Reflections on Remington Steele season one
In a rare departure from my normal practice, I am actually streaming a show rather than owning it on physical media.
This is because my previous 80s TV exploration was not very satisfactory. While The Equalizer had its good points, it didn't lend itself to binge viewing and I doubt I will get through the whole thing any time soon.
That's why there is a place for streaming, especially if it incurs no additional cost. That's how I am watching Remington Steele. This is yet another 80s production I was too young to watch (it aired at 10) or understand (most of the references would have been lost on me).
For those who don't know, the premise is that Laura Holt, a young, beautiful and ambitious private detective (played by the delightful Stephanie Zimbalist) decides to set up her own agency under her own name. As the intro credits explain, it turns out that an agency with a female's name is considered too feminine, so she invents a man - Remington Steele - who will be the titular head of her new enterprise. There is of course no such man, and the pilot episode centers around how she and the other employees have conspired to make him invisible but ever-present. "Mr. Steele never involves himself in cases," is their boilerplate excuse.
In the course of that episode, a mysterious debonair thief enters the scene and cleverly assumes the identity of Remington Steele. This was Pierce Brosnan's big break and he's remarkably good.
The focus of the series for its first few episodes is trying to determine "Mr. Steele's" true identity, but by mid-season , there are cases to solve and so the focus shifts to how Steele helps or hinders these.
Because Steele is something of a con man and international rake of mystery, this allows Brosnan to assume different roles, further exploiting his dramatic skill. The writing is generally excellent, and in addition to clever wordplay regarding romance, one of the running gags is that Steele is the ultimate detective movie buff, and his "investigative technique" is chiefly trying to find which movie he's a part of at any given time.
Not only is this satisfying for film nerds, it's a clever way of poking fun at the genre, because by the early/mid-80s, just about every detective plot had been used at least once.
And that gets us to one of the weaknesses of the detective format, which is the lack of an overarching plot. This became apparently late in the first season of Remington Steele, because with Brosnan's character now contributing to the agency, the initial dynamic of cast had changed.
At the start of the pilot episode, the core cast included Zimbalist, James Read as her co-investigator Murphy Michaels, and receptionist Bernice Fox (Janet DeMay). Brosnan's addition therefore crowded out the other two. For a brief time Fox (invariably called "Miss Wolf" by Steele) was a rival for his affections, but this faded as his relationship with Holt heated up. Similarly Read's character went from being loyal, competent and somewhat envious to a spiteful try-hard, and what we would call today a "beta orbiter."
For an actor as talented as Read, this was an unacceptable role and I'm sure he was afraid of becoming typecast, so he departed the show. This was probably the right decision because it opened the way for him play George Hazard in all three "seasons" of North and South. This was his best and most famous role and also introduced him to his second (and current) wife, Wendy Kilbourne.
I should note that the Reads (she took his name) are remarkable not only in the longevity of their marriage, but their low profile. Read works intermittently, chiefly doing guest spots. Presumably this is because they both made a bundle doing North and South and Mrs. Read is now a practicing attorney.
The second (and most successful season in terms of ratings) has just started and Doris Roberts has been added to the cast as receptionist Mildred Krebs. Unlike her predecessors, she has no knowledge of Remington Steele's background and simply takes him at face value.
Thus we have a core cast of the two investigators and their loyal clerical assistant - a dynamic that will be repeated in Moonlighting, which is my next show on tap.
In addition to the exceptional writing, there show has considerable romantic tension between the two leads, a tension heightened by their clashing roles. It is hard to imagine something like this being done today, but the 80s was still capable of having a push-pull romance where a woman in charge found herself at risk of being subordinated by a strong man she was passionately attracted to.
Another nice element is the music. The show features a theme by Henry Mancini and then incidental music by Richard Lewis Warren. When Warren isn't reprising Mancini's theme, he's using a similar style of music, a throwback to 1960s smooth jazz and vintage detective movies.
As is often the case, this is something of a rough draft for a future Bleeding Fool column, and there I'll explore that dynamic more fully.
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