I Like Kojak but I Don't Like Kojak--And That's Okay

I also like the teamwork aspect
of Kojak; it's the same thing I like
on Law & Order, Seasons 1-3, and
Tommy Lee Jones' team in The Fugitive.
Lately, I started watching Kojak. The show is quite impressive, Law & Order before Law & Order came along (the early seasons). For one thing, I have a yen for dirty police stations. I suppose the clean, shiny police stations of current cop shows are accurate to today, but I miss the sheer grime of Barney Miller's 12th precinct.

Like the first season of Law & Order, Kojak is split between domestic cases and cases involving drugs, organized crime, etc. I prefer domestic, so I don't watch every episode, but I enjoy the gritty police-work aspect of detection: collecting clues, interviewing suspects, etc.

What amazes me especially is that I enjoy the show so much despite not warming to Kojak, the character, at all.

In general, this is rather difficult to do: like a show that hinges so particularly on a single unliked character. I stopped watching Without a Trace because I loathed Anthony LaPaglia's Jack Malone. The guy was a weasel who had an affair, was surprised when his wife left him, and used the Good Old Boys network to get his job back from a more deserving subordinate. Luckily, Anthony LaPaglia did guest appearances on Frasier as Daphne's constantly inebriated brother Simon and was totally hilarious, so I don't despise him, just his character.

Jack Malone was one of several main characters in Without a Trace, and I still stopped watching; Kojak is THE main character (Crocker, Stavros, and Captain McNeil playing back-up), so how can I keep watching when I just don't find him all that inviting?

I think there are two reasons, which come back to one: The scripts don't ask me to pity Kojak. The scripts don't ask me to like him.

In other words, the scripts present Kojak as a fully realized character who frankly wouldn't much care what I think.

In contrast, Without a Trace's scripts definitely asked me to pity and care about Malone. The scriptwriters didn't defend his actions, but I was supposed to step into his shoes and care about his crazy life.

It's the difference between story and soap opera. With story, I can remain objective: Hey, there goes Kojak again confronting a suspect and saying, "Okay, okay, baby." (He doesn't say, Who loves ya, baby" all that much.) I wonder how this suspect will react?

After awhile a kind of fondness builds up because Kojak is so unrepentantly himself. But I don't HAVE to care (although I can if I want to).

Along the same lines, I get a kick out of Pope (J.K. Simmons) on The Closer. He's another adulterous weasel, but I'm not asked to approve of him; I'm just asked to enjoy his character's antics, and I do.

The soap opera approach, on the other hand, expects you to care. Why else would you keep watching? It's not as if there's, I don't know, a plot. Likewise, on Without a Trace, unless I'd gotten  invested in the problems of an adulterous man who thought he'd fixed his marriage but whose wife outwitted him so he had to do everything he could to get his job back because otherwise he'd lose his kids--well, I might as well turn on The Price is Right (and hey, look, there's Drew Carey!).

Obviously, some people enjoy the soap opera approach: Oh, the angst! The problems! The difficult decisions! I wouldn't do that but I do understand why he would do this--people are so complicated; life is all about difficult decisions, blah, blah blah. And most fiction writing assumes that readers will in fact come to care about the characters. (As C.S. Lewis states, fiction can carry us out of ourselves into another point of view.)

I look on the story versus soap opera approach as the difference between Rent and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Rent, the soap opera, tells us we should care about its characters because people are supposed to care about other people's problems. That is, the existence of problems all by themselves is the thing that is expected to pull us closer, not the quality of the problems or how the characters are handling the problems. Just--there are problems: now, feel bad.

The more objective story says, Look at these characters. I like them. You can too, if you'd want. Here's what they will do next. 

Going back to Christie and her scandalous villagers, I think this is another reason her imitators don't succeed. Christie is objective, even humorous, about her scandalous villagers. This is what is happening. Isn't it interesting? Human beings are so odd. Hmmm.

And, what do ya know, we do care.

1 comment:

Joe said...

I think this is one of the keys of British comedy.