Sunday, October 23, 2005

Steele Yourself

Looks like the second season of "Remington Steele" will have both stars on the cover. You'll recall that the first season had the worst cover ever, including the stupidest imaginable tagline: "Before he was Bond, he was Remington Steele." (Apart from everything else, he was not Remington Steele. That's the whole point of the show.) And as many people have pointed out, it's eerily appropriate: it was a show about a woman who has to stay in the background while a man gets all the credit, and the DVD cover had her staying on the back while the man gets all the credit.

"Remington Steele" is actually a very satisfying show to watch. I think it's underrated, in part, because "Moonlighting" came along a few years later and sort of stole its thunder. Since "Moonlighting" creator Glenn Caron had worked, not very happily, on "Remington Steele," and tended to less-than-subtly point to "Remington Steele" as the sort of show he was trying to subvert with the post-modern "Moonlighting," it was natural to think of "Remington Steele" as little more than another interchangeable part of the boy-girl detective show format that started with "Hart To Hart," and went on to spawn "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" and various other comedy/mystery/romance hybrids.

But "Remington Steele" was doing its own thing. The best thing about it -- the thing that makes it hold up so much better than most hourlong shows do twenty years after the fact -- is that it really tried to go for the look, feel and style of older movies. "Hart to Hart" tipped its hat to "The Thin Man," but was essentially an Aaron Spelling/Leonard Goldberg type show stylistically. "Moonlighting" had excellent production values, but despite all the comparisons to screwball comedy, never really went for that style to any great extent; it was in large part a satire of other television programs, and therefore its look was sort of a parodic mishmash of other shows. But "Remington Steele," especially the early episodes, really looks -- as much as an '80s TV show can -- like a Cary Grant movie.

The dialogue, the clothes, the sets and the settings come not from '80s cop shows but from the elegant world of Grant/Stanley Donen movies like Indiscreet and Charade; indeed, the influence of Charade is all over the first episode, as well as the basic conflict of having a hero with multiple identities and a heroine who doesn't know if she can trust him or even exactly who he is. The music for the episodes, by Richard Lewis Warren, is a pastiche of the '60s scores of Henry Mancini (who composed the show's two main theme tunes), especially The Pink Panther. And most of the plots openly borrow elements from old movies -- openly, because Steele always points out the similarity to whatever old movie is being referenced: "The Trouble With Harry, Paramount, 1956..."

The other thing that makes the show work so well, apart from the look of it, is the still-subversive twist on the usual conventions of a boy/girl detective story. In "The Thin Man," which was the model for "Hart to Hart" and "Steele" and all the other male-female detective teams, the man takes the lead in solving the mysteries, and the woman is there for support. "Steele" flipped this around, as co-creator Michael Gleason explained:

Stephanie would get tons of letters from women's groups because her character was a beautiful, smart, strong woman. Laura Holt was the brains. Remington Steele was the sex object.

'70s and early '80s TV, especially hourlong shows, was heavily dominated by male characters: cops, action heroes, sleuths. When you did have a show with women doing these things, they tended to be ultimately controlled by men ("Charlie's Angels"). Laura Holt is a character who can do anything a man can do, and better, and she's trying to go it alone without anyone to control her. Her creation of Remington Steele, her mysterious, unseen boss, may well be a parody of the unseen-boss concept from "Charlie's Angels," the idea that a strong woman is only acceptable to the public if she has an immediate superior who's male. The show is an implicit criticism of images and stereotypes: the stereotype that women are the sidekicks, and men the leaders, is so ingrained that people on the show assume Steele must be the leader even though Laura is clearly doing all the detective work.

The only person on the show who really appreciates Laura is, ironically, Steele: as someone who doesn't want to be controlled or pigeonholed either, and who switches identities for that very purpose, he understands that there's more to her than most people are willing to see. He also appreciates her, of course, because he knows first-hand how good she is at what she does. And he is interested in her not in spite of the fact that he can't control her, but because of that -- just as her attraction to him is largely based on what she doesn't know about him.

As the above description makes clear, it's also a show about role-playing. The two lead characters have both built their lives around playing parts and constructing fake identities. They're both con artists of a sort, and many of the best episodes strongly hint that they're not just playing these games to get work; they actually need to play roles and hide behind masks, and the big question is not only who they really are, but why they feel a need to disguise themselves so much. "Vintage Steele" (the Trouble With Harry takeoff, with the immortal line: "He was the Abbott of Costello") suggests that Laura's whole businesslike persona may be an act: Steele meets her ex-boyfriend, who remembers her as a frighteningly uninhibited person. The episode shows glimpses of the way she used to act with her boyfriend, but leaves it open as to whether she was acting with him, or if she's acting now, or just what and who she really is.

The first season offered two other characters who knew Remington Steele didn't exist: Laura's associate detective, Murphy (James Read) and her secretary, Bernice (Janet DeMay). Both these characters had very little to do in this season, and in season 2 they were dropped and replaced with Doris Roberts (as a character who didn't know about the secret, and treated Laura with semi-contempt as Steele's flunky). But Murphy, at least, was an unfortunate loss, because he not only gave the show a romantic triangle -- he was in love with Laura and anxious to keep her away from Steele -- he was the normal, genuine person whose basic normalcy made it easier to understand how weird the two leads were. Murphy, like Steele, admires Laura's skills and doesn't mind taking orders from her; he is basically the perfect man for her in every way. But he's not a role-player, not a faker; in the first episode he's saying how much he hates going along with Laura's Remington Steele imposture, and she waves him aside. He's too genuine for her, too normal; her interest is in people who share her own penchant for playing a part.

Laura has no interest in people who aren't faking to some extent; her career is based on finding out who people are, as opposed to what they pretend to be, and romance is for her an extention of the same thing. "Remington Steele" is a great hybrid of detective story and romance because it treats romance as similar to detective work: it's about finding out what the other person is hiding.

Many of the cases Laura and Steele take revolve around people who have constructed identities for themselves, and the steps they take (usually murderous ones) to preserve the identity and the illusion. One early episode called "Etched in Steele" is about ghostwriters of novels. A key plot point is that a publisher uses a glamorous-looking non-writer, sort of a female version of Steele, as a front for an unglamorous male writer whose novels would never sell if he used his own name. (In other words, a role-reversed version of the show's main premise.) The solution to the mystery hinges on Laura's realization that a writer's reputation is more important to the reception of his book than the actual quality of his writing: it's not what you are, it's the way people see you. Laura is a good detective because she can see through people's fakery and figure out who they are and what they want -- but she can't do that with Steele; he's the one case she can't crack. Steele succeeds because he has the con artist's ability to understand what people want him to be, and be whatever it will take to get into their good graces -- but he can't do that with Laura; he can't fool her because he doesn't understand her.

The weak link on "Steele" is usually the solution of the mystery. Unlike "Moonlighting," where the mysteries never really mattered and where detective-show conventions were openly mocked, the mysteries on "Steele" are semi-serious and play fair according to crime-fiction convention, but they're just too perfunctory sometimes, and sometimes it's all too easy to figure out not only who the murderer is, but why he did it. Still, since the fun of the show is in watching the leads investigate each other, as opposed to the guest characters, it's easy to live with the inevitable moment where the murderer is exposed and tries to run away. And sometimes they put a little character-based twist on that. "Etched in Steele" (not really one of the best episodes, by the way, but the one I watched most recently) has a running gag about Laura stomping on Steele's foot when she wants to stop him from talking in front of other people. At the end, when the murderer tries to flee, Steele sticks out that foot and trips him. He then says, with a glance in Laura's direction: "Good thing I've lost all feeling in that foot."

The first season was in my opinion the best, for two reasons: the elegant old-movie style was at its height in this season, and Laura was more clearly the dominant character in the partnership. In the second season, the main title was standardized to focus more equally on both leads, Steele became more competent, and it inched closer to a standard "Thin Man" takeoff. But it still had some fine episodes to go before it ran the whole sexual-tension thing into the cathode ground.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful analysis of Laura & Steele's relationship. Nice tribute to poor Murphy, too.

Lynn Reed said...

I just happened upon a link to your post and wanted to say thank you for the terrific analysis. I watched the show originally as a teenager, have rediscovered it in the past few months, and have found so much more depth in the character portrayals and themes of the show than I had expected. I'm a graduate student now, and included some academic analysis of the show in a longer paper that I've posted here: I hope to have an occasion to write more about the show in another academic context. I would hate for it to go down in television history as only a lightweight guilty pleasure. In its own way it was as much a quality MTM Productions show as the others.