Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Streets of San Francisco (1972)

          A solidly made cop show that ran for five seasons and is perhaps best remembered as the vehicle that delivered Michael Douglas to stardom, The Streets of San Francisco made the most of the locations referenced in its title. Rather than living entirely on backlots, familiar Los Angeles locations, and soundstages, as was true for many generic police programs of the ’70s, The Streets of San Francisco used the glorious views and loping hills of the Bay Area as supporting characters. Watching veteran Detective Lt. Mike Stone (Karl Malden) and passionate young Inspector Steve Keller (Michael Douglas) confront crises and probe mysteries every week, it was believable that San Francisco was the home to an endless array of interesting stories.
          That being said, the tale told in the pilot movie is weak. One problem, of course, is that the movie sprawls across an hour and 40 minutes, stretching the routine premise of the show well past the breaking point. Another problem is that producers put way too much focus on guest star Robert Wagner, who plays a lawyer with connections to a murdered woman. Whereas strong pilots situate viewers in the worlds of the leading characters who will drive the ensuing series, The Streets of San Francisco pilot shoves Stone and Keller to the background. (In subsequent episodes that boasted vivid central narratives, this trope worked more effectively than it does here.)
          The pilot begins with the death of a young woman named Holly Berry (Kim Darby). Stone and Keller find a peculiar clue on her body—a laminated business card bearing the name of lawyer David Farr (Wagner). The storyline then trudges along two parallel tracks. In present-day scenes, the cops try to piece together a picture of Holly’s life. In flashbacks, viewers learn about Holly’s affair with David, which is fraught with issues because she’s a hippie living on the fringe and he’s a member of high society with a reputation to protect. Based on a novel by Carolyn Weston, the pilot storyline is really more of a melodrama than a proper mystery. Uninspired work by the so-so supporting cast reflects the tepid nature of the material; beyond Darby and Wagner, the pilot features Tom Bosley, Mako, and John Rubenstein. Throwing the whole thing in a weird new direction is the climax, which switches the tone from police procedural to supernatural thriller.
          Happily, things got better on The Streets of San Francisco once it went to series. Motifs that seemed incidental in the pilot, like Malden’s way of imbuing his seen-it-all character with dogged optimism, grew as the series developed. Concurrently, Douglas found his footing by creating a persona befitting the spectacular head of hair that he sported throughout his run on the series; by the time Douglas left the show, just prior to its final year, he had become an Oscar-winning producer and he was well on his way to becoming a movie star. No surprise that his replacement, Richard Hatch, wasn’t able to keep the Streets of San Francisco going, though Hatch later found cult fame as the star of the original Battlestar Galactica series.

The Streets of San Francisco: FUNKY

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