Thursday, January 20, 2005

Works For Me

I have a certain bizarre affection for Hunter, probably because it was one of the few action-adventure shows of the '80s to have a really strong female character. I like strong heroines and you couldn't find them -- or indead any regular females at all -- on any of Stephen J. Cannell's other shows, or Maynum P.I. or the rest. Stepfanie Kramer was of course absurd as a cop, with her stuntwomen kicking and punching guys twice her size, and with huge '80s hair and thick makeup, but she was exceptionally likable and entertaining and played everything with a light touch, suggesting (without winking at the audience) that she had a certain consciousness of the absurdity of the thing; that also comes across in her interview on the DVD, where she makes fun of the hair and the bad makeup and the hooker outfits.

Don't let me get too nostalgic about Hunter; most of the episodes on this first-season DVD collection (which I rented, not bought) are pretty bad. Cannell wasn't heavily involved in the show; the pilot was written by one of his lieutenants, Frank Lupo (who co-created The A-Team, Riptide and later Wiseguy with Cannell). Lupo was sort of Cannell without the humor; he could do all the basic elements of the Cannell style -- the terse dialogue, the propulsive construction (Cannell's shows often don't have act breaks per se; believing, like his mentor Roy Huggins, that "a good story can break anywhere," he often wrote in one continuous arc and then figured out where to put the commercials when he was cutting it together), the touches of local color and "eccentric" bit characters -- but Cannell's scripts usually have a sense of humor and an ability to find the humor even in the "serious" moments. Most of his writers, like Lupo, didn't have that. So the pilot of Hunter is a depressingly dead-serious slog through a ridiculous story; there are "comic relief" touches here and there, but for the most part you get the impression that the writer thinks this is all very serious and gritty. And the attempted seriousness makes the rancid elements of the pilot all the more intolerable: the cop-show cliches, the constant brutalization of women.

I really like Stephen Cannell, as a scriptwriter (I've never read any of his novels), and I tend to feel that his problem as an independent producer was that he rarely had any writers who were as good as he was. At Universal, on The Rockford Files, there were three good writers, not counting the co-creator Roy Huggins; most of the scripts were written by Cannell, Juanita Bartlett, and David Chase, and it was a toss-up as to which of them wrote the best scripts. Bartlett did some work for Cannell's company, mostly on The Greatest American Hero, but she didn't stay long; otherwise, Cannell's shows were mostly staffed by people who could do a passable Cannell imitation in terms of structure and characterization, but couldn't really capture the tone. The third episode on the Hunter DVD is written by Cannell, as far as I know the only one he wrote himself; the episode, "The Hot Grounder," doesn't rank with Cannell's best work, but it's everything Hunter could have been: fast, action-packed, funny, with a strong male-female partnership and an avoidance of cliches. Then the regular staff writers take over in the following episodes and we're right back to all the cliches and beatings and silly dialogue. It's a bit like how, in the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon was the only writer who could, or at least did, write scenes that were funny and dramatic at the same time (something I like in Cannell's work too); everybody else was just dividing their stuff into "serious" moments and "comic relief" moments.

The other thing that inspires some affection for Hunter is that it's one of the few shows that has ever brought in a veteran as showrunner (or even a writer). Needing a showrunner for the second season, Cannell asked Roy Huggins, then over 70, to come out of retirement. Huggins, as Cannell recalled, had some ideas after he saw the pilot:

ROY: Get rid of that piece of junk car you have him driving. Only an idiot would drive a car like that.

FRANK/STEVE: Come on, Roy, that's funny. See, his Captain thinks he's a jerk and makes him drive it.

ROY: I hate that part too. He's either a good cop or he's not. If he's a good cop and his Captain doesn't know it, then the Captain is a fool. I don't want to have a fool in the show.

STEVE: But Roy, we like that.

FRANK: It's funny.

ROY: What's funny is he never goes to Bel Air. People don't want to look at trash cans, they want to look at--swimming pools.

STEVE: But Roy...

Basically Huggins threw out the most cliche'd stuff -- the unsympathetic Captain, the eccentric car, the big-hatted pimps -- and made the show a little less dopey while simultaneously retooling it for its Saturday night audience (that was the point of shifting the stories to Bel Air and Malibu and places like that: making the show more "comfort TV" for an older audience). Huggins was, the story goes, kind of imperious and a bit of a jerk to younger writers, sort of setting himself up as the all-powerful God of TV drama; but, since he practically invented the conventions of TV drama -- and particularly the drama that combines action and humor, like Maverick and Rockford Files -- maybe he earned the right. Anyway there aren't many 70 year-olds who got to run a network show, let alone turn it around, so that's one more point in favor of this very, very '80s show.

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