Roundtable Review: Remington Steele, “Steele Trap”

Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan, Remington Steele, "Steele Trap."

By Sabienna Bowman, Kerensa Cadenas, Les Chappell, and Cameron White

Remington Steele
Season 1, Episode 10: “Steele Trap”
Original airdate: December 20, 1982

Les: After the explosion of puns and innuendo that kicked off our detective roundtable in Hart to Hart, I don’t mind admitting I was a little dubious to see us going into another show that seemed to have the same penchant for wordplay, right in the title no less. And certainly “Steele Trap” had its fair share of cheekier elements courtesy of its titular character, from Remington’s flippant attitude while pretending to be Dr. Alfred Bellows* (“He’s a proctologist.” “Interesting area!”), the overly flirtatious Randi and Cindi throwing hints at him every other moment, the series of ironic deaths met by the partygoers, and the sexual tension with Laura that he wasn’t shy about encouraging by making sure they were booked in the same room.

*I can’t be the only one of us who had serious I Dream of Jeannie flashbacks for the majority of this episode courtesy of that alias.

But that was only part of the episode, and regarding the whole I’m going to be a little more direct than I usually am in these discussions: Holy hell, I enjoyed watching Remington Steele. I enjoyed this episode so much I even broke my usual rule on these roundtable discussions and watched a few more episodes before writing this entry. “Steele Trap” was a briskly entertaining hour of television, a solid spin on the classic murder mystery trope of And Then There Were None (a connection Remington himself makes directly) as the guests at the Devil’s Playground party are picked off one by one. The tension builds nicely as the players die off, enough details are dropped throughout to keep the motivation for the mystery ambiguous, and while I feel the mystery resolved itself a little too neatly for all the buildup (the villain disarmed in five seconds, really?) it didn’t detract from what had come before.

Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan, Remington Steele, "Steele Trap."Much like Hart to Hart, Remington Steele survives chiefly on the strength of the chemistry between its lead actors, of which there’s plenty. In his most prominent pre-James Bond role, Pierce Brosnan is terrific—every scene he’s in you can see him thinking “God I’m handsome,” but he brings Remington a particular confidence and ability to think on his feet that makes him a solid leading man instead of an empty suit. (His interest in cinema makes him particularly amusing: “Your plan is brilliant.” “Of course it is, it’s from a movie!”) And while he gives Laura Holt no amount of grief with such digs as “Myrtle Coggins,” there’s a wonderful equipoise to how Stephanie Zimbalist plays the character, able to conduct the investigation and call Remington on his bullshit when it crosses the line. (And yes, I am more than slightly biased because Laura wears a fedora and Remington wears a three-piece suit, no need to point that out.)

What makes Remington Steele better than Hart to Hart (well, beyond production values and writing) is the way the two leads give the relationship real stakes. There was an unapologetic lack of friction in the Hart marriage, which was part of its charm, but Remington and Laura are cemented in the “will they/won’t they?” territory—a relationship complicated by the fact that Laura knows nothing about Remington beyond the fact that he lied his way into being the nominal head of her agency. And I was very impressed by the conversation that Remington and Laura had in the bedroom when they discuss the matter of commitment and honesty, particularly how much Laura really wants to know about the man Remington used to be. I thought it took a very mature approach for a show that’s chiefly been about thrilling action and clever dialogue: this isn’t the plot contriving to keep two people apart, this is two people who acknowledge there’s some very real obstacles that exist between them.

Funny, serious and exciting—a great hour of a detective show. If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to marathon a few more episodes.

Cameron: Like Les, I too was enthralled by Remington Steele almost from the get-go. Full disclosure: I watched the pilot episode before watching this one, since I had no idea Pierce Brosnan did a TV show before becoming James Bond.

One element that I think stands out with Laura and Steele is that Steele is a con man when we first meet him. Think of Castle; Stana Katic’s delightful Kate Beckett is a cop, while Fillion’s Richard Castle is a writer. In Bones, Temperance Brennan works for the Jeffersonian (a fictionalized Smithsonian) and Booth is a former Army sniper and current FBI agent. Even Veronica Mars’s dad was a sheriff before going into private investigation. But in Remington Steele, Brosnan’s character is a nameless con man before he takes up the name of Steele, while Laura Holt is a private eye who has invented a male boss in order to run her own investigation office. In other shows of this ilk, the characters already know at least the mechanical details of their partners’ pasts, since at least one of them is in the business of catching bad guys. For these two, though, there are whole layers of their personalities yet to be peeled.

Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan, Remington Steele, "Steele Trap."That plays into the scene you mention late in the episode, where Laura and Steele talk about their “not mixing business with pleasure… business,” as Steele puts it so succinctly earlier on. Honesty is such a tricky subject for both of them; Laura makes her views known on it in the scene, while Steele, who has spent his entire life changing identities and fleeing from commitment, already has a developed sense of dishonesty that makes it difficult for him to relate to others, particularly Laura. This clashing sense of honesty/dishonesty creates a certain chaos in their relationship that makes it fun and exciting to watch them every week. You never know if Steele is going to dodge Laura’s suggested fake name in favor of something more “dull” and therefore “honest,” and when Laura locks herself in the bathroom while Steele is talking to her, as happens in this episode, part of you wonders if she isn’t going to sneak out the window and enjoy a brisk walk to clear her thoughts. Steele even fibs about “Myrtle”‘s status in order to get the two of them into a room together.

Unlike in Castle or Bones, where the contrivances can sometimes feel like they get in the way of the coupling finally happening, here the contrivance is part of the fun, driven partially by Steele’s love of cinema, which probably played very well to the pop-savvy types of the time. (He’s almost like a proto-Abed in the way he draws comparisons to And Then There Were None and schemes with Laura to get ahead of the game.) It should surprise no one that Glenn Gordon Caron, the creator of Moonlighting, the show widely considered to be the influence for will-they/won’t-they couples of today, was a writer and producer of the first ten episodes of Remington Steele. Here indeed is the foundation for Booth/Brennan, Castle/Beckett, Charlie/Anita (from Numb3rs, a personal favorite of mine), and countless other classic TV couples.

Pierce Brosnan, Remington Steele, "Steele Trap."One other thing that struck me most about Remington Steele was the sophistication in the production. This isn’t a surprise either, given that it’s an MTM Enterprises production, yet I couldn’t help but appreciate the… there’s no other way to put it, the smoothness of the episode and of the pilot. (Michael Gleason wrote both “Steele Trap” and the pilot “License to Steele,” and in both I noticed he has a certain flair for Brosnan’s cheeky asides.) Laura Holt is very much in the mold of Mary Tyler Moore, and even though part of this show’s charm is the romantic comedy element, it’s also a sleek private investigation show with a solid mystery procedural at the core. And as I watch her go along with Steele’s “improvisations”, I can’t help but let my mind drift to the pitch video for Veronica Mars‘s fourth season, and how a grown up Veronica Mars might well be cut from the same cloth as Laura Holt.

Plus: fedoras! More fedoras on television, please!

Kerensa: Like both Les and Cameron, I honestly, completely unironically loved Remington Steele. Other than knowing that pre-Bond Brosnan was in it, I didn’t have much idea of the plot.

So upon watching “Steele Trap,” I was beyond excited to find out that Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalist) is the brains behind the entire Remington Steele operation. She is portrayed as super smart, feminist and rocks a menswear look flawlessly. Laura is basically everything that I had hoped Jennifer Hart would have been.  (And Cameron’s comment that a grown-up Veronica Mars could be similar to Laura Holt is perfect) And I loved that it called out the sexism that wouldn’t allow Laura to be her own private investigator.

Remington Steele, "Steele Trap"The plot for “Steele Trap” revolves around Laura and Remington finding a murdered plastic surgeon, and going in his place to a resort called The Devil’s Playground. On first impression I was hoping The Devil’s Playground was any of the following—secret rich white dudes-only society, a cult or a swingers club situation—and it wasn’t really any of the three, but it had a porn thing going on for it that was sufficient. Laura and Remington’s co-workers are suspicious of the trip, thinking it will lead to some sex, although this seems mostly the thought process of Murphy (James Read). I know this is pre-Internet days but I wonder if there is any Murphy/Remington slash fiction out there? Let me know. (Ed. note: Surprisingly not.)

While the plot of the episode is pretty contrived—of course they are all stuck in this estate of a “chewing gum magnate” while everyone is killed one by one and they have no contact to the outside world—it’s actually a pretty engrossing watch and for me, didn’t feel supremely dated and cheesy in the way that Hart to Hart did. While Remington’s knowledge of film does help solve the crime, Laura is always the one on the ball with ideas. They actually make a pretty good team both relying equally on each other, and of course as it comes with the territory, their sexual tension is insane. The sexual innuendos and euphemisms weren’t as exhausting and ridiculous as on Hart to Hart, but is there something with detective shows that I’m missing? I guess I didn’t realize how hilariously sexual they were going to be. But I would argue that instead of Laura in this show, Remington is clearly the sexual object here. He is constantly objectified by everyone and treated as a pretty face. He has his moments, but he’s not as great at his job the way Laura is.

I did really like the conclusion with Randi, a woman everyone had written off as stupid and slutty, as the killer. She did unfortunately fall into the inevitable trap of talking too much about her plan to Remington and Laura at the end, although her motivations for it seemed vaguely valid. However, I may have been fond of Randi because earlier in the episode when she is (yet again) trying to seduce Remington, she requests the woman playing the piano to play “something we can grope to,” which is my preferred musical genre.

I also think that Remington’s secret past is that he’s a robot. My basis for this is that a young Pierce Brosnan is just SO good-looking. I might watch more of Remington Steele to see if this is true. I’ll report back.

Sabienna: Like everyone else, I absolutely loved Remington Steele. After last week’s pun-tastic outing of Hart to Hart, I was bracing myself for more of the same, but Remington Steele was far more sophisticated, both in terms of dialogue and storytelling. Even though they used the old And Then There Were None plot (a plot that’s popularity remains intact today—I think Syfy’s Haven has done it twice already), they used it effectively. The Devil’s Playground weekend wasn’t a simple case of the week; it was an excuse to strand Laura and Remington on an island, away from their co-workers, so they could talk about their relationship.

Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan, Remington Steele, "Steele Trap."Their frank discussion of why they should and should not act on the palpable sexual tension that exists between them is what impressed me the most about the episode. As Cameron pointed out, you can draw a direct line from Laura and Remington’s will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic to the modern female/male UST-filled partnerships that remain popular today, but based on this episode alone, I feel comfortable saying this series does that trope better than any other series I’ve encountered. Couples like Booth and Brennan spend years denying that they even have feelings, frustrating fans in the process. Remington and Laura have known each other for ten episodes and they’re not only admitting their feelings, but having an adult conversation about what the implications of acting on those feelings would be. Who does that in the first season? By today’s standards, that’s a season five conversation at best.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how interesting these two characters were independently. Pierce Brosnan is hardly my favorite Bond, but I have a new appreciation for his charms now. He’s completely believable as a roguish con man. What I enjoyed the most about the character was that he wasn’t infallible. With a character like Steele, there is always the temptation to make him the indisputable smartest guy in the room. Despite knowing that he was only taking advantage of the persona Laura created, I assumed that he would still end up being the one calling the shots, but that wasn’t the case. He was fooled by Randi and he wasn’t too macho to admit he was scared about potentially walking into a trap (“I suppose this is one instance where ladies don’t go first”). He’s a charismatic, funny guy, but he was also refreshingly not a superhero.

That brings me to Laura, who totally was a superhero whose superpower happened to be competency. If I had seen this series when I was a kid, I would have spent the rest of my childhood wearing a fedora. Even when the guests started dropping like flies, Laura never flinched. She’s clearly good at what she does and probably bitter over needing a male cover for her agency at all. She’s also self-assured, open about her feelings, and unafraid to call Remington out on his crap. But she wasn’t the stereotypical flawless action girl, either. She had insecurities (who could fault her for wanting to be Tracy Lord though?) and Remington is clearly good at getting under her skin. She was remarkably human. They both were which made this series far more compelling than I ever expected a Hart to Hart contemporary could be.

Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan, Remington Steele, "Steele Trap."

***

As a reminder, we’ll be doing a different detective series every week for the rest of the year. Schedule is below:
11/15: Columbo, “Double Shock” (season 2, episode 6); available through Netflix Instant
11/22: Off for Thanksgiving. Please eat turkey and discuss your favorite holiday specials until we return.
11/29: Murder She Wrote, “Deadly Lady” (season 1, episode 4); available through Netflix Instant
12/6: Miss Marple, “Murder at the Vicarage” (season 2, episode 3); available through Netflix Instant
12/13: Moonlighting, “The Lady in the Iron Mask” (season 2, episode 2)
12/20: TBD
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15 Responses to “Roundtable Review: Remington Steele, “Steele Trap””

  1. Marty McKee

    Yup, STEELE was often a heckuva show, and congrats for picking up the subversive (certainly for 80s TV) theme of the woman being the one in charge and the blow-dried male the one who was often objectified and taken less seriously because of his exterior. Directed by Sidney Hayers, who helmed episodes of THE AVENGERS and was well-suited for presenting sexy but clever banter between likable do-gooders.

    Reply
  2. eaz35173

    Great insights to a wonderful show!! I’ve been a fan of the show since it originally aired and you all have hit upon some really great points of this episode, and the series in general!! Even now, the show still holds up!!

    Reply
  3. JLF

    Thanks for the wonderful work on this review. As a long time fan, I’m thrilled to see new folks discover the charms of this show and how well it holds up after 30 years. And “Steele Trap” wouldn’t even make my top 10 of best episodes — there are fantastic episodes throughout the series.

    Reply
  4. Cory Barker

    I watched the episode, but didn’t have time to add my thoughts. I’ll just note that I watched the pilot–and I think episode two–for Test Pilot over a year ago and I enjoyed this episode even more than the pilot (which had to deal with the fun but somewhat complicated premise).

    Reply
  5. donna

    I watched Remington Steele already when it originally aired and it still is in my top three TV shows! As JLF, I’d also say there are better episodes to watch, but I’m glad that you all liked this “old” show.
    And if you like fedoras, you should watch White Collar! (And there are lots of other similarities to RS!)

    Reply
  6. Mary Kuhnmuench

    The round table is spot on in their evaluation of Remington Steele. Incredibly well written and produced, and probably some of the finest acting of any two lead actors in any prime time series ever! SZ and PB were young, hard working and committed to putting out a terrific product. They never just went through the motions. They were multi talented, incredibly athletic, graceful and too good to be true good looking. By all accounts from everyone connected to the production, both actors had egos and had their fair share of tension on the set particularly after the third year. yet they never let that interfere with their work or those around them and they never publicly bad-mouthed the other. Very grounded, smart hard workers with major respect for each other and that just permeates their work product in the form of great onscreen chemistry that still has yet to be rivaled. Just look at the drama and the self destruction of moonlighting because of the incredibly childish immaturity of the stars. Remington still holds up today and never feels dated despite the more than 30 years that has passed. PB and SZ set the standard that has yet to be matched.

    Reply
  7. Brit TV: BBC’s Bergerac | This Was Television

    [...] the British equivalent of Remington Steele for months. Something cheesy and tacky and indulgent. Remington Steele epitomizes the excesses of the 1980s with its over-the-top acting and corny dialogue, the show is deliciously entertaining. In American [...]

    Reply

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