Weaving the Fabric of Pop Culture

I’ll be honest with you: I heard the phrase “Book ’em, Danno” long before I started watching Hawaii Five-O in my early thirties. Considering the show went off the year a few months after I was born, that’s pretty impressive. This one little catchphrase (which wasn’t even designed to be a catchphrase; in fact, Steve McGarrett goes the entire third season without saying it) became a thread that had itself woven into the fabric of pop culture. So has the term “Five-O” as a way to refer to the police. That entered the lexicon before the show even went off the air.

Not bad for a police drama.

I talked a little bit about this phenomenon when I confessed that I’d never watched Seinfeld. Some shows just get into the collective consciousness. Seinfeld was one of those. Intensely popular, I may have never watched an episode, but everyone around me did. Immersed in that situation, I absorbed the show via diffusion. Because the show became so cemented into pop culture, I know all about Festivus, Elaine dancing, George’s fiancee dying, Jerry’s puffy shirt, Kramer’s…everything, yet never experienced any of these things in the context of their episodes.

Much like people recognizing and/or using the phrase “Book ’em, Danno” but have never actually seen Steve McGarrett say it in an episode.

Some shows just get absorbed into pop culture.

A sunglasses-quip combo. “I’m so excited!” A nose twitch. “Hello!” Turkey Drop. “To the moon, Alice!” A ponytail flip. “Dammit, Jim.” Tapping the sides of your fists together instead of flipping the bird. “Who loves ya, baby?” The Monkee Walk. “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!” The Bart Dance. “Dyn-o-mite!”

There is an excellent chance you recognized more than one of these. And there’s also a chance that you might not have watched all of the shows these came from.

Who’s to say why some shows find themselves a place in pop culture and some don’t. Popularity plays into it, naturally, but not necessarily longevity. Star Trek only lasted 3 seasons, but it’s impact has lasted a lifetime. Obviously, the fans of the show play a big role, not only in making the show popular, but also identifying what bits and pieces will become meme’d and gif’d in some cases decades later.

There’s no telling what show might catch on, or what bit of it might embed itself into the conscious collective mind. Not every super popular show finds its staying power. You never know what little bit people will discover and latch onto and blow up. Or who will latch onto it.

Say “How rude” or “Did I do that?” to a Gen Xer or older Millennial who lived on TGIF and you’ll get a different response than maybe a member of Gen Z who hasn’t discovered that bit of nostalgia yet. Some of these bits of fabric are truly generational, while other bits span the scope.

If I were an educated person, I might better be able to analyze this sort of thing. Pick it a part and understand how it all comes together.

But I’m not.

Instead, I just marvel at all of the colorful bits and pieces woven into the pop culture fabric.

Holy tapestry, Batman!

Foiled by Miranda

It is a guaranteed scene in a cop drama.

Our detectives are interviewing a suspect, trying to break them, and they say those fateful words…

“I want a lawyer.”

Thwarted, the detectives end their interrogation and look for another way to nail their suspect, which turns out to not be their culprit a big part of the time.

This oft-repeated scene is a brilliant piece of copaganda. The invocation of the Miranda rights is typically presented as a bad thing, a major hurdle to an investigation. Only criminals trying to get away with something would ask for a lawyer or invoke their right to remain silent. Or hell, even ask to end the questioning and leave because they’re not under arrest. But the truth is that these rights are guaranteed for everyone and not just criminals are entitled to use them.

If you’re unfamiliar, Miranda rights are the spiel that used to frequently be recited onscreen, usually when a person was placed under arrest, typically to the tune of: You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.

I don’t think you see it as often now as it’s just sort of understood that it happens. I could be wrong, of course. I watch several cop shows currently in production, but not all of them. Maybe some shows are saying it more than others. But it happened a lot on older cop shows. In fact, there’s a few Barney Miller episodes that make a point of ensuring the rights have been read.

Here’s the thing: if you’re under arrest or being detained, the cops do not need to read you your rights to have the rights available for you to invoke. This is especially important since the Supreme Court decided to take away any repercussions for law enforcement NOT informing people of their rights. The cops do not give you your Miranda rights; they’re already there.

Here’s the other thing: if you’re not under arrest or being detained, then the questioning is voluntary, which means that anything you say can be used against you, but you’re also free to end the questioning at any time. Cops will sometimes inform you of this, but often times they’ll word it in such a way that makes you feel like you can’t really end the questioning or leave. But you can.

When you watch these scenes play out on television, there’s an underlying, unspoken insinuation that an innocent person wouldn’t have to invoke their Miranda rights or stop an interview before law enforcement was finished. And it’s a trap that many innocent people fall into. “I haven’t done anything wrong, so I don’t need a lawyer/I’ll answer the questions” turns into marathon interrogations leading to false confessions. It’s not an uncommon thing.

Innocent people can, do, and should invoke their Miranda rights or leave a voluntary interview.

So should criminals. Those rights are available to everybody.

And even though it is a major source of frustration for our heroes -and hell, even me as a viewer out for fictional justice and firmly on the side of our mythical good guys- I can’t help but get a little thrill whenever I see someone invoke their rights onscreen. Hell yeah, honey. Shake what the Fifth Amendment gave ya.

It’s not like someone won’t be totally waiving their rights and spilling their guts in a full blown confession in the last five minutes anyway.

Make It Fashion

It’s no secret that one of the things that caught my interest when I started watching Hawaii Five-O was the fashion. Sure, our team is typically dressed in conservative suits, but their personal and undercover fits are a sight to behold. Not to mention that you’re dealing with an island vacation spot in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s. So many bright colors, bold patterns, and a broad assortment of people wearing them.

It’s a glorious time capsule.

In fact, it covers the end of one decade, the entirety of the next decade, and the very beginning of a third decade, which shows off the evolution of fashion during that particular time period. In that time span, dresses are going from short shifts to waist-defined and below the knees; the skirts go from minis to maxis; bell bottoms grow and waist-lines lower; even the suits change, with the widths of lapels and ties changing.

Not only that, this is Hawai’i fashion. In addition to what you might find on TV at the time, the standard styles and the styles indicative of certain groups like hippies, you also got island fashion, both residential and vacation. Yes, there are a lot of Aloha shirts and matching Aloha outfits and other threads common to vacationers and required of those working in the tourist trade. And the colors and patterns are glorious. But there’s also what the average, everyday people wear while working in the markets or on boats or doing their shopping. And there are muumuus. So many glorious muumuus.

That’s what’s so great about Rerun Fashion: it tells us so much.

Iris Apfel once talked about fashion as being a sort of record for history. You can tell what was going on in the world at the time by what people wore.

I feel that way about TV fashion as well (however I’m not nearly as cool or as well-dressed as Iris Apfel). We’re not only getting a glimpse into the fashion and styles of the time, which provides its own little insight into what the world was like, but we’re also getting that all filtered through the characters that are wearing it.

Obviously, Steve McGarrett is my favorite example of this.

While the Five-O team wore their conservative suits at work, they’re off-duty attire was much more relaxed for the most part, polos and Aloha shirts. And then there was Steve. Conservative, by-the-book Steve had an affinity for ascots, whites suits, pops of color, and some pretty fab hats. You never would have thought it from a man like him, but he was a bit of a fashionista. While some hard-nosed cops have a softer side off-duty, Steve McGarrett had a stylish side.

There’s something especially fab about characters you’re used to seeing in uniform in their street clothes. When the guys at Station 51 on Emergency! change into their street gear, you not only get a glimpse into their off-duty personalities, you also get a glimpse into their off-duty personalities as filtered through the ’70s. That’s why Johnny Gage is sporting these patchwork jeans. Of which I had a similar pair in high school in the ’90s when some ’70s styles had a resurgence.

I would wear them again today, no hesitation.

Speaking of out of uniform, given how infrequently everyone on Stargate Atlantis gets to don street clothes, it feels particularly monumental when they show up in those duds of the aughts.

If you want to look for character definition through wardrobe, look no further than The A-Team. Each character is defined by their clothes. Hannibal with his safari jacket, Face with his leather jacket, BA with his gold chains and perpetual lack of sleeves. A ball cap, bomber jacket, and pair of Chuck Taylors is Murdock. You can see that from space.

There was a similar situation on the ’60s Dragnet. Joe Friday and Bill Gannon wore the same suits every episode.

One other thing that I find fun to look out for is how the wardrobe department of shows not only dress characters for their personalities, but also how they coordinate the characters with each other.

One of my favorite things about CSI:Miami is that starting in the second season, wardrobe started doing a little color matchy-matchy between characters. Calleigh’s shirt matching Frank’s tie. Delko and Speed wearing similar colored shirts. By the fourth season, it was full-tilt coordination. It seems like at least one character in each episode is guaranteed to match Frank’s tie. And there are some episodes when there’s obviously a color theme. Everybody sporting a shade of one color. It’s glorious.

On the flip side of that, wardrobe on The Golden Girls did their best to make each woman stand out on their own. Not much in the way of matchy-matchy unless there was a specific reason. There’s one episode that sticks out in my mind in which Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche are sitting on the couch looking like a stoplight -red, yellow, green.

Just like the plots and slang, the fashion of reruns can either be dated or timeless, however it never fails to deliver some sort of statement.

Just pay closer attention to the threads.

Battle of the Sexes

When I watched the first season of Baa Baa Black Sheep, I dreaded getting to the episode titled “W*A*S*P*s”. Right there in the episode description it said that “a battle of the sexes lands on the frontline”.

I loathe a battle of the sexes.

I make no secret of the fact that much of the rerun content I watch (and some of the current content) is “male-oriented”. It’s action stuff. It’s police stuff. Classic cis het guy fare. So there isn’t a lot of quality women content or input. And yes, some of it can be eye rollingly bad. But nothing quite irritates me like the battle of the sexes.

The context is typically of women doing man’s work, whatever the hell that is. I wasn’t raised with gendered work. I was raised with work and somebody better do it and don’t make me tell you twice.

Think of “St. Gilligan and the Dragon”, which I talked about in this post. The women go off on their own because the men are being pricks The women are able to hack it and the men are useless. The implication, of course, is that the men don’t know how to do things like cook and do laundry because it’s something women do and is therefore beneath them. Starving and stinking for their mancards.

Naturally, it’s played for laughs because the battle of the sexes is a frequently used theme in sitcoms.

One such episode that has always stuck with me is The Brady Bunch episode “The Liberation of Marcia Brady”. Basically, Marcia goes on the record that she thinks women can do anything men do and then Greg ends up goading her until she decides to prove herself by joining The Frontier Scouts. For the final initiation, Marcia has to use her Frontier Scout skills to navigate through the woods following a trail that Greg has left.

The twist? Greg has purposely made the trail as hard as possible to follow without breaking the rules. And to everyone’s surprise, Marcia succeeds.

Marcia’s initiation is a perfect example of how the patriarchy works. In order to prove that women can do anything men can do, Marcia actually had to do better than what the guys had to do because the boys were so threatened by the idea of a girl joining their little scouting group they had to actively sabotage her.

Something similar happens in many episodes of Barney Miller whenever there’s a female detective. I can remember it happening with Wentworth, Batista, and with the two officers in “Hot Dogs”. All of the women were seen as overly enthusiastic and aggressive in doing their jobs because it went right over the heads of their male counterparts that they had to be. They had to do everything the men did, but they had to do it more and they had to do it better -and in heels!- lest they be considered failures and ruin it for every other woman on the force.

There’s a similar vibe in the Emergency! episode “The Indirect Method”. Roy and Johnny are charged with training a female paramedic who is described as hard-nosed. Is it any wonder? The pressure is intense. She’s doing man’s work, after all.

As for the Baa Baa Black Sheep episode, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I didn’t hate it. The women were not only good at their job, but also serious about it in a way that was less about being as good as the men, and more about showing their passion for flying. Yeah, the guys tried to treat the ladies like they would any pretty face in the vicinity, but it turns out the women were more like them than they realized. Translation: our fellas got hoodwinked by them.

This battle of the sexes was a little more evenly matched. And while it did have it’s hang-ups and of course, the guys had to save the ladies (though, they didn’t really do anything that fighter escorts wouldn’t do for transport planes other than be a little mushy), at least the respect cultivated between the two groups was genuine and not based on arbitrary standards of excellence.

As a result, the episode got my respect, too.

Heteronormativity Is a Helluva Drug

I didn’t expect to like the reboot of Magnum PI. I only gave the pilot a shot because I’d been watching the 1980 series and decided to compare and contrast. I already knew that Magnum was now Latino and Higgins was now a woman. I went into it thinking it’d be fine, but not for me, like most reboots.

The pilot was a fun ride. I gave it the three episode test (pilot establishes the show; second ep is the adjustments; third ep is the vibe) and ended up hooked.

My one hope for the show was that they wouldn’t default to hooking up Magnum and Higgins.

Well, it was good while it lasted and it lasted until early in the 2nd season. Once it became clear that the endgame is Magnum and Higgins are omg-meant-to-be (and that it’s apparently going to be played out in poorly executed fanfic tropes), it then became a countdown until I got fed up and quit watching. That lasted until half-way through the 4th season. I haven’t given up entirely but I am absolutely half-assing it and I don’t care about the show like I once did.

It’s a shame, but thems the breaks.

And there’s plenty of history behind the continuation of the heteronormative narrative that defaults opposite sex leads or lead/supporting into a romantic tension leading to a relationship.

Obviously, the most known example of this is Dave and Maddie on Moonlighting, a show that so depended on the will-they-or-won’t-they, that when they did, it pretty much cancelled the show (to be fair there were other behind-the-scenes issues that contributed to the show’s demise, too). Also, Agnes and Herb had the much better relationship.

Scarecrow and Mrs. King and Remington Steele drew from the same playbook. On Barney Miller, it played out over five episodes between Wojo and Wentworth before Linda Lavin left to be Alice.

In the case of shows like Tales of the Gold Monkey, it’s less of a will-they-or-won’t-they and more of a when-will-he-commit. Because there’s obviously something going on between Jake and Sarah (hell, they kiss in the pilot), but it’s a situationship that allows Jake to kiss other ladies depending on the plot. There’s a similar sort of set-up happening with Walter and Roxanne on Automan. Are they dating? Kinda, maybe, it depends.

Emergency! actually began with Dr. Kelly Brackett and Nurse Dixie McCall in a romantic relationship, which was dropped in later episodes without explanation (read: break-up). From that point on, Brackett and Dixie were friends and colleagues, caring for and respecting each other in both professional and platonic ways, showing that, hey, it could be done.

I’m not saying that it wasn’t. There were series that didn’t necessarily default to the romantic relationship. Della Street didn’t get involved with Perry Mason or Paul Drake (though Paul did nickname Della “Beautiful” and there was some joking that might be considered flirting). Likewise Britt Reid clearly cared about Miss Case and vice-versa, but there was nothing but boss-secretary friendship happening with The Green Hornet. Clearly, it could be done.

But there’s no denying that it could be a struggle. For most of Hunter‘s seven season run, Rick Hunter and Dee Dee McCall were partners and friends, a caring and satisfying platonic relationship that Fred Dryer and Stepfanie Kramer were happy with. But as the story goes, the network and the fans wanted more. As a result, a Season 6 episode informed the audience that Hunter and McCall had once slept together, but it caused an issue with their work relationship.

It’s the default aspect of the hetereonormative narrative, the well-worn path of it, the perpetuation of the idea that the only chemistry that exists between opposite sexes is sexual and the only important relationships are romantic that really grates. Worse, it’s dull. And it’s dull because it’s expected. No other options are presented or considered.

Magnum PI had an opportunity to explore something beyond the default, to establish a couple of opposite sex platonic soulmates without some sort of caveat or exemption (like one or both of them being queer), to really dig into that kind of relationship and do something different.

Instead, it fell for the same quick and easy high that’s been dulling senses for decades.

It really is a helluva drug.

Policing Copaganda

It’s no secret that one of my favorite TV genres is ‘70s cop shows. I don’t know why. You can say it’s because my father was a police officer for twenty-five years, but I think that has little to do with it considering very little of what I’ve seen on the screen reflected what he dealt with policing my small town in the middle of a cornfield.

But that could be why even though I love these shows, I never really thought about them accurately reflecting reality. Maybe because my dad would point out the inaccuracies in these shows. Maybe because as soon as I got my license, my dad drilled it into me that if I got pulled over not to allow the cop to search my car without a warrant. Maybe because my dad has always told me never talk to cops without a lawyer.

I’m sure that’s why I get all swoony when I see someone exercise their rights on these shows. That is like reality in that it doesn’t happen often. Most people don’t know them, let alone use them.

The point of these shows is entertainment, of course. Even Adam-12, which had episodes shown in police academies to illustrate certain situations because it was so accurate to uniformed officer life, had more hostage situations and shoot outs than even a cop in the busiest metropolitan area would encounter.

Action, drama, a witty one-liner or seven, and the good guys (usually) win. I can’t help it. I’m a sucker for it.

And it’s all, of course, fiction.

I think of it as the depiction of ideal policing and justice. It’s what we want it to be, what it’s supposed to be, what the people in power try to convince us that it is (when it’s absolutely not). The police are there to protect and serve, the justice system is fair, the good guys get the bad guys, and the bad guys get punished. It’s all make believe and I prefer to see it on the small screen. Sort of like my affinity for slasher movies. I prefer my violence to happen fictionally.

I blame Jack Webb for some of that. He was a devout believer in law enforcement and the justice system. The Los Angeles police department was wildly corrupt back in the long, long ago (save your jokes) and underwent a huge reform (I said save your jokes), which made an impression on Webb. While Dragnet and Adam-12 depicted a lot of the work detectives and uniformed officers do accurately, it was still idealized. A sanitized depiction of the job, the life, and justice. This is the way things work when everything works as it’s supposed to.

The police involved shootings on most of these cop shows is where this idealization is most evident. Adam-12 probably had the best technical depiction, though Hawaii Five-O had a thorough one as well with “And They Painted Daisies on His Coffin”. Even Joe Friday himself had to have his shooting of a burglary suspect investigated. And while they all present the idea that lethal force is harshly scrutinized and thoroughly investigated, these episodes are also constructed to insure the audience’s maximum sympathy to our protagonist cops. Of course, every shooting is always justified.

It’s been said that cops (including my father) felt that Barney Miller is probably the most accurate and realistic when it comes to the depiction of law enforcement. Maybe because it was a comedy it had no trouble depicting some of the mundane realities of police work: the paperwork, the bureaucracy, the budgets, the lack of manpower, the limitations and inadequacy of the law and the justice system. The 12th precinct wasn’t dealing with non-stop homicides like most cop shows. They were dealing with what cops actually deal with the most: petty shit. The show might be a little too honest to be pure copaganda, but it still does its part, if only in a ‘not all cops” kind of way.

The ideal depiction of police and justice continues today.

According to this article, police procedurals today distort the view of how policing and the justice system actually work. These shows don’t accurately reflect the imbalances in the justice system, the abuse of power by the police, the inherent racism, white supremacy, and wealth-bias that’s integral to the system.

And if you watch enough reruns of cop shows, particularly from the ‘70s, you can see how that groundwork was laid. It’s easy to forgive and/or overlook our protagonists playing fast and loose with the law and people’s rights because they’re the good guys.

After all, they’ll tell you that themselves.

The Addict’s Morality Tale

Cautionary tales and morality tales have evolved from stories and plays to television and movies. Makes sense. Go where the people are. And in theory, the tales themselves should also evolve to fit the current times. However, sometimes that doesn’t happen. Sometimes, they stagnate.

When it comes to depictions of drug use and addiction on TV, it can be argued that there has been progress. Addiction is recognized now as a complicated disorder rather than just a conscious bad choice. There are shows out there willing to depict the complexities of addiction now, and even some reruns that took to tackling the topic with the humanity and understanding it deserves.

However, that hasn’t always been -and isn’t always- the case. There’s still a certain stigma around addiction, a residue left behind by the old thinking of previous times, much of which was propagated by television back in the day.

A lot of these episodes were presented as cautionary tales. Drugs are bad and if you do drugs, bad things will happen to you. Over the years, these cautionary tales became morality tales, with only one possible redemption for the addict.

Death.

Obviously, overdose or some other death by drug-induced misadventure would be the ultimate bad thing that could happen. But it also became the only possible outcome to totally free a person struggling with addiction from that fight. Rehab is nice, but that whole relapse thing…not the nice neat ending one requires in 30 to 60 minutes of television.

For example, in the Season 3 Hawaii Five-O Episode “Trouble in Mind”, there’s some tainted heroin going around the islands and it’s believed that pianist Mike Martin is in the cross hairs. He’s been picked up for heroin before and did some time in rehab. However, it’s later revealed that Mike took the fall for his love, singer Eadie Jordan. She’s got the problem.

Eadie isn’t depicted like the typical addicts that you’d see on TV (and even on the show). She’s not some hippie looking for a high or some stupid kid who thinks drugs are fine and they’re immortal. It’s implied that it’s her job in show business that’s gotten her hooked and she functions quite well as an addict. Steve never suspected her being a heroin user until it was too late.

The depiction of Eadie’s addiction as something sinister. One lapse in judgment condemns an otherwise good person. And even though Mike is trying to help her quit, she still needs it just to keep the edge off of the withdrawal, which the episode doesn’t shy away from depicting.

But this is an addict’s morality tale and as much as we like Eadie, and as much as we want Steve to save the day, there’s only one way this ends.

Perhaps an even more tragic example is that of the story arc of Lt. Aiden Ford on Stargate: Atlantis. During the three-part Season 1 finale/Season 2 opener “The Siege”, Lt. Ford nearly dies while battling a Wraith. The Wraith attempts to feed on Ford just before they plunge into the icy ocean waters. The two of them are recovered in a dormant state with the Wraith still attached to Ford. Dr. Beckett is able to successfully separate them and save Ford, but unfortunately, Ford has received a massive dose of a Wraith enzyme that strengthens their victims so they don’t die too quickly during the feeding.

As a result, Ford becomes addicted to the enzyme. Similar to a person becoming addicted to pain killers after a horrific accident, Ford had no say in this suddenly being thrust upon him. This wasn’t a conscious choice. However, like an addict in denial, Ford is convinced that the enzyme is soldier’s little helper.

The result is him abandoning his friends and his life on Atlantis (and any life and family he might have on Earth). Obviously, the Atlantis crew go looking for him in an attempt to get him help, but in the end Ford escapes. He falls in with (or creates) a group of fellow enzyme addicts and their constant need of the enzyme leads them to riskier and riskier plots, endangering his old friends, which ultimately leads to his downfall, after a brief glimpse at redemption.

Given that this arc played out in the mid-2000’s, it would have been much more interesting to see Ford’s arc resolve in a different way, allowing him to come to terms with his addiction and get the help he needed. But I suppose, there’s fewer explosions in that.

As you may have noticed, the two examples I cited involve people of color portraying the addicts. I don’t think it’s necessarily a coincidence as race plays a part in the stigma of addiction and the portrayal of it. After all, the crack epidemic resulted in a lot of people going to prison and the opioid epidemic generated a lot of discussion about rehab and the nature of addiction. That wasn’t just because we learned something about addiction in the ensuing years.

However, being white doesn’t always save you from the inevitable fate of an addict in TV land. Just think of “Blue Boy” in “The LSD Story” episode of Dragnet.

I have no problem accurately portraying the struggles of addiction. Overdosing or relapsing after rehab is a very real danger. But death is not the only redemption available to an addict.

Our morality tales should reflect that.

Object: Female

Women.

I happen to be one. I know several. I’ve even kissed a few. In general, they are plentiful and varied, all sorts of looks, ethnicities, sexualities, and personalities.

However, the depiction of women in television over the course of decades has been…shall we say, less than adequate, particularly in the case of anything outside of a sitcom, like my favorites, action and police shows.

Ah, yes. It’s going to be one of those posts. Now I’m not claiming to be an expert in any of this; after all, I’m a three-time community college drop out. These are just my observations from the shows I’ve watched. Now stop whining. It’s unattractive.

When I wrote about Magnum PI, I said something to the effect of the women being written by men who’d never met a woman, but had only heard about them from other men who’d never met a woman either. That’s how women were typically written (and still are in some cases). They were usually written as objects: romantic interest, harpy, siren, nanny, etc., convenient plot devices for our male mains, fitted with re-hashed, stereotypical personalities that seldom reflected any actual woman you’d encounter in your own bits of reality.

Going back to Magnum PI, many of the women who showed up in episodes typically filled one of four roles: romantic interest, helpless innocent, duplicitous helpless innocent, or annoying hindrance. I’m not saying that every woman fills one (sometimes more than one) of those roles, but it happens often enough that I feel compelled to comment on it in a blog post. The annoying hindrance is my least favorite (see Kathleen Lloyd as Bridget Archer in “Almost Home”, Annie Potts as Tracy Spencer in “Legacy from a Friend”, and Lee Purcell as Goldie Morris in “Old Aquaintance”). Women who insist on helping and end up creating a bigger mess usually because they don’t listen to Magnum and/or because they’re not being entirely truthful. No offense to any of the actresses involved because they were (and are) excellent at their jobs and did what they could with what they were given, but what they were given were bad Lucy Ricardo impersonations doing a variation of “Why can’t I be in the show?”.

(Given my disliked of I Love Lucy, perhaps I’m being a little more than biased in this case, but the basic assessment of the prevalence of cardboard cutout women stands.)

The Wild Wild West is another example. Every woman Jim West and Artemus Gordon met either needed to be rescued or kissed or sometimes both. Only a few were allowed the personality enough to be villains. And if you’d like to argue with me that the show was set in the late 1800s and so women had limited roles, I’ll just point out that it’s a steampunk Western. If I can suspend my disbelief that some madman has created a device that makes earthquakes, then you can buy into a woman saving herself once in a while and not falling in love with Jim West every time (Artemus Gordon is a different story, of course).

Hawaii Five-O did feature women police officers from time to time, usually for undercover work, and they were mostly competent (and all named Joyce for some reason), though they were typically bailed out of some sticky situation at the very end by McGarrett and cavalry riding in for the final gunfight/arrest, which the ladies rarely seemed to participate in. One Joyce in particular ended up getting hypnotized by Eric Braeden, but I suppose that’s understandable. It wasn’t until the later seasons that they even had female cops not named Joyce as recurring characters (Amanda McBroom played Officer Sandi Wells for four episodes in Season 8; Sharon Farrell played Lori Wilson for ten episodes in Season 12). However, more than one woman passed through Honolulu for a single episode whose sole purpose was to make Steve or Danno feel things. Spoiler alert: dead girlfriends.

Naturally, it could be argued that this is the ultimate purpose of a guest star, to be that plot device for that episode to help propel the story, the fire of the inciting incident. And this is absolutely true.

But that the women were most often only a guest star -not part of the main cast- is part of the problem. Rarely did police or action shows have a woman in the main cast. And on the off-chance that it did, then they were typically relegated to non-action roles if possible.

One shining example of this is Amy Allen on The A-Team. A journalist who begins as a client before becoming addicted to the “jazz” and blackmailing her way onto the team, Amy proves herself to be an asset by not only finding and vetting clients, but by also getting her hands dirty: helping with builds, going undercover, handling firearms, and even blowing up a thing or two. She wasn’t always in the midst of the action, but she was at the very least close by pretty often. However, when Melinda Culea pushed for her character to develop more skills -which would have made sense given the fact that she’s affixed herself to an elite military team, so it stands to reason she SHOULD learn a thing or two- the fellas on the show, in particular George Peppard, loudly disagreed as this was a “man’s” show (just ignore the popularity of Mr. T and the large kid audience, thank you), which resulted in Melinda Culea’s departure. She was replaced by Marla Heasley as Tawnia Baker (a strategically weaker-written version of Amy) to finish out the second season, but once that character was married off at the beginning of the third season (to Barry van Dyke no less!), there wouldn’t be another female member of the cast until Season 5 when Judith Ledford played recurring character Carla, Stockwell’s personal assistant.

Are there exceptions? Naturally. Get Christy Love. Police Woman. Cagney and Lacey. Three women-led police shows. One other notable mention is Sgt. Dee Dee McCall (Stepfanie Kramer) on Hunter, as she was paired with a man who treated her as a partner and didn’t take it as an offense to his manhood that he was working with a woman. The Stargate: Atlantis expedition was led by two smart, kick-ass women, first Dr. Elizabeth Weir (Tori Higginson) and then Col. Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping), and had Teyla (Rachel Luttrell) as an integral part of Col. Sheppard’s team, often kicking the most ass, but who was also from a race of humans that didn’t consider showing emotion and affection a weakness.

It’s been a slow evolution.

Today, women as people in action and police shows are nearly commonplace. Shows even have more than one! The Equalizer reboot is a fab example of this because not only do you have Queen Latifah as badass justice-getter Robyn McCall (I’m seeing a trend with the last name here) and her super cool sniper bestie Melody (Liza Lapira), you also have Robin’s Aunt Vi (Lorraine Toussaint) and daughter Delilah (Laya DeLeon Hayes), who aren’t necessarily in the thick of the action, but are fully formed humans in their own right. There is an emotional weight to the show that is either absent from many action shows or poorly executed and so much of it’s success is due to the realness of the characters. Robyn McCall isn’t your twenty-something, dainty gymnast action hero running around in belly shirts showing off her perfect abs (not knocking them, but they are the default, aren’t they?). She’s a woman, a mom, who has seen some shit, done some shit, dressed to best you in a fight or an argument, and has an astounding wig collection. She’s that “don’t play me” mom in the carpool who just happens to be able to disarm a man with only a clipboard. She’s a complex human with a complex life who is totally relatable despite the fact that she spends her time taking on the injustices of the world in vigilante fashion.

Even the Magnum PI reboot has gotten onboard with Juliet Higgins (Perdita Weeks) and Kumu (Amy Hill), both of whom are badass, yet also written to be actual people. Kumu is my favorite in regards to this because she could have easily been relegated to the role of the show’s Aunty, dispensing advice and island wisdom, but instead they gave her life experience that she wields like a sword and principles she’ll defend until they put the cuffs on her (am I biased? Yes. She’s my favorite).

The show has had its slips back into the ’80s mindset, though, most notably in the Season 3 finale in which Higgins finds herself separated from her boyfriend and unsure if their relationship will continue. TC and Rick’s answer to her heartbreak is to…try to push Magnum into making his move for her. Because ignoring the fact that she’s an actual person going through an emotionally difficult time in order to get your boy laid is what friends do, right? Yeah. They later doubled-down when she got back together with her boyfriend and the couple was going to Kenya for six months, telling Magnum that he shouldn’t have let her go, as if Higgins had absolutely no autonomy in the situation whatsoever. And Magnum had to be the voice of reason in all of this. Magnum, of all people! He was the only one who even considered Higgins’s feelings and what she wanted. It was obviously written as a way to show how much he loves her because he was willing to let her go be happy with her boyfriend, once again, implying that if he didn’t want her to go then she’d have no choice but to stay and not, say, roundhouse kick him in the face and bounce.

The show conveniently reverted back to the good ol’ ways of reducing a woman to her role as an object of affection in order to push the tried and true het narrative and ignored three seasons worth of establishing Higgins as a person of her own. Because when in doubt, center the male.

He’s a human being, after all.

Educational Television

Several years ago now, I saw a movie called Chi-Raq which is a retelling of the story of Lysistrata set in present day Chicago. It’s a great movie, but judging by some of the comments I saw at the time, it seemed that some people missed the fact that it was a retelling of a Greek play by Aristophanes.

Naturally, people pointed out that they didn’t know that because they’d never learned about it in school.

I never learned about Lysistrata in school either, but I still knew the story. How?

Gilligan’s Island.

The first season episode “St. Gilligan and the Dragon” invokes a G-rated version of the story. The women, frustrated with the men and feeling disrespected, decide to go off on their own and stop doing the “women’s work” for the fellas. Mrs. Howell is actually the instigator, citing Lysistrata to explain to Mary Ann and Ginger what they should do.

So at six years old, I learned about Lysistrata. Thirty-some years later, I finally put that knowledge to use to be smug at strangers on the Internet.

Television has a funny way of educating folks like that. They just sneak it in on you and the next thing you know you’re answering the Daily Double on Jeopardy correctly.

Or realizing what the school curriculum didn’t cover.

After the statue of slave trader Edwin Colston was pulled down and dumped in the sea in Bristol, England, someone on Twitter pointed out that much of the racist history of Britain wasn’t addressed in their history classes there. One of these events that they cited was the Mau Mau Uprising, a violent resistance to colonialism by the Kenya Land and Freedom Army against the British.

It seems odd that the Brits might not to learn something about this, even a glossy, white-washed version it. It makes more sense that an American like myself wouldn’t know about it. After all, our high school history classes barely get past World War II.

But I’d heard of it. Why?

Magnum PI.

The third season episode “Black on White” deals specifically with the Mau Mau Uprising, particularly Higgins’s role in it since the men in his unit who were there are being killed off. It’s not an exact retelling of history, of course, but it does capture the brutality of the conflict, something most Americans might not have otherwise heard of.

A little history lesson snuck in between the action and Aloha shirts.

This sort of thing still happens in today’s television. A whole slew of folks were introduced to the Tulsa Race Massacre thanks to Watchmen. In 1921, white residents attacked the Black residents of the Greenwood district in Tulsa, destroying the wealthiest Black community at the time, injuring hundreds, and killing an estimated 75 to 100 people (according to a 2001 commission; 39 deaths were confirmed). Not many US high school history classes paused to even mention that in the race from WWI to the Great Depression.

They say that too much television can rot your brain. And I suppose it can. Too much of anything isn’t good for you. Television is no different, especially some of the so-called mindless junk (I do love me some intellectual Twinkies as a way to soothe my tendency to overthink). But it’s not all brainless twaddle.

Pay attention next time.

You might just learn something.

Reboots of Reruns

Reboots of TV shows aren’t new. The New Monkees, The New Adam-12, The New Odd Couple, The New Gidget, The New Perry Mason, which aired while the old Perry Mason, Raymond Burr, was starring in Ironside, which would later be rebooted in 2013. Oh, and there’s reportedly another Perry Mason reboot in the works. From Dragnet to Kojak, Love Boat to Fantasy Island, Dark Shadows to Mission: Impossible, reboots have always been a thing.

I’ve changed my stance on reboots somewhat. As much as I would love for the people in charge to stop dipping into the pop culture well of yesterday and instead invest in fresh ideas written and performed by those not necessarily straight, white, cis, and mostly male, I’m no longer screaming about the originals that are being rebooted as being untouchable and sacrosanct.

Why?

The reboots are not for me.

If the reboots were for me, they’d just put the reruns on. I mean I love shows that went off the air before I was born. But. Why can’t they be redone, updated, and polished for a new audience? It worked for Battlestar Galactica. The original ran only one season, written off as a hokey Star Wars rip-off, though it was followed by the single-season sequel Galactica 1980. The reboot ran four season, garnered quite a bit of attention and acclaim, and created quite an enthusiastic fanbase. I never got into it as I prefer my Cylons shiny and the bad guy to have a purple light bulb for a head and wear a disco cloak, but even I know that we were all blessed having Richard Hatch back on our TVs on a somewhat regular basis.

I cried foul when it was announced that Hawaii Five-O was being rebooted. But it’s in its ninth season now. The only episodes of it I’ve watched pertain directly to the original (the remake of “Hookman”, Ed Asner’s character from “Wooden Model of a Rat” coming back, their take on “Cocoon” for the season 9 opener) and while I appreciated those episodes and the fact that show goes out of its way to pay such homage and respect to the original, I’ve never felt compelled to watch it on the reg. It’s not for me. But other people enjoy it plenty.

To me, it’s actually a good example of a reboot. The love for the original is plainly visible. The important elements are intact. The stories and cast have been updated, the characters tweaked, but at their core, they’re very familiar.

The reboot of Magnum PI appears to be going in this direction, which makes sense since the guy who developed it also developed the Hawaii Five-0 and MacGyver reboots. I watched the first few episodes, and I think the respect is very much there. No, Magnum doesn’t have a mustache (though there was a mustache reference in the second episode), but he’s still a handsome and charming war vet turned private investigator and all-around do-gooder and at his core, that’s who Magnum is. There is an unfortunate lack of short-shorts, though. We’re being denied man thighs.

But that’s a personal complaint.

Also greater than the mustache is that this Magnum is Latino. That’s one nice aspect that reboots can provide. Diversity. Yes, there’s always squawking when a male character is recast as a woman (Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica, Kono on Hawaii Five-0, Higgins on Magnum PI), which tells more about the squawkers than it does about the shows. But let’s be real, kids. Television, particularly action and sci-fi shows, are largely sausage fests. There’s nothing wrong with women cast as known characters provided that the characters reflect the change.

Getting non-white actors in those classic roles, too, opens up a world of storytelling provided the change is reflected. There are now new dimensions added because the characters aren’t working what’s considered the default. The reboot of One Day at a Time features a Cuban-American family. Back in the ’80s, The New Odd Couple (not to be confused with the 2015 reboot of The Odd Couple) featured a Black duo played by Ron Glass and Demond Wilson. Reboots also offer the opportunity to create new characters that could be played by non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-cis actors.

Reboots aren’t going away. So long as they can be viewed as a pop culture lure to draw in old fans while creating new, something with a vague scent of money to it, they’re going to keep getting the green light. And some of them are going to be positively horrid bombs that spit all over their source material and they should be rightfully shunned.

But others won’t be. Others will end up being pretty okay. And if we can’t enjoy them, then we should leave them to those that do because we still have the originals.

And if they ever need a consultant, I’m available.