Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Good Buddies


Well, as I mentioned yesterday, I was supposed to be in California today.  It’s kind of weird to plan for something for almost five years, and then change your mind just a couple of months before the big day finally arrives.  But, what are you going to do?  When I made the decision to cancel, it was purely financial: our one-income household simply did not need to be spending a couple of thousand dollars for me to spend a few days in west coast sunshine.  And, of course, now that I’m working, it still would have been a problem.  The finances might be slightly improved, but then I’d have the problem of needing a week off less than a month after starting a new job.  Not cool.  So I suppose things do work out like they should.

But, if my plans had held, I’d be sitting out in Hollywood right now, in the Days Inn, getting ready for a good night’s sleep after a day of tiring travel.  Maybe.  I might also be sitting out by the pool, visiting with my friends, and talking about Hardcastle and McCormick.  So, since I can’t be there, I figured I could still talk about the show here.

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As I’ve mentioned before, buddy shows have always been one of my weaknesses, and this was a show that really got the buddy thing right.  Back when it premiered in 1983, television was in its heyday of light action/drama programming with fun and engaging characters to draw you in and make you care about the crime of the week.  Hardcastle and McCormick fit the mold perfectly—no surprise, since it was co-created by the then-reigning king of television, Stephen J. Cannell. In addition to Hardcastle, Cannell brought us Hunter, 21 Jump Street, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, Greatest American Hero, Baretta, and Wiseguy, to name just some of the popular programming he was responsible for.  (For the record, while it has never move into my heart as the SJC show I liked best (though I did love it), I will say that I think Wiseguy was the best he show he ever had.)

Anyway, the show had good pedigree to start, then you add in Brian Keith and Daniel Hugh Kelly in the title roles, and you’ve got a slam-dunk.  The premise was simple (if a tiny bit unrealistic):  Keith is Milton Hardcastle, a tough, by-the-book judge who is just getting ready to retire from the bench, and Kelly is Mark McCormick, a smart-mouthed race car driver who is getting ready to trade racing cars for stealing them (or at least, one very particular car).  You can see where this is going, right?

When McCormick is brought before Hardcastle for stealing the car, the judge offers him a deal:  they can work together, with McCormick being the “fast gun” needed to help out with an after-retirement project that will let Hardastle keep helping out in the criminal justice world, even once he’s off the bench:  they’re going to investigate and arrest 200 bad guys who walked out of Hardcastle’s courtroom over the years on technicalities.  Of course, McCormick says no at first, but we all know how it’s going to works out:  ultimately, he agrees, he’s paroled into the custody of the judge and begins to work for him, as well as living on his big estate, and the two eventually become the very best of friends, all while busting bad guys. 

Realistic?  Not so much.  Predictable?  Sometimes.  But the best buddy shows aren’t about having a premise that’s carving out ground-breaking television; they’re about putting a couple of characters together who complement each other, usually against all odds.  In that way, Hardcastle and McCormick certainly succeeds.  With an age difference, differing views on the legal system, and a whole country mouse/city mouse thing going on, there’s no reason these two characters should ever get along.  Oh, and did I forget to add that the backstory includes the fact that Hardcastle once presided over another McCormick case, and ended up sentencing the younger man to San Quentin?  Yeah, there’s some tension.  But what we—and they—find out as the episodes slowly reveal the characters, is that the men are far more alike than they are different, at least about the things that matter most.  They learn to depend on each other, trust each other, care for each other.  And they even (eventually) find that maybe the past doesn’t really matter nearly as much as what’s going on in the here and now.  Watching them move from the early days of anger and resentment to a friendship with a bedrock foundation (which, incidentally, I’ve always thought happened way too fast, but that’s TV for you) is well worth the ride.  And most of the fun of that ride is thanks to the stars, who are great to watch, and have that indefinable “chemistry” that always makes a show work. 

If you watch an episode of Hardcastle and McCormick these days, it’s easy to see that it’s the kind of show they just don’t really make any more, especially with all the obligatory car chases (not that they don’t have those anymore, but they’ve certainly dwindled in number over the years) and such.  But that doesn’t make the show feel dated, or like you ought to be flipping the channel to something more cutting edge on HBO or something.  What it really makes you feel is that we might’ve lost something along the way when we left behind these action/drama buddy-shows, and like maybe you’ve got time for just one more episode before you have to leave the 80s behind.