Thursday, March 17, 2005

S and H Pure Cop Drama: Starsky and Hutch Revisited

Like most refugees of my generation, I ingested an awful lot of '70's TV in my childhood. But, amazingly enough, I managed to largely miss Starsky and Hutch, one of the era's most popular cop shows, as a kid. So, I approached my wife's spanking new Complete First Season on DVD last November with an unbiased eye and no warm nostalgia to fuzz up my perceptions.

Flash forward four months. As of this writing, I've now sucked down the complete First and Second Season, and am well into the Third, which just came out this week. Like Lay's Potato Chips, Starsky and Hutch ain't fine dining (it was executive produced by TV's hack-a-licious dynamos Leonard Goldberg and Aaron Spelling, for cryin' out loud), but there's some tasty snacking to be had. Betcha can't watch just one.

S & H provided another update on the time-honored buddy-cop show. Paul Michael Glaser played wisecracking and pugnacious Dave Starsky, and former Here Come the Brides regular David Soul was his earnest and more thoughtful (but still butt-kicking) partner Ken "Hutch" Hutchinson. Both of these undercover John Laws worked the seamy side of the street, fighting crime by their own rules, blah, blah, etc. Even thirty years ago, such a concept collected cobwebs. But as a time capsule--and most importantly, as entertainment--the show still exudes an irresistable spell.

Starsky and Hutch served as a transitional show between the Dragnets and the NYPD Blues of the genre, bridging the gap between the formulaic staidness of the former and the more highly-regarded dramatics of the latter. The show's creators also looked to then-current police flicks like The French Connection and Serpico, with their unconventional hip policemen and gritty topicality, for further inspiration.

The attempt to reckon old-school and new-school cop dramas proved awkward sometimes; potentially provocative episodes about rape, drug abuse, and psychosis sometimes got short-shrifted to conform to formula and running times, and you'd be under the table in 20 minutes if you made a drinking game out of Spot the Cliche during some episodes. By today's self-important standards, some of this is cheesy stuff, sketched in broad Magic Marker strokes to fit inside the box that was '70's TV programming.

But you gotta give the show props for frequently tackling gritty topics, years before Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley made them palatable to modern television audiences. And if cliche sometimes won out over innovation, it helped that the actors delivering the cliches couldn't have been better. If ever a show flourished because of its cast, it was this one.

Glaser's hyper east coast personality lent perfect yin to Soul's more cerebral yang. The easygoing chemistry between these guys more than carried the show even when the writing lagged. And the other two components of the ensemble--Bernie Hamilton's surly-but-loveable Police Captain Dobie and Antonio Fargas as the iconic informant/enterpreneur/mack daddy Huggy Bear--got plenty of moments of their own.

Viewed today, even the worst episodes move like lightning, and like many dramatic shows of the era, the series offers a veritable fountain of cool Guest Star Sightings. The boys go undercover as stuntmen in a Season Two episode to protect Western veteran Rory Calhoun; one of my favorite screen psychos, Nicholas Worth, shows up in bit roles in a couple of installments; John Saxon plays a ballet teacher-turned-bloodsucking-freak in "Vampire"; tough guy Robert Loggia delivers some major menace in Season One's "The Fix"; and The Love Boat's Lauren Tewes surfaces in Season Two as a devious legal eagle.

Bravura performances lay nestled amongst the many reliable guest spots. Allan Miller's weary and reluctant psychic in a melancholy episode penned by Michael Mann could be the template for Stephen King's Johnny Smith character in The Dead Zone, and anyone who watched the fluffy sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati will flip their collective wig at seeing that series' nice-guy radio programmer, Gary Sandy, deliver a scare-ya-spitless performance as a mentally unhinged thug in "Vendetta", a Season Two highlight.

The two-part Third Season opener transplants Starsky and Hutch to an exotic tropical island to rescue an infirm tycoon from corrupt caregivers. It's a major shark jump (why are two California vice cops performing Bond-style rescue operations in some pseudo-Haitian tropical paradise?), but still a blast. When you've got Don Pedro Colley chewing the scenery as the heinous voodoo priest Papa Theodore, Roscoe Lee Browne as the avuncular island police chief, and Joan Collins playing a sweet but determined photographer looking for her lost dad (you read that right), you know you're in for a tasty bag of TV snacking goodness.

Then again, just four episodes later, "Death in a Different Place" tackles the murder of a closeted homosexual cop with surprising-for-the-time restraint. Aside from the final requisite gunfight, it's a really intelligent installment, and a LOT less strident than a typical episode of the inexplicably-acclaimed Law and Order. Go figure.

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