Friday, May 4, 2012

Diamonds in the Rough: Dan Stark in 'The Good Guys'

Richard Belzer's played John Munch full-time on Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order: SVU, for guest appearances on Law & Order: Classic, 30 Rock, The Wire, and Arrested Development, and even been offhandedly mentioned on Luther. Munch is a great character, for certain, but why is he so special? There's a legion of great TV characters just as deserving as he of continued existence, and many of them never even appeared on a single great TV show, let alone eight. In this attempt at a recurring series, I'm going to try to spotlight folks from less well-regarded programs, and make a case for their reinstatement on the small screen. To kick things off, let's take a look at Dallas Detective Dan Stark from The Good Guys, played by Bradley Whitford.

The Good Guys was an unambitious show that tried to mine some more material from the "mismatched partners" school of television. It was hamstrung by a terribly-cast Colin Hanks as straight-laced Jack Bailey (whose total lack of presence, charisma, and even basic comedic timing guaranteed The Good Guys wouldn't make it past a single season), a mediocre storytelling formula (ripping off the trademark J.J. Abrams "flashback from action to provide context" technique), and a heavy-handed comedic tone that prevented the drama from having any real stakes, ever. There was a grand total of one bright, shining light that kept me watching, though, and that was Bailey's inappropriately-paired partner, Dan Stark.

Stark, as the show took great pains to remind us in every episode, was a throwback to the classic car-jumping, instinct-following, quick-to-shoot hero cop from the 1980s who finds himself thrashing for purchase in the fast-moving present. And yes, at one point he does draw down on a laptop. It's the best episode of the show ('Bait & Switch'), but even then, only about 35% of the episode is really "good." The rest of the time, The Good Guys stumbles through a winding plot involving British car thieves, a dirty cop in the Dallas PD, small-time redneck crooks, and developing completely improbable "will they or won't they?" romantic tension between Jack and Liz Traynor, Assistant District Attorney and past love interest. It says a lot about Hanks that Jenny Wade, who plays Liz and is less than compelling in her own right, looks to be completely out of Jack's league from the first episode to the last. But, this piece is supposed to be about Dan, not Jack.

Back in his glory days, Dan was partnered with Frank Savage; they made up the legendary duo "Savage & Stark," and were immortalized in a made-for-TV movie of the same name that dramatically retold the story of their rescue of the Texas governor's son. They didn't need any stupid paperwork, crime scene techs, or legal interrogations to do their jobs; they followed their guts and forgot to ask questions later (probably because they were so sick from their post-case ritual consumption of oysters & beer). Dan's been coasting on that moment of glory ever since. Well, that and his mustache.

Honestly, if it hadn't have been for the mustache Nick Offerman sports as Ron Swanson on Parks & Recreation, Bradley Whitford would've come away with some kind of facial hair award for Dan Stark. The 'stache, as he calls it on several occasions, is really shorthand for how thoroughly Whitford commits to playing this character. Dan is a nutball who jumps across cars, eats peanuts shell and all, and even stripped down to his underwear right before beating Jack senseless, to preserve his undercover identity ('Silvio's Way,' probably the second-best episode, in large part because of it's nearly-exclusive focus on Dan). You want to talk about committing to the joke, I give you Dan Stark and his green underwear:

In a show that populated its bland stories with flat, uninteresting characters played by boring actors, Bradley Whitford stood out like a beacon in the darkness. Much like Crispin Glover in Friday the 13th Part IV, Whitford's in a completely different universe from his co-stars. While Colin Hanks and Jenny Wade struggled to generate even the most basic chemistry, and Diana Riva to look anything but bored, Whitford goes for the comedic jugular in every scene, never once letting the rest of the cast's Patrick Duffy-ian sense of disappointment infect his performance. Struggling through The Good Guys' 20-episode run (still available on Netflix streaming!) is made infinitely easier by Whitford's stellar performance (he's making something of a career out of this of late; he salvaged more scenes in Studio 60 than anyone else in the cast, and while there's a litany of great performances in Cabin in the Woods, he's easily in the upmost echelon).

The Good Guys didn't set out to prove my argument that it's tougher than anyone realizes to make a good cop show, but it did so better than I could've ever dreamed. That it frequently failed so miserably at being even competent television shouldn't have consigned the still-surviving half of Savage & Stark to the dustbin of failed characters. All we need is someone willing to give Matt Nix residuals and a "Dan Stark created by" credit, and Whitford and his spectacular mustache can get back in the game. If he hadn't already guest-starred on Parks & Rec this season, I'd say that Dave Sanderson (Louis CK)'s first hire when he becomes Chief of Police should absolutely be Dan Stark. As long as I'm dreaming, maybe they can just get their own spinoff show.

1 comment:

  1. Why not just make Whitford Louis CK's brother on his fantastic show? That's dream casting.