Alongside compulsive dives into the deep end of the nostalgia pool, the seemingly inexhaustible supply of television series on DVD presents a rare opportunity to indulge in sociohistorical hindsight (to say nothing of scrutinizing and justifying personal obsessions). From such a vantage point, the private-eye/police detective shows that flourished from the mid-1960s through the late ’70s offer telling insights into an era of intense cultural flux.
Chief among these is the jarring isolationism of the TV dick milieu, best exemplified by Mannix, Ironside, and Hawaii Five-0. Combined with their blinkered portrayal of the fractious social and political movements of the time, this reclusiveness positions these shows as monuments to alienated white male power.
That’s a heavy load to lay on a bunch of middle-aged, B-caliber Hollywood types running around playing cops and robbers, and it’s a bit much to call them defenders of the patriarchy (even though that’s pretty much what they are). For all the buttoned-down, culturally disoriented conservatism that underpins these series, their central characters actually owe as much to television’s long line of watered-down bohemians as to their law-and-order-dispensing predecessors.
In that sense, their lineage begins with Warner Bros.’ small-screen solitary cowpokes of the ’50s—the virtually interchangeable Cheyenne, Laramie, and Sugarfoot—by way of working-class police procedurals like The Naked City (a five-season series loosely based on Jules Dassin’s 1948 film) and the emotionally and narratively robotic Dragnet. The transition from these stoic he-men and line-towing functionaries to baroque isolatos like Joe Mannix, Robert Ironside, and Five-0’s Steve McGarrett came via TV’s brief detour through the Beat milieu, à la The Fugitive and Route 66.
What sets these TV cops firmly apart from their archetypal forebears, though, is a narcissistic solitude passed down from the likes of saddle tramp Cheyenne Bodie and The Fugitive’s roaming rogue Richard Kimble (a victim of blinkered justice, no less) that’s atrophied into outright withdrawal. Generally devoid of family, friends, or convincingly developed co-workers, these gumshoes expose the near-sociopathy of the romanticized loner.
For all the self-pity milked from his forced solitude, the wretched, soulful Kimble (David Janssen) elicits sympathy and outrage, a result of The Fugitive’s novel balance between its lead character’s circumstantial inaccessibility and his personal inclination to form strong attachments (especially with lonely young women, but whatever). And the peripatetic, mopey, youngish men of Route 66, Buz Murdock and Tod Stiles, always had each other, even if the actors who played them—George Maharis and Martin Milner—couldn’t stand each other.
What then to make of Joe Mannix (Mike Connors), a jaded, jovial sadomasochist who earns his living cleaning up after family squabbles, botched attempts at romance, and workplace intrigues that have taken a sub-legal turn. Granted, that’s all in a day’s work for a make-believe detective, but juxtaposed with Mannix’s dogged isolation over the course of eight seasons, interpersonal entanglements of every stripe begin to appear pathological and potentially criminal.
In the series’ first season Mannix is employed by Intertect, a hazily high-tech detective agency that appears to be a bush-league Blackwater, and Joe shares something of a friendship with his boss, Lew Wickersham (Joseph Campanella). But even that marginal connection is dropped in subsequent seasons, in which Mannix’s closest relationships are with his secretary, Peggy (Gail Fisher—an African American single mom who, by ’60s and ’70s TV standards, was strictly off-limits as an intimate companion for a white man—and the unlucky mooks he pummels in virtually every episode.
Natty, coiffed-to-within-an-inch-of-his-life McGarrett (Jack Lord) has a stable of professional colleagues, but for all the fellow feeling he exhibits with his Five-0 teammates—or anyone else—they might as well be wallpaper. This may have been partially Lord’s doing: By most accounts a temperamental martinet, he reportedly bullied co-stars James MacArthur, Kam Fong Chun, and Gilbert Lani Kauhi (aka “Zulu”) into cowed deference, and the flat-affect results make their interactions on the show awkward and uncomfortable.
But Hawaii Five-0 was nothing if not Nixonian in its bottled-up, workaholic remoteness (the show was originally titled The Man), mitigated over its 12-year, ’70s-spanning run by smart writing, stylistic reliability, and Jack Lord’s oddly compelling pansexual vibe. (Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan, the grotesquely dandified poster boy for homegrown fascism in Don Siegel’s 1971 Dirty Harry, surely owes a debt to Lord’s stylized conception.)
Ironside, the first of the gimmick-driven TV cop shows—Raymond Burr’s ex-San Francisco police chief was famously wheelchair-bound—also features unidimensional supporting characters, albeit slightly chummier ones than Five-0’s automatons. This threesome, a kind of proto-Mod Squad played by Don Mitchell, Barbara Anderson, and Don Galloway, was nevertheless relegated to dead-end legwork as their leader exercised his tiresome predilection (one he shares with McGarrett) for solving complex cases via his “cop’s intuition”; Hank Quinlan had nothing on these guys.
Such clearly delineated professional roles—pasty, brainy boss men mentoring/berating groups of inexperienced, frequently comical race- and/or gender-diverse underlings—makes the era’s division of power plain. But it also effectively separates TV’s top cops from society at large, making them closed-off and distant while simultaneously lionizing them. Even more disturbing, faithful viewers like yours truly are probably the best friends they ever had.
What were Mannix, McGarrett, and Ironside, or at least the networks that hosted them, really afraid of? No big mystery there—the early seasons of each series are rife with Hollywood-style hippies (Tiny Tim, the mainstream’s all-purpose longhair oddity, turns up in the pilot film for Ironside) and feature such jokey/derisive episode titles as “... And They Painted Daisies on His Coffin,” “Trip to Hashbury,” and “Warning: Live Blueberries” (a Mannix installment that inexplicably features two live performances by Buffalo Springfield).
These shows didn’t simply respond to the cultural upheaval of their time, which the networks were as reluctant to address as they were eager to exploit; in many ways, they were specifically conceived as reactions to the turmoil. Joe, Steve, and Bob may have patronized and occasionally flirted with the countercultural values on display (particularly McGarrett, incredibly enough), but they were more often than not openly hostile to the disorderly, authority-bucking and—perhaps most threatening—collectivist attitudes of the “youth movement.”
These tactics worked, in a backhanded way: hippiedom as most Americans born after 1970 know it adheres to the snarky, dismissive depictions in these series and others like them. And while the quaintness of such portrayals is fun to snicker at in retrospect—just as the series’ jazzy, ’60s hipster milieu and unapologetic machismo are refreshing to relive—the implication that law and order are the provinces of isolated, quasi-beatnik cowboy holdovers from a fast-fading era of postwar affluence is, finally, stupid and immoral.
The stance was too rigid to be held for long anyway, and the solitary detective/private eye format lost its way down the gimmicky path blazed by Ironside with Cannon (obese), Longstreet (blind), Barnaby Jones (geriatric), McCloud (cowboy, resurrecting a branch of the family tree), Magnum P.I. (funny mustache), and so on. With each iteration, the sleuths became less socially cut off than their forerunners, and in some cases were downright cuddly (Columbo, possibly autistic).
This set the stage for TV police dramas to relax into a more communal mode, with series like Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and, ultimately, The Wire adhering to increasingly realistic portrayals of police work in particular and human interaction in general. Perhaps, like another old-school celluloid cop undone by generational flux and looming disorder—Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) in last year’s No Country for Old Men—the genre simply woke up from a dream.
The loner TV cop does still live, albeit temporarily, in The Shield’s nihilistic, extravagantly violent detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), who’s painted himself into an elaborate corner over the course of the show’s six seasons. Whether he gets busted by his colleagues, snuffed by one of his scores of underworld adversaries, or simply alienated from everyone and everything he cares about in its upcoming seventh (and final) season, Mackey’s arc holds few illusions about what it really means for a cop to go it alone.