The Past Blasts Back

I revisited my childhood on Saturday. Well, part of it anyway. Its amazing how many old series are being used to fill the schedules now- some channels, that’s all they do. They never advertise them as “some more old shite” but… well, they have to wrap them up in some cosmetic gloss: ‘Saturday Showcase’ seems to be the latest way of making it seem all shiny: two hours of Hart to Hart, two hours of Charlies Angels, two hours of T J Hooker, three hours of Starsky & Hutch. I defy anyone to get through that lot and maintain their sanity. How bored does one have to be in order to sit through all that?

Me, I treated it with the respect that it deserved: an episode of T J Hooker from its first season in 1982, and then two episodes from early in the first season of Starsky & Hutch from 1975 (well, 1976 here in the UK). To be quite honest, it was a taste of Saturdays of old. I suppose local variances may differ regards T J Hooker (it was in a Saturday tea-time slot in my area) but Starsky & Hutch was a network transmission on BBC on Saturday evenings, 9 pm, so both shows are Ghosts of Saturday Past.

TJ1Turns out Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. Case in point: the episode I watched of T J Hooker, which to my great surprise  featured Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul’s Jonathan Banks as its guest villain Danny Scott, who even manages a curious nod to the The Shining when he hacks through a target’s bedroom door. His partner in crime Cal Jastrow is played by none other than Babylon 5‘s Michael O’Hare. Of course, watching them in a show made from 1982, its not easy to pick them out, the nagging familiarity driving one to distraction until the penny finally drops. The entertainment industry is such a small world, sometimes.

Watching old tv shows like that, its obvious that there was a clearer distinction between television and cinema back then. Its much narrower now, if it even exists at all. That being said, in all fairness, back then network shows had about 22 episodes a year, a huge production workload really (its obvious why HBO etc elect for eight or ten-episode seasons).

Was the world ever safer then than now, were things really so clear, so black and white, so predictable? It felt that way, but of course I was a kid. It does seem watching old shows like this, that they are from a safer age, when television was intended to comfort and reassure and entertain without requiring very much effort from the viewer. The good guys were Good with a capital G, and the bad guys were bad and always got caught. Most of the time, they were CLEARLY bad too, all the various shows casting a veritable Villain’s League of regular shady-looking actors who probably couldn’t catch a break getting any other role. There’s no doubts about the crooks in T J Hooker, nor any doubts about old Hooker himself.: if Shatner’s Kirk could handle Klingons and other Galactic menaces, a bunch of dumb thugs ain’t going to trouble his LA cop. This is all back in the era of old-fashioned episodic television: the close of the episode depicts Hooker going out to romance and bed the latest beautiful distressed citizen that he’s saved this week (Allison, played by TV perennial Lisa Hartman) , but next week the magic reset will ensure she’s gone and forgotten and Hooker available for the next babe. Perhaps its just as well: Lisa Hartman was 25 years younger than Shatner and it clearly shows. I’m not so sure they’d get away with stuff like that now. Or maybe I’m fooling myself. I will just say this though- back then I could never get my head round Captain Kirk wearing a police uniform or even civvies. 

starsky1But the irony is, shows like Starsky & Hutch, as innocent as they seem now, were quite heavily edited here in the UK and some episodes skipped entirely. Were the British public so easily outraged? Starsky & Hutch  was my favourite as a kid. It was hugely successful back in its day, a cultural pop icon which, thanks to the dominance back then of just three network channels, seemed much more a part of public discourse and attention, with the national audience split between just those three (and no distractions like videogames or home video etc), audience numbers could be huge. The show started airing over here in the UK in early 1976, and that summer was all Starsky & Hutch, Adam West Batman re-runs… and those American comic books like Howard the Duck and Captain America celebrating the Bicentennial while we basked in a long summer drought. It was good to be a kid back then. Yeah, there’s that Nostalgia again: just listening to that Lalo Schifrin main title music for season one is enough to give me such a thrill (the music was changed from season two onwards in favour of something more upbeat, and just as successful/and iconic, but there’s something REAL about that first season music). And of course there was that car. That car, oh man, that was the 1976 cop-show equivalent of the Millennium Falcon, right there. I only intended to watch the one Starsky & Hutch episode, but couldn’t resist sticking around for the second Maybe these channels showing all these old tv shows are onto something after all.

The last laugh is maybe on me though, regards Starsky & Hutch, anyway- I had to put up with all those too-frequent commercial breaks- I’ve got seasons one and two on DVD somewhere, if only I had them at hand. Maintaining the 1970s vibe, maybe I should find my UFO and Space:1999 Blu-rays while I’m digging those Starsky discs out. What? T J Hooker boxsets? Get out of here, I was never THAT kind of fool!

Better Call Saul Season One

saul1All things in their own time. When I began subscribing to Netflix early last year, one of the shows I was keen to watch was Better Call Saul, as I’d spent several months of the year prior watching DVD box-sets of Breaking Bad. which was, per unanimous opinion, pretty great, and I was naturally interested in seeing the spin-off show. Never got around to it until now, though, and probably only now because the recent El Camino movie got me back on the Breaking Bad wagon. Oh well. All things in their own time, I guess, sums that up, and my perennial habit of being late to every party, but hey, ho.

Of course some things are worth waiting for, and Netflix now has four seasons of Better Call Saul for me to watch over this long dark Winter ahead. Like I did with Breaking Bad, I’m going to watch a season at a time taking breaks of perhaps a month or so in between.

So a plot synopsis feels largely redundant when there are already four seasons out there patiently waiting. After a moody prologue set in a post-Breaking Bad ‘future’ with Saul Goodman in hiding, the first season of the show takes place several years prior to the original show, with Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer armed with a law degree from an online school. Jimmy can’t get a break, constantly haunted (and tempted) by a shady con-artist past while struggling to prove himself to his older brother Chuck.

The funny thing about Better Call Saul is that its hard to seperate it from Breaking Bad, the shadow of which hangs over it in some of the familiar faces in the cast and many nods to the show. Its an element of nostalgia that perhaps makes it too easy to like, and makes one wonder ‘am I enjoying this because its so good, or just because its more Breaking Bad?‘ Saul Goodman, after all, was one of my favourite characters in Breaking Bad. I read somewhere that Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk with remarkable charm and style that betrays the perfect casting) was only originally intended to feature in three episodes of Breaking Bad, and that the character was so good, and the casting clicked so well, that it seemed to demand more importance in the show and a recurring role, eventually becoming a major character. There’s something just irresistible about Saul and its proven again with him in his own show. I think I could watch him filling in a crossword- he’s plenty fun just hosting a game of Bingo.

Of course that Breaking Bad nostalgia is fed by a drip-feed of fan-service, with Saul’s back-story (and that of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), another character from Breaking Bad, here working as a parking attendant) just adding to the Breaking Bad mythology. Thankfully the series has a life and character of its own and I’m tempted to think it actually informs the original series. The first season ends with Jimmy’s attempts at a legit honest career in the toilet, having come to terms with his true leanings/talent and starting on the path to the shady (okay, criminal) career we are familiar with in Breaking Bad. Along the way there are some great moments, some lovely new characters and relationships and so much promise invested in those seasons to follow I’m having to fight the urge to race into season two.

Might this show actually be as good as Breaking Bad? Hmm. Maybe it could even be better.