By Cory Barker, Sabienna Bowman, Kerensa Cadenas, Les Chappell, and Cameron White
Hart to Hart
Season 1, Episode 21: “Too Many Cooks Are Murder”
Original airdate: May 6, 1980
Cory: When I think of 1970s and and early 1980s television, all I can picture are family (or “family”) sitcoms and shows about quasi-professional detectives. I know that the broadcast networks had more to offer in those days, but it’s hard to get away from the murders, the thinly-veiled innuendo, and the glorious opening credit sequences, all brought to us by that era of detective show. That’s why I’m happy to be part of this roundtable and especially happy to discuss Hart to Hart.
Talk about a relic from a much different time. This show either lacks all irony or is one of the most irony-laden in the history of television (I’m almost certain that it is the former). Hart to Hart is sort of like one of those shows you’d see on another television show that was making fun of the way television used to be terrible; it’s that obvious and dumb. But at the same time, it’s still really enjoyable, whether for the reasons it intends to be or not.
“Too Many Cooks Are Murder” is quite a delight. The puns, my God, the puns. Half the dialogue in this episode was dedicated to riffing on food and cooking, while the other half was dedicated to riffing on sex, and sometimes, the show found a way to combine the two in a way I couldn’t enjoy more. If you told me that David Caruso used this series—hell, even just this episode—as the inspiration for his work on CSI: Miami, so many things in this world would make sense.
The puns are part of a more cavalier attitude towards sex that is certainly of the time. Women are consistently objectified here, Jonathan of course is forced to decline the advances of a woman who ends up being half-way part of the crime, and if the Harts are talking about what they want to do to one another, then they aren’t talking. It’s all very tongue-and-cheek, and sometimes eye-roll-inducing, but still sort of charming in its own way. It’s hard to imagine that today’s audiences would take something like this seriously with all the puns, but it’s also difficult to see a current-era show being so sexually charged in this fashion.
Because this is a detective roundtable, I focused on the “process” the Harts enact in hopes of finding the killer here, and well, that process isn’t very elaborate. Obviously, they’re not “real” detectives, but I found it amusing that Jonathan and Jennifer mostly just talked to people who happened to be at the same party they were, while their nerd assistant did a lot of the heavy lifting. No one really asks them for credentials, or for warrants or anything. They just do what they want. The nature of the show means that their detective skills aren’t going to get too much of a rub—gotta save that time for neckin’ y’all!—but Hart to Hart is under no illusion of seriousness or legitimacy as far as process goes. I assume that they turn the crooks over to the professional authorities, right?
Cameron: We can only hope. But going on your point about the tongue-in-cheek innuendo-laced dialogue, I think it actually helps characterize the Harts as more than just “the detectives that work the case on the boob tube every week.” Playing a believable couple on-screen is hard; it takes two (and a few good writers pulling the strings) to tango, and Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers definitely have some chemistry going. And if the Harts don’t have kids, and no apparent marital issues at the fore, then what else are they going to do but each other? It’s a silly, idealized version of a marriage, but it meshes well with the detective genre.
Speaking of which, I also found the “process” involved interesting too. It seemed like the Harts were designed specifically to be malleable to different situations each week. This week, we get lots of food-related puns because we’re dealing with a dead chef and some missing recipes; undoubtedly, that structure probably remains in place for other episodes, merely cycling in a different theme each week. That’s not the most original television series on earth, but it’s a reliable way to tell lots of stories quickly, a necessity for television.
But also getting back to what you’re talking about, Cory, I think there’s a hint of economic class involved in the show’s setup as well. I mean, did you see that mansion the Harts live in? And Wikipedia (which is how we will rechristen Old Faithful when global warming claims all our lives) tells me that Wagner’s character Jonathan Hart was the CEO of an apparently lucrative company. These two are kind of a far cry from the detectives of film noir, working toward that last paycheck or just trying to stay ahead of the game. Maybe this is this couple’s idea of a leisurely Saturday stroll?
Thinking ahead to present day, only Veronica Mars jumps out as a show with a main character who was explicitly not from a family of wealth. Of course, Veronica Mars is set in a town where class issues permeated every facet of life; by contrast, the Harts seem to be living in a permanent honeymoon phase, a perpetual stasis where Scooby-Doo bad guys are only minor inconveniences at best. (I did like how Jonathan uses a turkey leg from the freezer to knock the villain’s gun out of his hand… unfortunately I don’t have a good pun here.)
Maybe I’m just overthinking it?
Kerensa: I’m not super knowledgeable about the whole detective genre (or Hart to Hart), so that was partly the reason I wanted to participate in the roundtable this time around. And watching the “Too Many Cooks Are Murder” of Hart to Hart, which focuses around a murdered French chef whose recipes could potentially be world-changing, the private investigator couple of Hart & Hart investigate. While I watched the achingly cheesy episode, a couple things really stuck out to me.
The women in the episode as a whole, even Jennifer Hart, one of the main protagonists, all blended together. None of them were particularly memorable—and Hart herself didn’t seem to be much of a help to Jonathan in solving the crime, instead served as a mere figure for making food and weight jokes. However, I felt for Eve, who had stolen the recipes from the French chef, Maurice. Eve’s main reasoning for stealing the recipes was that she needed something unique to establish herself. I immediately shrieked to myself, GENDER GAP.
This isn’t to say that the dudes aren’t characterized much better. They all operated on some different level of leering ranging from the merely lurking to the truly disgusting, when Max (the Hart’s butler) mentions that “flamed brandy reminds me of a stripper I used to date.”
Another thing that was really prevalent in this episode was the linking of sex and food. I don’t think that a scene went without an extremely thinly veiled sexual innuendo or pass at another character. Basically, everyone in this episode needed to get laid.
And in terms of the detective genre, I’m not sure if this is just because I’m viewing this from a modern vantage point, but the plot felt recycled and tired. I had a good guess who had stolen the recipes midway through the episode (yes, I’m excellent at Clue), and I practically strangled my screen when the Harts went to meet Pierre in a dark alleyway that held an abandoned warehouse. However, I did really like the reveal that Maurice had found a way to make plastic out of vegetable products (even if it wasn’t completely viable) which felt very relevant to current environmental discussions.
I’m hoping when we continue to watch some of these mixed gender detective pairings that we get a woman who is more realized and does more than just making jokes about her weight and being impeccably glamorous.
Les: I have to say, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Hart to Hart, but I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be this broadly comic. I mean, for the love of FSM, this is a murder mystery that features a montage of people cooking desserts. Between the excess of puns and occasional moments of slapstick, it almost seems like the show’s waiting for the laugh track or the rimshot to follow every line of dialogue—when Stanley trips over his presentation on his way out the door and the Harts chuckle good-naturedly, the sound effects may as well have been a trombone. By the point they made it to the warehouse, I half expected them to say they were “boxed in” once the assassin had them in his cross-hairs. (Kerensa, I’m with you that the scene where the Harts go to the warehouse was groan-worthy, though I was mostly amused that Jonathan evidently feels you can wear the same thing to a clandestine meeting as you do to the yacht club.)
Frankly, that’s what I loved about the episode—yes, the mystery wasn’t particularly innovative or even really focused, but that’s not what the show’s trying to do. Hart to Hart is in that glorious vein of 70s/80s programming where it knows exactly what its job is, and that job is to create a weekly escapism type of program where people get to be effortlessly clever and get into scrapes without ever being seriously hurt. Jonathan and Jennifer have no real training in this field (or at least I assume they don’t), they get involved with the mystery because it falls into their lap, and succeed because they’re smarter than the sneering villains who try to get in their way. It’s unambitious and cheesy, and it doesn’t care, and there’s an earnestness to that I think television would be well served in recapturing. Can you imagine the 2012 version of Hart to Hart? It’d turn into a screed about the one percent by the first commercial break.
And truth be told, I found the relationship between the Harts a lot less problematic than it could have been. This was helped by the previously mentioned obvious chemistry between Wagner and Powers, but also to me it felt more like theirs was a marriage of equals. Jonathan leaps on Pierre from the boxes and dodges the knife, but Jennifer’s there cutting off Pierre’s escape with the car or clocking March with a pan. Their innuendo’s easy for us to make fun of, but it gives away the fact that they’re a couple who’s clearly devoted to each other, and get involved with these mysteries less out of morality or boredom and rather because they enjoy solving them together. (Call me sentimental, but I thought the moment when they saw the young couple making out was genuinely touching. “Did we ever look like that?” “We still do.”) With so many contemporary police or detective shows about the toll the work takes on them, it’s a relief to see emotional turmoil thrown out the window.
Sabienna: I had never seen an episode of Hart to Hart before “Too Many Cooks Are Murder,” but based on the premise I was expecting The Thin Man in the ‘80s (they even have a dog!). Jonathan and Jennifer didn’t live up to my lofty expectations though: Nick and Nora bantered, Jonathan and Jennifer punned. They punned a lot. I was expecting their dynamic to carry the series, but they were routinely upstaged by their lovelorn butler, Max, who, incessant leering at Pauline aside, was by far the most watchable member of the trio.
Focusing on the Harts, I found Jennifer the most dynamic. Yes, she made one too many cracks about her caloric intake, but she also demonstrated a level of agency that surprised me. Mixed gender pairings have a tendency to tip the power balance in favor of the man, but for most of the running time, Jennifer held her own. She was an active participant at every stage of the investigation, and she was responsible for putting them on the path to solving the case because without her prodding, it is unlikely Jonathan would have made all of those recipes on his own. Yes, Jonathan was the one who realized Maurice had created organic plastic in the end, but I got the sense that Jennifer, perhaps by virtue of being a journalist, was the driving force in their partnership.
Even in the dangerous situations, Jennifer was never fully sidelined. She accompanied Jonathan into the warehouse, where she made that truly appalling, but well-timed, crack about mustard, and in the final fight scene she actually fought alongside her husband, who never once tried to “protect” his wife… even when there was a gun pointed at her. (Yay, equality?)
While neither Hart had the natural screen presence of Max and his adorable sidekick Freeway, Jennifer at least displayed enough personality and initiative to make me understand how she could pull off being a jet-setting detective. Poor Jonathan was mostly just a bore, albeit one who gets points for not stepping out on his wife and licking another woman’s spoon.