Thursday, June 26, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Remington Steele and I

In true 40s gumshoe style, Laura often donned a fedora.

Try this for a deep dark secret… The great detective Remington Steele? I’ve been sleeping with him.   

Well, not in the way you think.  I’ve just been playing the DVDs of the 1980s detective romantic comedy in order to try to fall asleep.  It has been working really well for me with none of the weird side effects of Ambien.  There is something incredibly soothing about knowing that Remington and Laura are on the case. No matter what, they will eventually figure out a mystery, toss in a lot of clever quips and then more likely than not, end up in a clinch.

For Throwback Thursday, I thought I would re-visit one of my favorite shows from a long, long time ago.  This is kind of the “at large” stuff I had in mind when I named this blog.  

He is so soothing. 

Remington Steele premiered so long ago I was still in college.  It starred a then-unknown baby-faced Pierce Brosnan as the title character and the smart, independent, beautiful and incredibly agile Stephanie Zimbalist as Laura Holt, the woman who invented the man.  The show was an instant hit among my crowd.  At the time, I thought we were watching it for the cute boys, but as I watch the show now, 30 years later, I realize the great appeal of the show was the way it matched the zeitgeist of the moment.

Laura Holt invents Remington Steele because no one will hire a female private investigator.  As feminists-in-training at a Catholic women’s college in the rolling hills of southwestern Pennsylvania, we were convinced we could do any job a man could and at least as well.  We took for granted the idea of women in leadership roles since we were taught by nuns and ex-nuns (and men willing to work for nuns and ex-nuns.)  
The college’s publicity materials referred to us as “Woman-centered Centered-women.”  We lived up to the woman-centered part, though centered-womanhood was still a few years off for most of us.
Grant and Hepburn for the 80s.

The show cleverly paid homage to 30s and 40s screwball comedies and mysteries like The Thin Man or pretty much anything with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.  It was stylish and clever, an hour-long mix of light-hearted mystery, comedy and romance where the mystery-solving and romance were almost entirely on the woman’s terms.   To this day, I don’t think there has been a TV romance where the woman unapologetically runs the business and the relationship.  Can you think of one?

We loved Laura because she was one of the few characters on television who was her own boss.  Her “decidedly masculine superior” was just a bunch of empty suits and never-worn shoes in a hotel room.  She operated in a traditionally man’s world by her own rules and that’s what we were being prepared to
do.  She opened a detective agency with her pal Murphy Michaels (James Read) and had a secretary named Bernice Foxe (Janet DeMay) who was a bit of a retired party girl.

Handsome stranger slips into Remington's shoes and Laura is not pleased
In the first episode a mysterious man shows up and literally slips into the shoes of Remington Steele.  He spends the rest of 4 seasons applying his "eclectic" skills to detective work, trying to earn Laura’s trust and falling in love with an impossible woman he can’t resist.  Meanwhile Laura spends 4 years yelling at him, demanding to know his real name and insisting that while they can snog all they like, they will draw the line at the bedroom.  Sounds like Kate and Cary, doesn’t it? (Laura even uses the name Tracy Lord when she goes under cover, a nod to Hepburn’s character in The Philadelphia Story)

I started watching the Remington Steele DVDs again thinking that it would be a soothing nostalgic show to watch while trying to fall asleep. Today’s procedurals make me anxious and grossed out, which is not helpful when one is trying to relax.  There is too much gore and explicit violence against women by both the criminals and the macho males going around shooting everything in NCIS or CSI or SVU or even shows with actual characters in the name like Castle. In an interview, Stephanie Zimbalist says their motto was “The blood isn’t real on Remington Steele.”  And thank goodness.

Armed with trophies, vases and 2x4s
Back in the days of Steele, there was a running joke about never knowing where the agency’s lone gun was because they rarely used it. Finding bullets for it was the second problem. Remington regularly makes a point that he hates the things.   There is plenty of running after crooks in the show, but rarely with firearms.  Almost always, Remington, Laura and Murphy have a vase, a trophy or a 2x4 conveniently at hand to absurdly conk their foes in the back of the neck with.  Nobody really gets hurt, just knocked out temporarily.  I find that soothing when I am trying to fall asleep. And it’s much less noisy than all of today’s gunfire.

Unlike a lot of shows from the 80s, Remington Steele holds up fairly well visually.  There was careful attention to details as the designers tried to evoke the 30s and 40s. Pierce’s British/Irish accent has a certain Cary Grant cadence while Stephanie does a great job imitating that studio-trained Englishy accent that actors used in old movies.

Big 80s hair, shoulder pads and Jane Fonda workout garments are kept to a minimum.  Steele’s apartment is decorated as homage to art deco style with a few framed movie posters to reinforce the call-backs to the period.  In the second season, the agency acquires an old Austin to chase suspects with when the limo seems too flashy.

Annoying Carole Little for St Tropez West dress
Mercifully, Laura’s hair is worn long and carefully pulled away from her face in 40s styles.  Even when she wears a pony tail, there is no scrunchy in sight. Many of her suits have the broad shoulder jacket with straight skirt to match the hairstyle.  (Though there are a few “sporty separates” supplied by Carole Little for St Tropez West that annoy me) Remington just wanders around with thick dark hair that's perfectly coiffed or tousled artistically on his forehead while modeling impeccably tailored suits, tuxes and the occasional riding breeches.  Beyond the plots and the non-graphic violence, even the clothes are soothing.

The plots are usually stolen from Agatha Christie stories or Hitchcock films whether the reference is Psycho, Rear Window or The Trouble with Harry all mixed up with a dollop of Preston Sturges.  Suspend your disbelief and go along for the ride because this is meant to be fun.  “Reality” is so overrated.

Long before the IMDB, Remington was a vintage movie buff who was always comparing their case to some scene in those old caper movies.  I had no idea what he was talking about then, but 30 years later, I have caught up with Remington’s references and they are much more fun now that I’ve actually seen the old movie.
Under cover tour guides
It’s amusing to catch James Bond references in the stunts or the score knowing in hindsight that Pierce Brosnan would eventually play the role.  The number of museum break-ins Laura and Remington pull off surely inspired him to star in a remake of The Thomas Crown Affair

I thought that first season was perfect.  But the powers-that-be decided that there was “character clutter” and they couldn’t find enough for Miss Foxe and Murphy to do. Kindly, they freed the actors to go do other shows while consolidating both characters into one for the rest of the series. 
At least Murphy and "Miss Wolf" got sandwiches.

I can understand why they did that, but I have never been able to forgive them for replacing the gorgeous James Read and the world-wise Janet DeMay with Doris Roberts as Mildred Krebs.  Mildred arrives at the Steele agency as a member of the IRS Fraud Squad investigating why Remington Steele didn’t file income tax returns.  She spends the rest of the series as a comic relief sidekick.

Even Doctor Who tries to silence Mildred Krebs.
I am sure Doris Roberts is a perfectly lovely person, but when the series first aired, I had no need of that clueless old fuddy-duddy wasting my time in this show when it could have been the smart, young and attractive Bernice and Murph.  To my disbelief, I looked Doris up on the IMDB and learned that she was just a year older than I am now when she took that role.  OMG! Is that how people see me?  Or is 52 the new 42?  (Oh please let it be the latter)

At 52, I do have a very different perspective on the Laura/Steele relationship than I had in my 20s.  In those days, Laura made perfect sense to me.  She was independent and didn’t need a man around and was frustrated with her own weakness falling in love with a man she knew couldn’t possibly be good for her. She constantly tested him and accused him of not being trustworthy.  She always assumed the worst of Remington despite the fact that he stayed around no matter how badly she treated him. 

Laura, put the phone down and listen to him!
I didn’t see any of that in my 20s.  Because that was pretty much how I was operating.  (Gee, how did I end up a spinsta?) Now I want to shake both Laura and my 20-something self and explain a few things.  I would suggest that there are men who are human and have feelings. Not every single one of them wants to oppress women in every possible way.  I want them to know that they are sabotaging themselves by making assumptions rather than asking questions and listening carefully. 

I have so much sympathy for the lost character of Remington who never had a real home and family, who did what he had to in order to survive and who loves this impatient, proud, pain-in-the-ass of a woman that somehow feels like the first safe home he has known. 

It’s kind of amazing to me the way visiting characters I adored 30 years ago have given me a window to see who I was at the time.

So I am recommending this show that is apparently much more than a show to me.  It is a time-capsule of my own early adulthood as well as an entertaining series that holds up well because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, though it wears its heart on its perfectly tailored sleeve.   Or the occasional Laura Ashley dress.
A London adventure.


 There are some really gorgeous episodes because they somehow had the budget to film in Mexico, England, Ireland, and around the Mediterranean.  (It was extremely difficult to film Los Angeles locations during the 84 Olympics, so they just went to Europe)

Cassandra Harris guests as her husband's old girlfriends.
Pierce Brosnan’s first wife Cassandra Harris wanders in as a couple of different old girlfriends of Remington’s.  Don’t watch too closely or you will start to obsess (as I do) about whether her characters Anna and Felicia were twins or just doppelgangers.  Knowing Cassandra died a few years later of ovarian cancer makes her scenes with Pierce bittersweet.

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Remington's mentor, Daniel Chalmers
More satisfying are the appearances of Stephanie Zimbalist’s dad Efrem as an old con-man pal of Remington’s.  His rapport with Brosnan and the obvious fun he has playing opposite his daughter are delightful.

There are 22 episodes in each of the first 4 seasons.  To this day, my favorite episode is Vintage Steele in the first season where Laura and Remington investigate the disappearance and reappearance of an unidentified body. There are monks who have taken a vow of silence involved in this show, not to mention a very memorable game of Charades. And the kissing scene was good enough to appear in the opening credits for the next few seasons.

I can recommend the other 87 episodes in those first 4 seasons as well.  But then things went to hell.  NBC canceled the show.  Then it was announced that Pierce would be the next James Bond, so NBC un-canceled it and demanded 6 more hours.  Stephanie had already accepted another role too, so there was a lot of bumming going on as they shot that last season.  Most of the writing staff had left for new jobs as well, leaving those last few scripts in the hands of newbie writers and rather absent editors.

Upper Right: Jack Scalia as character clutter.
For some reason, the powers-that-be forgot about how they had gotten rid of  the first season’s “character clutter” and decided to add another character—another rival for Laura’s affections in the person of Jack Scalia as Tony Roselli.  None of us who loved the show can ever forgive them for that.  Those last 6 hours are excruciating to get through no matter how much we adore Laura and Remington.  No matter that Efrem Zimbalist shows up.  No matter that they shot in Mexico, London and a castle in Ireland.  Nothing could make up for Tony Roselli. 

So if you haven’t seen those last 6 hours, go ahead and watch to see how it ends, but really, the first 4 seasons are plenty.  And the last episode of the 4th season is a good enough way to end the series. 
Season 4 Finale. It's all you need.

You can stream the first 3 seasons on HuluPlus and Amazon if you are looking for light entertainment or a bedtime sedative. If you catch up with my old pals Laura and Remington, let me know what you think.  Am I giving it too much credit because I am still in love?  Or is there something timeless there that you won’t find in other shows from the early 80s?  (I’m looking at you, Moonlighting)

Oh and be sure to watch all the way to the end for the MTM kitten’s take on the show.

What took People so long to figure this out?

The opening credits for Season One are probably burned into your brain, but just in case you missed them:

"Try this for a deep dark secret: The great detective Remington Steele... He doesn't exist. I invented him. Follow: I'd always loved excitement, so I studied and apprenticed, and put my name on an office. But absolutely no one knocked on my door. A female private investigator seemed so... feminine. So I invented a superior. A decidedly masculine superior. Suddenly there were cases around the block. It was working like a charm. Until the day he walked in, with his blue eyes and mysterious past. And before I knew it, he assumed Remington Steele's identity. Now I do the work, and he takes the bows. It's a dangerous way to live, but as long as people buy it, I can get the job done. We never mix business with pleasure. Well...almost never. I don't even know his real name!"

I do not own the copyrights for these photos which appear to be publicity materials from NBC or MTM.

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