t help but reflect on an episode that has similar aspects, Season One’s “Texas Longhorn”, also featuring a husband who kills in a fit of marital vengeance, albeit from the opposite side. But in “Texas” we get a complicated picture of a husband who lashes out for a variety of reasons, only one of which is fidelity, and we know this because there is a lengthy scene in which Zack Taylor confesses what he has done, and why he has done it. He gives a story about tragic inevitability, and seems to say that – in his heart – he has always had the capacity, and the impulse, to kill. He is cast in a heroic light, Starsky and Hutch admire and feel sorry for him. But Basil Monk could claim the same “honorable” impulse. At the very least he could explain himself. But he is not given the opportunity to be anything other than an abject loser. How great would it have been if Starsky and Hutch brought him into this showdown, promising protection if only he could coerce a confession out of the Assassin? Basil would at last be able to redeem his masculinity, at least in part, cop to his weaknesses (“I wanted him dead … I didn’t care how”) and do something for the greater good at the cost to himself. The conversation between the two villains in a dark room, each accusing the other and excusing themselves, would have been wonderful to watch.

Impersonations: The Assassin pretends to be silly Dora, a waitress who loves to party. She also assumes the identity of Greta Wren, a well-known magazine publisher. So who is she? More importantly, why does she exhibit such peculiar attention-getting behavior? Those elaborate, dangerously inventive personalities are so vivid that she comes off as both insane and highly intelligent. As far as villains go, she’s right up there with other colorful maniacs such as the “collector” Jack Cunningham and yet while we get a glimpse into Jack’s disquieting delinquencies during his long speech to Molly, we have no such hints here. But I must remark upon Sally Kirkland’s ambitious, nuanced performance – Dora and Gwen are such shockingly different personalities it still amazes me that they are played by the same actor.

I wonder, though, if this refusal to commit to answering questions of Monk’s motive and Assassin’s identity is an attempt by the series writers to approach storytelling in a less predictable and more postmodern way. Postmodernism basically reframes classicism as a means for self-referential irony (those Roman columns in shopping malls, the playful breakdown between “high” and “low” artforms) and as a way of rethinking of once-immutable concepts as meaning and truth. Universally understood language now becomes unintelligible “signs” to be interpreted or discarded by the individual. In this context, “Photo Finish” is a perfect postmodern artifact. Meaning is fragmented, answers are not easily found, modern optimism is seen as a failure, replaced with a kind of cynical weariness and a hollow, machine-like grasping for currency. Identity is mutable, motive is elusive, money is everything. Authenticity is replaced by appropriation, the concept of originality is deemed meaningless. Braddock’s artwork is profit-driven and his death is just another performance, Monk’s toy empire mocks the very idea of the cultural elite. This is what’s so charming and so frustrating about this episode – it’s quite possible these plot holes are artistic licence rather than lapses. If so, then this episode approaches genius.

All noble allusions to either The Great Gatsby or the perils of postmodernism abruptly come to a halt, however, when we hit the tag. The guys seem to have forgiven Marcie for her greedy ways. They’ve decorated a table at the Pits with flowers, silver and crystal, which is coldly emblematic of the series’ ambitions toward the upscale. Huggy, Mr. Bear, excuse me – another amusing but head-shaking instance of faux aristocracy after an entire episode seeming to reject it – appears with champagne in an ice bucket, with the very best line of the episode, “if you two looked any sharper, you’d be black.” Everybody is drunk. Starsky makes a telling Freudian slip when he says they wouldn’t take back his mangled tuxedo “for love of money” rather than “for love or money”. The love of money seems to be the overall theme here. He then giggles “that’s a baby” when Huggy presents his towel-draped bottle of champagne, which is wonderfully spontaneous. There’s also an uncomfortable joke about whether they want Huggy in the photo (whatever shall we do about the unphotogenic help?). Hutch can’t get the champagne cork out properly, and sprays his partner, which at least is reassuringly inevitable. Who’s the rube now?

Clothing notes: The guys look great in tuxedos, wrecked or not, and the Hawaiian and bowling shirts are Soul’s own (worn loose, to hide his back brace). This was the first episode filmed for the new season, and when Glaser and Soul exited their trailers in tuxedos for the first shot, they stared at each other for a moment and then spontaneously went into one of their Laurel and Hardy routines, with Glaser (of course) playing Laurel to Soul’s haughty Hardy, swinging an imaginary cane.

This was also a time when blowsy, lace-collared frilly fashions were de rigueur for women; at the party Marcie and others are dressed more like an Indian-flavored 1870s with high-collared pleated dresses with cameos, hair in heavy buns with tendrils. All the female guest stars in this episode are remarkably beautiful. At the party, special mention goes to the gentleman with the rather culturally questionable turban, making the scenes look more like a game of Clue than they really should.


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.

Let’s Revisit “Pariah”

September 13, 2014

After Starsky fatally shoots teenage felon Lonnie Craig during a hold-up, a man from his past, George Prudholm, begins killing cops in revenge.

George Prudholm: Stephen McNally, Joseph Tramaine: Gregory Rozakis, Eunice Craig: Hilda Haynes, Off. Edwards: David S Milton, Collins: Graham Jarvis, Cecil: John Alderman, Tidings: Jay Fletcher, Molly: Anitra Ford, Officer Lee: James R Parkes. Written By: Michael Fisher, Directed By: Bob Kelljan.


This is a terrific episode with a focused story line and clear, uncluttered emotional content. The series is always at its best when a crisis allows the partnership to coalesce and intensify and we see it here, in spades. The series is consistently successful, particularly in the first two seasons, of showing how a personal issue can reflect a larger, societal wrong. Here, Starsky’s actions reveal the troubling racial divide in American society, as well as the crippling shame even righteous actions can bring. And if we want to pull back our lens even further and encompass the whole classic tragedy, larger than any one society, we can come to understand the pain of responsibility, and the redemptive power of forgiveness.

Like many if not most episodes in the “Starsky & Hutch” canon, “Pariah” depicts shockingly relevant issues; here, it is the shooting death of a young black man by a white police officer, followed by public anger made worse when the police reveal that young man’s sketchy past. We also see the moral dilemma of allowing the media access to the officer’s identity and the procedural details of the investigation, and the incendiary emotions of race and justice, and the similarities to what is happening today is striking, if not depressingly familiar. However, this is where the similarity to contemporary events diverges, as the troubling case of Lonnie shifts to a (white) man’s overwhelming madness and grief, and how he uses a tragic shooting to further his own ends. Starsky, therefore, must not only try to forgive himself, he must try to forgive someone who has caused him tremendous anguish. At the end of the episode I’m not sure he has done either.

The opening scene in this episode is low key and genuinely funny, and a nice start to a brutal episode. In the first season the writers get the emotional temperature just right, and we see it here. Everyone is relaxed and good natured, nothing is rushed, and there is a brilliantly subtle foreshadowing when Starsky muses about “one of those days.” Anitra Ford may be a Playboy bunny (of the year, no less) but she’s also a pretty good comedienne. She comes off as smart, laconic and funny, and you can see Hutch and Molly have a genuine thing going on the way they share a look in amusement when Starsky arrives and it’s time to start the routine. But you have to wonder what she makes of the whole set-up, if she wonders if perhaps this is all a little excessive, this practical joke which has taken so long to organize, to practice and perfect, which Hutch is pursuing with such enthusiasm. Hutch has no real interest in having Starsky adopt a healthy regime. One suspects if Starsky were to suddenly take up a yogurt-and-granola approach to breakfast Hutch would be bereft. Because what he wants is to win, no matter how inconsequential, or fleeting, the prize.

It must not have been much of a party if Starsky so easily believes she doesn’t know his – or Hutch’s – name. Or maybe it’s a sign of the casual times.

The shoot-out at the grocery store is a bit of a puzzle. For one thing, the robbery takes place in a tight-knit poor-to-middle-class black neighbourhood, and the bystander immediately recognizes Lonnie Craig, which means Lonnie and his accomplice were robbing their own friends and neighbors. Which explains the balaclavas, of course, but not the rationale behind robbing people who a) will most certainly recognize you by your voice and mannerisms, and b) that you have had years of friendly interaction with. Of course this happens all the time, especially if people are driven to panicky extremes because of drug addiction, but nothing is said about Lonnie and drugs, (although it’s very probably drugs had some kind of impact on his life, but what impact we don’t know, and it doesn’t appear that Lonnie had a bad habit) only that he was a promising young kid with a loving mother. So why rob a small corner store in your own neighborhood – with your own mother steps away – and be stupid enough to attempt to kill police? Lonnie, if Tremaine is telling the truth, had his own thing going. He was running numbers and had a clientele, and probably plenty of money. He had a comfortable home and a future. So why throw it all away for a two-bit robbery, and in your very own backyard? If this was a matter of friendship (you can easily imagine Tremaine begging and pleading for help “with this one little thing”), Lonnie was prepared to go a very long way to prove his loyalty. A little background would have been nice, if only to paint Lonnie as a hero-worshipping kid who would do anything for his only friend.

It always bothers me when the uniformed patrol officer interrupts Starsky’s professionalism to say accusingly, “He’s just a kid. You killed a kid!” This is immature and inflammatory, and it stops everyone from doing their job. Behavior like this from hysterical bystanders I understand, but from a police officer it’s inexcusable.

“If throwing me to the wolves is what it takes, let ‘em do it,” Starsky says to the furious Hutch when it becomes clear that the coroner’s inquest will be made public.  “Besides, I don’t go down so easy.”  And he gives a very slight grin, and an upward twitch of his eyebrows, and in an instant the world has shrunk to just the two of them, and no one else; Hutch gives an even smaller, less noticeable grin in response – mirroring Starsky’s expression – and for a second there is nothing else, not a sound, not an intrusion, time has stopped, space has contracted, and it is only them.

Is the department right to insist on complete disclosure, including allowing public access to the coroner’s inquest? This is a question not answered here, and not answered fully to this day. Being exposed to public judgment before all the facts are in can lead to erroneous, emotion-clouded conclusions, but institutions policing themselves without outside scrutiny can allow corruption and to flourish.

When Dobey and the DA leave there is a long moment of silence that is all too rare in this series, and every second of it is wonderful.

It’s a great moment in court when Starsky, looking trapped in a pinstripe suit and a rather nice lemon shirt, looks behind him to see Hutch in the gallery. Hutch acknowledges him with a smile, and does the tie-wave motion, which seems to work: Starsky noticeably relaxes.

Stewart Tidings, the bystander/witness who changes his story on the stand, is a notable character. Intelligent and hotheaded, but with a moral core, not above pushing an anti-cop agenda if he thinks it’ll stir up trouble, the paradigm of racial frustration. I love it when he acknowledges he thought Lonnie was trying to surrender because that’s what everyone else was saying, and he got swept up in the group dynamic. It’s extremely difficult to go against not only your original accusation, but the accusations of the angry mob around you, but he does it. Later Stewart elects himself guardian at Eunice Craig’s house during the funeral, standing at the door and refusing Starsky entry. Even though he’s admitted Lonnie’s guilt he’s not yet ready to relinquish his dislike of cops. He does, however, shake Starsky’s hand, showing a facility for change (and grudging forgiveness) that does him credit.

When meeting after the inquest at Huggy’s it’s interesting to note that Hutch and Huggy are having coffee – it must be around 10 or 11 in the morning for The Pits not to be open yet, although it could be later – but Starsky, never what you’d call a drinker, is having a beer.

In this episode we see many scenes of empathy, reassurance and solidarity between the partners. Of particular note is the beautiful scene following Starsky’s giving his condolences at the Craig house, when Starsky is lost in thought behind the wheel of the Torino and Hutch gently suggests starting the car because “it works better that way.”  Then offers one of his sweetest smiles.

It takes every bit of Starsky’s courage to enter that yard and walk up those stairs, and when you think about the danger he faces on a daily basis this is even more poignant; facing a family’s private grief and disapproval is a hell of a lot harder to do than the violent necessity of law enforcement.

Hilda Haynes has such a uniquely beautiful and haunting face – her huge eyes are unreal – that you just cam’t stop watching her.

They chase Tremaine out of the window and down the alley, and lose him. Starsky’s furious. Hutch grabs Starsky’s wrist to check the time – a gesture used more than once, since Hutch often doesn’t wear a watch. “Tempest fugit,” Starsky says as they stand panting after the chase. “What?” Hutch says. “Time flies,” Starsky says, and Hutch, with perfect comedic timing, says (without surprise, even those his apparently proletariat partner has just spoken Latin), “Oh.”

Dobey tells Starsky, after Prudholm kills a second cop and calls Metro, “Your friend called again,” when he is trying to keep Starsky’s head together, which seems unnecessarily provocative to me.

Is the announcer is the same one who is “Michael Jackson” in Survival?

Why bring uniformed officers to get Tremaine at the grocery store? He’s going to twig to it and panic. Also, this points to the major inconsistency of backup. Sometimes, as in this instance, Starsky and Hutch have extra backup they don’t really need. And sometimes, as in “Iron Mike”, they have zero backup when they could really use it  as they attempt to arrest four, maybe five armed felons, at night, with low visibility and in dangerously unfamiliar terrain.

I can’t help but appreciate the sign that reads “The Donut Show.” I would probably stick around and see that show three or four times.

Drug withdrawal turns Tramaine into a big, frustrated baby. He’s twenty-two and has the deep husky voice of an old man. It’s great when, in exasperation during the interrogation scene, he bunches his hands into fists in a tantrum. But of course it begs the question: if he’s needing to score so badly, why was he calmly grocery shopping and examining that salad dressing like a gourmet?

I love how Hutch can stop Starsky’s violent assault on Tremaine with a miniscule lift of an eyebrow. Starsky sees this and relents, completely, all anger evaporated.

It’s always struck me how Prudholm starts killing cops and at the apex of his madness threatening the families of cops, raging away like an Old Testament prophet about taking out “maybe an old granny too” in order to exact his vengeance, without ever mentioning Hutch. Later, much later, he’s going after Terry in “Starsky’s Lady”, again no mention of hurting Hutch. Why not? Why not the one person in the world Starsky really cares about? Is this a case of something being so outside his reality he can’t even imagine it?

It’s interesting to note here that Prudholm’s speech bears more than a passing resemblance to the threatening letters sent by real-life killer Zodiac to the newspapers in the late 60s. Zodiac mentions killing “kiddies” on a school bus as a way to enhance his reputation as a terrifying and powerful figure much like Prudholm is doing, and for probably the same reason: they are broken, pathetic human beings who have no other outlet for their bewildering pain, and no other way to feel as if they matter. This isn’t the only time Starsky & Hutch uses real life murderers as inspiration for their fictional ones. Simon Marcus and his murderous followers are very similar to Charles Manson, and the uptick in nutty cults, UFOs, Ouija boards and mood rings which made popular culture so entertaining is reflected in vampire-wannabe Rene Nadasy, the bumbling Satanists and all the narcotically-enhanced lunacy on Playboy Island. And I have a very strong feeling that Tommy Marlowe’s crimes in “Vendetta” are based on Lowell Lee Andrews, a seemingly nice-guy college student who suddenly and for no apparent reason murdered his entire family in 1958.

Starsky swears for the only time in the entire series, although one can imagine an HBO-version filled with all kinds of imaginative language. Either a method-acting slip or a nonsensical hiss meant to simulate swearing, it happens when Hutch, quite brilliantly – a foreshadowing of his wild guess in “Bloodbath”, again listening to a taped message – picks up on “ex-con” and “in his fifties” and figures the caller might be Prudholm. Starsky says “Shit!” and picks up the phone.

It’s interesting how Hutch and Dobey are eating, but Starsky, heartbroken, isn’t.

Why does Hutch ask Officer Bill in R & I to call “Parole” to get Prudholm’s current address? While Parole certainly has this information, why doesn’t R & I have it? And if R & I doesn’t keep current addresses, then all of those types of questions would require a call to Parole.

The only time Prudholm seems shaken out of his murderous rage is when he calls his own apartment and Starsky says in ten minutes his (Prudholm’s) face will be in every newspaper and on every TV screen in town. Prudholm stops, his hands tremble, then he abruptly agrees to meet Starsky face-to-face. This small moment has always been as bit of a mystery. Does Prudholm change his mind because Starsky has goaded him, or because he’s afraid of having his face and his story splashed across the front pages of the newspaper? Is he mortally afraid of having his grief exposed, and with it his son’s weaknesses and mistakes?

There is much similarity between “Pariah” and “A Coffin for Starsky”. Both have, at their core, a father grieving the loss of a wayward son at the hands of Starsky and Hutch, and both men concoct elaborate schemes that nearly kill Starsky. In both cases the son is involved in drugs, and neither father acknowledges this fact. Both men have been distant fathers: Prudholm in jail for his son’s entire adult life and Professor Jennings (it’s implied but not said) is an aloof intellectual out of touch with both a drug-addicted son and a daughter whose professional triumphs appear to be invisible to him. Both men inflict pain in a horribly impersonal way: Prudholm through taunting phone calls and sadistic “lessons”, Jennings through a proxy assailant. Both think the object of their hate will suffer more if the pain is more mental than physical – Jennings times it so that Starsky has to suffer for as much as 48 hours before succumbing. Both men use elaborate and fussy plans to hinder them. And both men do not get what they are so desperately searching for – lex talionis, to be exact – because torture will never equal justice.

One of the great “there are no words” moments in the series happens when they look at each other over the hood of the Torino before Starsky rushes off.

Such a creepy zoo. All those too-small cages and brutal rocks symbolic, perhaps, of Prudholm’s misery, how he’s been locked away both figuratively and literally all these years. As well, the cruel architecture of this old-fashioned zoo – somewhat remedied these days ad the result of of a more progressive understanding of the mental health of animals in captivity – also echoes how the modern urban world can alienate and make crazy its inhabitants, from poor Lonnie Craig, the “loner” whose only friend (if you can call him that) was a junkie who abandoned him when the going got tough, to Prudholm himself, allowed to fester without psychiatric intervention.

Starsky goes alone to confront Prudholm. Hutch secretly follows, and his presence proves to be life-saving. In the aftermath of events, I wonder if Starsky processes Hutch’s disobedience with relief or irritation or maybe a mix of the two. Yet, when they stare at each other over the hood of the car and Starsky gives that nearly imperceptible nod, he may have known all along his partner would ignore his command and show up, and was acknowledging the inevitability.

The arrest of Prudholm is typical of the series as a whole. Rather than triumphant, the brief adrenaline rush of chase-and-capture gives way to deep sadness. Starsky does not feel like a hero, he doesn’t even have a sense of completion of a job well done. Rather there is a lingering sense of culpability, and the frustration that no matter what they do the parade of human misery goes on. Nothing has been solved, no one has gotten justice, the already over-burdened system will once again required to care for and house the criminally insane. It’s a form of existential nihilism that even Starsky recognizes in these final moments. It’s a moving moment when he actually aims his gun as if to shoot Prudholm in the head, and looks so murderous that even Hutch, who knows full well his partner isn’t going to actually shoot, says quietly, and warningly, “Starsk.”

Tag: Starsky says, “The notion that something’s got to taste rotten in order for it to make you feel good,” implies Hutch is a masochist. Hutch, in “Body Worth Guarding”, calls Starsky a “hedonist.” Starsky replies, “Just so long as I enjoy myself.” Both labels are accurate. There is something in Hutch requiring his atonement, and although Starsky can be broody it’s not at the same level: he’s engaged in the world and contented with temporal things, while Hutch’s punitive routines and habits suggests he has been the victim of a wounding at some point in his life.

I find it difficult to imagine Hutch doesn’t pick up on the booze in the cocktail Starsky makes him; he might be professing confusion in order to allow Starsky his moment, which is a charming act of friendship.

Clothing notes: Hutch looks great in his blue zippered top and later in his caramel leather jacket. Starsky is mostly all-blue in his cloth jacket, and denim shirt in the last scene, great-fitting low-rise jeans, and the Adidas. Both wear clothes than any fashion-conscious hipster would happily wear today. Note that somewhere in the middle of the episode Starsky adds a small gold band to his usual silver pinkie ring, which I can’t help but imagine tells a romantic back-story.

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.

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.

Episode 66: Quadromania

May 24, 2011

Starsky goes undercover as a cabdriver to catch serial killer Fitzgerald who’s murdering cabbies for revenge.

Lionel Fitzgerald: Richard Lynch, Gramps: John McLiam, Kingston St. Jacques: Philip Michael Thomas, KC McBride: Lynne Marta, Monique: Susan Kellerman, Danny Deveen: Freeman King Carboni: Jerome Guardino, Joe Benson: Bob Basso, Baker: Ric Carrott. Written By: Anthony Yerkovich, Directed By: Rick Edelstein.


This episode emphasizes the series’ fascination with the creepy side of show business; in this case, not only the perpetrator but also all the peripheral characters are hungering for stardom. Is it because Los Angeles is the Mecca for all thwarted, bitter or stubbornly determined wanna-be stars? Probably. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that “delusional eccentric with a beef against the world” is the cheapest, easiest motive for a writer to reach for.

The episode is notable for its lackluster, half-hearted quality. There is very little tension and major logic problems with the story. Other than the sprightly Kingston St. Jacques and another bright performance by Lynne Marta, all the actors, including Glaser and Soul, seem to have taken a double-dose of Nyquil.

There is, however, a nicely subtle moment when Hutch’s car pulls up to the murder scene, the guys get out, and Starsky murmurs, “be nice, will you?” I love it when you get the feeling the scene has been rolling on for a while before we get to see it, a naturalistic touch the series always gets right. Is Starsky alerted to possible trouble because they recognize Baker, the ultra-excitable newbie patrolman who most assuredly will elicit Hutch’s ire, or is Starsky referencing a Bad Mood streak that has been going for some time?

I just love how Starsky eases his way into getting the witness Monique (a nice performance by Susan Kellerman, and maybe the best guest performance of the episode) to talk by blandly smiling at her, and in that silent moment manages to send this message: I’m on to you, I know who you are and what you do, I can make it easy on you if you cooperate, or hard on you if you don’t, so why not give me what I want so we can both get out of here? It’s a truly marvelous acting moment.

If we interpret Dobey’s bluster correctly, it seems as if he really does believe there are three individuals out there who belong to, as Hutch sarcastically puts it, “the one-armed strangulation club”. Could he be as dense as that?

Lionel is Lionel Fitzgerald’s grandson. And yet he appears at least forty years old. It’s possible Lionel’s accident prematurely ages him, but if not, Gramps must be in his mid-eighties. And, just for continuity’s sake, where is the meat in this sandwich, Lionel Fitzgerald II?

Gramps listens eagerly to his grandson Lionel’s faked newspaper article extolling his “performance” in a non-existent play. From the sound of things, Lionel’s kept this charade going for a long time, building himself up as an actor of some fame. Doesn’t Gramps listen to the radio, or the television? Doesn’t he get out on the street, talk to people? Surely he’d be curious, or proud enough, to seek out independent collaboration of his grandson’s inherited genius, if only to announce to his next-door neighbor, “my grandson is a star!” Do that, and the illusion crashes to earth pretty fast. Plus, later on he proudly tells Starsky and Hutch his grandson is a “smash” at the Savoy Theater, and is astonished when Hutch tells him the place has been closed for a year. Why wouldn’t he have attempted to attend a single performance? What’s stopping him? The only way I would believe his innocence is if he was actually bedridden, and I kind of wish he’d been written that way, but plausibility does not seem to be on this episode’s agenda.

Gramps does not ask Lionel about the sound of the crushed beer mug. Gramps has already been shown to be very observant – we see him playing chess, and being aware of small sounds – yet there are all sorts of things he seems to miss.

David Soul seems very stiff and uncomfortable throughout this episode, not engaging in any strenuous activity at all, which may mean this episode was shot is the aftermath of his serious skiing injury.

Kingston St. Jacques is the ultimate multi-tasker. Strangely believable, he’s DJ’ing and dancing while dispatching cabs, a pretty wonderful pre-corporate, freewheeling depiction of a man hugely enjoying his life. (The actor Philip Michael Thomas goes on to star in the ultimate-80s series “Miami Vice” as a notably non-Jamaican, non-dancing, non-enjoying-his-life detective).

St. Jacques tells Hutch half his drivers have quit and only a “god-forsaken fool” would apply for a job at Metro now. Enter front stage, Starsky.

K.C. McBride sure has an open mind. In a small but exceedingly delightful exchange, she propositions Starsky, knowing he is a man. He answers her, thinking she is a man and says he “doesn’t go that route,” meaning he is straight. Starsky hasn’t turned around, and so K.C. assumes he is saying he’s gay. She says she is glad he “doesn’t keep it in the closet like other guys.” Starsky turns, realizes she is a woman and – an automatic reflex, it seems – asks her on a date. K.C. then assumes Starsky is bisexual and remarks about him “changing his politics.” K.C. goes out with him anyway, as she cheerfully says she “doesn’t mind a few kinks in the road of life.”

Kingston makes an incredibly detailed drawing of a tiny medallion worn by a driver he hardly knows. An abnormal interest in jewelry, perhaps?

Isn’t it a bit dangerous for Starsky to flash his badge when the cab is still in motion, and his drug-dealing passenger can easily throw open the back passenger door and bolt to freedom before Starksy can draw his gun and get out of the driver’s seat?

Starsky and Hutch must have a sneaking suspicion their suspect is not an African-American: that’s something no makeup in the world can really disguise. Plus, they must be familiar with the crime statistics that tell us the vast majority of serial murders are committed by white middle-class males.

Lionel robs his victims as well as killing them, and this detail is not explained. Looking at the poor state of the apartment he shares with his grandfather, he could sure use the money, but this might also be an attempt to confuse the police as to the real motive for the crimes.

It’s five o’clock in the morning. Hutch is swinging by to check on Starsky, who’s exhausted to the point of passing out in his cab. Throughout the case, Starsky is undercover, Hutch is not. Theoretically, this means Hutch is checking leads, following up statements, re-interviewing witnesses, etc. There is really no need, therefore, for him to keep the same punishing hours as Starsky does as a night-shift cab driver. And yet here he is, in the pre-dawn hours. Has he been assigned to tail Starsky’s cab as backup? This is never indicated in the script. From the lackadaisical attitude both detectives have for this case, you can tell neither one of them thinks they will be in any imminent danger. Besides, Starsky’s cab will have been outfitted with precautionary equipment in order to broadcast any distress. There is simply no need for Hutch to appear out of nowhere. Yet, there he is.

Assuming the old checker cabs aren’t taken out of circulation after a murder occurs in them, then when does Lionel know when to quit murdering people? He doesn’t pay attention who is in them, whether they are guilty or not of “ruining his career”, or he wouldn’t have gone after Starsky. Assuming Lionel wasn’t caught, he would have gone on murdering cabbies until he was.

Starsky is tricked into picking up the killer fare by Hutch who says, “what would you do without me?” Compelled to push and provoke, as usual, but imagine the guilt he experiences later when things go very wrong.

Why don’t either Starsky or Hutch twig to the weird old lady who appears out of nowhere? By the looks of it, there aren’t many apartment buildings nearby, and she does look very masculine. They know the murderer is a master of disguise. Could it be the severity of their misogyny blinds them to the possibility of a “woman” as killer? Didn’t they notice the limp, and recall the witness statements?

David Soul and guest star John McLiam have a reprieve of “A Coffin for Starsky” denouement as Hutch shakes the older man by the shoulders to get him to spill the truth of the matter.

“Third time around the park”? What is Lionel waiting for, anyway? And why take the chance to wait for so long before requesting the driver turn down his radio? If he’d sprung into action the first time around, this would be a different story. And also, why does Starsky turn down his police radio and his dispatch radio at the same time as he turns down his music? What’s the point of that, other than ensuring he’ll be in much, much worse trouble if something does go wrong?

Hutch pulls his gun on a cab in exactly the same way Callendar does in “The Plague”.

With dramatic flair, we see the bionic arm emerge. Lionel has obviously lost his real arm in an accident with a drunken cab driver, hence his complicated revenge murder spree. When we see his metallic appendage, the first thing we do is laugh. It looks ridiculous and unconvincing. From earlier scenes it seems as if he lost the arm from the shoulder, so how does this incredible articulated arm, elbow joint and all, perform so naturally? How would he be able to move it? Movable prosthetic arms must be surgically attached to the ligaments, tendons and nerves of the body, and yet this buck-ninety-five addendum can be snapped on and off at will. What is Anthony Yerkovich thinking, anyway? Too many Vincent Price matinees? This is the pivotal detail of the episode and supposed to be shocking but the laughable stupidity of a “robot hand” crushing the throats of its victims sucks all the suspense and believably out of the story. Throughout this project one of my main promises to myself is to resist substantial rewriting of scripts – I tell myself to look at what is on the screen rather than relying on that oh-so-reliable 20/20 hindsight. Too easy, I tell myself. But let me break this resolution and say it would have been better to keep his disability to the severe leg injury and have bitterness and frustration as his murderous strength.

And while we’re enraged by the sheer dumbness of this “twist”, why not talk about why a disabling accident, even one that causes an actor to lose an arm, would render him unable to act? If he’s good, he’s good, missing arm or not. Surely “King Lear” is not dependent on an actor with two moving arms. Was Lionel just really terrible, and uses his disability as an excuse, or – perhaps more likely – did he experience the isolating prejudices of theater directors and casting agents who refused to consider him for parts he could do just as well now as before his injury? If Lionel had one line in the episode in which he mutters to himself something like “those bastards, they all stopped believing in me” well, then, there’s your motive right there. (Resolution broken again.)

When Lionel attacks Starsky from the back of the cab, all we see is a clutch on the throat; Starsky dodges the worst of it and falls to the ground, Lionel losing his grip and grabbing a leg instead. Why, then, is Starsky semi-conscious and unable to act and react normally? There’s evidence of a head injury in the spidering of the glasss against the driver’s window but no actual footage of it, so that would explain the burred vision?, but for an episode that has made several heavy-handed obvious points about plot trajectory, this wisp of an image is awfully subtle. Starsky is in excellent shape, quick-minded and immune to panic, a trained police officer. A delusional man in a silly dress and a walker and one good arm should pose no problem for him, concussion or not. So why not pull his gun and blast away?

At this point, the logical holes in the story outweigh any narrative thrills. Points to Glaser for being a good sport and trying really hard.

What is the meaning of the episode’s title, “Quadromania”? Although it indicates, obviously enough, an obsession with the number four, there is no indication Lionel is after four drivers specifically, or would be satisfied with killing four. A guess might be a riff on “Quadrophenia”, also released in 1979, fueled by music of the Who and very cool at the time. But surely that’s a stretch.

Clothing notes: Starsky is hampered by a clichéd news-boy cap marking him as your prototypical cab driver. Hutch wears some stellar jeans and his much-loved collegiate jacket. Both actors look tired and out of sorts. Huggy has a memorable five-second appearance decked out in country and western gear.

Episode 40: Starsky’s Lady

July 22, 2010

George Prudholm returns from the past (“Pariah”) to avenge himself on Starsky by fatally shooting his girlfriend Terry.

Terry Roberts: Season Hubley, George Prudholm: Stephen McNally, Woody: Sandy Smith, Christine: Rita George, Dr. Quo: Beulah Quo, Freddie: Joey Viera, Sally: Angela McClelland, Clerk: Wayde Preston, Attendant: Rob Curtin. Written By: Robert Earll, Directed By: Georg Stanford Brown.


This is a beautiful and deeply touching episode that merges the personal with the professional, as tragedy not only hits close to, but utterly destroys, home. David Starsky is such a stable, strong, private personality it’s sometimes easy to forget how much serious acting is involved in bringing him to life: Starsky is a true cop, in every sense of the word, pugnacious, determined, moral, a ruler-follower, and very different than the notably intellectual, fiery Paul Michael Glaser. Never a showy, selfish actor, but rather a quiet subtle one, Glaser really gets to show his chops in this episode, and it’s wonderful to watch.

I always have the feeling Starsky was born to be a cop, while Hutch came to it by accident and sometimes struggles to make the role fit.

Throughout the series Starsky has dated some so-so girls. But Terry would probably have worked out just fine as a life partner. She’s level-headed, practical, sweet-natured, and relaxed, but with a core of steel. In the things she says we see a woman who completely understands Starsky in a way very few ever have. She says, “I know you. I know what you have to do in your life.” She calls Starsky “my best friend” five times, because she likes him as much as she loves him. She has a good job and loves children. Altruistically, she asks Starsky at the hospital if he’s all right and reveals the depth of her loyalty by saying, “I’ll be there whenever you show up.” She also cares a great deal about Hutch and is not jealous of their close relationship. She encourages Starsky to stay on the police force when he’s frustrated and considers quitting, and tells him “I love you” four times that we witness. She has a sense of humor. She says she doesn’t want Starsky to change. Starsky says that after Terry died, he “wasn’t sure he had enough strength to remain on this earth.” (This in “Partners”). Best of all, Hutch likes her too: they snuggle together in the Torino in the front seat with Starsky. At the end, following her death, she entrusts Hutch with the special gift, and the message: “don’t let either one of them (Ollie or Dave) change.” Accepting someone as they are, especially if they have a demanding and dangerous job, is a wonderful thing.

The first line in this show is telling. Starsky says to Terry, pointing to Hutch, “Seems like it’s the only time he gets to relax.” He’s thinking of Hutch, wanting to take care of him, and the rest of it – “me too, for that matter” – is an aside. He then interrupts Terry by shouting, “C’mon Horace! Don’t let that big blond blintz beat you!” It’s a lovely resurfacing of a familiar nickname (“The Set-Up”, although variation on the “big blond” occurs in the tag of “The Plague”) Starsky’s shouted encouragement is typical of the affection-then-attack approach, though far less biting and impersonal than how Hutch uses it.

Terry’s worth is proven in her first scene with Starsky, in which she dismisses his promises as irrelevant and unnecessary – a perfect cop’s girlfriend.

Prudholm calls Woody “Gary”, the name of the son he believes Starsky killed on purpose. This is a classic case of dissembling (in which a mentally ill individual’s reasoning becomes increasingly fragmented), and to top it off his cheeks are fiery red as if he has a temperature or dangerously high blood pressure. “By the time we’re through with every thing and everyone Starsky cares about,” Prudholm says, watching the basketball game, “he’s gonna wish he’d never been born.” Yet, if he really wanted to hurt Starsky, and hurt him profoundly, personally, why not go after Hutch rather than a fairly recent romantic relationship, which for all he knows is a superficial one? Is Prudholm blind to this most obvious tactic? He’s been trying to destroy Starsky for years but never goes after Hutch until he rigs the bomb to go off in the abandoned apartment. This bomb always seemed to me to be an afterthought or something spur-of-the-moment. Does Prudholm lack the imagination and empathy necessary to choose Hutch as the ultimate victim?

There’s a scene beautifully directed by Georg Sanford Brown (also a good actor) when Hutch, talking to the shopkeeper in the aftermath of the shooting, realizes it’s Terry on the stretcher. The scene is filmed just above the the stretcher itself, emphasizing Hutch’s shocked realization. It’s the sort of sensitive direction that manages to convey great emotion through something as technical as framing – watch Hutch’s perfect double-take.

If this scene had been filmed today, I doubt that the director or the writers could resist showing the previous scene in its entirety, the bullet smashing through the victim’s skull.

When Starsky’s hand is on Terry, I like how you can see Hutch’s hand on his shoulder, offering comfort to him.

Hutch tells Starsky he has a theory about the robberies being personal. “Maybe everything (the importance of a thumbprint) if I was right before,” he says. Starsky doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about, and Hutch patiently explains. He must have come up with this theory very quickly after the shooting, showing how fast his mind works, even under extreme stress.

Dr. Quo (Beulah Quo) always strikes me as a welcome anomaly in this series: a doctor and a woman who is quiet, assured, strong and compassionate.  She is to Starsky what the doctor was to Hutch in “Coffin”, a voice of reason amidst the chaos.

“I love you,” Terry says to Starsky. And like his buddy Hutch, Starsky is unwilling, or unable, to say something as simple as “I love you too.” Instead, he is momentarily mute.

Terry tells Starsky to check on Sally and her pom-poms, making sure she continues to try, “it’s really important,” she says.  Does Starsky ever do this? Does he ever return to the Center for Exceptional Children after Terry is gone? Note that, as he leaves the room, Starsky does a lovely little miming of the pom-poms to show Terry he remembers what she asks of him.

The scene on the road after the hospital: one can imagine the fight in the parking lot in which Hutch insists he’s driving the beloved Torino (“you’re too tired to drive.” “I’m not too tired.” “I’m driving anyway, dummy.” “Who you calling dummy” and etc) that Hutch, uncharacteristically, wins. So he’s driving. They’re having a quiet conversation about Terry’s condition when Starsky suddenly asks, “What are we doing?” Hutch: “Oh, I thought we’d go back to my place and have a little sleep.” After some token argument Starsky concedes, “Okay.” No question, no hesitation at all about this most unusual invitation.

Prudholm and his lackeys don’t mind terrorizing Freddie in front of some lunching construction workers. Can they really be that foolhardy?

Starsky shows his most commanding side when enters Terry’s hospital room with red roses. “Marry me,” he says, and it’s not a question.  Equally good is Terry’s refusal to answer.

Note that Starsky has already told Terry about Prudholm. This implies they have had some pretty heavy talks. Starsky, certainly not the kind to talk about his work, shows his love and trust for Terry in all kinds of roundabout ways.

The whole situation demands Hutch not be his normal challenging self. He resists all jibes, even the little ones, and seems content to lay back and enjoy things as they are. He chuckles at Starsky’s “compromise speed”, he doesn’t argue and is accommodating. It’s easy for him, too. The constant arguing and meanness is actual work – this is practically an emotional vacation for him.

It’s a nice squeeze-to-the-shoulder in the car when Starsky is talking about the possibility that the doctors are wrong about Terry when they both know they aren’t – Hutch at his most silently supportive. Note how often his hand goes to Starsky in this episode: he attempts to hold him back when Starsky is on the offensive and acting like a bull in a china shop, he also touches him at the grocery store following the shooting, when Starsky argues with Dobey about being on the case, in the hospital, in the hallway of the station when Starsky hears the second opinion of the neurologist, and in the school yard, breaking the news about Prudholm.

Now how would Woody – the surfer-dude weasel– get such a high falutin nickname like “Woody the Magic Man”? Is there such a thing as jailhouse irony?

Starsky goes high, Hutch goes low. Prudholm comments on their habit. How does he know?

Poor Christine – she really is the odd man out here. Sometimes I wonder of Starsky and Hutch met the two girls at the same time, performing one of their amazing conjuring tricks to pick them up (as they have before – witness the duo’s magic in “Class in Crime”, “The Vampire”, “Targets”, “The Action”, and, miserably, in “Starsky Vs. Hutch”). Hutch likes Christine well enough but she’s just a place holder, much in the same way as Starsky’s ditzy pal Nancy was in “Gillian”.

During the miniature golf scene, and despite the presence of their dates, Starsky and Hutch hassle, joke and harangue each other endlessly. Imagine how irritating this might be to the women.

Starsky tells Terry he isn’t driving the bumper cars because Hutch won’t let him; Hutch is worried Starsky will “start driving like that on the street.” Yet Hutch already thinks he does and has made this very thing the subject of his blistering sarcasm many times in the past. Starsky’s joke, then, implies he doesn’t take Hutch’s criticisms seriously, to the point of shrugging them off as nonexistent.

More on this little bumper car moment: Starsky is a fast driver but has also proven many times he’s an extremely skilled one too. Yet Hutch seems very invested in the idea that Starsky is dangerous and impetuous behind the wheel despite all evidence to the contrary (“Partners” aside, one of the few instances when he really does act recklessly.) Of the two, Starsky may be a better driver only because he really, really likes cars and seems to prefer to drive. Hutch only drives when necessary.

Season Hubley is amazing throughout this episode, but it’s her scene in the amusement park that really shines. She tells Starsky he can’t stop living because she has, and also that “it’s really foolish for me to let a little piece of metal in my head stop me from doing the things I love to do.” She’s both practical and completely without self-pity, and to top it off she flushes a deep pink as she talks and her eyes rim with unshed tears. It’s a great, natural, unforced scene.

Terry is back in hospital, blind. Dr. Quo tells Starsky there’s nothing to be done. Watching Starsky hear the news, process it and then gather himself to face the inevitable, is maybe Glaser’s finest moment. Everything about this scene is subtle and lovely. He blinks, he tightens his mouth. He breathes. Small, infinitesimal movements which nevertheless conveys tremendous emotion.

“I love you”, Starsky finally says, and this is when Terry turns away from him. She then tries to change the subject to the basketball game. Is it too much for her to hear the sentiment she herself expresses so freely?

Terry isn’t hooked up to any life-prolonging machinery in the hospital; when she slips away, it’s strangely silent. Is the normal protocol? How would this scene play out if she flat-lined, forcing Starsky to endure the doors bursting open as doctors push carts and EKG machines in? Why the lack of monitors, the beeps and blinking lights which allow medical staff to monitor and regulate her vital signs? Did she have a DNR in place, or did doctors underestimate the grave consequences from this latest setback? This may be accommodation for the sake of drama, or cause for medical malpractice, but I’m thinking it’s the best ending for life we can imagine: full of love and calm.

Terry doesn’t have any family, which is most likely a writer’s attempt to streamline the narrative at the expense of reality. While it indeed does focus the story on Starsky, amping up the intensity, this gaping hole in Terry’s biography does lend a sense of surrealism to the episode.

This is another instance of, “you’re grieving, but the job’s not over”, something we’ll see in “Gillian” and other episodes. This series shows that the shock and grief of unbearable loss can be mitigated – slightly – by duty and justice, which in turn brings forgiveness.

If Prudholm “doesn’t even care about the money” and is robbing stores to “rip up” Starsky and Hutch’s beat and mess with Starsky, why does he rob the grocery warehouse after Terry dies? Perhaps he doesn’t realize Terry has died, having no way of finding out. Obviously the shooting was news, but not her death. Besides, he’s so poor maybe he actually needed the money from the robbery to survive.

Dobey tells Starsky and Hutch “we got lucky” and the silent alarm worked, so it wasn’t that Prudholm wanted to get caught. If he wanted to confront Starsky, he had a hundred other easier ways to do it. This might show how badly Prudholm is disintegrating, but it also reveals something that is less about insanity and more to do with a strange kind of rationality. Prudholm is a natural strategist, a cat-and-mouse kind of guy rather than a creature of habit. Remember in “Pariah” he used a high powered rifle on Tinker the patrolman, but then changed his m.o. to a bomb to catch the next guy? He is someone who will continually alter an approach to fine-tune the situation with the hope of a better or faster result. You can easily picture him down in the basement fixing old radios or inventing a combo vacuum cleaner/leaf-blower. He may be fixated on Starsky but his thinking isn’t methodical or even logical. He’ll try anything. As he himself says – and as his nickname attests – he’s always been “crazy”.

Hutch and Starsky arrive at the warehouse hostage situation. Hutch says he has an idea but then doesn’t explain it, he just walks over to a motorcycle and gets on it.  “Wait a minute,” Starsky says, “this one’s mine.”
“This one’s ours,” Hutch says. Then adds, “partner.”
There’s a moment of perfect understanding. The Starsky, without further comment, gets on the bike behind Hutch.

What’s the plan? Nobody seems to be asking. Dobey obediently calls Prudholm and stalls him without demanding to know what’s going to happen. If he knew what Hutch was planning you better believe he’d bluster his objections to such a foolhardy plan. Starsky never asks either.

Smashing through the doors with a motorbike while two armed men hold hostages doesn’t seem all that feasible, at first glance. And yet Starsky and Hutch just diligently go about it, as if it was written months ago in a notebook. Warehouse, March 12. Will ram with bike.

Unlike his earlier lunatic statements, the last two things George Prudholm says to Starsky are completely true. He says to Starsky, “You’re not going to shoot me, you’re too good a cop.” Also, “we know sick men aren’t responsible for what they do, remember?” My question is, if a mentally ill man says these things, is he truly ill? My vote is “yes”, but Prudholm is a fascinating and contentious case.

This is the best tag of the series. It’s hushed and magical, takes its time, and is one of the few moments in the series where you get the feeling the writers, producers and actors are giving the audience exactly what they need and deserve. Well-written and acted with extraordinary sensitivity, it’s the kind of scene fans always turn to as an exemplar of the series.

Who do you suppose is answering the B.C. Lion’s Front desk at midnight? Some low-level office worker trying to make good with the boss, offering to do the dirty work? Maybe there’s a big trade in the offing, and they’re all there, all the brass, waiting on the line. Harry Mariscipio is the name of the friend of Hutch’s brother-in-law, whose name is Lou.

I like how, in the end scene with monopoly, Starsky says “pelicans” when he means “penguins.”

Interesting that Hutch is very reluctant to start the proceedings. When the clock strikes midnight, he looks terrified. He really doesn’t want to do this. Starsky, the really injured party, has to go first. Is Hutch afraid of a loss of control? It’s rare to see him as vulnerable and open as he is in this scene. Starsky, having a more immediate and natural emotional life, isn’t much different than he usually is. You can tell he’s processed everything that’s happened already, is in touch, as they say, with his feelings. But Hutch is totally demolished. He doesn’t even know what to do. He’s jokey and enthusiastic one moment, scared shitless the next. Without the veneer of sarcasm and superiority it’s possible to see the secretive underside of him. He’s genuinely shocked at the contents of the letter, literally losing his voice as he reads it. I like how he doesn’t even want to open that envelope, preferring to open the gift instead.

Imagine what Hutch is thinking when he finds out the name of Terry’s beloved old teddy bear is “Ollie”, half of the legendary comic duo he and Starsky have been riffing on for years, and the only name they ever call each other (never in four years has either of them said to the other, “that’s right, Stan”). It’s a lovely and believable coincidence and I always wonder if Hutch takes that as some kind of spiritual sign that he and Terry are more deeply connected than the facts would suggest. Ollie, you remember, is the boss of the Laurel-Hardy duo, whose relentless intimidation of his weaker, sweeter sidekick is a mere mask for a deeply insecure ineptitude. Terry may be saying to Hutch that she understands this about him, and in fact may share this trait. You and me, we’re alike. It’s not only acknowledgment of their shared love and responsibility for the Laurel-like Starsky (whose childlike lapses, occasional naivety and sincerity puts him firmly in that category) but is, in fact, forgiveness for the side of himself Hutch must often despise. This gives the whole scene a heart-wrenching subtext quite apart from the grief in the foreground. Hutch has been found out, and absolved. And not only absolved, but encouraged. Terry is saying: yes, you’re controlling and superior, but that’s okay.

Does Hutch keep Ollie? I’d like to think he does. I’d like to think he put it somewhere, like a closet or a drawer, and every time he gets out his spare sheets or the Christmas platter he sees it, and it brings back memories.

Imagine the funeral: the stiff, uncomfortable service at the chapel with the school kids, a few social workers, Dobey and his wife Edith, an uncle and aunt, and a far-off cousin from Chicago. Then, two weeks later, the memorial as commanded by Terry in either a will or, more informally, a letter. Starsky and Hutch having a few at Huggy’s, then a few more over dinner, then a few more at Starsky’s place. The suggestion of monopoly, first refused by Hutch, who doesn’t want to reopen the wounds, and Starsky insisting, saying Terry would have wanted them to play, etc, Hutch saying something like, yeah, well, I’m not doing it here. Meaning the living room, site of many evenings with Terry. Starsky saying, well, where, on the kitchen floor? And so it is, on the kitchen floor, Hutch in drunken loyalty offering to quit the force too, a sloppy “we can do anything together” pledge that has him on the phone calling the friend of a brother-in-law, of the brother of a friend-in-law, or something like that. Saying, “we should have candles,”  to which Starsky at first scoffs, then relents. Thinking that, as a girl, Terry might like candles. So they light candles. It takes awhile to find them, Hutch tripping over the couch, banging his hand on a drawer. They drink some more. Then resume their conversation about quitting the force. Both of them drunk. Hutch says, “My brother-in-law, he’s got this friend.” Then, ignoring Starsky’s complaints, gets up to make the call.

Sartorial notes: Starsky is, unusually enough, a bit of a fashion-plate in this episode. He wears the iconic wrecked brown leather jacket, and the Adidas, and his timeless low-waisted jeans. At the amusement park he wears the red shirt with the white placket, the one that seems to change hands between him and Hutch. Later, he wears a great black and white striped athletic shirt with a black jacket and, weirdly, wears a tie during part of the show (kicking in the booby-trapped door). Hutch wears his usual green leather jacket throughout, and the blue turtleneck we’ve seen before. At the amusement park and mini golf he wears yoga pants in pale yellow. As a footnote he has a Band-Aid on his right index finger throughout the episode.

Episode 24: Murder at Sea

March 3, 2010

The two detectives go undercover on a cruise ship to investigate two drug-related murders, but find more than they planned when they stumble onto a meeting of syndicate bosses.

Helen: Lynne Marta, “Oxey”: Pepper Martin, Commodore Atwater: Will Geer, October Moss: Jennifer Shaw, Eric Snow: Timothy Himes, Edna Zelinka: Kay Medford, Bertha: Carole Ita White, Kitty: Devon Ericson, Harvey Schwab: Ed Begley Jr, First Officer Stafford: Ron Moody, Captain LaRue: Jean-Pierre Aumont, Patsy Cairo: Paul Picerni, Nicky Cairo: Charles Picerni, “Crazy” Joey Fortune: Jose Ferrer, Marty Simon: Robert Walden, Mr. Jensen: Burr DeBenning, Clint Takahashi: Richard Lee Sung, Lord Harry: Zakes Mokae, Tina: Marianne Bunch, Hubert Stuffy: Richard Hack, Lily: Gari Hardy. Written By: Ron Friedman, Directed By: George McCowan.


Let’s get our business over with first: the issues of maritime law. You’ll have to make allowances for my lay-person grasp of things, but just who is allowed to investigate a crime committed on a cruise ship is dependent on many factors. Sea law is partially reliant on which flag the ship is flying under. And because maritime law is difficult to define, with many countries having differing laws, criminal activity is usually investigated on a case-by-case basis. Logically, Starsky and Hutch would never be allowed to go undercover to investigate a suspected drug-smuggling operation involving multiple countries; that would be a case for the FBI at the very least. Criminal activity while in international water is only one part of the picture. There are “internal waters” (the port and canals of a particular state) which have jurisdiction over federal laws. “Territorial waters” (twelve miles from its coastline) and “contiguous zones” (twelve to twenty-four miles from its coastline) allow for the nation’s laws to be considered. Only in international waters does the ship’s flag dictate the laws. Many ships are registered through Liberia or other countries for this reason. Cruise ships are another matter again. Crimes against a passenger may be prosecuted by the city in which the passenger purchased the ticket rather than the internal or territorial area. Many regulations, however, are recent ones. During the time period in which “Murder at Sea” was filmed things were considerably looser. As far as the crimes committed on board this particular ship, it would likely be a gigantic pain requiring years and years of international legal wrangling. The captain’s murder may have occurred in international waters, and the attempted murder of all the passengers in Mexican territorial waters could be deemed an act of terrorism, since it involves the likely mass murder of innocent civilians, but that word, while around in the 1970s, had not yet been clearly defined. Nellie Brown would also be charged with attempted murder, and the assorted gangsters with criminal conspiracy. Whatever the legal outcome, Starsky and Hutch would be in and out of court as witnesses for a decade.

Cruise ships have changed remarkably in the years since this episode. Recent statistics have suggested cruise ship passengers has increased by a staggering 2,000% since 1970, most of that growth occurring after 1980. And with that came larger and more elaborate ships until the new mega-engorged Fantasy and Grand Princess-class behemoths do not even remotely resemble the rather modest ship Amapola. The Amapola dining room looks more like a cafeteria with its low ceilings and cheap dinette sets and simple cabins, very different from today’s multiple swimming pools and vast glitzy ballrooms.

Amapola being the scene of a crime involving cocaine smuggling is nicely done, as “amapola” is Spanish for poppy.

This is the second double-episode in a row and features friends of Glaser and Soul – Soul’s mentor Will Geer, old pal Ron Moody (from the wonderful and strange 1974’s “Dogpound Shuffle”) Lynne Marta as the mysterious Nellie Brown/ Helen Carnahan, stunt coordinator and Glaser’s double, Charlie Picerni, and his brother, Paul (The Untouchables), and even an unbilled cameo by Glaser’s love and wife-to-be, Elizabeth Meyer (memorably sitting at Takahashi’s table during the talent show). Like most of the double episodes, this one is not exactly helped by the format. Would it have been a better episode if it was tightly fitted in an hour, minus the dumb gags and extensive back-story? Maybe, or maybe not. I confess I would have dearly missed the “talent show”.

The two-week shoot was a working vacation for Glaser and Soul, with some of the passengers filling in as extras. It was not an easy shoot, though, particularly the bomb search scene which was filmed in tight quarters with boxes that were weighted for the sake of reality and it was probably oppressively hot and putrid. One cute inside joke is Glaser and Soul’s smirk when Huggy says the line about being the “Houdini with soul”, since Glaser filmed a biography of the great Harry Houdini and is literally with Soul.

I am one of those people completely spooked by masks and so I’m a big baby when it comes to the first scene of the episode when Jensen kills Snow. More savvy viewers than I could probably name the character’s mask this is but my guess would be an ape from the Planet of the Apes films. Whatever it is, it scares me. However, I uncovered my eyes long enough to wonder why he bothered with a mask at all, since the docks were deserted and it was more than probable there would be no witnesses, and even if there were and someone provided the police with detail of the mask, why would he keep it? This leaves open the speculation Jenson did not intend to kill Snow, but merely wound him – gangster style – as a way of ensuring his silent loyalty.

Helen Carnahan does something really dumb in this first scene: she turns on her car’s engine and squeals away following the stabbing death of her contact rather than simply ducking down and waiting it out. The killer had no idea she was there and would have run off, allowing her to check if purser Eric Snow was still alive and perhaps provide lifesaving first aid, or at the very least phone the police anonymously. Her lack of common sense is a bit frustrating. Throughout the episode she continues to make questionable decisions: lying to police, striking out at Starsky and Hutch, getting herself into a complex and dangerous situation that gets way over her head, and even her final act of revenge, while nicely done and perversely brave, has not been well thought out by someone who presumably has had years of thinking to do. Although we eventually come to understand her motives, her general sense of judgement is way off.

Hutch stops the ambulance attendant and spends a few seconds lifting the sheet and staring at the victim’s face. This is presumably after the scene, and victim, has been carefully investigated. Is he just double-checking his notes (“victim is male caucasian with brown hair”) or is he looking for a flash of inspiration as to the motive for the murder?

No longer the sole province of province of sailors and criminals, times certainly have changed for tattoos. Harry Persons is seen as an outsider and a genial weirdo, hanging out at the docks for customers, his “special” – a hilarious pastiche of the worst of tattoos, a spider and heart thing, with “born to make whoopee” emblazoned across it – making the guys cringe. Starsky’s refusal of Harry’s offer of his “special” is wonderful, especially through his east-coast drawl: “Nah, too common. Everybody’s got hawts and spidahs.” (A joke, incidentally, for his partner only: they grin at each other, briefly forgetting why they’re there.)

I like the perfectly timed joke about Hutch being a kid fifteen hundred miles from the sea and yet managing to be a sea scout. “How’d you manage that?” Starsky asks. “It wasn’t easy,” he says. All we need is a rim shot.

It’s a beautifully choreographed fight scene as Starsky and Hutch are attacked out of nowhere, and a creative use of two sets of legs. But security honcho Oxey’s actions make absolutely no sense, no matter how he tries to spin it. If he’s port police, why not call for backup when he’s attacked and beaten unconscious? Why not shout “stop, police!” when he spots two strangers on the ship? Both these precautions are the very least an officer of the law should do in that situation. Perhaps he’s been impaired by a concussion into acting rashly.

Repeats: the guys repeat Oxey’s name several times, emphasizing the implication he is tough and dumb as an ox. Then they also repeat the word “commodore” several times as if to emphasize the unusual antiquity of the word. Hutch repeats the name “Clark” later, as if to emphasize how fake it sounds.

The commodore’s office comes right out of a Victorian novel. Dark wood paneling and velvet and lace curtains blot out the sun, brandy snifters, model ships, brass telescopes and other seafaring relics clutter the room. This does not seem reasonable in a busy international port. The commodore himself is a nasty old man – he flicks out his tongue when mentioning the singles scene – but was probably intended to be old-fashioned and even charming at the time. He also claims not to know “one-tenth” of the men on any of the ships but appears to have instant recall of one of Snow’s many girlfriends, down to her hair color.

Why does Helen Carnahan bother putting on her shoes to answer the door? You’d think she should cover up her skimpy “yoga suit” or whatever that is, rather than just slipping on a pair of shoes in her own carpeted apartment. However she does, eventually, put on the world’s ugliest skirt.

Not that it matters much, but October Moss says she and Eric Snow broke up weeks ago, and that he was so violent during their relationship she was forced to take on a roommate as protection and company. Then why is she a sobbing wreck to hear of his death? I can accept she may just be the most tender-hearted person ever but it still seems a tiny bit histrionic. She asks none of the questions (“Why? How did it happen?”) that most heart-broken people might ask, and in the next scene we see her as cheerful and lively as if nothing bad had ever happened.

Why to the guys assume Huggy will know Eric Snow? He’s just a small-time coke dealer and not very important. Huggy’s reach probably doesn’t extend to the shipping trade. And yet they head for him all the same, and ta-dah, like magic, he knows all the answers. It’s amusing when they leave Huggy in his straight jacket, but all the same, once you think about it, it’s more cruel than funny, as this pranking the prankster could lead to something genuinely dangerous. They don’t even look back, either.

Starsky and Hutch leave Helen alone in an apartment in which the horrible murder of her close friend has taken place. There is no attempt to secure the scene or make sure Helen has psychological help or even a place to stay until the blood has been cleaned up. It’s best to assume we simply don’t see the more procedural side of things. Let’s imagine that just out of sight an army of scene-of-crimes technicians and helpful family services liaison officers are waiting to take over as soon as the detectives leave.

Just how does an undercover operation go against the commodore’s grain? It seems to be the upholding of the law and preserving the reputation of his ships would be first on his list.

Is the hand-painted Mexican pottery collection Starsky tells the Commodore he is thinking of starting the same one he’ll be talking to Rosey Malone about in the future? And also why does the Commodore looks so startled, then amused, then doubled up in riotous laughter, at such an innocuous comment? He then says the two detectives are “picturesque” and Starsky looks uncertain, as he should. The point remains Starsky comes up with this story about pottery knowing it will turn the tide in their favor. How is it he is so perspicacious in this instance? Does he guess the commodore is helpless in the face of whimsy, or what?

“Now all we got to think of is what kind of cover to use,” Starsky says once their assignment is confirmed. And without much of a beat Hutch says, “I got it.” And thus Hack and Zack are born, “songs and laffs”. One wonders exactly why Hutch was so quick to come up with such an elaborate and ridiculous undercover guise. Couldn’t they have just been passengers, or better yet crew members so they could have access to the closed-off parts of the ship? Why this, this weird vaudeville act? Is this something Hutch has been wanting to do for ages? In “The Shootout” tag he seems to be barely tolerating his partner’s own songs and laffs routine but now he’s anxious to participate. Maybe he’d been thinking for years, gosh, I really want to do a song and dance routine, but how?

It’s very funny that the photographs on the sandwich board are the famous posed publicity shots of the two actors, a bewildering merging of real and fiction with meta-real and meta-fiction.

Hack and Zack meet Mr. Takahashi (played by an actor of Chinese and not Japanese descent, an annoying miscast of its time). Right off the bat Hutch can’t pronounce his name and in fact throughout the episode will mispronounce that name in a hundred creative ways (showing David Soul’s verbal dexterity). Starsky whispers “Japanese” to Hutch and Mr. Takahashi, rightly indignant, says he’s a “red-blooded American from Houston, Texas”. Making things worse, Starsky puts his hands together, bows, and utters what sounds like a genuine Japanese phrase of apology. And it all goes downhill from here, because at this moment the episode takes off its detective hat and puts on its clown shoes.

It’s all aboard the double-decker entendre as Hutch sees the Bayside Singles girls bouncing down the gangplank and says to one of the girls, “don’t you have nice large … signs”, presumably referring to the t-shirt she is wearing. She says, “so do you,” and Hutch glances down at himself and grins, “thank you very much.” Suddenly, from the grim reality of a murdered coke dealer, the shows veers off into sexual shenanigans, mariachi music, eccentric passengers, and inane games of Simon Says.

Hutch, in a sudden case of nerves (as Zack? Or himself?), does a strange performance by repeating “Clark, clark, clark”, like a duck.

It is amusing to see Charlie Picerini, as the brother to mobster Clark, give Starsky a meaningful glance as they walk by.

Why is it that neither of them want to be “Hack”? What’s the difference? Anyway, as usual, Starsky loses. Hutch gives him the name “Hack Tuppleman” as a sort of ultra-Catskills moniker, for his own private amusement.

Uptight singles club manager Harvey Schwab is seen as a cuckold and a prude. His girl Kitty is what would then be called a nymphomaniac, a giggling ditz whose nonstop (and nonpartisan) promiscuity is played for laughs. Both these typically 70s characters make me more queasy than ocean swells.

For such a central character, Helen Carnahan is all mixed up. I always get the feeling writer Ron Friedman likes her but has no idea what to do with her. She gets First Officer Stafford to ask Starsky and Hutch to meet her in her cabin even though there is absolutely no reason for a) involving the ship’s crew or b) alerting Starsky and Hutch to her involvement. They have no idea she’s there, so why tell them? When they meet her she’s obstructive and combative, refusing to say who she really is or what she wants, or why she went through all that trouble to get them to her cabin in the first place. Why arrange a meeting only to throw up all kinds of road blocks, especially if she wanted to be left alone to perform the one task she swore on her father’s grave she would do? Later, Helen tells Starsky and Hutch they have “no jurisdiction here.” Do they? The ship is probably still in territorial waters and they could possibly arrest her for impeding an investigation if they wanted to.

Hutch can’t help but be sanctimonious about knowing “navy time” and uses every opportunity to rub Starsky’s face in it, but for most of this show this is the only evidence of his habitual superiority.

How come it takes so long to get a passenger list?

Starsky comments, “You don’t kill a couple of people to cover up some misdemeanor convictions.” True, but if that is all it was, it wouldn’t warrant sending in two undercover detectives either.

It’s interesting that both Captain and First Officer are both so obnoxious and bad-tempered. And also that Hutch, rather than Starsky, is the one trying to control the situation through extreme politeness.

Games like Simon Says and scavenger hunts and lukewarm jokes about marriage and bathrooms seem lame, even for the times, except if you’re somewhere between eight and twelve years old.

Elizabeth Mayer is transcendent in her scene, with her thick golden-brown hair and deep tan, simple black dress and large pendant.

Amateur Hour: Hack tells a whole lot of really bad jokes, but there is a genuinely funny one when Kitty slides between them on her way out and Starsky says, “maybe she’d like us to stand closer together.” After introducing “Mrs. Edna Zalinka from Columbus Ohio” (the marvelous character actress Kay Medford) Hutch finally gives up on the whole stupid charade, throws his paper in the air, and walks off with Starsky. Wonderfully, you can just discern in the darkness that he puts his arm protectively, and affectionately, around Starsky’s waist as they walk out together.

Starsky overhears the gangsters colluding in secret. He then continues on his way, abruptly cold-cocked by Nicky Cairo’s gun, and abandoned, stunned, in the hallway. Now what was that all about? There’s no hint Nicky saw Starsky climbing up to see the meeting. If Nicky did see Starsky peeking in, knocking him down and then abandoning him isn’t very practical. It brings attention to the beating in a way that isn’t helpful to the gangsters. And it’s not as if Stafford interrupted the attack either, since he comes along some time later. So why did Nicky do a half-assed job on someone he obviously saw as threatening? Why not kill Starsky and put him in a closet somewhere?

Hutch remarks they have the “biggest meeting of the syndicate since Appalachia”. The Appalacin Meeting was a held in the home of mobster Joe “the Barber” Barbara in New York in 1957 and attended by an estimated one hundred mafiosi from three countries. The meeting came to an abrupt halt when law enforcement became suspicious of all the fancy cars arriving in the small town and raided the event. While this is historical fact, it’s still absurd to think of a bunch of gangsters stupid enough to draw attention to themselves with their insistence on luxurious automobiles.

You would think two seasoned criminals would be able to kill someone (in this case, the captain) and hide the evidence of wrongdoing, if only to buy them time. The scene is left disarranged and bloody, possibly alerting Starsky and Hutch faster than it should have.

The choreography is great in the scene in which they run up the stairs, Starsky turns the corner slightly ahead of Hutch and then in a split second grabs him, pulls him back, Hutch’s hand on his elbow – which stays there while they listen in on the treacherous plot against them.

Hiding in Helen’s room, Starsky does a funny thing. he draws the curtains over the portholes, then glances through them, as if someone might be looking in. I guess old habits die hard, but then again in a later scene Starsky is able to crawl onto a handrail to see inside Cairo’s stateroom, so perhaps it’s not as crazy as it seems.

“The world’s getting killed around you and you’re out there busting heads and playing macho,” Helen scolds Hutch. “The minute the stakes get too high you drop the case, turn tail and run.” This is a searing indictment and completely without evidence. She’s been angry at them since she slipped on board there is no reason for it. How does she know they’re “playing macho” and giving up? Why angrily accuse them when she knows nothing about what they’re doing?

Helen tells them it was October Moss who told her about Eric’s involvement in the case. So why didn’t October mention this when she learns her ex-boyfriend had been murdered?

The captain is dead and no one on board seems to notice.

I’m not sure taking three hostages through busy passageways down to the hold of the ship is more private than a state room. It looks far less comfortable for these unctuous gangsters – no chance of a meal or a shower, nothing but pallets and hard chairs to sit on – and has a far more likely chance of being interrupted by some innocent maintenance man or engineer. When we later learn what is in store for the group it makes a lot more sense for Joey Fortune, but you still have to wonder why Patsy Cairo, apparently the brains here, fell for the “second location” excuse.

Jose Ferrer is wonderful as “Crazy” Joey Fortune. Perfectly cast, his deep suave voice and physical power – undimmed in late middle age – is impeccable. I love it when he’s caught following the dune buggy chase and he tries to play the victim card, raising his hands and putting on a pathetic waver. This is one canny fox.

Starsky and Hutch know a lot about demolition. They talk easily about impact switches, delayed fuses, directional fuses, pressure sensitive detonators and trembler switches like they’ve just completed a course at the academy.

Now comes my favorite plot twist in the entire two-hour episode, when bad guys are forced to cooperate with the good guys to save their skins.

Stafford finds the captain dead and makes his way down to the meeting room, rifle in hand. Note that he doesn’t attempt to engage any other crew to help him, but blunders into the situation by himself.

The first bomb has gone off and apparently it doesn’t cause any damage at all, since First Officer Stafford seems only peripherally aware of it and we later see Mrs Edna Zalinka from Columbus Ohio happily anticipating more fun and games. No panic in sight. I understand that for budgetary and time reasons the script could not show mass panic, but there must have been a way to suggest it.

One of the funniest lines in the entire episode is said off-camera, when Helen/Nellie cries out, “what can I do!” and Hutch says dryly, “I don’t know.” I laugh every time I hear it, and not only because it’s delivered so perfectly, but because it underscores (in a mean way, admittedly) how useless she is. Stafford does deputize her, however, so she has something to keep her occupied.

“Hey!” Starsky stops them both dead in their tracks on the way to diffusing the bombs. They both stop, turned to each other, momentarily still. “See ya around,” Starsky says. Versions of this wonderful partnership moment, in which life-threatening danger is both acknowledged and then set aside for the greater good – can be seen if at least three other episodes.

Then, as abruptly, the show puts on its crime hat again. A beautifully-filmed and thrilling bomb-hunt is on, the guys leaping over railings and climbing up and down stairs with incredible agility and speed, working seamlessly together in incredibly cramped quarters. No jokes, no wasted time. The background music is nicely done and not too intrusive, and the naturalistic lighting makes it all seem very, very real. Both actors are fully committed to this long, mostly silent action sequence and as a result it is a genuinely stressful experience. This episode was taped after “Little Girl Lost”, during which Soul broke his ankle, so he does all the running and jumping with an injury and probably in great pain. There is a creative shot of the two forehead-to-forehead – actually bracing on each other – pulling the bombs up the ladder.

The sea explosion clip is from the 1958 WW II film “Run Silent, Run Deep”. Rigging an explosion like that would have been unthinkably expensive for a television show; one can’t help but think how CGI has changed everything in that regard.

One of the best chases in the series, Hutch (“I was raised in one of these”) driving a dune buggy and Starsky hanging on for dear life (a scene that they actually re-filmed on their day off after the two stars weren’t pleased with the first take).

Do Starsky and Hutch have their guns on the Amapola? Hutch appears to have his trusty Python after the dune buggy desert chase, but there are no signs of either gun on board. Given what they wear, it would probably been too much of a nice big sign.

And what, finally, becomes of Nellie Brown? Lynne Marta’s finest moment in this double episode comes as she stares murderously at Joey Fortune following her failed assassination attempt. Her large expressive eyes are quite frighteningly cold, and for a moment she is stripped of all the narrative entanglements the writers have strung on her and is pure, in a sense: purely herself, no longer Helen or Nellie Brown, no longer a faux-reporter or a pretty girl entangled in something she doesn’t understand, but Vengeance herself, white-hot and focused. It’s a great moment. If we accept that Starsky’s father was also a citizen gunned down by the mob (possibly as a union man, like Nellie’s father) Starsky and Hutch’s silence on the matter is touching and beautifully underplayed. Unfortunately she is left behind when more pressing matters come to the fore, and is summarily dropped from the story, her fate unknown. I do have a problem with her planning skills, however, as mentioned earlier. She was clever enough to worm her way into October Moss’ confidence and affection, get Eric Snow’s information, and work out how Snow was tangentially involved with Fortune. So why shoot Fortune while he’s standing in a room filled with people capable of shooting back? Why not glean his address in Acapulco (or wherever he’s hiding out), track him down, and shoot him there? Her actions are rash and suicidal – or maybe that’s the point. This is an issue common with the series: they set up a highly motivated killer with a complex story and then forget them three-quarters of the way through as concentration shifts to Starsky and Hutch. Not necessarily a bad thing – concentrating on Starsky and Hutch is never a bad thing – but it does give rise to all kinds of questions that cannot be answered except in our imaginations.

There is a long tag featuring Huggy’s magic show, although why the ship is docked and yet passengers are on board in evening clothes being entertained is not really explained. Are they being held back for questioning? Starsky and Hutch are very funny as they try to hide their anxiety about their friend’s prowess, inching toward the back door to make a run for it. The sword goes in and Bertha screams and this is supposed to be the punch line? A possibly injured woman or – at the very least – a woman screaming for a “comically” unrelated reason (one can easily picture a rubber mouse or some other scare surfacing from the inside of that box). No matter why Bertha screams, you just have to ask: what’s so funny about that?

Clothing notes: at the start, Hutch wears his memorable blue plaid shirt-jacket and tan pants, Starsky his leather jacket, a tan/pink button shirt and leather jacket, and, onboard, the jean short-shorts we’ve seen before and since. The cruise makes white pants a welcome sight, and Starsky looks great in his hippie-style Mexican shirt in the all-aboard scene. Both look fairly respectable in Cruise Director formal wear as they work the dining room. But the star of the show has to be Hutch as Zack in tinted aviators and a fantastic brown jumpsuit with many zippers.

Episode 21: A Coffin for Starsky

January 27, 2010

After someone injects Starsky with a deadly drug, Starsky and Hutch have twenty-four hours to find both the killer and the antidote.

Cheryl: Jenny Sullivan, Vic Bellamy: Gene Dynarski, Sweet Alice: Nellie Bellflower, Janos Martini: Seth Allen, Prof. Jennings: John McLiam, Charlie Collins: Jack Griffin, Dr. Franklin: David Byrd, Sue Bellamy: Carole Mallory, Mrs. Haberman: Fritzi Burr. Written By: Arthur Rowe, Directed By: George McCowan.


This fan-favorite is the last-filmed episode of the season and the first one written specifically for the two actors. I’m guessing in previous episodes some dialogue was either modified or reinterpreted by the actors to make it more their own because the change is so seamless, so perfect. I have read in the past that the scene in the hospital at the end, when Starsky is about to be taken away, had an entire scripted conversation which was edited by Glaser and Soul into a single mute look. This shows most remarkably how both actors were able to forge an immediate personal bond; this real life relationship is indivisible from their performances, especially here.

Of note, too, is how love and affection expressed by Starsky and Hutch – here in its most pure and urgent form – is so sharply contrasted by the rough characters, lewd or ugly situations, dirty urban settings and grim dank hallways. This, for me, is the series at its best; less successful is the last season in which a persistent upscale luster has the effect of diffusing the emotional potency.

It’s interesting the first line is “I can’t.” Starsky’s voice. “I can’t”, he says. “I can’t let …” This is an important indicator of Starsky’s iron will. I can’t let him get away with it.  And he doesn’t. That’s it, we then hear Bellamy’s evil laugh and the journey has begun.

Notice the four-tube Nixie Clock, Russian-made components glowing amber numerals under a smoked-plexiglas case, on a wood base. A 70s classic.

“Hutch. Help.” Two words, that’s all it takes; not many of us can claim a lifeline like this. Picture the unfilmed scene: Hutch arriving in a panic, breaking in and rushing to the bedroom and encountering his partner with no gunshot wound, no bruising, no signs at all that he’s been injured even though he’s unconscious. (The “pre-shot” must cause his unconsciousness, and not the fatal poison; Starsky is conscious and clear by the time he’s examined). It would be a shocking discovery for anyone but for Hutch it’s amplified by the revelation that he alone will be responsible for seeking justice for this terrible crime. Look at his stunned bewilderment in the ambulance – another great moment for David Soul, who is always able to condense a great range of emotions into a single gesture or look.

Several times throughout the series we see Starsky parking the Torino at his apartment so it blocks garages. My guess is that he knows these are storage units and not active garages or he would not have done so; Starsky isn’t the selfish type. But even so, it’s fun to imagine a tenant’s council meeting where they argue about whether allow their oddly intimidating neighbor – who keeps such strange hours, whose friendliness is overshadowed by the fact he carries a gun – to park his car in the most inconvenient place possible. I can see the decision coming to “yes” when no one volunteers to be the one to say “no”.

There does not appear to be any doubt by either the emergency response team or Hutch himself that what Starsky has suffered is, in fact, an injection of a paralyzing agent. If Hutch arrived to find his partner unconscious but with no discernible injury all kinds of possibilities would be foremost in their minds: heart attack, overdose, stroke, aneurysm. However, Starsky has seemingly regained consciousness sometime before the rough stuff happens (stomach pumping is the most obvious first step, but that never seems to have happened, luckily) in order to tell them what has happened. Did Hutch’s experiences in “The Fix” alert him faster to the possibility of poison? Did it lead him to first check for an injection site, and be the one to find the tell-tale pin-prick in the arm? I’d like to think so.

I like how Hutch tries to suppress a yawn when the doctor leads him out of the room, a hint of the fatigue he’s fighting.

Notice how Franklin says formally, “I understand you and Detective Starsky have been partners for some time now” and Hutch reacts calmly, saying “that’s right”. But when Franklin changes his tone to the more personal, “yes, he says you were his best friend” Hutch nervously interrupts, actually waving an impatient hand in Franklin’s face to stop him. He says a curt “Doctor, what are you trying to tell me.” It’s a lovely, subtle moment: formality is good, but don’t try anything else. Franklin is unswerving, though: he says, “I don’t think your friend is going to make it.”

Why does Starsky say he “hate soapy scenes” and makes Dr. Franklin give Hutch the bad news? It only takes a second for Hutch to open the door and confront him with the situation. The soap is in the aftermath, and not in the moment of the telling, something he knows he will not escape no matter who conveys the news.

Original script details included Hutch’s realization that he was intended to be Jennings’ first victim, the revelation that Starsky’s toothpaste was drugged, and a lot of dialogue in the farewell scene (including Starsky making the connection about Bellamy’s education), which was replaced by the long look that couldn’t be scripted.

Hutch, when questioning Starsky, says, “what about the voice? Did you … did you fix a pattern?” This sounds like air traffic control. Maybe Starsky is right when he says Hutch can’t handle this. Remember how Starsky confronts Hutch in a similar – if not more difficult – situation in “The Fix” when he tries to make Hutch remember details following a disorienting trauma. Getting into his face, barking out commands. “Names. Names.” This is much more effective and emotionally real than tentatively asking to “fix a pattern”.

The whole conversation with Hutch, Starsky and Dr. Franklin has the undercurrent of sexual assault. In a way it is, because a rapist inflicts pain for no other reason than the pleasure of inflicting it. “Whoever it was wanted to enjoy himself,” Starsky says.  And then, with a touching attempt at bravery he adds, “It’s about as dirty a laugh as I’ve ever heard.”

Hutch tells Dr. Franklin he assumed because Starsky was in the hospital, that he would be treated successfully. Later, he rails about doctors, “You get sick and they can’t even cure the common cold!” While under a great deal of stress, he has now said two opposite opinions in five minutes. Starsky displays similar ambiguous feelings in “Black and Blue” about the medical profession as well: when calling to find out Hutch’s condition after being shot, the nurse comments Starsky apparently doesn’t trust doctors.

We now come to the only scene in this harrowing episode with a glimmer of humor, and it’s wonderful. Starsky’s display of pique as he releases himself from hospital – “You mean you want me to hit the streets with no pants, no badge, no gun – no dignity?!” shows that he, too, uses Hutch as a means of releasing tension, although more rarely. Hutch plays his part admirably by lamely holding up the watch, the only thing he’s remembered to bring, enabling Starsky to hit the roof. It’s a complex but tidy little moment and terrific fun to watch. A lot of things seem to be happening all at once: Starsky blaming Hutch for something he couldn’t possibly be expected to do – Starsky is so sick it’s inconceivable that he’d be released at all – Hutch acknowledging the importance of a watch to his partner, despite his constant scorn on the subject, and the use of explosive temper at the other as a way of decompressing and focusing on the task at hand. We can see both Starsky and Hutch have the ability to absorb tension and transform it into useful energy. Plus, it’s effing hilarious. Also, it’s entertaining to see how Hutch is able to be subdued by Starsky’s criticism. He recovers quickly, though, bitching as they walk down the hospital corridor about how impossible it is the choose between Starsky’s “equally crummy blue jeans”. Fighting back and refusing to apologize is a way of equalizing the partnership again, Hutch indicating he now feels his partner is strong enough to be trusted, and so his retort becomes both a compliment and a stimulus. The whole scene has a joyous energy that practically zings off the screen.

Hutch knows Charlie Collins well when he calls in, is impatient with him to the point of rudeness. When gently remonstrated by Starsky, who as usual plays the peacemaker, Hutch relents and softens his tone. He doesn’t tell Charlie what it’s all about but tells him to check with Dobey and mentions the hospital, which is almost the same thing. Of note is Hutch’s authoritarian ease even though Charlie is at least twenty years older than he is, and has double the experience. Later, bringing in the files, Charlie apologizes for “the static”, but to Starsky and not to Hutch, and then proceeds to hover anxiously in later scenes.

The name ‘Bellamy’ is an in-joke on quiet director Earl Bellamy.

“The way I see it,” says Starsky, “it’s who-do-we-trust time.” And the two of them proceed to give each other a deeply penetrating look. A stops-time look. The look very, very few people will ever get a chance to either give, or receive, in their lives.

Starsky tells Huggy someone broke into his house last night and gave him “a shot”. Huggy doesn’t ask “a shot of what? Bourbon?” which would be the logical thing to say. No, he looks genuinely upset, doesn’t press for details, and quietly gets on with it.

“11:36,” Starsky says, in the office with Hutch and Dobey going through files of suspects. Dobey tries a joke: “I always did think you were a clock-watcher.” Then, when his joke fails, Dobey does something uncharacteristic and tries for informality. “Now Dave there must be something remember about this guy.” This too falls flat. This catastrophe has drawn Starsky and Hutch so tightly together there is no room for anyone else. “You hear that?” Starsky says to Hutch, “he called me Dave.” Hutch has the death’s-door humor ready to go: “The things people will do to get on a first-name basis.”  “Really,” Starsky says, deadpan. This exchange is for their amusement only and has the effect of pushing Dobey even further to the margins, forcing him to do what Hutch refused to do earlier: apologize.

When you think about it, do you wonder why they call each other by their last names? It’s a custom long gone out of favor by the swingin’ seventies. People, particularly California people, are all about being casual and friendly, hugging people they’ve just met, for instance. Granted, the cops sometimes call each other by last name, but usually it’s senior-to-junior, and Starsky and Hutch aren’t cops to each other. Besides, the guys call the uniform cops by their first names all the time (“Fix”, “Lady Blue” and many others). Are Starsky and Hutch exhibiting an old habit from the academy which is hard to break, is this about keeping up formal appearances, or could it be an acknowledgement of some deeper, hidden truth about each other?

Speculate on Dobey’s miscalculation, calling Starsky “Dave” because he wants to be a real friend, even though Hutch, closer to Starsky than anyone will ever be, only uses his last name. Dobey’s social ineptitude in difficult circumstances is one of the more entertaining aspects to his character. It reminds me of a scene far off in the Fourth Season, in which Dobey is so thrilled by a compliment from a FBI bigwig he forgets to lead an urgent meeting (“Targets, 3”).

Dobey announces, “Twenty possibles reduced to these three primes.” This calculation has always made me nervous. Who’s doing the figuring on this one? Someone had to input information into the police computer system, so how did they know what variables to add? How come Prudholm isn’t on this list, and why do Starsky and Hutch accept this dramatic reduction as a given? Would they be tempted to look at the other names in case something rings a bell?

A cop is, for all intents and purposes, the victim of premeditated murder. This is about as heinous as a crime can get and the one thing, other than a child murder, most likely to rile up the entire police department. Surely there must be ten, a dozen, even fifteen other cops racing around chasing down those “twenty possibles”, turning the city upside down trying to find information that might help a fellow officer. And yet the squad room seems blurry, inert. There are no ringing phones or slamming doors. The other detectives, when we glimpse them, are abstract background shapes. Even Dobey is merely blaring noise that passes for language; he may as well just go “blah blah blah” for all the sense he makes. There is only the two of them, isolated inside their own world, intent on each other and their quest. Nothing else matters. This is when the series reveals its true nature: it is, in fact, abstraction rather than realism. For all its gritty detail, this has nothing whatsoever to do with real life. This may be exculpatory of me to say so, and perhaps is due solely to the privileges of hindsight, but to apply the measuring stick of realism to the series is beside the point. Sure, there are continuity errors and lapses in logic, and anyone can point a finger and say undercover cops don’t do this or that, or list procedural errors and oversights. I have done the same on occasion. But when we notice that all extraneous details have been blacked – other officers working the case, or whether someone as sick as Starsky would even be allowed on the premises – shows us how reductionist this series is prepared to go in order to keep its emotional integrity. (However, when issues become distracting – as in the case of “The Trap” and that rickety impractical barn, or the silly prosthetic in “Quadromania” – does it make sense to criticize.)

How did Janos fit in with the “primes”? There is no mention of him ever threatening to waste Starsky or Hutch, and when confronted he seems genuinely weak and ineffectual. He’s merely a purveyor of pornography with a penchant for assaulting women. Yuck, for sure, but does he really fit the profile?

Hutch first notices Starsky starting to suffer as they walk up the staircase to Bellamy’s apartment. See him take note of a brief lag in Starsky’s step, then the sweat Starsky quickly dabs away as they approach; he checks again as they stand in front of the door – a swift, subtle look that’s easy to miss if you’re not intent on finding it. His face gives away very little, and yet you can read his mind: here it comes.

Sweet Alice is one of the reasons Starsky and Hutch is such a groundbreaking show. She’s smart, sensitive and likeable but also frail and obstinate, a well-rounded portrait of a complex person. I like how she says, in a casual way that implies both are more or less the same, “did you just come by to bust me, or just for a little friendly conversation?”

Is that a mezuzah outside Sweet Alice’s door? It can be seen when Starsky is counting to twenty and waiting to knock.

The whole vaudeville scene at the front of the pornography studio is an excellent example of the psychic energy going on. Starsky and Hutch couldn’t possibly have cooked this banter up beforehand – who is “stupid” and who is “creepy” etc. It’s obvious this a mutually gut reaction, both knowing simultaneously what is needed in the circumstance. I figure most of us trundle along in life with a unique set of instincts based on past experiences, genetic predisposition and learned skills. It’s our own psychic recipe shared by no other. But this is not the case with Starsky and Hutch. Somehow, against all odds, and for reasons I will now spend thousands and thousands of words trying to explain, they have forged and inherited the same instincts. Starsky drives this point home with his comment to Hutch that he tell Janos “a funny story”. Hutch knows immediately what he means and goes for it.

Filming Notes: In the alley, for the sake of realism, Glaser went down quicker and harder than Soul (who was to catch him) expected, bruising himself and genuinely startling his costar.

Starsky feels the need to cut through the intense emotion of the scene with an acerbic tale of his aunt Rose who made him just as sick from the chicken soup she couldn’t “get the hang” of, although she made a good won ton. His jokey response to trauma is a mainstay of his character. Does he do this for his own sake, or because he knows it’ll make Hutch feel better?

I would really like to know what a gum movie is.

“Softly,” Starsky says to Hutch, who is railing away about the inadequacies of the medical profession, “don’t antagonize the people I need.” This quiet admonition is enough to stop Hutch in his tracks – he acknowledges his stupid outburst with a nod and that’s that. Later, when Hutch is ill in “The Plague”, it’s Starsky who antagonizes the people they need, causing Hutch to call him off.

The police lab is shown rarely, despite how useful it would appear to be. We see it again in Season Four, during “The Game”, when the effects of botulism are explained to Starsky.

“How you doing, huh?” Hutch says in the lab. “I’m scared,” Starsky says, and you can tell from Hutch’s reaction that he’d hadn’t been expecting – or really wanting – an honest answer. (This is another example of Soul’s uncanny ability to transmit a complex emotion in a micro-second.) Interestingly, Starsky seems to twig to Hutch’s anxiety because he then gives what Hutch wanted in the first place: sarcasm, much like his face-saving wise-ass comment about Aunt Rose earlier. “Just enough time to catch a double feature at the Riverley and finish the book I’ve been reading,” he says. Hutch responds to this with a gesture of nearly unbelievable tenderness.

Why does Bellamy only get a year sentence when caught with the drugs with Jerry? He had already been convicted of pimping, pushing, armed robbery and suspected of two homicides.

What’s the story with the blue carnival dog Starsky has in his desk? I’ve read it actually belongs to Glaser, which means it has the same mystical properties of teddy bear Ollie. It’s spectacularly ugly, and seems to be at the ratty end of its life. Starsky takes it out of the desk drawer and stares at it, as if it encapsulates a memory, then roughly shoves it back in.

Starsky, in a wonderful moment, says “if this was a cowboy movie, I’d give you my boots”. Using 1950s pop culture references to express deep emotion is something Starsky often does. At the hospital in “The Plague”, for instance, he compares a dying Hutch Captain Marvel. This was a kid, I suspect, who spent a lot of riveted moments in front of a television forming an earnest, black-and-white sense of righteousness, which is why he became a cop in the first place. (Hutch has no such illusions; his childhood was compromised and troubled, his boyhood heroes disgraced – as in Maxie Malone).

It’s really incredible that they are, for a very long time, holding hands in the squad room.  Hutch is so reluctant to break the hold that he practically slams Starsky’s hand down on the desk when Mrs. Haberman comes forward with the photographs, exploding “Lady – !” and then, in frustration to another officer, anxious to get her away from him, he says, “Ted, will you …?”

I like how Hutch unloads Starsky from his arms at the doorway to the Bellamy apartment.

Bellamy says, from his hiding place on the roof, “what’s the matter, Hutchinson? You lose your piece?” And then gives the exact laugh the two have been searching for the entire time. Read piece as peace, which means war.

After Starsky kills Bellamy (an example great shooting – it’s dark and he’s so ill he’s lost much of his vision and coordination) Hutch comes up to him. In what is one of the most beautifully staged scenes between them, he gently reaches down and takes Starsky’s gun, then lays his head against the concrete, leaning into him. Harsh shadows and strong light make this all look very noir. Starsky begins to lose consciousness and they both go down against the wall, and it’s almost romantic, although the word seems inadequate, in the way he locks eyes with Hutch as he does so.

Franklin tells Hutch he has to bring Starsky “upstairs”, which I suppose echoes a death/heaven image; Hutch is trying to be professional but doesn’t want to let go. He goes over to Starsky, leans down close, and says “Hey buddy, I have to go now.” Not you, but me. Starsky has something more to say. He says, “hey.” Hutch leans in closer, but there are no more words. Instead there is a long look that speaks volumes.

It’s always surprising to hear Dobey say, “well, that’s it, huh” when Starsky is back in the hospital. Hutch is right to fly into a rage. But notice this is the emotion that vaults him into a moment of transcendent revelation, solving the case. It seems anger helps Hutch as much as it impedes him: the surge of adrenaline clears his mind and allows him to shut out all extraneous information. “We only have two hours,” says Dobey, to which Hutch yells, “I don’t care if we have two minutes, we don’t give up.”

Why doesn’t Hutch drag the professor back to the lab with him? It would seem he would be of some help in diagnosing the antidote.

Let’s analyze the professor’s thinking throughout this whole thing. Why, if he was so angry at Starsky and Hutch because of what happened to his son, did he not just take a gun and shoot them both? Or get Bellamy to give Starsky an immediately lethal shot rather than a slow-acting one? Why take the risk of the discovery of an antidote? If he wanted them to suffer over a period of time, as he himself suffered, and as he believed his son suffered, then why not give them both the shot at the same time? They would be far less likely to solve anything if both were incapacitated, and Bellamy could have easily gotten to them in the same night. Perhaps the professor understood that one of them watching the other in misery was the worst sort of trauma he could inflict, a sort of “watch your loved one die as I had to watch mine die” manner of thinking. And yet, how would he know how much they loved each other? Did he spend a lot of time in secret observation, drawing his own conclusions as to the way to inflict maximum pain? Why didn’t George Prudholm think this way?

Also, why did the Professor not do the injection himself, and instead bring another person into his plan? Did he doubt his ability to creep into Starsky’s house and do the deed? He’s old but he’s not infirm, and besides, Starsky was already compromised by an earlier dose of something. Was Starsky just coincidentally the first to get it, did Jennings just look at a map and think, he’s closer, let’s do him first and then lose his nerve when it came to Hutch? Or perhaps there was a purpose to his actions. He certainly is calculating, cunning, and nothing he did was by accident. Maybe he thought Hutch would be more destroyed by Starsky’s suffering and death than the other way around. Or maybe it was Bellamy’s idea. Maybe he was nursing an even more poisonous grudge than Jennings. After all, it was Bellamy who really “seemed to enjoy himself”, according to Starsky.

The professor’s daughter Cheryl exclaims, “They tried to protect you in this report,” meaning the report of Jerry’s death and the accidental shooting, and Hutch ameliorates this by trying to explain how his gun accidentally went off while they were struggling with Jerry, who was in a drug-induced delirium. Hmm. First, this means it was Hutch who directly caused Jerry’s death, furthering the questions as to why Starsky was the one to get hit. Secondly, it’s unlikely Jerry grabbed for Hutch’s gun, or if he did it was probably a clumsy, half-hearted swipe at it and certainly nothing to worry about. Hutch has faced thugs a lot quicker and more dangerous than a stoned college student whose brain was “soup”. It’s more likely Hutch shot him on purpose – although why he felt forced to do that will always be a mystery. It’s possible his account was slanted to make the events seem more accidental than they really were as a way of shielding Jennings from the true horror of the incident. Possible, but unlikely, since both Hutch and Starsky have a reputation for honesty above all else, and Jennings does not seem to be a particularly close or valued friend. If Hutch has even a fraction of culpability, for whatever reason, this might explain the very slight, but noticeable, shadow over him this whole time – a sense, not of guilt, but frustration that his own actions might have inflamed the circumstances.

Clothes: Hutch wears one of his best outfits of the entire four seasons throughout this show: brown pants with hip pockets, brown shoes (white socks, but all is forgiven), midnight-blue turtleneck, and a caramel-brown leather jacket (collar up, of course). Starsky wears a tan shirt with a periwinkle t-shirt beneath and his “crummy” jeans. He wears the awesome brown leather jacket. Huggy looks great in the “what it is” scene with his red-brown leisure suit, tortoiseshell glasses, and white hat.


Character Studies 4: Environment

December 25, 2009

Accidentally or not, the “look” of the series is one thing producers and writers got absolutely right. You get the feeling this could be set in contemporary times without too much of a stretch. Aside from a handful of throwaway remarks about Watergate and old movie stars (Starsky, in “Death Ride”, reaches for the name of an actress and comes up with “Helen Hayes”), there really isn’t a lot to mark this series in its own time period. The only politics are inter-departmental and insular, such as a continual but vague intrusion of federal agents into local police matters. The mayor is not named – neither is the President, for that matter – and the enduring relevance and popularity of 1970s culture, its language, dress and political agenda, ensures the series magically, and against all odds, retains a look that can seem very now. After all, people still wear leather jackets and jeans, a candy-apple-red Torino is a sweet ride, and murder, last time I checked, is still very popular.

By design or default, keeping the more clownish or transient aspects of pop culture to a minimum has worked very well. Other than Season Four’s understandable obsession with disco dancing (most likely due to executives demanding the series be “relevant”) and unlike today’s television when the indie rock song interlude is a kind of cheap emotional shortcut, the only music-added scene is in “Huggy Can’t Go Home”. There is a definite lack of product placement in the scenes and a near-total absence of chain stores or recognizable landmarks. The writer Dorothy Parker once described Los Angeles as “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city” and among those anonymous, polluted enclaves is Bay City, a collection of seedy bars, parking lots, sad tenement hotels and mom-and-pop eateries. By being both specific and fictional, this invented borough has a spark of believability as it clings to the city’s underside, out of time, out of reality, a microcosm or perhaps a magnification of California itself, with its celebrity wrestlers, desiccated palm trees, various rogues and weirdos, ratty beach culture, blistering heat and the walled-off mansions of criminal emperors.

We are only occasionally treated to anachronisms – “Discomania” is replete with gold chains and polyester, for example, and the fashions in “Groupie” are the worst the decade had to offer – and it has always strikes me as ironic that the first three seasons look more contemporary than the last. The hulking sedans and unwieldy transmitters seem to blend into the general dilapidation of the neighborhood, although someone of a younger generation, unused to these appliances, may notice them more and guffaw at the predicament of finding a telephone booth to make an emergency call. But by avoiding many pitfalls of attempting to be hip or trendy, “Starsky and Hutch” remains essentially timeless. The feeling we get is one of dislocation and reinvention, that everyone is from someplace else, including Starsky and Hutch.