Sunday, July 17, 2011

In Praise of The Night Stalker

Not Richard Ramirez and not that guy in Goleta that they never actually caught, but the fictional, non-murdering person who went by this name: Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

How did I not realize how great this show was and why have I wasted time watching things that aren’t it?

Here’s the deal: Darren McGavin plays Carl Kolchak, a newspaper crime reporter who investigates paranormal cases week to week. He never sets out to, but much in the way death plagues Jessica Fletcher’s every Sunday brunch or weekend getaway, strangeness has a way of finding Kolchak. The show ran for just one season — September 1974 to March 1975 on ABC — before being cancelled, but it stands out as a clear predecessor for shows like The X-Files and Buffy, as far as monster-of-the-week episodes go. What’s maybe most remarkable is how fresh it feels. Don’t misunderstand: The Night Stalker looks like the mid-70s and the special effects reflect this. To get an idea of the flavor, watch the opening credits.

But I think the very 70s-ness of The Night Stalker only makes it more appealing. It’s a good kind of dated, for one, and the fact that this aired in the same era as Good Times, Rhoda and Happy Days makes it all the more surprising how dark it could get. This show has a high body count — on par with your average X-Files, usually — and that it’s not scared to get weird, even for a show about the paranormal. It does the vampire and werewolf episodes you’d expect, of course, but others go even further beyond typical TV fare. There’s one that has him chasing a rakshasa in a Jewish neighborhood, for example, and I can honestly say that I can’t recall a single other episode of television in which Hebrew and Hindu cultures united to battle a demon.

That’s my pitch, and you’re free to look into the show on your own — it’s available on DVD, and that’s how I’m watching it now — but I have a second point to make, and it’s only of interest to people who have seen the show.

I have to say that I’m fascinated by one of Kolchak’s fellow reporters, a prissy Ned Flanders of a guy named Ron Updyke, who’s clearly gay in spite of the fact that the show just tap-dances around the matter, so to speak, using various codes — he’s fastidiously dressed, he mingles with high-society types, he’s cultured, he’s a native of San Francisco, he’s less masculine in ever way than Kolchak is. (And he’s played by Jack Grinnage, who played one of the toughs in Rebel Without a Cause, which at this point means about as many gay points as driving a freshly groomed min-pin around in your Miata.) This is far from the only show to feature this kind of sissy stock character, but the weird thing about The Night Stalker is that he serves no other purpose than to be a sissy. He’s not written to be particularly funny, but his sole purpose seems to be to make a few catty remarks per episode and otherwise refrain from interacting with the larger plot in any way. Usually, he gets less screentime than any of the one-off characters that Kolchak meets in a given week’s investigation.

It’s very strange, and I can only guess that he exists for the same reason that the Gil Chesterton character existed on Frasier: to make the main character seem straighter my comparison. See, Kolchak seems weirdly neutered, especially for a hardboiled mystery-solver type. Eight episodes in, and I haven’t seen him express the slightest interest in any of the attractive women he’s met with. He even pays a prostitute to not have sex with him in one scene. Contrasting Kolchak against an stereotypically effeminate works, I suppose, to underscore his masculinity, but I can’t imagine why that’s a simpler solution than just giving the poor guy a one night stand,

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