Friday, October 12, 2007
Written by Musgo Del Jefe
"A Quinn Martin" production meant one thing to me in the Seventies - adult crime drama. "A Quinn Martin" was a show like The Untouchables, Barnaby Jones, or Cannon that my grandfather watched on the old Magnavox console. My memories of The Streets Of San Francisco are of late Thursday nights in the summer of 1976, staying up past my bedtime to choose between Barnaby or Streets at 10:00 p.m. Those young days helped make me a fan of the TV detective drama to this day. CBS-DVD's release of The Streets Of San Francisco Season 1, Volume 2 is my first revisit to those magical days from over 20 years ago.
What made a Quinn Martin production so special was the consistent format. Like his other shows, Streets begins with a perfect theme and opening credit sequence. The theme by Patrick Williams (best known probably for the Columbo and The Bob Newhart Show themes) sets us firmly in the funky Seventies. The credits hit every major icon of San Francisco (Golden Gate Bridge, Market Street, cable cars, etc.) without actually having to spell out that this is San Francisco in the mid-Seventies.
After the credits, the narrator tells us the Guest Stars and the Special Guest Appearances for the episode. This is something truly missing from today's shows. It's hard to place a name to a face without a trip to IMDB.com after watching a show now. But here's a preview of names and faces before the show even starts. A great teaser. The narration ends with the title of the episode. Today, I'm usually keenly aware of the title of an episode thanks to Tivo and TV on DVD, but this was groundbreaking for the time period. And it works perfect for a crime drama by adding a literary feel to the production.
The title sequence leads into the first title card - "Act I". The established Quinn Martin format was Introduction, Acts I through IV, and Epilog. You know you're watching a Quinn Martin production when you see those elements and it helps make the viewer instantly comfortable across different series. The format had some basic rules. Act I is the crime; Act II is the detective work, gathering of suspects; Act III is when the case really starts to come together; Act IV is the capturing of the criminals; and the Epilog leaves you with a feel good laugh to make you want to return the next week.
The Streets Of San Francisco is a perfect fit for this format. We follow Lt. Mike Stone (Karl Malden) and Inspector Steve Keller (Michael Douglas) as they solve crimes all over San Francisco. Malden is the older, steady (Stone!) partner usually in an overcoat looking like he just walked off the set of The Untouchables. Douglas is the fresh-faced, younger detective. But this isn't Lethal Weapon. The two are serious partners. We are not bogged down by their personal relationships outside of the job. We only get small hints at Stone's fatherly influence on Keller, like the way he refers to him as "buddy boy" all the time. The other main character is San Francisco. Filmed all over the town, the town lives and breathes around the characters. There's rain, sun, darkness, rich, and poor. Current shows, like the CSI troika, use their cities as background and plot devices, but even CSI: New York doesn't come across as a city that real people live in.
So, what is the appeal of these episodes 24 years after they originally aired? Part of it is the breath of fresh air they are compared to today's detective shows. The first thing that strikes you is that there isn't a "B Story". Everything in the show pertains to the main plot; nothing is wasted. There are no personal storylines either. This is first and foremost a police procedural and the plots do not deviate from that. Secondly, this isn't the mystery of a CSI where we're trying to discover the killer along with the investigators. There's no "a-ha" moment at the end where we guess who committed the crime. Here, we know the criminal, we've seen the crime, and the story revolves around Stone and Keller using their detective skills to figure out the crime. The brilliance is using the four-act format in slightly different ways to play with the viewers’ expectations. Two of the best episodes in this collection show how slight tweaking of the formula creates engrossing stories.
In "A Collection Of Eagles", Jamie Farr is killed and burnt very early into Act I. It's a simple set-up but we're not sure what the gold coins he had with him had to do with his murder. Act II sets up the counterfeiting storyline and the clues turn up through now familiar CSI methods - shoe prints and reconstructing the serial number on a gun. There's another murder that helps the detectives make some more connections. By Act III, the case is becoming clear but it looks like the criminal (John Saxon) is going to get away with the counterfeiting crime. In Act IV, he temporarily eludes our detectives but is fatally shot to pay for his crimes.
In "Act Of Duty", Steve's girlfriend, Evelyn, is being used as bait for a rapist. Instead of having the crime happen right away, we have some tense moments in a dark parking lot before heading back to Evelyn's apartment. Eleven minutes into the episode, the tension is almost unbearable knowing that there will be a crime in Act I. The rapist kills Evelyn in her home. Act I ends at her funeral with a final shot of the murderer in the crowd. Act II brings together the evidence as the detectives try to profile the rapist/murderer and sets up the rapist stalking his next victim, Sheri (Brenda Vaccaro) from the police department. In Act III, the case comes together again with the clues from Act II leading the detectives to identifying the criminal. But it looks like he's about to get away with committing another murder on Sheri. In Act IV, the rapist is hiding in Sheri's apartment and eludes discovery temporarily. Steve discovers his error at the last second and returns to fatally shoot the murderer to make him pay for his crimes.
Both episodes followed the general formula, but tweaking the timing in each heightens suspense. And that's what works best here. The format continually focuses and refocuses the viewer on the plot. Current shows, with "B stories" and personal lives, often stray from the suspense of solving the crime. And make no mistake, when they say "on the deadly streets," that's usually the fate of the most dastardly of these characters. There's no gray on The Streets Of San Francisco when it comes to putting away a criminal. It’s straightforward, like this DVD set (no extras, just 13 episodes). And that can be very refreshing.