Sensor Scan: Spenser: For Hire


Spenser: For Hire
While Miami Vice remained technically a crime drama about policework, it was much more a staunchly deconstructionist work that went out of its way to problematize its genre as much as it did the social structure it was going out into. Spenser: For Hire, uh, isn't.

Based on a series of “hard-broiled” detective stories by Robert B. Parker, Spenser: For Hire chronicles the exploits of the titular private investigator Spenser and the hired gun Hawk who, while they occasionally operate on opposite sides of the law, both live their lives by a firm code of ethics and principles and respect each other's decisions. This is pretty much the extent of the premise here, the rest of the series amounting to your basic “hard-broiled” tropes and cliches. In both the books and the TV show, Spenser narrates over everything in a dramatic monologue about tough choices and hard life on the street and absolutely everything you would expect a character in this kind of story to be talking about. Parker is pretty blatantly following in the footsteps of Raymond Chandler here, by which I mean blatantly trying to ape, to the point Spenser has been read as essentially a carbon copy of Chandler's famous Private Eye Phillip Marlowe. Those parts of Spenser that don't come from Marlowe come from Parker himself, with whom he shares a suspicious number of biographical details, both having served in the Korean War and hailing from Boston.

As a result, the Spenser series becomes this sort of rambling treatise on Parker's life philosophy as filtered through a response to Chandler, in particular how it pertains to what constitutes a virtuous and honourable man. It's a lot of manly speechifying about manly men doing manly things, and I confess I found myself growing pretty exasperated pretty quickly. I mean, it's not the worst thing ever: Spenser is educated, well-read, enjoys traditionally cultured things like ballet and poetry and traditionally feminine things like cooking (it's a passion of his, in fact). There's also a surprising amount of extremely positive and diverse portrayals of gay males in the series, considering this was the 1970s and 1980s, likely owing to the fact Parker's two sons were openly homosexual. But, Spenser rolls his eyes at feminism in the earliest books and even later on, with the debatable exception of his significant other Susan Silverman, women are background bit players. And oh yeah, Spenser is also a heavyweight boxer, a decorated war hero, can kick anyone's ass into next week, never, ever takes damage or breaks a sweat and *all* the girls want him, you guys.

Yes, Spenser would absolutely be decried as a Mary Sue if he was a woman, and this touches on the fundamental problem with this so-called “hard-broiled” noir stuff. The whole crux of Chandler's argument against the Agatha Christie school of dime-store mysteries were that they were unrealistic and inauthentic escapism, and he's right, but what is the tradition he himself spawned except escapism for a specific sort of romanticized male power fantasy? Yes, in terms of male action heroes you could do considerably worse than someone like Spenser, but he still dominates the spotlight to such an extent it overshadows everything else about the world, an that's never going to not be patriarchal. Hard-broiled detective stories are not realistic or representationalist in the least: Certainly they don't need to be and I'd even argue they probably shouldn't be (at least not in the context Chandler is using), but to decry Agatha Christie for writing women's fluff while declaring that the men's fluff you write is better and more realistic literature is a pretty low blow. Trying to build a comprehensive worldview out of Spenser: For Hire is no less damaging and ill-advised then trying to build one out of Death by Darjeeling.

As for the television series itself, it's here that the gulf between Miami Vice and other shows of the time really becomes apparent. Because even though Spenser: For Hire premiered only a year after Miami Vice, it already feels painfully creaky and outmoded. This would be the case even if it wasn't based on a by this point ten year old book series: The direction, cinematography and music all feel like a relic from a previous era. It's considerably less visually interesting than Miami Vice (and not just because the bits of it I watched were set in Boston in the wintertime) and it's actually rather difficult to believe this was the chronologically newer show. Almost everything feels flat, listless and lifeless, and this is not at all helped by Robert Urich's profoundly uninspiring portrayal of Spenser. Urich genuinely feels miscast, and in no way seems to embody the suave, manly character Parker wrote, which, admittedly, might not have been an altogether bad thing. This show is a picture-perfect demonstration of how passe traditional network television, and honestly detective fiction in general, was by 1985. It's not entirely surprising the series floundered around in the ratings flirting with cancellation for the rest of its run.

But comparisons with Miami Vice in which it comes up consistently lacking are not why we're looking at Spenser: For Hire here. No, the real reason we have to talk about this show is because Avery Brooks is in it. Brooks plays Hawk, the contract killer and bodyguard associate of Spenser's and is absolutely formidable in the role: He takes the original brief of Hawk as a fiercely principled man who can serve as Spenser's mirror twin despite coming from a vastly different background and possessing attitudes that Spenser might otherwise find repugnant and just runs with it, turning Hawk, who was originally a supporting character, into Spenser's unqualified equal and co-lead. One of my favourite scenes comes in an early episode where Hawk is in the employ of a corrupt gambling magnate Spenser has been hired to take down. The script has Spenser try to lecture Hawk about his life decisions and how he's too good to be on the “wrong side of the law”, and Hawk gets a firm rebuke where he calls out Spenser's position of privilege.

Urich, for his part, seems to try and give Spenser the moral high ground here, playing it as if Hawk is a kind of sympathetic antagonist, a sort of well-intentioned extremist. Brooks has absolutely none of this, completely shutting Urich down by emphasizing the presumptuousness of Spenser acting as if he has the right to tell Hawk how he should live his life, having never grown up black and never having to spend his life hunted, feared, demeaned and infantilized for his skin colour and heritage. It's a triumphant scene, one of many Brooks gives to cut against the solipsism the series tends to exhibit elsewhere. Indeed, Brooks is so good and so powerful that Hawk quickly became the series' breakout character, earning his own short-lived spinoff in 1989. In fact, he may have even have had an impact on Parker himself: Early Spenser books focused on the title character almost exclusively, but, after this show, Hawk became more and more of a central figure, to the point Hawk essentially became the main character of Parker's last few novels, relegating Spenser to the support role. As Brooks himself once put it:
"I never thought of myself as the sidekick...I've never been the side of anything. I just assumed that I was equal."
There are two reasons Avery Brooks is so effective here. The first is that he is an incredibly passionate and dedicated activist who genuinely believes in the power of art to effect social change and firmly committed to his cause. The second is that he's a classically trained thespian who actually has the skills and the range to back that up: Not just an actor, Brooks is also an educator and worked for a time as a professor of theatre arts at Oberlin College, and as a result has an incredibly deep-rooted understanding of how drama and narrative works. Brooks brings a gravity and Shakespearean bombast (and here that phrase actually means something) to his roles and is by default a powerful and captivating stage presence. He doesn't go halfway on things, so when given a brief like this he'll absolutely leap at the opportunity to make it as memorable and provocative as he can.

It's little wonder then that Avery Brooks landed the role of Benjamin Sisko so easily. Although, ironically enough, it's Star Trek that reveals how influential Hawk as a character really was: The whole reason Sisko isn't bald and doesn't have a goatee, which is Brooks' preferred look, in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's earliest seasons is because the producers felt that style was iconic to Hawk and they wanted to avoid comparisons. In other words, Brooks was so well-loved as Hawk that Rick Berman and Michael Piller were afraid it would overshadow the fourth Star Trek series. And even when he did get to have his look back, that was around the time the production team began to write Sisko far more brooding, mysterious and dangerous...Almost like Hawk. Which is a shame, because Avery Brooks has an incredible, incredible acting range: Just compare Sisko's earliest scenes on Deep Space Nine (especially when he's interacting with Jennifer, Jake and Jadzia) with how Hawk behaves, and you'll see how manifestly different the two characters are.

But Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's production tribulations are still comparatively far removed from where we are now. What's important for the moment is to highlight what an amazing actor and person Avery Brooks is, and how lucky we all are that he contributed his talents to help build a legacy of utopian fiction.


Douglas McDonald 6 years, 6 months ago

I really enjoyed this piece - I've always found Avery Brooks to be underappreciated as an actor and as a person, and I'm very glad to see that you have stressed (and plan to stress further) both his talents and his diverse range of accomplishments. While, I must confess, I have not seen Dirty Pair and hence found it difficult to enjoy your coverage of that show (even on a theoretical level), I'm glad to see your analysis can still enliven even the most seemingly cliched corners of 80s American TV (like Spenser for Hire). Looking forward to future posts!

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Josh Marsfelder 6 years, 6 months ago

Glad to be of service! Avery Brooks' contributions are some of my favourite aspects of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, so I definitely wanted to emphasize that as early as possible.

Sorry Dirty Pair has been such a drag for you. Actually, part of the reason I decided to cover the show episode-by-episode is because I discovered the whole franchise was on YouTube and I could embed the videos into my blog posts. I don't know if you knew they were there or not as I know some people have problems with my embedded videos, but they are. If you ever get the opportunity to sit down with them and catch up with the show, I hope you take it and enjoy it!

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Daru 6 years, 6 months ago

Avery Brooks is not someone I knew as an actor before Deep Space Nine, so thanks for the insight into him. When I saw him in DS9 (I still need to watch some of it) I was struck certainly by his acting presence.

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