Baby, You Can Drive My Car
Like the television series itself, the most attractive thing about the DVD box set of the first season of Starsky & Hutch is its devotion to the detectives’ fire engine red Ford Gran Torino. The DVD box, decorated like the Torino, opens up to reveal five discs painted like whitewalls with mad rims. It’s a winking tribute that indicates the packagers of the collection understand their source material.
At its heart, Starsky & Hutch was a show about a car, with the two leads, detectives David Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) and Ken Hutchinson (David Soul), taking second billing. In the first season’s opening credits (which don’t utilize the famous waka-waka theme that came later), the car is the first thing the viewer sees, roaring out of a Los Angeles alley like an cherry-colored Minuteman missile. The series, which ran from 1975 to 1979, became synonymous with smoking tires, screeching U-turns, and gravity-defying, in-traffic maneuvers. (Those of a certain generation, to this day picture the show every time they make a hard left turn on a crowded street.)
There was irony, of course, in the fact that two plainclothes detectives who were supposed to remain inconspicuous would cruise around their precinct in a muscle car straight off of a life-sized Hot Wheels track. Starsky & Hutch helped engineer the cop show conceit later perfected by Miami Vice that two dynamic, instantly recognizable figures could repeatedly enjoy success as undercover operatives in the same part of town. (And, by the way, they also demonstrated the principle of physics that it is somehow faster to crawl across the hood of your car than to run around the front of it.)
The series was less a phenomenon than a trusty network performer, though it only gained pop cultural stature late, as nostalgia for the groovy 1970s mushroomed. So, it shouldn’t register as a stunning surprise that the first season’s episodes don’t make for must-see television. Part of the reason for that, however, lies in the cops-and-robbers violence that has filled TV and movies in 30 years since. Our desensitized instincts may tell us otherwise, but in its day, Starsky & Hutch was considered violent in an unwelcome, groundbreaking way. In the pilot episode’s opening sequence, two hit men fire shotgun blasts into a parked Gran Torino with two young lovers inside. (A case of mistaken identity, naturally.) The two detectives, paired already, are street-savvy warriors who intimidate informants and aren’t afraid to rough up suspects.
It isn’t difficult to identify the series’ influences. The show was created in the wake of profitable, realistic big-screen cop dramas such as Serpico (1973) and The French Connection (1971). As such, it was filmed in a gritty style that was the rage at the time. (Sometimes, it appears as if the entire series was filmed along three blocks in Los Angeles.) If you take, say, the good-natured give-and-take of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, then use as models for the two partners Serpico (Starsky) and Bullitt, complete with car (Hutch), you’ve pretty much grasped the premise. Right out of the box, Glaser’s Starsky is an odd duck. Clad in his now iconic sweater, a skullcap in his head, he’s alternately high-spirited and sour. He’s the outgoing one, with the blonde Hutch more uptight, almost sedate. (The just released film, with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, gets this exactly reversed.) Perhaps already worried about the series having a gay subtext, the script identifies our heroes as men’s men in their first full scene together:
Starsky: You still seeing what’s her name?
Hutch: Sure. I took her to the whatchamacallit. Then I gave her my thigamajig.
Starsky: I didn’t know it was serious.
Hutch: It isn’t.
Ultimately, no matter how hard they tried, that tough quality the producers sought never really asserted itself. “We’re not like most partners,” Hutch says later, and he’s right. They share a winning and somewhat sweet chemistry, bickering like the leads in a romantic comedy more than anything else. And the show would become less violent and action-oriented, exchanging hardboiled cop plots for the kind of “undercover costume of the week” stories exemplified by fluffier fare such as Charlie’s Angels: Starsky and Hutch as hairdressers, as cowboys, and mimes.
The first season, then, is enjoyable because that dissipation has yet to take place. (This while many of the scripts were written for generic police dramas, not geared to take advantage of the stars’ comedic flair.) The emphasis is on street action and realism, at least, TV realism. In the series’ second episode, “Savage Sunday,” the pair chase a car packed with explosives throughout L.A. (Look for a cameo from a young Suzanne Somers.) In a later episode, “The Fix,” with veteran character actor Robert Loggia, Hutch is forcibly hooked on heroin, in a plot lifted from French Connection II (1975). And in “Pariah,” Starsky shoots a 16-year-old in self-defense.
There are false moments, too. The violence is almost ridiculously bloodless. In “Shootout,” a blatant rip-off of Key Largo (1948) (there are no new stories in Hollywood), Starsky is critically wounded by a mob figure holding the patrons of an Italian restaurant captive during a howling rainstorm. Hutch must keep the dying Starsky alive throughout the episode, but there’s not even a ketchup stain on Starsky’s clothes to indicate that he’s been penetrated by a bullet.
The series isn’t long on supporting characters either, other than the irascible Captain Harold Dobey (Bernie Hamilton, who fits the “angry Black captain” archetype so well that you forget that it wasn’t a cliché when he did it) and the inimitable Huggy Bear (Antonio Fargas) who, despite longstanding reputation, doesn’t arrive as a pimp, but instead as a restaurateur.
Perhaps the most fun comes in the set’s fifth disc, which contains current interviews with Glaser (looking more and more like Robert DeNiro) and Soul (“We wanted to make them men first and cops second,” he says of the characters), as well as creator William Blinn. There’s also a circa-1970s feature about continuity errors in the series and a look at the show’s “third star,” the Gran Torino.
There’s a disproportionate amount of pleasure to be had in owning a set like this. The clothes, the car, the macho banter, the endless rounds of ammunition that strike no one, the angry captain, the renegade cops. Starsky & Hutch served as the template for everything from Lethal Weapon (1987) to Pulp Fiction (1994) to Shanghai Noon (2000). Blame it for that if you want to, but for me, there’s nothing like the real thing, baby.