Our Cultural Mirror
It’s a ritual at home, the anticipation of the red Netflix envelopes arriving in the mail, containing the next disc in our movie queue. It’s not the recent Hollywood blockbusters or obscure foreign films that make us champ at the bit, though. It’s our favorite TV shows from the 70s, re-released on DVD. I spend more time watching “Starsky and Hutch” and “The Partridge Family” now than I ever did back then.
Now, like then, Starsky and Hutch reigns supreme. As I pop Season 2, Disc 4 into the player, to settle in for another evening of cops and robbers, dudes and chicks and jive turkeys; Gran Torinos and El Caminos burning rubber across the tube, I have to ask why? Why are these old shows appealing? What’s their significance today?
On a base level, they amuse and provide escape from reality; that aspect of watching TV will never change. Their bell bottoms and sideburns beg to be made fun of and give us a laugh. But there’s something more to it, too. It’s an opportunity to examine how our lives have evolved over thirty years, through a fun house mirror. It’s a narcissistic obsession with our former selves, and in that, an inherent comparison. Is life “better” now? Or was it better back then?
I can’t help but envy Captain Dobie when I see his desk, an empty expanse like a Zen garden. There’s nothing on it but a phone, a lamp, and a blotter. There’s no PC. No deluge of email, ninety percent of which is irrelevant. No IMs interrupt his thoughts. No internet lures him from his duties. As boss of Bay City’s police department, he revels in the ultimate luxury. He gets to focus all his energy, on his job.
As do his two best detectives, Dave Starsky and Ken Hutchinson. Ever wonder how they always catch the bad guys? They’re not multi-tasking. Maybe it takes longer to stop and find a pay phone when they need to make a call, but when you analyze their track record, it seems to be more effective than talking in pursuit, behind the wheel of Zebra 3. They never leave a voicemail or wait for a call back that doesn’t come. A live human being always picks up.
That’s how they did it, back in the day. All of them. Huggy Bear. Cap’n Dobie. Dave and Ken. They engaged with other people to accomplish their goals. No one pressed “1” for English or “9” to repeat menu options. No one entered their account number and zip code of their billing address on the keypad of their phone. A machine was something a human being operated; not something that operated in place of a human being.
It’s so refreshingly old school to watch. People, needing other people, to get along. All the interaction was possible because no one retreated into a virtual private world, bordered by laptop, Crackberry, cell phone and an iPod with Bose earphones, “delivering lifelike sound,” like I witness daily on the train and in the car, at Safeway and Starbuck’s, at the office and on the city streets.
It’s the human element that holds me spellbound episode after episode thirty years hence. It’s the relationship between the two main characters and their cohorts. When the show debuted, much was made of it, that two men were so emotionally invested in each other’s lives. So dare I say it? Intimate. In an interview with the creator, Bill Blinn, he said now, the media accuse Starsky and Hutch of being gay.
I can see how they might misunderstand, compared to our lives today. Starsky and Hutch talked to each other. They didn’t “chat.” They listened to each other. They consoled one another through hard times. They hung out in person, not on “My Space.” They cared for each other. Put their lives on the line for each other; performed their dangerous jobs with excellence.
What’s so “gay” about that? Only thirty years ago we all lived that way, surrounded by the human touch. Because I still crave it, maybe I’m just a sappy nostalgia buff. Maybe, like Starsky and Hutch, I’m just a quaint anachronism, too.
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