Posts Tagged ‘Michael Wagner’

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.

NOTES AND QUESTIONS:

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.

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