Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Remington Steele: Keeping the Plates in the Air

I have been watching and enjoying the new series Castle on ABC, and although it is not as complex as Remington Steele, it certainly recalls that series in its premise, as well as its attempt to engage the audience on several levels at once.

For anyone who has never seen it, the premise of Remington Steele is that hard-working, intelligent, dedicated private investigator Laura Holt cannot attract clients under her own name because no one wants to hire a female detective. In a conscious nod to North By Northwest, Laura solves her problem by creating a phantom male superior and opening Remington Steele Investigations. She solves the cases, while giving credit to the unseen Mr. Steele. When the series begins, this scheme has been working for her, but through some plot machinations, a gentleman con man and thief ends up assuming Steele's identity. She can't expose him at first because that would mean letting her secret out, and she realizes that having a real live Mr. Steele could be good for business.

Each episode of Remington Steele functions on a number of simultaneous levels, and part of the appeal of the series is its ability to do so many different things. On the simplest level, each episode is a mystery adventure. Steele and Laura work at a detective agency, so that setting is used in its depth. Whatever else the series was doing, there was always time for a fully developed mystery plot in each show. I make an issue of that fact to contrast it with its subsequent imitators, like Moonlighting, who quickly sacrificed that first level of plot: the mystery. The mystery always drives the story on Remington Steele, even when other things may be more important.

C.S.I. fans beware...Remington Steele is far from a police procedural. Star Stephanie Zimbalist described the mystery plots as taking place "two feet off the ground" and she is exactly right. The mysteries are usually light-hearted in tone, continuing a tradition of pleasant whodunits that are carefully plotted and clever, but bear no relationship to real crime. In fact, that tradition is very much an overt aspect of the series. Mr. Steele is a movie buff and he almost invariably finds parallels between the agency's cases and his favorite old movies. Another layer of the show is that homage to whatever movie (or movies) inspired the story. In a few cases (e.g. Sting of Steele), an entire episode is a tip of the hat to a movie. Usually, there are just moments or subtle allusions. The more you know about old Hollywood, the more gems you will find in the plots, dialogue and even character names.

What makes the series really special, however, is the third level at which it operates. It is, as far as I have seen, the only popular entertainment that shows two people falling in love in real time. Over the course of a little more than four years, Steele and Laura discover the deeper qualities in each other, good and bad, explore their feelings, take tentative steps toward each other and then away. Each episode is one moment in the ongoing development of their relationship. Sometimes the subtext, sometimes just the text, the biggest mystery they have to solve is always whether or not they should get together. Both a little damaged and wary, it takes them the entire series to trust each other enough to get involved. Some critics of the show say the dance went on too long. Even I, an acknowledged fan, felt a little strain in the fourth year in trying to find good reasons to keep them apart. But bringing them together before the end would have been disastrous, and have robbed the show of its unique niche in art.

The other ongoing storyline was Steele's attempt to find out who he really was. At first, Laura (and we) think he is just being mysterious, but in fact, Steele doesn't know his own true identity. As the years go on, he makes various attempts to discover where he comes from, both for himself and for Laura. The ongoing evolution of their relationship, as well as Steele's search for his origin, give the show a nice thread. It is not a serial drama, and each episode stands alone in almost any order. But for people following the series straight through, those continuing elements make the characters seem all the more real.

As with Casablanca (So?), the situations on Remington Steele are intentionally far-fetched, but the characters and their relationships are utterly believable and true-to-life. Each episode of Remington Steele weaves together the fantasy and escapism of a mystery adventure with the emotional reality of two people falling, slowly, in love. Adding in the elements of nods to old Hollywood, a search for identity and occasionally drama and even farce, the series has a lot of plates in the air at once. And what a pleasure to watch them spun so beautifully.

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