Its first season, 1975-76, "Starsky & Hutch" finished as the highest-rated cop show in the Nielsen Top-30, coming in at #16—ahead of "Kojak" (#20), "Baretta" (#22), "The Streets of San Francisco" (#26), and "Police Woman" (#30). As one of the first shows to combine silliness with serious and violent police work, "Starsky & Hutch" featured a pair of plain-clothes detectives who bantered like a married couple.
But the honeymoon ended just a year later, when "Charlie's Angels" jiggled their way onto America's TV sets. The swinging bachelors and their souped-up Ford Gran Torino dropped permanently out of the Top-30 rankings, and by Season Three the novelty of Detective Dave Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) and Detective Ken Hutchinson (David Soul) and their goofy undercover antics had worn off for all but a core of faithful fans.
I was one of those fans. In fact, as someone who enjoyed the banter between Robert Culp and Bill Cosby nearly a decade earlier on "I Spy," I wondered why it took so long for the formula to work its way into the police genre. As with "I Spy," the episodes varied in quality in direct relation to how successfully the writers and directors were in juggling the comedic and dramatic elements. And watching both shows now, years later, it's apparent that each show's success was also dependent upon the rotating cast of guest stars. Juggling humor and drama is like juggling steak knives and flaming batons. Not everyone can do it. More than a few "I Spy" episodes had minor actors playing minor parts so over-the-top that they became caricatures that affected the whole tone of the episode. The same thing happened with with "Starsky & Hutch."
After taking flak for its violence and car chases, producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg tried to infuse the third season with more drama and issues-related plots. The best of the "relevant" episodes are episodes 6 and 7, which deal with homosexuality and child abuse. Both of them have a predominant air of seriousness that is offset with moments of comic relief—the latter, for example, featuring the detectives dolled up like Laurel and Hardy and doing practicing their schtick for a community benefit. And, of course, they have to bust someone dressed like the classic comedians. It's also riotous when the detectives respond to a robbery in progress at a Laundromat and Hutch convinces Starsky to give up his clothes so he can take them inside and pretend to wash them. All heck breaks loose when Starsky bursts through the doors wearing nothing but an improvised diaper of sorts, which starts one of the elderly hostages on a screaming jag. There are some preachy moments in both episodes, but the message actually helps keep Glaser and Soul from getting too carried away with the silliness. When the two of them are given a longer leash, they can run like greyhounds chasing after a mechanical rabbit. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's just stupid.
In episode five, for example, Starsky plays a mental patient with all the sensitivity and depth of Daffy Duck. The episode works in spite of his performance, not because of it, helped by a lovable inmate who thinks he's a private detective and not hurt at all by Suzanne Somers, who turns in a surprisingly good performance as an undercover journalist.
But you could tell that the well was starting to go dry, because a number of the storylines seemed so similar. In one episode, Starsky falls in love with the mobster's daughter he's asked to get close to, while in another Hutch is the one to fall for a Soviet ballerina he's assigned to protect. But, of course, like western heroes who have brief flirtations with love but always return to their faithful sidekick or horse, the detectives predictably fall short of their personal happy endings.
After 30 years, "Starsky & Hutch" is still entertaining, but in retrospect the episodes are so uneven that, as with "I Spy," each show is a bit of a grab bag. You never know what level of drama you're going to get. The successful episodes are 7s or 8s, while the stinkers with caricatures and plots so formulaic that you won't miss a thing if you wander into the kitchen to fix a snack are 4s or 5s. In my book, that makes this season a 6, overall. Sometimes the detectives' schtick borders on buffoonery, and there's one embarrassing and not terribly correct moment where the boys are in black-face. If you're a fan of Captain Dobey (Bernie Hamilton) and Huggy Bear (Antonio Fargas), be warned that it seems as if those two colorful characters don't make as many appearances this season. I should also issue a dialogue and logic alert. Occasionally there are some really bad exchanges (Hutch: "I'm sorry to see this happen to you, old buddy"; Huggy: "That makes two of us, amigo.") and go-figure lapses in logic (as when mental patients seem to be able to just wander around a parking lot, unsupervised). But, of course, that only makes the show more even more campy than it was originally intended to be.
Here's the rundown on the 23 episodes in this five-disc set, which is packaged to look like the red-with-white-swoosh Torino:
1) "Murder on Voodoo Island" (Part 1)—Starsky and Hutch go undercover on a Playboy-style island in order to check out a string of murders there, and to make sure that the richest man in the world is still running things from his wheelchair.
2) "Murder on Voodoo Island" (Part 2)—Starsky and Hutch go up against the most powerful witch doctor on the island. Guest stars: Joan Collins, Louis Nye, and Dave Madden (from "The Partridge Family").
3) "Fatal Charm"—You have to wonder if this episode inspired "Fatal Attraction." Karen Valentine ("Room 222") guests as a nurse who develops a fatal attraction for the cop she tends to—a bewildered Hutch.
4) "I Love You, Rosey Malone"—In one of the better episodes, Starsky falls in love with the daughter of a mob boss that federal agents encourage him to date in order to provide them with information.
5) "Murder Ward"—The boys play "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in this episode, with Starsky faking mental illness and Hutch going undercover as a new orderly. But someone's already working undercover there: frequent guest Suzanne Somers ("Three's Company"), who's a journalist trying to investigate mysterious deaths.
6) "Death in a Different Place"—Starsky's childhood friend is found dead in a flea-bag hotel, but even more shocking is that the detectives learn that the murdered lieutenant was a closet homosexual. Female impersonator Charles Pierce guest stars.
7) "The Crying Child"—A VERY young Nancy McKeon ("The Facts of Life") and Dee Wallace-Stone ("E.T.," "Voyagers") guest in this episode where a teacher asks the detectives to look into a suspected case of child abuse.
8) "The Heroes"—Starsky and Hutch go all out to impress a reporter, but she gets a different message from their antics. Karen Carlson, Soul's ex-wife, guests in an episode directed from "The Rookies" veteran Georg Stanford Brown.
9) "The Plague" (Part 1)—Starsky and Hutch go up against an international assassin who's bent on unleashing a deadly virus on the city. Guest star: Alex Rocco ("The Godfather").
10) "The Plague" (Part 2)—Hutch's life hangs in the balance as Starsky tries to track down the anti-toxin for the plague.
11) "The Collector"—A bearded Danny DeVito has a small part in this tale of a former child-star who's a loan shark with a new collector that has ideas of his own for running the business. And none of them are gentle.
12) "Manchild on the Streets"—Starsky and Hutch try to prevent a teenager from avenging his cop-father's death. David Soul directed the episode.
13) "The Action"—Melanie Griffith stars in this story of an illegal gambling club that's being run out of an 18-wheeler, with the detectives trying to solve their friend's murder.
14) "The Heavyweight"—The detectives become involved with a former boxing champ whose life is jeopardized when he refuses to throw a fight for a mob boss. Guest star: Gary Lockwood ("2001: A Space Odyssey").
15) "A Body Worth Guarding"—Starsky and Hutch have to protect a Soviet ballerina from political fanatics, but of course one of the detectives falls for her. This time it's Hutch.
16) "The Trap"—The detectives are set up by a ruthless criminal who wants revenge. Frequent series guest Kristy McNichol stars, as does Pat Morita ("Happy Days," "Karate Kid") and Anthony Geary ("General Hospital").
17) "Satan's Witches"—Leave it to the boys to find trouble while vacationing at Captain Dobey's cabin. It turns out the locals are a bunch of devil-worshipping Satanists.
18) "Class in Crime"—Hutch goes undercover as a college student in order to investigate a suspicious professor who's teaching a course on the "philosophy of crime." Glaser directed this one.
19) "Hutchinson: Murder One"—When Hutch's ex-wife contacts him and says she has cancer, the next day she turns up dead. And Hutch is the prime suspect. Veronica Hamel ("Hill Street Blues") guest stars.
20) "Foxy Lady"—A sexy female con artist witnesses a murder but tries to outwit the detectives so she can keep the murdered man's cache of cash all to herself.
21) "Partners"—A flashback episode recounts how Hutch landed in the hospital because of Starsky's reckless driving, and Starsky tries to pull him out of amnesia by walking him down memory lane.
22) "Quadromania"—This time Starsky goes undercover as a cab driver to investigate a chain of strangulation murders performed by a crippled actor who dresses in various disguises. Philip Michael Thomas ("Miami Vice") guest stars.
23) "Deckwatch"—In the season finale, a wounded serial killer hold's Hutch's friend and her invalid mother hostage, with Hutch posing as a paramedic in order to capture the man. Glaser directed once again.
Video: For a Seventies' series, the picture quality is quite good. There's some graininess, but mostly you notice it in the title sequence. Even stretched out to fill a widescreen television there's little distortion and, as a result, distraction. "Starsky & Hutch" is presented in color with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, closed captioned. The colors aren't quite as bright as they could be, but again, that's attributable to the age of the film and the era in which it was shot.
Audio: The sound is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, with most of the sound emanating from the front center speaker. Occasionally there will be an elision of sound as a car peels from here to there, but so much of each show is dialogue that it's mostly concentrated in the center.
Extras: There are no extras.
Bottom Line: "Starsky & Hutch" is still entertaining, though it doesn't hold up quite as well as, say, "Rockford Files" because the quality was never as consistently good. And that's even more apparent 30 years later. A number of the episodes have hold-your-breath dramatic moments, while others are hold-your-sides comic—some of them even intentionally so. The best episodes manage a careful balance, and there's more horseplay than gunplay this season, with fewer car chases and more attempts to deal with topical issues. But, of course, fans of the show will want to own this season no matter what.