U.S. Police Drama

At first glance, Starsky and Hutch (1975-79, ABC) seems of a piece with Baretta, The Streets of San Francisco, or even producer Aaron Spelling's own Charlie's Angels--one more post-1960s police series with street smarts and social cognizance, that expresses at least a passing familiarity with youth culture. Yet on closer inspection, swarthy Dave Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) and surfer/sensitive Ken Hutchinson (David Soul), confirmed bachelors and disco-era prettyboys, seem to have taken the cop show maxim "Always watch your partner's back" well past their own private Rubicon.

The series was originally part of a logical progression by Spelling (with and without partner Leonard Goldberg) that traced the thread of the detective drama through the fraying social fabric at the end of the 1960s. Beginning with The Mod Squad (cops as hippies), this took him in logical sequence to The Rookies (cops as hippie commune), S.W.A.T. (cops as hippie commune turned collectivist cell/paramilitary cadre), and finally Charlie's Angels (ex-cops as burgeoning feminists/Manson Family pinups). This was before jettisoning the cop show altogether and simply leaching the raw hedonism out of 1960s liberalism--with The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Family (sauteed in hubris), and ultimately, the neo-Sirkian Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place.

In this context, the freewheeling duo might seem the perfect bisecting point on a straight line between Adam-12's Reed and Malloy and Miami Vice's Crockett and Tubbs. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) had ushered in the "buddy film" cycle, just then reaching its culmination with All the President's Men, and in fact, the pair physically resemble no one so much as the high-gloss Redford and Hoffman assaying the golden boys of broadsheet expose, Woodward and Bernstein.

Yet viewed in retrospect, their bond seems at very least a curious one. Putting aside the ubiquitous costumes and leather, or Starsky's Coca-Cola-striped Ford Torino and Hutch's immense .357 Magnum handgun, which McLuhan or Freud might well have had a field day with, the drama always seems built around the specific gravity of their friendship. There is much of what can only be termed flirting--compliments, mutual admiration, sly winks, sidelong glances, knowing smiles. They are constantly touching each other or indulging in excruciating cheek and banter--or else going "undercover" in various fey disguises. All of the women who pass between them--and their number is considerable, including significant ones from their past--are revealed by the final commercial break as liars or users or criminals or fatal attractions. And should one wind up alone with a woman, the other invariably retreats to a bar and drowns his sorrows. Following the inevitable betrayal, it is not uncommon for the boys to collapse sobbing into each other's arms.

This apparent secret agenda is perhaps best demonstrated in the opening credits themselves. Initially, these merely comprised interchangeable action sequences--Hutch on the prowl, Starsky flashing his badge. But by the second season, the action footage had been collapsed into a few quick images, followed by split-screen for the titles. To the left are three vertically stacked images: Hutch in a cowboy hat, both in construction outfits, and Starsky as Chaplin and Hutch in whiteface. Meanwhile, to the right, Starsky takes Hutch down in a full romantic clinch, the looks on their faces notably pained.

Next follows a series of quick clips: Starsky waits patiently while Hutch stops to ogle a bikini-clad dancer, and finally only gets his attention by blowing lightly on his cheek. Both gamble in a casino decked out in pinstripe Gatsby suits and fedoras, a la The Sting. Starsky, in an apron, fastidiously combs out a woman's wig, while Hutch sits dejectedly, shoulders squared, a dress pattern pinned around him. Hutch watches straight-faced while Starsky attempts the samba, festooned in thick bangles, flowing robes, and a Carmen Miranda headpiece. Each is then introduced individually--Soul shouting into the camera in freeze-frame, his mouth swollen in an enormous yawning oval, and Glaser as he ties a scarf foppishly to one side, frozen randily in mid-twinkle. Finally, a boiler-room explosion blows Starsky into Hutch's arms.

The entire sequence takes exactly one minute, with no single image longer than five seconds. And each scene is entirely explained away in context. Yet in the space of 60 seconds, these two gentlemen are depicted in at least four cases of literal or figurative transvestism, four cases of masculine hyperbole (encompassing at least two of the Village People), several prominent homosexual cliches (hairdresser, Carnival bacchanalian), a sendup of one of filmdom's most famous all-male couples, a wealth of Freudian imagery (including the pointed metaphor of fruit), two full-body embraces, two freeze-frames defining them in both homoerotic deed and dress, and one clearcut instance where the oral stimulation of a man prevails over the visual stimulation of a woman. This would seem to indicate a preoccupation on the part of someone with something. (And this doesn't even begin to address their dubiously named informant Huggy Bear--a flamboyant and markedly androgynous pimp.)


Starsky and Hutch

The tone of all this is uniformly playful, almost a parlor game for those in the know (not unlike Dirty Harry, whose most famous sequence--the bank robbery--is bookended on one side by Clint Eastwood biting into a hot dog, and on the other by a fire hydrant ejaculating over the attendant carnage). Meanwhile, the rather generic storylines consistently play fast and loose with gender.

Altogether, a fascinating digression for episodic television--especially considering that it was conducted apparently entirely beneath the pervasive radar of network censors.

-Paul Cullum


Detective Dave Starsky ...................Paul Michael Glaser
Detective Ken Hutchinson ("Hutch")............... David Soul
Captain Harold Dobey ............................Bernie Hamilton
Huggy Bear ............................................Antonio Fargas

PRODUCERS Aaron Spelling, Leonard Goldberg, Joseph T. Naar


September 1975-September 1976      
                                                Wednesday 10:00-11:00
September 1976-January 1978          Saturday 9:00-10:00
January 1978-August 1978          Wednesday 10:00-11:00
September 1978-May 1979              Tuesday 10:00-11:00
August 1979                                   Tuesday 10:00-11:00


Collins, Max Allen. The Best of Crime & Detective TV: Perry Mason to Hill Street Blues, The Rockford Files to Murder She Wrote. New York: Harmony Books, 1989.

Crew, B. Keith. " Acting Like Cops: The Social Reality of Crime and Law on TV Police Dramas." In Sanders, Clinton R., editor. Marginal Conventions: Popular Culture, Mass Media and Social Deviance. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Culture Press, 1990.

Grant, Judith. "Prime Time Crime: Television Portrayals of Law Enforcement." Journal of American Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), Spring 1992.

Hurd, Geoffrey. "The Television Presentation of the Police." In Bennett, Tony, Susan Boyd-Bowman, Colin Mercer, and Janet Woollacott, editors. Popular Television and Film. London: British Film Institute, 1981.

Inciardi, James A., and Juliet L. Dee. "From the Keystone Cops to Miami Vice: Images of Policing in American Popular Culture." Journal of Popular Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), Fall 1987.

Kaminsky, Stuart, and Jeffrey H. Mahan, editors. American Television Genres. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1985.

Marc, David. Demographic Vistas: Television in American Culture. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.


See also Police Programs; Spelling, Aaron