Some television series hold up over time. Some don’t. The Streets of San Francisco has the poor fortune to fall into the latter category.
When watching vintage television, you expect details like music and fashion to be dated. In the case of this series, which ran for five seasons in the 1970s, it’s not fair to call foul on the disco-tastic soundtrack, the pointy collars, and a profusion of greasy mustaches.
The difference between good vintage television and bad vintage television, however, is characters and plot. Well-told stories never go out of style. They allow us to overlook all the tinted aviator glasses and forget to point out that our heroes could have solved the case a lot faster with cell phone and a computer.
The Streets of San Francisco gets the formula half-right. As detecting duo Mike Stone and Steve Keller, Karl Malden, and Michael Douglas have a nice, laid-back chemistry. Stone is the crusty veteran with a marshmallow center, while Keller is the young rookie who makes all the girls swoon. Malden manages to convey authority and experience, with enough fedora wearing and nickname dropping (“buddy boy” “ace”) to lend the character an endearing folksy exterior.
If the series had premiered today, the young rookie would likely be tortured and rebellious. But Douglas’ Keller is an eager-to-learn Everyman any mother would want dating her daughter. My own mother, who watched the show when it originally aired, offered Douglas’ hotness as the sole reason for her devotion to the series.
The partners are squeaky clean and earnest, standing in stark (sometimes a little too stark) contrast to the sneering and predatory criminals they chase around the city. But the give-and-take between the two cops rings true and Malden and Douglas make it clear that Keller and Stone genuinely like each other. San Francisco the city capably takes the third lead role. The fog, the Victorians, and the streetcars give the series a leg up on the competition — no matter how dumb the plot, you at least feel like you’re really there.
Unfortunately the plots are pretty clunky. Nearly every episode slows to a snail’s pace because roughly 50 percent of the screen time is handed over to the boring and poorly constructed machinations of the villain or hapless innocent bystander of the week. It’s not fair to expect the criminals’ motives to be clear-cut; in real life, they usually aren’t. But writers of The Streets of San Francisco don’t work hard enough to clearly convey why each crime is occurring. Most of the street gangs and murderers are so hapless and obvious about their evil doing, you wonder why our heroes take so long to catch them.
Women fare particularly poorly on The Streets of San Francisco. There are no Marlo Thomas, no Mary Tyler Moores – it’s truly a man’s, man’s, man’s world. More than once we are introduced to the villain of the week when, despite extreme scuzziness, the perp weasels his way into an oblivious female’s apartment. This is particularly jarring in “Act of Duty,” when the oblivious female happens to be a police officer who should know better. A co-worker offers this explanation: “off duty, she was a chick.”
The episode is a prime example of wasted opportunity. The female cop who opens the door to a killer rapist winds up dead. She was dating Keller and her best friend, another female officer, defies Stone’s orders to investigate the case on her own. Flashbacks to Stone and Keller’s past interactions with these characters help, but sadly the audience hasn’t seen them before this episode or since. Thus a potentially compelling plot about Stone’s struggles with accepting women on the force is completely wasted.
Since most of the secondary characters don’t stick around, it would make a lot more sense to focus more on the lives and personalities of Stone and Keller. For proof, look no further than “Trail of the Serpent”, in which Stone is abducted by a street gang. Stone gets knocked around by the delinquents and delivers fatherly kernels of wisdom to the youngest of the group. Anchored by Malden, who we actually care about, the scenes of the evildoers at work are actually compelling. Meanwhile, Douglas finally gets to be a badass as Keller glowers and searches for his partner.
The episode is full of action, including a suspenseful attempted escape by Stone, but there’s also some welcome insight into what makes these two successful partners. Stone is intense, even at gunpoint. Keller’s the nice guy, glad-handing witnesses and suspects into getting what he wants.
Together, they’re unstoppable and incredibly watchable. But The Streets of San Francisco as a whole is too slow to crack the case.